They Still Believe in Love: An Interview With Elbow

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.
Little Fictions

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.

Precious About the Songs

One other overarching plan for Little Fictions was the decision by Elbow to focus on writing songs unencumbered by large arrangements or orchestral grandeur. “We were quite precious about the songs,” says Potter, “and we didn’t want anything to get in their way. Sometimes they come fully formed, and we knew that they were strong. Lots of our stuff in the past has lots of layers to it, big orchestral sounds, so we wanted to bring things back to a more basic level.”

In this way, Little Fictions can be seen as an extension of the minimalist stylings of 2011’s Build a Rocket Boys!, Elbow’s stunning followup to its breakthrough record, 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid. Rather than pick up where the sing-along stadium numbers “Grounds for Divorce” and “One Day Like This” left off, Build a Rocket Boys! features the band performing an introspective, almost hushed voice: the bare-bones “Jesus is a Rochdale Girl” is practically performed in a whisper by Garvey, and guitarist Mark Potter strums an acoustic guitar so lightly that it sounds like his microphone was all the way across the room. On Little Fictions, the placid “Head for Supplies”, anchored on a simple guitar lead by Mark Potter, serves as a muted centerpiece.

I ask Potter if Elbow’s fans have tracked with them in these quieter sonic explorations, considering the ubiquity of “Grounds for Divorce” and “One Day Like This”. Elbow’s superstardom is primarily concentrated to its native United Kingdom; Potter says it’s been “a very slow build over in the United States”, though the group did get a considerable amount of attention in Belgium and Holland following Build a Rocket Boys. One downside to the major success of an LP like the Mercury Prize-winning The Seldom Seen Kid is that it can lead to an almost unavoidable “play the hits” syndrome on the part of fans.

“After The Seldom Seen Kid we did get quite big over here in the UK,” Potter says. “We were concerned that some of the more intimate stuff – the stuff where people just need to shut up and listen for a bit – may not go down that well. But in some ways, even the quieter songs still have a grandness to them that works in big spaces. After some anthemic numbers, you need mellower songs to keep the dynamic fresh, and to keep the audience’s interest.” Potter says that of the many types of venue in which Elbow plays – spanning Manchester Cathedral to the hordes of Glastonbury – large theatres are where the band performs best, whether it’s an anthem like “One Day Like This” or a more peaceful number like “Gentle Storm”.

All of this isn’t to say that Little Fictions doesn’t have its arena-worthy moments. The rushing strings on the chorus of “Magnificent” are a call-back to the ebullience of “One Day Like This”, and to the classic refrain at the end of “Grace Under Pressure” from 2004’s Cast of Thousands: “We still believe in love, so fuck you.” As Garvey imagines a little girl playing on a beach, he sings, “And there she stands / Throwing both her arms around the world / The world that doesn’t even know / How much it needs this little girl.” (Based on the clown car of chaos that was 2016, one couldn’t accuse Garvey of being sentimental for sentimentality’s sake.) String arrangements have long been a part of Elbow’s repertoire, and they’re characteristically excellent on Little Fictions.

Remarkably, “Guy’s written most of the arrangements we’ve ever done by singing them out and then sending it to someone to score it for us,” Potter explains. “This time, he co-wrote the arrangements with Nick Ingham, who worked with us on the Abbey Road album and the song we did for the [2012] Olympics [“First Steps”].” When I ask Potter if he or anyone else in the band has considered writing for an orchestra out of the context of Elbow, he says, “No, I haven’t really thought about it. It’d be difficult to know where to start.”

The most grandiose entry on Little Fictions is the title tune, to date Elbow’s longest composition. “Little Fictions” eschews normal song structure: although the verses seem to be positioning the chorus to be an explosion of musical tension, the music drops out just as the chorus begins, a snare drum and single piano notes being the only thing left beside Garvey’s voice. Says Potter, “That song was never going to be a verse/chorus kind of track. With that song the question was always, ‘What do we want to hear next?’ When writing it, we would come up with a part, and then ask where it should go next.” This framing of the song as flowing naturally from one part to the other, rather than sticking to an ABAB or verse/chorus formula, was helped by Little Fictions‘ session drummer. The propulsive latter half of the song, Potter explains, “came together when Alex was in the studio with us; it was probably the one song where we asked him to experiment the most. That explosion at the end of the song came from a pattern that he was messing around with on the drums.”

“Little Fictions” also showcases one of Elbow’s unique songwriting tricks, which Garvey and Potter explained in a video featurette recorded to accompany their performance of “New York Morning” on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. On “New York Morning”, the lead single off of The Take Off and Landing of Everything, Garvey recounts the sights of New York City as Potter plays a series of octave notes on the keyboard that were written to mimic the ups and downs of the city skyline. I ask Potter if anything similar was done on Little Fictions, and he cites the title track. “The verses are about an argument. Guy is looking back and remembering images of his father at the dinner table and storming out afterwards. The song starts out and it’s about arguing with a loved one, but then it ends on this ‘let’s grow old together’ sentiment. The minor key, sort of distant piano notes [in the verses] add to that tension of the argument.”

Lyric-writing, although primarily done by Garvey, is an integral part to the group’s rapport. “We talk about lyrics all the time,” Potter says, “Lyrics are just as much a part of the vibe of the music as anything else. We edit Guy’s lyrics with him; sometimes he won’t think about a line because it came so quickly. When we did some editing recently in rehearsal, and he thanked us for it.”

And there it is. In 2017, with over 15 years having passed since Elbow’s unassuming debut Asleep at the Back, these men of Manchester are still getting along swimmingly, all the while continuing to produce some of the best music of their career. “Who knows where we’ll go next,” Potter says at the end of our interview. Based on the next item in Elbow’s itinerary — a series of mostly sold-out shows in the UK and Ireland — one can safely say that Garvey’s main refrain on “Magnificent” isn’t overstating things.