Elbow Turns 21
ELBOW. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANDY WHITTON
Of all the foreign-born casualties of the American music landscape, one that comes to the fore this week is the relative (if ridiculous) obscurity of Manchester’s Elbow. Sure, the band’s fifth studio album, Build a Rocket Boys!, dropped Tuesday and, sure, they’re playing Coachella tomorrow, but for the most part, their name draws blank stares Stateside. So much so that the platinum fivesome—who sell out arenas, grace magazine covers, tour with Muse, U2, and Coldplay, and continually rate Mercury prize nods—are reticent to tour outside of the hubs (Coachella is their only date for this release). And how can you blame them, when they’re probably best known over here for singles on their breakout fourth album (Seldom Seen Kid) gracing the trailers of The Soloist and Burn After Reading?
“If we came out here and did a very basic tour, it would cost us money,” says vocalist Guy Garvey, noting their last time touring the US was two years ago. “We could make it break even, but it would be a scrape. We might have done that as young men, but it’s too difficult with the families.” With any luck, prevailing winds behind the album and the performance will help to change all of that.
As with the Mercury-winning Kid, the new album was produced by keyboardist Craig Potter at the converted community center that’s now Blueprint Studios. Boys! familiarly combines Garvey’s Mancunian street poetics with wave-like choral backing from previous collaborators Hallé Youth Choir. But it shakes off early (and atrophying) art-house tendencies for a stripped-down nostalgic moodscape that shows an impressive band at peace with the space they’ve carved out over two decades.
Boys! smartly avoids the minefield of glossy, post-breakout anthems. Instead, it quietly explores the Manchester of their youth with a raw optimism—and a gritty Polaroid effect owed to various first-take recordings—that wasn’t as tangible on any previous Elbow disc. The first single, “Lippy Kids,” wistfully warns of the effervescence of the “golden” days, while the soundtrack-bound mourner “Jesus is a Rochdale Girl” bounces off deliciously whispery keyboard licks to catalog the “thousand boxes” Garvey hasn’t ticked. Elsewhere, they meet the grave with crashing aplomb on “Neat Little Rows,” and the second single “Open Arms” is a cascade of sound and emotion—the Hallé kids on overdrive—that kicks off with Garvey intoning “You’re a law unto yourself, and we don’t suffer dreamers.”
Over shots of espresso tequila at New York’s Cooper Square Hotel, Garvey and bassist Pete Turner explored this notion as it pertains to their US prospects, the new album, and how they’ve evolved from their early days as bartenders in Manchester’s Northern Quarter two decades ago back when they were still called Mr. Soft.
MICHAEL SLENSKE: This is 21 years after you started out. Was it ever in the back of your mind you’d be here right now?
GUY GARVEY: We thought we’d be signed in six months, didn’t we? [looks at Turner] And I thought then that was what was going to happen. I was 10 years out. [laughs] It took us 10 and a half years to get a record deal.
SLENSKE: When did you know you wanted to be musicians?
GARVEY: I’ve got five older sisters, and if you were to be heard, you had to really stick your head up. My father was a proofreader for The Daily Mirror. My mom was a police woman before she met my father, and she was a housewife until she divorced him when I was 12, then she went back to university and became a clinical psychologist. I didn’t even want to go to college. My sister Gina enrolled me the day after college started. So I chose art, physics, and I met Mark, the guitarist, and he said, “I’ve got a band, you want to join as the singer?” He’d heard me singing in the common room facility in the recreation area. I was joining bands for about four years, actually. You’d never get another call.
SLENSKE: You were a joiner.
GARVEY: I was a joiner, yeah. Mark said, “I’ll pick you up Sunday at one. And he did.”
SLENSKE: How much did the Manchester sound bleed into the first album?
GARVEY: Oh, a ton. Moving from Barry to Manchester was huge. I was just talking about it doing my radio program upstairs, and I remembered the first time someone at a café in Affleck’s Palace, where we used to go every week, knew what my order was. I was like, “I own this city.” It was so important.
PETE TURNER: Also, we were working this club called the Roadhouse. All bands coming through on tour would play this place. We really lived and breathed the Northern Quarter, but I think we were also probably influenced by the whole Twisted Nerve thing. It was a really cool little scene, and we were right there.
SLENSKE: So why look back now?
GARVEY: I think with this new success on the back of the Seldom Seen Kid, we were all looking at each other every day, going, “It’s finally happened.” And we could have toured for another year and a half, but we thought, if we go in the studio now it will be a three-year gap between records. We wanted to ride the feeling of goodwill and, I guess, cement what it is that we do. If I was an Elbow fan, I would have been really paranoid that we were going to come back with something really big and shiny, next-level stadium shit. We wanted to do that so little, and at the same time we didn’t want to do something inaccessible and so left-field. I wanted to write about the past, but musically, we wanted to strip it down to its bare parts. We worked very hard at using only natural reverb, no digital effects, using the space.
SLENSKE: Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s almost like it has an over-the-hill perspective, especially on “Jesus is a Rochdale Girl.”
GARVEY: I was just living in a house with no heating at the time, no money. I was quite an angry young man, terrible foot odor problem, and this fucking angel fell in love with me, and I fell in love with her, and she brought me comfort and food from this restaurant from afar. The Observer published this front page story that said, “Who is the Girl, Guy?” And it reached her in Grenada, Spain, where she lives with her husband.
SLENSKE: Is she coming back?
GARVEY: Well, she might, but not to me. She left me for a Venezuelan lawyer. I don’t know what she was thinking. [laughs]
TURNER: You do the math. Skimp musician on the doll or Venezuelan lawyer?
SLENSKE: That’s funny. Would you say recording with Craig allows for more happy accidents in the studio?
GARVEY: Oh yeah, there’s plenty of that. [Drummer Richard] Jupp went on his honeymoon, and I found this old keyboard in a shop window at Cafe Pop in the Northern Quarter. It’s called a Hammond Sounder, and it’s really designed for somebody’s front room.
TURNER: Shit, really.
GARVEY: It’s shit, but the sound we got out of it was great. It cost us £50, and when you plugged it in initially without touching any keys it went [shrieks]. Nobody had any parts for it, so we spent £350 fixing the thing, but it’s awesome. It’s the pulse thing on “Lippy Kids” and “The Night Will Always Win.”
TURNER: It’s like every time you turn it on, you can’t rely on it, it’s almost like a surprise turning on.
GARVEY: My tour manager was disgusted. He’s like, “Can I cut this in half and put it in a flag case?” I was like, “No, you cannot. It’s the hero sound of the album. Why don’t you just look for one online?” He says, “I looked online and nobody has them anymore because everyone threw them away, they were such shit.”
SLENSKE: What about the choir? Why bring them back?
GARVEY: That was a last-minute decision, actually. We got them to sing in our accents. They’re all trained, posh kids, so we’re like, “It’s ‘with luvv,’ not ‘love.'” We tried to make them talk like footballers.
TURNER: Not 15-year-old girls.
SLENSKE: You’re going to Coachella this weekend. Will the live show be any different?
GARVEY: It’s never been any different, really. We perform the songs very accurately, but it’s not like we’re doing that thing Wilco did and going to fucking nine-minute epics on two-minute songs. I think that’s just appalling behavior.