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A Quietus Interview

Guy Garvey On Lockdown, Live Music And Loving The BBC
Patrick Clarke , March 30th, 2020 10:02

Guy Garvey speaks to Patrick Clarke about life under lockdown as a musician and BBC presenter, the practical effects of postponing live shows, and new LP Live At The Ritz

A week into lockdown, and gigs already feel like a more distant memory than they actually are. The prospect of standing in a hot and crowded room or a muddy field for an hour and a half, your bare, sweaty arms crammed up against those of a stranger feels a little bit terrifying in this age of isolation, but like most I've found myself pining for the days when we can all get together and watch music again.

Elbow's gigs in particular make powerful use of the communal, Guy Garvey's mix of raconteuring and romance paving the way for close and tender connections between audience and band, which makes listening to their new live LP Live At The Ritz – An Acoustic Performance a particularly surreal and bittersweet experience. It documents an especially intimate example of Elbow's communal powers, and more than many live albums feels weighted to replicate the actual experience of watching a show – shouts and cheers from the crowd are as much a part of it as the songs themselves.

Tickets for two performances in the band's native Manchester were offered to hardcore fans and soon sold out, meaning the band are heard performing to a crowd full of friends. It's full of beautiful little quirks – a point where Garvey is overcome for a moment with emotion at their reception – "You're gonna make me cry you buggers," – and another when he quips about his time living across the canal, from where he could see "what goes on behind the Ritz" as he puts it to a laughing audience who are firmly in the know.

One point in Garvey's patter, between songs that although stripped back still have an epic emotional sweep to them, feels particularly prescient – an almost off-hand mention of a friend who works in the NHS, which is greeted by rapturous applause not unlike that heard so beautifully across Britain last week, a moment imbued with the same kind of uncynical, genuine passion that's captured on the album. Although in the grand scheme of things their coronavirus woes are minor, Elbow had to postpone an entire UK tour due to the pandemic, something that Garvey says "would have sunk us," before the band hit it big with 2008's The Seldom Seen Kid.

Speaking to tQ from his home, from which he's also continued to broadcast his BBC Radio 6Music show, Garvey is making the most of the Spring sunshine and counting his blessings; he's well aware how fortunate he is to be able to weather this storm. Throughout our conversation we're interrupted by the sound of his son Jack, who spent his third birthday in lockdown last week, giggling and screaming as he shows off to his dad on his newly installed trampoline.

tQ: Hi Guy, first and foremost, how are you and the family handling lockdown?

Guy Garvey: Elements of it feel like a lovely holiday. I'm here with my son, it was his third birthday yesterday and it took me hours to assemble this trampoline. I felt like a proper dad. Currently he's concerned about losing his trainers; I didn't have such concerns at three years old. In fact, I was rarely in possession of a pair, if the photographs are to be believed! I think people only snapped kids when they'd lost a shoe back then. There's one of me with a spider monkey on Blackpool pier which… well it just wouldn't happen now. The poor bloody thing looks really sad.

How was your son's birthday under lockdown?

We had tealights on his cake and we did a load of FaceTiming. He's got his head around the 'naughty bug', and he knows that he has to wave at his best mate Bobby across the fence. He's got his head around it better than his parents, really. He is absolutely the best thing about my day, but he also stops me doing six hours in the studio a day. I had a proper nine to five worked out, where I'd go down to my writing room in Brixton and I'd get six hours of work in a day. It's only just struck me that I was alone for six hours a day, which is really good for your brain, and good for your other life responsibilities. I get really grumpy if I don't get to work and I didn't know that about myself, I get really grumpy. I find myself apologising to my wife a lot.

Are you spending much time writing?

Yes, but it's a weird one, I don't want to write about the situation at the moment, but it's all that's on anyone's mind. I almost feel like I've got to write a couple of songs about this that I don't want anyone to hear, and then I can write about something more entertaining. You have to write those and get them out of the way, then you can bin them and move on. I might take the noble isolation aspect and write something about lighthouse keepers though. Someone posted a meme that said 'I've written and produced this song on my own since being forced into lockdown' and it's a photograph of a jam and spaghetti sandwich.

Listening to your live album feels almost surreal given how long it's likely to be until we get the chance to attend a gig again.

I guess the whole idea of getting together in large numbers is surreal, isn't it? Imagine shows when they go back on, they're going to be amazing! I don't mean our shows, I mean shows in general, people are going to be so ecstatic at the end of this monastic period.

How much do you miss playing live?

Well, you know, I feel stupid whining about it really, people have got much bigger problems, but because we were supposed to be playing the shows now it's been very much on my mind. It's not just the getting together with the fans, it's getting together with the crew and living on a bus, I love every element of it. 100,000 people that we were gonna get to see that we're not now gonna get to see, and I can't pretend that isn't like a great big hole, but I'm so thankful that all my family and friends are thus far well and safe.

What are the physical and financial implications of postponing an entire tour?

If this was 2007, before The Seldom Seen Kid, this would have sunk us. This would have been get a job time. It's a huge financial hit. We're very very lucky that we can weather it, that's through really good management. Because we've always had the same crew and we've always had the same management, all the people we work with, all our suppliers, there's an awful lot of goodwill for the whole thing. They've helped us weather the hit, fiscally.

The big bummer is that our previous UK tour, I hate using tabloid-ese, but the Beast From the East did for that one. We still did the tour but we played to half full arenas and stuff, so it now feels like we've not seen some of our fans for four years. It's a bummer! For much smaller outfits I'm hoping people can somehow benefit from the self-employment renumerations the government are making. If they're not, the musicians' union needs a talking to. They need to get stuck in to make sure everyone has an income, because live is the only way to make money anymore, unless people want to have their watch on your wrist, and I haven't had any word from Tag Heuer.

Why bring forward the release of the live record?

It's kind of to say 'let's not forget what it means to get together'. I think there's disappointment for everybody that Glastonbury isn't happening, it's that annual reminder of what you can expect from people really, not what we're told, not what's in the newspapers or social media, what people are actually, genuinely like. It's your annual top up of the human spirit, so it was probably a bit to say 'don't worry, this too will pass, we'll all get together again.'

What are your memories of playing the Ritz gig?

We did two in a day, and the one on the album is the second one I think. It was a bit surreal because we'd had a gig, had a few drinks because we're creatures of habit, and then we had another gig to do. We thought loads of people would come twice but there was only about two people that did. Because it went to our fanbase first and sold out immediately it was a mixture of really hardcore fans who've been with us a long time, and really old mates, so it was a very familiar and warm thing.

There's something about the way that place has been run since my mate Sian's had it, she's very much one of Manchester's Manchester people, she gets stuck in locally and she's a good egg. She's really looked after it. It was a bit flea bitten when she got it, and she's given it the respect it deserves. It's such a beautiful old building. I used to live across the canal from the back of the Ritz, and the things I've seen happen out the back of the Ritz are unbelievable, the full gamut of human emotion, love right through to passionate hate.

What was the best thing you saw?

I saw two couples, the boys obviously friends and the girls obviously friends, both making love at the same time next to one another, then there was this sort of period of quiet, they fastened themselves up and laid there on this gentle tiled slope at the end of an alleyway on a hot summer's night, then there was this pleasant chatting and laughter for half an hour. I thought 'go on, good for you!'

What are your favourite memories of the inside of The Ritz?

When I was 16, Monday was indie night. I was dressed rather coarsely, I had a poncho that the first girl who agreed to sleep with me made me wear and a terrible haircut, I shaved my head apart from the fringe and I had massive baggy combat trousers and hiking boots. It was where you found your own, you firmed your ideas and found out who you were, decided what you wanted to do. It was goths, punks, rockers, even the Japanese mods who were incredible, so detailed in their outfits, and real legendary characters who I came to know really well. It looked like Mad Max most of the time.

Later, the last show of our first UK tour was at the Ritz, and in homage to our former colleague Kate Mountain at the Manchester Roadhouse me and the bass player Pete both wore our Roadhouse staff T-shirts. I remember walking on stage at the Ritz was 'Ok, now we've made it, now we're a proper band'. We walked on and the crowd went mad and then me and Pete turned round and showed our staff T-shirts off and everyone went super bananas because everybody there knew what the Roadhouse was and knew we'd worked there.

You're still putting out your 6Music show, how is that working, and how has it been as a broadcaster during the coronavirus crisis?

I've always recorded it wherever I am, I have a portable WAV recorder, I use my laptop, I send it to my production team and they stitch it all together. It was to make programs while on tour originally, so luckily I've been doing what most presenters are doing now for 13 years. It's remarkable how 6Music have come together on this. I'm always proud to be part of the station, but they really have been amazing. Lauren [Laverne] picked up the baton straight away. The tone she strikes, not patronising, addressing it head on with an amazing and subtle lightness of touch, it's the kind of thing you can only achieve if you genuinely care for your listeners and how they are, and that's how everyone at the station feels. We have squabbles within 6Music, certainly with the management, but everybody who's connected with the station is rightly incredibly proud of it, and it feels listener owned because it was listener saved.

After a period of pretty intense criticism from all sides, do you think the crisis has changed wider attitudes towards the BBC?

I've definitely felt that, and rightly so. The BBC is a clunky institution and it takes a million years to change anything on account of the many, many layers of beaurocracy, and it's very difficult to do anything new on the BBC, but if that means that the things that it's important for are protected… I mean literally what's going on now, when it's your life or your death, people aren't relying on Twitter. People shout about 'organ of state', but I think in a crisis, you need one.

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