The Song Is All: An Interview With Elbow’s Guy Garvey

With Elbow's sixth album released this week, Patrick Kilkelly catches up with frontman Guy Garvey to talk drinking, self-defence, and how to dance away a broken heart

Elbow occupy a rarified space in popular music: they have a huge and hugely loyal fanbase who view the group’s ouevre with unmitigated affection. I don’t think I’ve ever met a casual Elbow fan – the camps tend to be split between die-hards and those that aren’t overly familiar with their music. After a clutch of early EPs in the late 90s, they garnered widespread acclaim for their 2001 debut, the Mercury-nominated Asleep In The Back. That album saw the band lay their blueprint for success with songs which hit a perfect balance between kitchen-sink observation and secular gospel inspiration. Since then their trajectory has been ever upward, critical and popular acclaim has met all five of their studio albums, most recently with 2011’s hushed gem, Build A Rocket Boys! As well as releasing some of the most piercingly intimate and big-heartedly optimistic music of the last fifteen years, the group’s members have also undertaken a host of well-received side-projects in radio and live music (frontman Guy Garvey’s Radio 6 show remains essential listening). Oh, and then there was the small matter of them playing the London Olympics closing ceremony, too.

And yet it also feels like they’re just getting started. Nearly a quarter-century after first forming in Bury in Greater Manchester, Garvey and his band of merry freebooters – Richard Jupp (drums), Pete Turner (bass), Craig Potter (keyboards) and Mark Potter (guitar) – have just released their sixth studio album, The Take Off & Landing Of Everything. Listening to the album, it’s instantly apparent why they’re still held in high regard; it continues Elbow’s track record of forging beautiful poetry from everyday observations and language. Songs like ‘Charge’ and ‘Fly Boy Blue + Lunette’ discuss the most quotidian situations in a manner that’s anything but ordinary, while ‘The Blanket of Night’ is a heartbreaking album closer discussing immigration and asylum.

Despite the fact that he we’re speaking at a fairly uncivilised hour in the morning, when the Quietus catches up with Garvey to discuss the new album, he proves a great interviewee: funny, warm and articulate. A veteran of the music industry, the passion and pleasure he still finds in music is instantly apparent.

It always amazes me how as a group you manage to maintain the vulnerability and emotion in your work. How do you manage it after all this time? Does it exhaust you?

Guy Garvey: It’s a funny old thing – it involves putting something of myself into my words. In terms of [the music], I don’t think any one of us would make the music that we make [by ourselves], it’s what we do collectively, it’s where our tastes meet. What I put into the tunes is nearly always how the music makes me feel, what it makes me think about. I suppose there is a vulnerability to it – your deepest, sometimes darkest fears. Admitting where you’re at. The rule is: the song is all. The most important thing is that the song is good. But yeah, it can be a little bit nervewracking.

You’ve toured some huge venues. There were about 12,000 people at your concert in Jodrell Bank in 2012 – but everyone was still with you. How do you maintain the dynamics – the emotion and the sound – when you’re playing to audiences of that size?

GG: I think my jolly persona between songs is probably a reaction to how personal the songs are. It’s almost a case of "don’t be upset, everyone! Wave your hands! Do some crazy shit!" It’s a strange one. I also have a good couple of stiff drinks before I go on stage – that’s another reason I resemble your drunk uncle at weddings.

Elbow have such a big fanbase. Do you ever feel pressure to keep people happy, or do you just get on with it? People would be devastated if you brought out a terrible album…

GG: We wouldn’t release it! We’ve written terrible songs, but no-one’s ever heard them. Oh, apart from one – we did let a B-side go which we all hate. It’s only happened once, and none of us could stand it. You get tired of songs, from time to time, if you play them constantly. In the same way that you get tired of your brother occasionally – it’s not going anywhere, and you still love it, but every now and again you think: oh God, today?! But generally speaking, you’re into it. So many different things happen – around the time you get sick of the studio it’s time to go on tour again. You get to interpret your own work.

For us the point of the exercise is the album, the finished article, and how it sounds. I know other musicians see the song as the finished thing, and the album is a version of that art. It’s the other way round for us. We never had the conversation, [of] "are we an album band?" From day one, that was the point – to get albums out, to make records which left you somewhere different from where they found you. I see playing live as grabbing different snapshots of all the different records we’ve made, that’s how it feels to me. The perfect surroundings, for me, listening to music, would be a a journey with headphones on. I would want people to listen to our music on a train or a plane. Perhaps a train’s better than a plane. You tend to go deaf halfway through a plane journey.

What do you get from being in Elbow, and how has that changed since you started? It’s been nearly 25 years.

GG: Coming up on that. It’ll be twenty-three years in June. Why do I do it? The happiest I am – ever – is writing a song. Right in the middle of a good song. It takes a while to get the wheels moving these days. We’re all like "do we have to do this?" then you think, hang on a minute, this is great fun! It does take you a while to get your head into it. But when you’re on the inside of a great piece of music, and you’re really loving it, you’ll never love it as much as that again. And no-one will ever love it as much as you do at that moment, because it’s yours. That stage, that first flush of, "fucking hell, that’s great". Especially when there’s a bunch of you working on something and all of your ideas comes together – you don’t even have to look at each other to know you’re all gonna love it. So I guess that’s the most I get out of it. That childlike abandon. I literally do caper like a twat. I wanna drop me trousers and piss about. I just love it. That’s my favourite thing.

The flipside of making a song, and that process – do you feel like the songs are yours once they’re finished?

GG: Yeah, we do still own them. Get off. They’re ours! Sharing it with people is the point – once you get on the road, seeing people react… I’ll tell you what happens as you get more successful. Perhaps people won’t be aware of this – in fact they’re definitely not aware of this – your friends, your family, everyone who’s close, they all stop getting in touch to say "Hey, I heard that song on the radio, it’s great," or "I saw you on the front of that magazine, you look great". They stop doing it because they assume that everyone else is doing it. Even your nearest and dearest, when you get to a certain level of success, stop telling you what they think. You’re left completely in the dark. You don’t want to say, "have you heard my song on the radio?" You don’t want to be that guy.

So it’s like, you don’t know until you walk onto a stage and see people singing your stuff back to you. You’ve got no idea how it’s going. You’ve got reviews and interviews, but you haven’t actually got a genuine human response until you get to take it out there and see what people think of it. The love and respect and immediate connection I have with anyone who comes up to me and says, "I bought your record"… there’s a look in their eye. It’s like they’re an old friend, and that’s because they’ve invested something of themselves into it. Enough to the point where they’ll come up and say hello. If people can’t help saying hello – and you do get a lot of apologising in the front of those conversations, "I’m really sorry but I just had to say…"; you have a connection with that person because they’ve listened to you singing about things which are very personal to you. And they’ve been good enough to pay for your work, so there is a genuine connection. I know for some people it’s too much, there’s too much there for them, but I love it when people say hello. In a way when you’re playing live, that’s what you’re doing: saying hello to people en masse.

It’s always interesting, listening to Elbow songs, trying to unpick which songs are stories you’re telling as characters, and which are the real "you", so to speak.

GG: There’s always something of me in all of them, of course.

‘Honey Sun’ seems to be talking a bit about being judged by strangers – "live and die by strangers’ eyes" – but I’ve never got a sense of Elbow doing anything except exactly what you want to do at any given moment.

GG: There’s another side-product of being in a successful band. I haven’t met an out-and-out bastard for a decade.

People are nice to you because you’re in the band.

GG: Yeah. For sure. It took me years to realise that some people genuinely don’t give a shit what other people think of them. I’m not one of those people. Somebody looks at me wrong in the street, part of me assumes they’re right. I wear all of my nerves on the outside. I’m not the only member of my family that’s like that. It means I’ve avoided violence my whole life, because it means I can spot rotters coming a mile off. I used to work taking money at the Roadhouse on Newton Street [in Manchester]. I worked there for four-and-a-half years and there was never a punch thrown on my watch. I could spot the potential trouble-causers before they started. Even if I didn’t have a good reason for turning them away, I’d say to the doorman "keep your eye on him, he’ll be trouble after a few pints", and I was always right. I circumvented any violence with my natural cowardice. The only problem hanging out with doormen was, they do end up talking about methods of suppressing people. You end up being a self-defence dummy. "Come at me." "I don’t want to come at you." "Fucking come at me like you’re gonna strangle me!" You then very casually put your arms around his throat and he breaks your arm. I don’t fancy going back to that.

I think ‘Real Life (Angel)’ is my favourite song on there at the moment. I’ve listened to it a dozen or more times and I’m still not sure what it’s about. Someone struggling with an addiction?

GG: No. It’s a heartbroken friend. It’s very much about someone close to me who was heartbroken. It’s me talking about them, giving them advice, telling them to dance it out. It’s basically saying this is who you are; I am your friend; we are your friends. Do whatever you have to do to get through it, namely, dance away the heartaches. My methods can be more extreme – I fucked off to New York. That was my method of dealing with it.

Did that work?

GG: Yeah, it did. If you really, really invest yourself in something and it comes to an end, whether it’s right or not that it comes to an end – and in my case it was right that it came to an end – you’ve got an awful lot of self-examination to do. There’s nowhere better to do that than a place where nobody knows you. Nobody knows who you are in the States. Obviously there are Elbow fans in the US, but walking down the street, no-one knows who you are. Any interaction that I have over there, you feel that it’s on your merits, that it’s on your personality. It’s the best place to start if you have to rebuild a little bit.

‘The Blanket of Night’ is a beautiful album closer. Did you think of any immigrant journey in particular?

GG: No, I didn’t. It was written in between enormous humanitarian disasters. It was a general sort of… I think it’s crazy that depending on a person’s income or social status they can or cannot be ignored. As if we’re not all immigrants at some point or another. Look at New York: the centre of Western capitalism on the one hand, but a city built by immigrants and lived in by immigrants on the other hand. That’s what can happen when you open your arms to the world and get your ideas together. I just think, we made a deal. I met a girl who worked for Kofi Annan, many years ago, and I asked her, what was the point of everyone agreeing to find refugees a home after the Second World War? She told me those laws were eroded and bypassed little by little. Countries were looking for excuses not to accept refugees. And the arguing and politicking from both sides [in the UK] – there’s no empathy, no humanity. It was bugging me. So I wrote that song.

Who are the "fuckers" "ignoring you" on ‘Charge’? Is it about feeling old when you go out?

GG: That’s where it sprang from. They nearly all start with the first line. I write the first line down, then I think, "right, why did I write that down?" That’s how the song unfolds. "I am electric / with a bottle in me / got a bottle in me" – that was true. I was pissed. Then I came back to the lyric the next day, and I thought, that’s cool, that works for the song.

Oh, you were pissed when you wrote it?

Yeah. "I am electric/with a bottle in me/got a bottle in me." Then I went to bed. The next day I looked at it and thought, this is great, where’s it come from? I was second-guessing what my drunk alter-ego was thinking. I barely remembered writing it. Did I think I was Prince in that moment? Did I think I was some snake-hipped charmer? Then I thought – that bravado is great. That’s why men drink well into their sixties. I started thinking about getting older, and how it felt to drink when I was a young man, how I thought I’d invented drinking. "This is mine and mine alone. What a wonderful thing whisky is."

Then I put myself in the position of being a bit older, and I started thinking about this guy I used to see around Manchester. He was a teddy boy into his seventies – the beetle crushers, the velvet suit, the whole thing. I remember looking at him and thinking ‘you’re a grumpy twat, but that was the happiest you ever felt when you got that outfit, and you’ve stayed there’, and I admired him for that. Pete Turner in particular, he’s the baby of the band, despite Craig being the youngest – he really does forgive a lot on account of character. He loves people with a thing of their own. He’s in that song somewhere as well. Pete would think he was cool for being grumpy with the kids. If there’s a message to the song, it’s have some respect for your elders – they’ve got some good stories if you sit close.

Elbow’s The Take Off And Landing Of Everything is out now on Fiction

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