Elbow 2024
Photo: Peter Neill / High Rise PR

Elbow Stay “Guerilla”: An Interview with Guy Garvey

Weeks after his 50th birthday, Guy Garvey talks about Elbow’s electric new album, their wildest since their 2008 breakthrough The Seldom Seen Kid.

Polydor / Geffen
22 March 2024

Tick, Tick… Boom!, the musical written by Rent composer Jonathan Larson in 1990 that debuted in 2001 after Larson’s untimely death in 1996, opens with a Billy Joel-evoking rocker called “30/90”. The two numbers in the song’s title denote Larson’s 30th birthday in 1990. Attracted perhaps by the intersecting of two round numbers at a major life crossroads, Larson reflects with cynicism on his 30th year: “Turn 30, 1990 / Bang, you’re dead! / What can you do?” This sounds like a quarter-life crisis akin to many that have been documented in music and literature before and since. “You’re no longer the ingenue,” he laments about his lack of Broadway success.

“Ingenue” is a word that Guy Garvey, the gregarious frontman of the English rock outfit Elbow could hardly apply to himself in 2024, and not just because—unlike the 30-year-old Larson—he’s seen many a career summit. This year represents a “30/90” moment of his own, albeit with two very different numbers and related resonances: 50/10.

On 6th March, Garvey celebrated his 50th birthday; just a few weeks later, on 22nd March, Elbow released their tenth studio album, Audio Vertigo. The rhythmically complex LP follows 2021’s Flying Dream 1, an intimate affair where Garvey digs into his biographical troves unlike anything else in the Elbow discography. Flying Dream 1 is the kind of record that only an artist in their middle age, in the depths of a rich musical life, could write.

Audio Vertigo, by contrast, thrums with the energy of Elbow’s earliest releases, especially the early peak of Leaders of the Free World (2005) and the Mercury Prize-winning 2008 breakthrough The Seldom Seen Kid. Lead single “Lover’s Leap”, with its jubilant horn section and foot-stomping bridge, feels like a complete 180 from the jazzy introspection of Flying Dream 1. Where Larson sees age 30 as the starting point of a race to the grave, for Garvey, 50 sounds like a new awakening.

As I speak to Garvey a few days after Audio Vertigo‘s global release, I ask him if his “50/10” moment feels as significant as it looks to an outside observer like myself. “Yeah, it’s very significant,” he says. But he qualifies his words immediately: “D’you know, that first day back at school after a long holiday, and you think, ‘I’m going to be different, and everyone else is going to know that I’m going to be different.’ And, of course, you’re not. It’s kind of like that: ‘I’m going to bring a record out, I’m going to be 50, it’s gonna be different!'”.

Then he pauses. “I mean, it is kind of a different record…”

That description of Audio Vertigo is apt. Garvey and his compatriots Pete Turner (bass), Mark Potter (guitar), and Craig Potter (keyboards), in addition to session drummer Alex Reeves (“Al”, for Garvey), who joined the group after original drummer Richard Jupp’s departure in 2015, have with this record put some of their most eclectic and experimental rock to tape. Particularly on the heels of the muted Flying Dream 1Audio Vertigo announces itself with a jolt that one doesn’t often hear from a band ten albums and over 20 years into its career.

The quintet’s performance of lead single “Lover’s Leap” on Graham Norton’s program in January flagged this vivid new sound. Before Garvey even steps into the spotlight, a trio of horn musicians, standing in front of a tall light display of the Elbow name, sway as they lay out the song’s groove. The bridge, in which Garvey chant-sings “shake, shake” with atavistic energy in keeping with the driving rhythm of the drums, might be the closest thing that Elbow has written to a would-be dance craze. “There aren’t many dance moves available to a 19 stone, 6’3 man,” he says with a laugh.

As it turns out, “Lover’s Leap” has, in one way, been with the band for quite some time. There’s the image of the song’s title, which has dogged Garvey for years. “I think Cast of Thousands, our second album, was nearly called ‘Lover’s Leap’,” he says. “I’ve had a bit of an obsession with the trope. Any sort of precipitous bridge, clifftop, or hillside is given that name at some point, related to the spontaneously created myth about star-crossed lovers committing suicide there. It speaks to me of a real darkness in the human psyche that we see that myth worldwide; it wasn’t just William Shakespeare; it happened before him. Why do we love young people dying for love, dark bastards that we are?”

He also chalks up those lyrics to a bit of “darkly humorous […] middle-aged frustration”. The result of that frustration appears in the climactic scene of the track, in which the titular “star-crossed lovers open a gift shop and spray their names on the bottom of the cliff where they ended their lives”. As Garvey describes the thoughts that stewed in his mind when finally bringing the “Lover’s Leap” idea to life in the studio, his mind turns to reality music TV like The Voice. “I started to think of the love for drama that people have. If it keeps them in the spotlight online, people will exaggerate bad parts of their lives, let’s face it. Every fucking singing competition, someone’s like, ‘I wrote this when my granny died, I wrote this when my dog died.'”

Elbow are no stranger to heart-on-sleeves emotional declarations. Their biggest hit to date, the string-led anthem “One Day Like This”, crests with Garvey singing, “So throw those curtains wide / One day like this a year would see me right.” But “Lover’s Leap”, like most of the tunes on Audio Vertigo, distills numerous of Garvey’s thoughts and life experiences into amalgamated stories rather than straight-from-the-heart confessions. Call it the fiction to Flying Dream 1‘s nonfiction.

That album, Garvey says, “was so autobiographical lyrically that I was really relishing the opportunity to create some more interesting characters, using bits of my past” on Audio Vertigo. The colorful cast of characters populating the new record balloons quickly, but Garvey carefully avoids specifics: “Car crash relationships, hedonistic friendships, and just straight-up awful perverts. The terror and revelation and godsend friendships that occurred when I was 17. Toxicity relationships [and] violent episodes that I’ve witnessed.” (The “violent episodes” appear on the straightforwardly named “Knife Fight”, inspired by a row that Garvey witnessed firsthand in Istanbul.) The result is a collection that, in an unshowy fashion, culminates everything Garvey and his bandmates have done since their 2001 debut, Asleep in the Back.

When Garvey and I touch on that record, he explains how Audio Vertigo represents the band’s collaborative ethos that has hung on since those early days. The tribulations that led to Asleep in the Back‘s “thwarted” release, wherein the whole LP was recorded and then scrapped by Island Records (Elbow were its last signees) when it was absorbed by Universal, caused Garvey, Turner, and the brothers Potter to lean on each other in all aspects of the recording process. “We were always up against it,” he says of those uncertain early 2000s years.

I ask Garvey what, at age 50, he knows about his life in music now that would have most surprised his younger self. He cites the “guerilla” experience of making Elbow albums, by which he means self-reliant. “I think as time went on, we assumed things would get more professional,” he says, “and there’d be more ethereal, famous, skilled people floating in to help. It’s been such a lovely surprise that we still feel like that same band when we’re making our music. You worry about public perception, but then you say, ‘Fuck it, we gotta do what we want.’ We still feel shoulder-to-shoulder after all this time.”

The much tighter studio setup that led to Audio Vertigo‘s creation further encouraged this tight-knit dynamic for Elbow. Undoubtedly, the COVID-imposed circumstances behind Flying Dream 1, where the group contributed their parts from quarantining and lockdown conditions, engendered some excitement for getting back into real studio rooms to write music together.

“We went to a very lovely countryside studio in the Cotswolds, this place called Migration,” Garvey says. “A lovely old farm in the middle of some beautiful countryside. They looked after us very well – beautiful food.” But because the studio was configured differently than what the band had been used to, they found themselves having to adjust on the fly: “There were some teething issues we had to work through at the start. Next time we went back [to Migration], though, it was perfect.

“Other than that,” he adds, “We were in our rooms in Salford, in Blueprint Studios. Paul Heaton in the south had our usual big space, so we had to do it in this little room. But being thrust together around the amplifiers and drumkit in this small space, it brought this gnarl out, this weird surf-offshoot thing, where the riffs became very simple, and the drums took up a lot of space. It all felt great to put together – very gang-like.”

This “gang-like” aspect of Audio Vertigo‘s composition extends to all aspects of the songwriting, music and lyrics included. In the case of “Lover’s Leap”, Garvey breaks it down accordingly: “Al and Pete [write the] drumbeat and bassline; I write the chorus hook thing, Craig writes those descending chords in the chorus; everyone contributes to the dance-y middle eight.” The song arose from a rather practical circumstance. “Pete and Al both run in the morning,” Garvey says, then with a quick bit of self-deprecation: “Very sensible, approaching 50 and taking on those kind of habits.

“Being the rhythm section,” he continues, “[Turner and Reeves] went on separate runs but then came together on the final road back to the house and went straight into the studios. The verse line you hear on ‘Lover’s Leap’, that very rapid, lovely Afro-beat thing, was them two just having had a run.” (Apparently, Turner is “ruing the day he wrote that bassline” and “already having nightmares about playing it live.”) Garvey then created the horn portion, for which he credits the Grandmaster & Melle Mel single “White Lines” as an influence. Craig, Elbow’s in-house producer, added what Garvey calls “the descending chords” in the chorus that add the drama necessary to conjure the imagery of lovers falling to their death.

Of the five core musicians behind Audio Vertigo — with Reeves being “brought into the writing fold for the first time,” per Garvey — it’s Turner and Reeves whose presence stands out. The former’s basslines on “Lover’s Leap” and “From the River”, in addition to the latter’s propulsive work on second single “Balu”, give Audio Vertigo its enigmatic rock ‘n’ roll character. Garvey reveals that the album title originally belonged to a song that nearly made the past three Elbow LPs. (“If you ask the boys, it’s just not quite good enough,” he explains.) Its moment arrived when this record came together; for Garvey, the name brings to mind words whose expression in this music stems largely from what Turner and Reeves do rhythmically. He uses the words “rock, edgier, and more cinematic” in our conversation.

I ask Garvey how it comes to be that any one Elbow member takes the lead on a particular song or album. “In the past,” he answers, “it’ll be that one of us is going through one of life’s common traumas, and they can’t bring themselves to contribute as much as normal. That becomes the way the record sounds. You don’t try and compensate for that; you just accept that whatever we come out with is whatever we did in the room in the time that we had.” Thinking of the present moment, he points to the fact that many of Elbow’s members now have teenage children. “As you know that your parenting’s sorted and your kids are wonderful, then you settle into a kind of confident groove, which comes through in the writing as well.”

Garvey joined the ranks of parenthood later than his Elbow brethren. With his wife Rachel Stirling, an actress, he has a son, Jack. “I’ve just been to see him sing at school,” he says. Garvey enjoyed “watching him file in, look for me, see his face change when he saw me.” But Jack exhibits a rebellious streak, not unlike the rascally youths that feature in Elbow’s nostalgic ballad “Lippy Kids”. “The manipulative little bastard… because he was in front of all the parents, and I couldn’t say no, he mimed, ‘When we get home, can we play Playstation?’ He knows – it’s mid-week, he can’t play PlayStation! But everyone was watching, so I had to say yes.” In this brief aside, to my looking, Garvey’s parental obligations clash against the gentle recognition of his younger self that he sees in his son.

Jack also served as the wellspring for Audio Vertigo‘s gorgeous closer “From the River”, which joins the ranks of heartwarming Elbow finales like Little Fiction‘s (2017) “Kindling” and Build a Rocket Boys‘ (2011) “Dear Friends”. A key refrain in the song “Fall and Fall Again” existed in Garvey’s mind for decades; in his telling, it’s “something [he’s] had written in a journal for 25 to 30 years”. Like the notion of a “Lover’s Leap”, this idea’s long germination suggests that part of Audio Vertigo‘s character is the way it brings to life things that Elbow held in their collective creative consciousness for many years.

But “Fall and Fall Again” ultimately means more to Garvey as a hope for his son than any lesson he might have learned for himself. He calls “From the River” an expression of “aspirations” for Jack. “It’s not my first song I’ve written to him,” he says, acknowledging without naming the final number of 2019’s Giants of All Sizes, “Weightless”, which recounts Jack’s birth. “This one’s more meant for later in his life. He won’t realize what I’ve meant until he’s probably had his heart broken once or twice. The image of ‘bring us something bright from the river, bring us back something beautiful son’, it means go out into the world and do whatever you want, we’ll be proud of whatever that is.”

The “river”, though, is not merely metaphorical. “From the River” joins the lengthy catalog of Elbow songs that pay tribute to their home environs in northern England, particularly the greater Manchester area. “The river in question is right next to the house I grew up in rural post-industrial northwest of England. There was a collapsed factory with a chimney still standing at the bottom of the field next to my house. We had a field, and we had trees, and there was a river – albeit quite a dirty one when I was a kid – that ran through it. It was like a nasty, industrial revolution Angkor Wat down there, the trees growing through the factory. Hard to tell which came first.”

The river and the factory form a topography that has existed in Garvey’s lyrics for quite some time. This landscape shaped Garvey because, in his words, “It was out of earshot; you couldn’t hear Mum anymore when you were down in this dip where the factory was. It’s where I did my first smoking, my first kissing. It’s where you sat down, stopped running around and started talking, figuring out who you are and what you thought. Probably the setting for ‘Lippy Kids’ and songs like that.” He calls the derelict factory “a place I always return to” in his writing: “It’s the beginnings of the rest of the world outside of the home.”

But where in the likes of “Lippy Kids”, Garvey recreates images from his youth in aural form, on “From the River”, he locates Jack in his old stomping grounds. The connection between the youth of Elbow’s members and their now-growing children extends beyond Garvey, too. “I remember that the only lyric that I’ve written that’s made Craig cry was when we wrote ‘Lippy Kids’. His eldest son Reuben was probably only six or seven. It was the lyric ‘Nobody knows me at home anymore.’ He said that he couldn’t imagine his son not wanting me to know who he is.” Garvey relishes, with a gentle yet devilish grin: “In 33 years, that’s the only lyric of mine that I know has jogged a tear from Craig Potter’s eye.”

Though Garvey’s wordsmithing occupies a central place in Elbow’s aesthetic – the phrase “a chinless prefect gone Godzilla” from “Fly Boy Blue / Lunette” off of 2014’s The Take off and Landing of Everything comes to mind – in talking about his relationship with the band he cites their input on his lyrics as an important part of the creative process. “I run everything by the boys. They trust me with the vocals and words, but they have absolutely no problem telling me when they don’t like something. They – Craig particularly – hold me to a high standard.”

Elbow will always be known for their evocations of their native Manchester, but their sense of space broadens on Audio Vertigo, most notably with the rollicking “Good Blood Mexico City”, inspired by a quick stint in Mexico opening for the Foo Fighters in 2017. Garvey gushes about the band: “So welcoming, so lovely.” He told Dave Grohl that Reeves was a massive fan of the Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, which led to some impromptu jamming. “[Grohl] was like, ‘Great! What’s his name? What does he look like?’ Then, later, Taylor made a beeline for him backstage and said, ‘Al Reeves! Come play some drums with me!'” At the end of this recollection, Garvey pays a brief tribute to Hawkins, who suffered a shocking early death at age 50 in 2022. He credits the power of the song and Reeves’ drum performance to the impression left upon Elbow by their experience in Mexico.

Garvey also reserves some praise for the people of Mexico. “The thing that knocked me out about that place are the young people that we met. They’re doing a lot with a little. They’re political, passionate, and very warm and welcoming. It’s de rigueur to be committed politically; they’re very easy with all of those things. I can’t wait to go back.”

Hearing Garvey talk about the people of Central America, I shift the geography up a bit north to the people of the United States, from where I called him. In their native UK and much of Europe, Elbow commands whole arenas. The upcoming Audio Vertigo tour already claims sold-out gigs at Cirque Royal in Brussels and two nights at Koninklijk Theater Carré in Amsterdam. When I saw Elbow in Chicago for the 2017 Little Fictions tour, they played the mid-sized Vic Theatre, which has about 40 to 50 percent of the seating capacity of those two European venues and only a fraction of the O2 in London, where Elbow will perform in May. Garvey’s assessment of the US fanbase is frank.

“We’ve never really grown since the second album for many reasons,” he says. “Initially, we couldn’t afford to be out there as much as we wanted; then, when we could afford it, we started to have families. The time involved in conquering such an enormous place was difficult. That said, we love it so much.”

I recall to Garvey the first time I heard Elbow’s music, walking the streets of Chicago, where I was literally stopped in my tracks twice listening to The Seldom Seen Kid: first, on the orchestral blast that erupts during the gentle beginning of “Starlings”; and second, Garvey’s brilliant and now world-famous opening line three songs later: “I’ve been working on a cocktail / Called grounds for divorce.” My mentioning of Chicago causes Garvey to shuffle through the drawers of his memory, and two anecdotes immediately spring out, which he delivers with an irrepressible smile.

His first memory of Chicago, from the first time Elbow toured the US, begins with “the common American diner”, which he calls “such an exotic to a British boy, particularly in the early 2000s”. The scene that plays out sounds like the makings of a Zach Braff-directed indie comedy: “I went and sat in a diner with my camera. It was hammering down with rain. I kept hearing ‘The Fairest of the Seasons’ by Nico on the jukebox, and then I realized it was the waitress putting her tips in the jukebox to play this song. I said, ‘Oh, you like this song, eh?’ and she said, ‘Oh my God, I fucking DIE every time I hear this song.'” He adds: “I’ve still got those photographs.”

The other story he tells conjures the weary barroom imagined in “Grounds for Divorce”, a “hole in [a] neighborhood / down which of late [one] cannot help but fall.” “It was a good few years ago,” he remembers, “and I’d split up with somebody who I loved very much but was absolutely killing me. We split up long distance in Vancouver and Chicago – we had to break up the call because I needed to fly. So I just said to the cab driver, ‘Will you take me someplace that serves whiskey, please?’ I suppose I was enjoying the cinema of it a little bit. He took me to what ended up being a student joint. I sat myself down with my collar up and proceeded to get very drunk.

“And then this old boy came in, and by the way, the young kids were treating him” – he affects the boorish baying of a beer-soaked undergraduate – ‘Hey, it’s Jimmy!’, you could tell he was the local drunk, and they enjoyed knowing his name and who he was, though there was a bit of ridicule in their words. This guy had a Cape Canaveral sort of look, you know, sports coat and bowling shirt. He came and sat down next to me, just happy that there was somebody else who was older than 18 in the bar. I didn’t want company, and I did everything I could to give off ‘goodbye’ vibes. Eventually, when I looked at him scornfully, he said, ‘So you’re probably wondering what I did before I was a copywriter.'” Garvey cracks a big laugh, the moment in front of him once again because of his telling. “Then we fell in and got drunk. He distracted me from my heartbreak.”

The ease with which these tales pour out of Garvey mirrors how naturally the stories that comprise Audio Vertigo gel together. “I can read people, yeah,” Garvey sings on the opening track “Things I’ve Been Telling Myself for Years”, “Blushing peccadillos, twisted bents, and buried fears.” Yet the song isn’t all bravado; in the next line, he cautions his listener from trusting him too much by admitting, “I’m the dashboard hula girl of nodding self-deception.” A bit, he declares, “Like all that outrun poverty, all I have was coming to me.” It’s a line that reminds me of an anecdote Garvey brought up in the early part of our chat, in which he looked backward to the Elbow’s early years.

When Asleep in the Back‘s first iteration evaporated during Island Records’ acquisition by Universal, Garvey had one place to which he had to turn right away: “Then we were back on the dole, that same ol’ dole office, claiming unemployment benefits.” A year before, when he’d had to go secure those same benefits, he “secreted into a Dictaphone about my person” his “comic” but pointed thoughts about the government worker “who used to decide who got paid and who didn’t.” But with Asleep in the Back yet to hit British airwaves, Garvey had to face a different kind of music: “There I was back in front of her, a year later. So there’s a life lesson.”

Garvey can count the distance between that moment and Elbow’s soon-to-be global tour for Audio Vertigo, along with the ten Elbow albums that span it, as proof enough that his 50/10 year is, indeed, a moment of significance. The way Elbow puts music together in the studio may not have been overhauled over the course of their discography, nor have the members of the band lost their sense of connection to their northern roots that make them who they are. But the vitality that animates Audio Vertigo challenges Garvey’s analogy of the first day of school after a long holiday. For all that Garvey stresses about the continuity of the relationships in Elbow, this new album looks like something quite different indeed.