Elbow producer and keyboardist Craig Potter talks about the band's new album, the importance of writing simply, and the departure of long-time drummer Richard Jupp.
When in 2014 Elbow released its sixth studio outing, The Take Off and Landing of Everything, its members could not have known that the album's title would prove prophetic in the course of just two years. Drummer and founding member Richard Jupp announced in 2016 that he would be departing Elbow to pursue other artistic projects, namely his series of drumming master classes. Having served as the man behind the kit since Elbow's inception, Jupp left an indelible mark on many of the band's best songs. The rollicking beat of "Mexican Standoff" and the unmistakable groove that drives "The Bones of You" owe a great deal to the self-taught Jupp. Little Fictions, Elbow's seventh LP, is its first to feature Elbow as a four-piece band.
"It was the beginning of last year that we started writing," keyboardist and producer Craig Potter tells me over the phone a week before the release of Little Fictions. "We went up to a house in Scotland. Richard was planning on being a part of that, but he didn't end up coming. That's when it all happened, really; we realized it was probably just going to be the four of us. It was difficult. We didn't know how to take it at first; it was a bit of a shock."
When Elbow released the mellifluous, string-backed first single "Magnificent (She Says)" at the start of December 2016, frontman Guy Garvey said that Little Fictions has "a sparseness to the songs which perhaps we're not known for." Potter tells me, "Even though 'Magnificent' has these big strings on it, there aren't many elements going on in it; it didn't need more than a few base things to get it off the ground." Garvey's statement, combined with Jupp's leaving the band, makes me wonder if the sparseness of Little Fictions can be explained in part by Elbow no longer having Jupp on board.
As Potter recounts the recording process, he says that it required less of an overhaul than some might imagine. "When we started writing, we realized there was a new energy in the room. We felt that Richard hadn't wanted to do that for quite awhile, so it was refreshing to have four members of the band wanting to be in the same place writing music. The writing went really well for that reason – one of many reasons, in fact." Adding to Garvey's description of Little Fictions as a "sparser" record, Potter says, "We didn't know what the album was going to be like; you never really do. We felt that it was a mellow album when we first started, but after we started putting together some beats, it ended up becoming one of our more beat-heavy albums, even though Richard had left."
Many of the beats stand out as the most effective musical parts of Little Fictions. The slow build of the title track and the hypnotic pattern on second single "Gentle Storm" -- whose music video features Benedict Cumberbatch -- show the band's good percussive ear, even with there being no official drummer in the studio. Alex Reeves, who played on Garvey's 2015 solo debut Courting the Squall and the subsequent tour for that record, joined Elbow during the recording process. Potter himself also played an important role with respect to percussion: "I had worked on beats with Richard for a lot of the new Elbow stuff, so a lot of the beats were partially written by me. I programmed drums, found some loops, so there was more programming going on than usual… There was some change," he says, "But not that dramatically when it came to putting beats together."
Potter also notes that with the group being only four members, the in-studio dynamic also changed. "Without a drummer in the room," he explains, "The communication can actually be a lot better because everything is turned down to a volume where we could communicate really well while being creative." As of now there are no plans to add a permanent drummer on; Potter says that this would be "too hard" for the band.
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Little Fictions is a document of the new four-piece Elbow in its pared-down composition. A more direct tribute to Jupp can also be heard late into the album, on the gorgeous and minimalistic "Montparnasse". Potter describes the song as "a goodbye… a collection of snapshots of the things we've done together on tour." Garvey is characteristically warm on the track, singing, "Your heart could easily power three of me / Should my love get lost in the delivery." "Of all the songs on the record," Potter says, "It's the one that's really about Jupp leaving."
The pink and purple hues on the cover of Little Fictions and the almost universally optimistic lyrics therein contribute to the good feeling that the album exudes. The loss of a long-time member is a significant one for Elbow, but the melancholy that washes over the music of The Take Off and Landing of Everything is on Little Fictions replaced with an affirmation of life for all its beauty and ugliness, and all the perpetual impermanence that goes along with it. Little Fictions is the sound of a new chapter being written, with fond memories of all those that came before it still alive in the mind.
Elbow's identity as a four-member band is not the only thing that contributed to the shift in style on Little Fictions; the somewhat scattered recording process also plays a part. When I ask Potter if there was a core idea that drove Little Fictions as it was being conceived, he replies, "There wasn't really. The only thing we knew we wanted to do -- which was a bit different for us -- is to make sure the songs were as closed to finished as possible, with only a few basic instruments, before getting anywhere near a studio. We have our own studio in Salford [Blueprint Studios, in Greater Manchester]. We're used to being in there and writing and recording in the same time, building the album out of scraps. This time we wanted to record on microphones until we had strong songs, and they did turn out stronger as a result. We started in Scotland initially. Then we were in the attic of Guy's house for quite awhile. After that it was about September that we went back to the studio to start putting the album together." When I ask Potter how the members of Elbow manage to keep things exciting after being in a band together for 25 years, he states that changing up the locations is a key part.