The joint is jumpin’
Elbow have never had band-of-the-month success, but lead singer Guy Garvey says they prefer to make music on their own terms – even if that means sacrificing personal relationships. He talks to Brian Boyd
WHEN HE was 18, Guy Garvey wanted to conquer the music world. It took him a while before he even got started: his band, Elbow, were formed in Manchester in 1990 but didn’t get around to releasing an album until 2001.
Now, three albums into their career, Elbow haven’t conquered the music world in terms of sales and recognition, but they are one of the most acclaimed bands of recent years. Sure, not many people may know about them, but those who do are in thrall to their moody, ambient, gimmick-free sound.
Fan club cheerleaders include U2, REM and Coldplay, but Elbow resolutely refuse to compromise their sound for commercial ends. “In the time we’ve been going, I’ve seen many bands come and go,” says Garvey. “And these would be bands whose first album went triple platinum but then they just dropped from sight. I think, with us, we’ve been lucky in that there never has been much hype around us. We’ve never been a band-of-the-month type, we’ve never been the new, hip band.
“It has been a very slow build for us, and perhaps it’s better that way because I’ve seen what can happen in this industry to those instant success stories. We sell a steady amount of records very quietly and we tend to keep our fans from one album to the next.”
Garvey is aware of the distance between the critical acclaim and commercial sales, but adds that it’s irrelevant to Elbow’s musical vision.
“There can be no compromise. We’re not going to do music we don’t believe in for mon- ey. We stick to our guns but we’re not awkward about it. We do radio edits, we do pop videos. It just seems that we are at a certain level and that really isn’t going to change that much. It’s not really a case of building up from each album for us; every album we put out is the very best we could do at the time.”
Elbow’s new album, Seldom Seen Kid, is another coruscating collection. From the truly startling opener, Starling, to the almost Led Zep sounding Grounds for Divorce and the crooner style of The Fix, it’s perhaps the band’s most intense work to date.
“We wanted to make a really personal, really dramatic album,” says Garvey. “There’s an awful lot in this, and the whole album is written in a pretty linear way. From the first song the main themes emerge. I really did put a lot of myself into the lyrics, but that’s always been the way with me. I’ve think I’ve sacrificed a few relationships over the years because of this band. It can be very all-consuming.”
Although loath to single out one new song, Garvey does mention that The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver is a personal favourite. “It’s a sort of everyman story about how empty the lives of the outwardly successful can be. It could be a theme for the album. Like a lot of the songs, it’s easy to sing because the music is so evocative. It’s something that’s important to us, the music having that sense of conviction. We may not take ourselves that seriously, but we do take the music seriously.”
For The Fix, the band summoned Richard Hawley to add vocals. “We met him first when we were on the same bill as him at some show in Tennessee,” Garvey says. “We just got on with him from the very first moment. He’s a seriously talented artist, and he got his vocal part done in less than an half an hour, which we all found amazing. Hopefully, there’ll be some more duets in the future – I’ve got my eye on Björk and Jane Birkin.”
Elbow are a rarity in today’s download climate in that they are a real “album” band. Garvey believes this is why their profile remains relatively low. “The singles chart does dictate what gets played on radio, and singles have never really been our forte. But even now, a hit single doesn’t necessarily lead to big album sales. It’s a very changed environment. We remain an ‘album’ band and that might make us a bit old-fashioned, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Elbow are one of the few rock bands to tour Cuba (unlike other bands who have played there, they’ve done shows outside Havana). They weren’t too impressed by what they saw.
“We pride ourselves on the fact that we are the first-ever rock band to play a gig in a Cuban car park. It was a very strange experience. We found it to be the most beautiful country in the word, but music over there is still seen, I think, as something that can be a subversive force. We were out with some local hip-hoppers one night and they got taken away by the police in front of us. And I remember one guy who came to a show waving a Canadian flag and I explained to him that we were British, not Canadian, and he just said ‘it’s the only flag I have’. The whole idea of us touring there was as part of a cultural exchange – but, oddly, nobody travelled in the other direction.”
Coldplay’s Chris Martin once admitted that he “borrowed” from Elbow’s Grace Under Pressure track for the song Fix You, and many other bands have similarly been “influenced”.
“I knew Chris Martin was a fan,” says Garvey, “but I thought he might have volunteered the information before a journalist, who I believe was you, put it to him. There are other people out there as well, but you know, all music comes from somewhere and most things are a reappropriation of some sort.
“Mainly though, I’m just happy with the fact that we could be considered a musically influentially band.”
Elbow (from left): Pete Turner, Richard Jupp, Guy Garvey, Mark Potter and Craig Potter