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A Quietus Interview

An Interview With Elbow's Guy Garvey
Ben Hewitt , February 21st, 2011 08:46

Elbow's frontman talks to Ben Hewitt about success, youth, cookery programmes and their new album Build A Rocket Boys!

Even with all of Elbow's late-bloom success - Mercury gongs, Ivor Novello nods, giant arena shows and so forth - it's hard not to feel as if Guy Garvey and co still don't get the recognition they deserve. Lumped in unfairly with the wishy-washy likes of Coldplay and their ilk, there's a lingering misconception that their music is best suited as dinner-party fodder, slipping into the background as the chattering classes clink wine glasses and break bread. But there's always been something wholly substantial to Elbow, from the bruised melancholia of Asleep In The Back (2001) and Cast Of Thousands (2003) to their conflicted love-letter to Manchester on Leaders Of The Free World (2005) - and for those prepared to listen, Garvey has always had something to actually say. After all, can you imagine Fran Healy conjuring up a lyrical refrain like "We still believe in love, so fuck you", as Garvey did on 'Grace Under Pressure'? Or that bloke from Doves matching his mixture of affection and affliction while discussing the "little town whores" who populate his home city like on 'Grounds For Divorce'? The success of 2008's Seldom Seen Kid in 2008, then - which saw Elbow finally become bona-fide big players - was very welcome indeed.

If the making of The Seldom Seen Kid was fraught in difficulties, from losing record contracts to contending with the death of a close friend, then the sessions for Let's Build A Rocket Boys! were a walk in the park. As Garvey points out in our chat, it's a relief for Elbow just knowing that the album they'll be working on will actually be released. That ease and comfort has seemingly seeped into the record, too; it's more blurred and blissful than its predecessor, serving as both a snapshot into Garvey's youth and an optimistic cry of encouragement. As he said himself in an article recently penned for The Quietus, "This is a record about the ups and downs of being young through the eyes of someone who loved and hated it all at the same time... the album title recommends that everybody have a go".

The Quietus caught up with Garvey to discuss the new album, how things have changed since The Seldom Seen Kid, and why he hates Top Gear.

So how would you describe Build A Rocket Boys? How's it different to The Seldom Seen Kid?

Guy Garvey: If The Seldom Seen Kid... let's see how amusing I can be here. If The Seldom Seen Kid was the QE2, this is a little... [laughs] no, that's just fucking shit, isn't it? The Seldom Seen Kid was a big ornate beast of a record, made in a pressure cooker. We didn't have a record deal when we were making the album, and so many heavy things happened in a short period of time - some of them great, some of them awful. And if anything it was ordering our thoughts, and our frustrations - it all went into that record. [With] This record, we said at the beginning that it should feel like a full sketchbook. We left it rough around the edges; we kept initial performances and we kept recordings from dressings rooms that we made. We just wanted this to be somewhere easy to be.

There's something optimistic in the title - a sense of youthful enthusiasm or naivety. Was that what you wanted to convey?

GG: Yeah, totally. We could all do with a bit of unapologetic optimism right now, couldn't we? They're shutting libraries like fucking Bond villains. It's fucking ridiculous. It was a conscious thing: fuck it, let's celebrate, regardless of the shit they're trying to pull.

And did it feel natural to celebrate after the success of The Seldom Seen Kid?

GG: Yeah, that's very intuitive. We felt like we got somewhere we wanted to be after a long time. This album is definitely celebrating a little bit.

I guess the album's about youth, if you were going to describe it in broad terms. Did you find revisiting your own youth harder than writing about the present?

GG: This has been the easiest record to make for us, and I think because I made a conscious decision to write about the past it came together easier. It was still toil, but we love our work - it's still not a proper job.

Because everything was so good at the end of the road that we'd been on for a long time, the temptation to look back was to strong. I thought 'We've earned our stripes, we've done our time, and I'm going to write about how it was at the other end of this - I'm going to write about what it was like at the beginning of those ambitions'. And it was dead easy. I think when you write about the present, there's a lot of noise; there's a lot of static you've got to cut through to get to the important stuff, and it sometimes means me going away to focus on what's important. But when you write about the past, you have clarity. And I was writing about them [those days] at the time as well, so I could look back at those journals and very much see who I was - because hopefully we're not the same people we were this time last year, let alone a decade and a half earlier.

What were you like when you were that age?

GG: Well, I have the same friends I have now. I couldn't believe women found me attractive - it took me a while to calm down on that front. I went mental; I was a bit of a slag. I was very full of myself, I was very ambitious. I was a little bit spikier than I am now, because I hadn't anything to be proud of, so I was a little defensive perhaps. I didn't have any money, and I was as skinny as a whippet. It's all in 'Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl' - that's kind of a blueprint for the record, musically and lyrically. And I can't wait to get her reaction - the Rochdale girl in questions is still a friend of mine, actually. She's just become a mother, she lives in Granada with her husband.

Do you think after the success of The Seldom Seen Kid, it was somewhat inevitable that you'd look back to the past - that it was natural to step back and take stock?

GG: It isn't lost on us how lucky we are. Sure, we've worked and hung on, but what a lovely way for it to happen. I mean, my mother always pointed out what was around us at the time. She's one of those people who sees the importance of living in the moment. We'd be driving on the motorway and she'd say, 'Look at that sunset kids'. And we'd be like, 'Mum!'. But she'd say, 'Look at it, no-one's going to see that sunset again, and nobody is going to see it through your eyes from exactly where you're sitting in the car. That's your sunset. That was all the time. So I drive the band mad with it - pointing at the moon. We've got a good healthy dose of realising where we're at and how lucky we are to be there.

If you could go back and give young Guy Garvey some advice, what would you say?

GG: Oooh. Well, I would tell him to be careful with a certain young lady's heart.

Wise advice.

GG: That's my only regret, if I'm honest. I really hurt someone I shouldn't have done, quite callously. You know like... a twat? Exactly like a twat. I'd tell him to be careful with her. And I'd tell him not to worry so much.

You've said that you didn't feel pressure to follow The Seldom Seen Kid, but were you aware that more eyes were going to be upon this Elbow release than any other?

GG: I live, by and large, in my head. I'm a really scatty bastard. And I'll walk down Market Street in Manchester, and if I'm lost in my thoughts, I'll forget that people know who I am. Somebody will be staring at me and I'll be thinking, 'What the fuck's his problem', and I'll realise he probably knows me from being in the band. The other thing is, attention wanes. It's noticeable - if I've been on television for some reason, the amount of people who spot you in the street spikes, but three months passes and you're back to normal again. It's transient in this day and age. It's just a nice treat when someone pats you on the back for something you love doing - you get to look at each other and go, 'Nice one. We rule for today'.

How about in terms of writing material?

GG: It's a lot more pleasure for us. We love the fact that we've made this record - we're proud of ourselves for not losing our way, if you like, with all the success. So we're buzzing for the release. It's sounding really great in the rehearsals as well. We're playing in some pretty big rooms. And the second night at the O2 - I can't tell you too much I'm afraid - but I think one of our musical heroes is going to join us onstage.

Can you give us any clues?

GG: I can't tell you who it is - it's not totally set in stone - but it's looking pretty likely.

We were talking earlier about The Seldom Seen Kid being a hard album to make, but can having that pressure be a good thing?

GG: I think if we'd never have a deadlne we'd never finish an album. There's always one song you don't favour amongst the others. If you wrote the best album in the world, you'd have one song on there you didn't like as much as the rest. You'd try and replace that song, and then another song would become the one you like the least, and so on forever. Deadlines are a good way of stopping you fannying about with your work. And this album, perhaps more than any of the others, was planned. It was like 'Let's get back on the road at this point, let's spend this much time writing and recording it, let's keep these hours, and let's theme it [like] this'. And that feels really good. It's the first time an album hasn't been the be-all and end-all of Elbow; it's just a thing that we do.

And is that liberating?

GG: I can't descrtibe how liberating is. We have a studio we absolutely love where the daylight pours in through big windows, and it's run by people we've known since we were 15 - really lovely guys. I remember Check Your Head by the Beastie Boys coming out and us poring over the sleeve because they'd put a picture of their studio on it: "Fucking hell, look at how many keyboards he's got... fucking hell look at all those bass guitars. The bastards". And our studio absolutely pisses on theirs! I guess the one luxury we afforded ourselves with all the success was that we took the windows out and put a grand piano in there. It's just gorgeous. It's changed the way we play. But yeah, same old mates in our dream studio, knowing that our records are going to come out. It's just the best.

I guess the obvious question would be whether you're worried that you won't replicate the success of The Seldom Seen Kid, but is complacency and becoming part of the furniture as big a fear?

GG: The biggest fear we have is that for some reason, our passion for writing will dry up. It hasn't so far. We're still inspired by other people's music. You hear a good record, you want to be in a band, don't you? That's the way I've always thought. If I watch a good movie, I want to be a director or an actor or something. The only time that doesn't happen with food - I really don't get the national passion with food. You wouldn't know it to look at my Olympian physique, but I really can't be arsed with cookery programmes.

They're shit, that's why.

GG: [Laughs] Ha ha ha! I'm glad you think so. And fucking Top Gear as well. Jesus Christ. It's heinous. I don't know why everybody doesn't see Tory fucking public school wankers getting high on four star [petrol]. That's what I see.

I really liked your collaboration with Massive Attack last year ['Flat of the Blade' on Heligoland. Have you ever thought about going in that direction yourselves?

GG: Well, we were kind of quite inspired by the Bristol scene. Songs like 'Any Day Now', I think you can hear the influence of Massive Attack and Portishead. Whether or not I'd do an entire sample based record... it has crossed my mind. One of my favourite records is Entroducing by DJ Shadow, and that's completely sampled - there's not one original note on it - but it's a real work of art. So I've often harboured little fantasies about doing a record with someone like him... just getting him to throw some ace grooves down and I'll throw some poems over the top. I used to think if I had any success I'd do so many collaborations, but now I haven't got a minute to spare. That's why it doesn't happen often - unless you're Jack White. I think there are three Jack Whites. Or he's like Lassie. There were three Lassies, weren't there?