A Sense of Wonder:
Elbow Celebrates Love with a Capital L
Although they didn’t take the name until 1997, the founding lineup of Manchester, England band Elbow was essentially intact for some 25 years, from 1990 until early 2016. Then last January, drummer Richard Jopp announced his departure from the group, to date the only notable chink in their all-for-one armor. But instead of letting it cockblock ‘em or bog them down, the subtraction prompted a reinvigoration of sorts.
Recorded with session drummer Alex Reeves (who played on Elbow lead singer Guy Garvey’s 2015 debut solo album Courting the Squall), Elbow’s seventh studio album, Little Fictions (out now through Concord Records) stands out as their most upbeat, “joyful” (the band’s summation), expansive and affecting record in ages. Clearly, many agree. While the group (which also includes bass guitarist Pete Turner, guitarist Mark Potter and Mark’s brother Craig on keyboards) remains an underground sensation in the States, with a smallish-but-fully-devoted following, in Great Britain and throughout Europe, Australia and elsewhere they’re kind of a big deal. Little Fictions has already topped charts in England, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand and the Netherlands – their second consecutive album to do so in the UK.
Fresh approaches to rhythm/beats/groove are subtly apparent in new songs like “Kindling,” “Firebird & Angel” and “Gentle Storm,” the video for which is a recreation of Godley & Crème’s “Cry.” (Kevin Godley directed and briefly appears in Elbow’s remake, which along with the band also features Garvey’s wife Rachael Stirling, brother Marcus Garvey [the British actor, not to be confused with the long-deceased black nationalist shit-stirrer] and, er, Benedict Cumberbatch.) The comforting chorus of the sweeping opening track “Magnificent (She Says),” which like much of their work could be snuck onto any Peter Gabriel compilation without anyone doing a double-take (a connection Gabriel himself has acknowledged, in a way), sets a reassuring mood that the remainder of the album stirringly fulfills: “It’s all gonna be magnificent.”
In addition to the positive vibes surrounding the album, Garvey and Stirling, who married last summer, are expecting their first child, which has very likely just arrived as you’re reading this. In the midst of preparing for a string of UK tour dates (and his 43rd birthday), Guy was generous enough to submit to some invasive questioning…
Can you tell us a little bit about how you guys got together? It’s been a while.
“Well the boys have known each other since school. And I met them just after we left school. School leaving age in the UK is about 17, or 16. I met them at sixth form college. Mark heard me sing in the common room, the student area. And he asked me to join his band. Our first rehearsal we played a couple of rock ‘n’ roll classics, because 12-bar is pretty easy to nail. The introduction to the Simple Minds tune ‘Don’t You Forget About Me.’ We couldn’t get past the introduction – we weren’t skilled enough to do the rest of the chords to the song. But it’s a pretty explosive intro. So, ‘No Particular Place to Go,’ ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!,’ that kept us going long enough on that first rehearsal to convince us to do it for a living. Ten years later, we got our first record deal, when we’d acquired some skill! And we’ve been together ever since.”
Your first deal was with Island, in the midst of a ton of craziness going on in the music industry in the late ’90s, and they dropped you before releasing the album. You ended up going over to Ugly Man Records and releasing a series of EPs…
“EPs inspired specifically by the band Ride, who I’m really happy have reformed in recent years. Many people will tell you that Ride were sort of Jesus and Mary Chain lite. But they were a bit more than that. They explored what could be done with bass, drums and guitar a little more sonically. It kind of weirdly led us [to] the Smashing Pumpkins’ most iconic records. Alongside that we were playing lots of Talk Talk. I don’t know, it’s really weird – we don’t sound like any of our influences bar me sounding a bit like Peter Gabriel. And often Paul Buchanan from the Blue Nile. Other than that, we don’t sound like what any one of us listens to, I don’t think.”
Well, I love EPs too.
“Yes, the EP as a format. The ‘B-side’ always fascinated [me]. The B-side was always something hidden, like a bonus. And then the EP, it’s more of a release than a single with a B-side. The EP really came into its own with the dawn of CD. And 12-inch supported it really well, but really the EP was about a start to the 20-minute listening experience. I think, to this day, most people only listen to an artist for 20 minutes. Whether that’s your average commute or just the way your day’s organized … I reckon the vast majority of people won’t do a full album end to end. We know the modern album length is decreed by what you can fit on two sides of vinyl and then the 73 minutes that you could fit on a CD. And all of these things, there are no rules, but we know when an album’s too short and we know when an album’s too long. The EP, its own rules sort of came around it. It was an individual listening experience.
You’ve got a lot of things going on in your personal life. You’re now married, you have a baby on the way. You must be freaking out.
“I’m not freaking out. To be honest with you, the closer it gets the more excited I get. The timing’s not great. The baby’s due not long after we finish our UK tour. When I say not long, it’s like within days. But me and my wife have been enjoying nesting and getting ready. And actually, there’s a lovely bubble happened, and it’s just… I don’t know… I spend my life trying to tap in to wonder. That’s, I think, the best you can have in response to a film or music, or a picture, or whatever. A sense of wonder. And, my God, it’s in abundance in this scenario. When the little chap moves…it’s crazy. And your response to it’s crazy. It’s an amazing life experience, that, pretty much, five billion people have had before me currently alive on the planet. But it feels like I’m the first one. Well, that may be my wild egomania, my total Christ complex coming to the surface.”
No, I’m a father too, it’s the most amazing experience you’re gonna ever go through. You know what’s funny? I was reading … this was maybe three years ago, and I don’t know where I got this from … essentially you said you didn’t have any regrets about the past and that you enjoyed being single. When I read that I said to myself, “Well, those are famous last words.” ’Cause I was essentially in the same boat, where I had gotten to the point where I was just enjoying being single and then, boom, I met my wife. What was it like when you met Rachael? Tell us a little bit about that story. Because a lot of your songs are about your life and your love.
“Yeah. In short, she made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I don’t know, it’s a weird one. I was in one state of mind. It’s not like she came in to the whole thing wanting a family life. She’s more rock ‘n’ roll than me by far, and we’ve both had our own way for a long time. Think of the many interpretations of that phrase, ‘had our own way’ – we really fucking did for a long time. And, getting together and deciding to do some pretty big serious life stuff… I don’t know… I’m 43 before my baby’s born and learning new stuff all time. Learning new stuff all the time. It feels like a… yeah, I did really, really well. I did really, really well. I’ve got both my dream jobs. I’m in my favorite band and I’m a DJ on my favorite radio station, and then suddenly I meet this woman and decide to try something completely new. And actually, I wouldn’t use the phrase ‘young again’ – it doesn’t make me feel young again, but it’s certainly put all my tendrils on end again. There’s something amazing about uncharted territory when it’s to do with your own emotions and you’re own experiences. And real risk. It’s not something you can fuck up, what I’m about to do. I’ve been comfortable for a long time. I’ve never felt… well, I have felt as alive, but not for a long time! I’m just very excited.”
I have to ask about your mother-in-law. Very famous actress, Diana Rigg, best known for her role in 1960s TV series The Avengers as “Emma Peel.” What’s that like, having her in your life?
“She’s an amazing person. My thing with Diana is trying to get stories out of her. Because she’s never kissed and told, she’s never published a memoir, or anything like that. She considered it beneath an actor of her standing. She takes her jobs very, very seriously. Her and Rach have an amazing, hilarious, irreverent rapport and she’s just a great person to be around. Like her daughter, she’s a wellspring of good vibes.”
How did you get your start at the BBC?
“Well, Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley were on Radio 1 when we did our first EP for Ugly Man, so our very first release. There was the Noisebox EP (1998) but our first actual general release was with Ugly Man. Mark Radcliffe had been on the label through the lovely Guy Lovelady – real name – who runs Ugly Man Records. He’d been on Ugly Man with one of his bands when he was a kid, so he gave our CD a spin. Then the two of those, Radcliffe and Riley, supported on us on national radio every day that week. They played the full version of song ‘Newborn,’ which is seven minutes long. They played it every day on national radio. And every day we never knew whether they were going to play the single edit or the full tune. And every day they pretended they were playing the single edit and actually played the full tune.
“And then, Marc Riley came over to [BBC Radio] 6 Music when it started. I won’t bother going in to the different formats, but, DAB radio in the UK is similar to satellite, it’s a separate format and therefore a bit freer. So, Riley had a show on 6 Music, and when he goes on holiday he offers musician friends to take over for him. I said I’d love to have a go, and realized it was more difficult than I thought. It wasn’t as simple as sitting down in front of a microphone and playing records.
“Then a guy called Mike Walsh – who ran XFM in the UK, which is another alternative radio station like 6 – offered me a full time gig. He wanted me to do a daily show at XFM and I said, ‘I’ve got a full time job in Elbow.’ So he offered me a weekend show. I did it on XFM for years, but really the BBC and 6 Music, that’s the station I tune to. I’m pretty proud of the BBC, with all of its shortcomings and it’s very difficult to change anything at the Beeb, but I’m really very proud to be on the BBC. I’ve been there for 10 years now. I’ve had a Sunday show for 10 years.”
Did you ever get to meet up with John Peel?
“I met him once, about 15 years ago or something, 16 years ago. I was dating Edith Bowman, who was a Radio 1 DJ here in the UK, and we were backstage at a festival. Our very, very first release was called the Noisebox EP and it sold something like 50 copies, ’cause we were pressing them one by one in my manager’s office. And we sent one to John Peel. Every year at Christmas John Peel would do the Festive 50, which is his favorite 50 tunes of the year, and he included ‘Powder Blue’ which went on to be on our first [album], in his Festive 50. Which was amazing for us, an unsigned band in Manchester. It was just indescribable. And I remember exactly to the word what he said when he played it. At the end he said, ‘That’s Elbow, it’s out on Soft Records, it’s called ‘Powder Blue,’ and in a year or two I’ll be eligible to wear powder blue slacks, which is something I’m looking forward to a great deal.’”
“So, I’m backstage with Edith and I saw him, and I was like, ‘Jesus Christ there’s John Peel.’ And she says, ‘Would you like me to introduce you?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ And she was like, ‘Why?’ And it was like, ‘Because, I’ll fuck it up, he’s a god!’ Anyway, she introduced me to him and I managed to thank him. He was very warm and very lovely, and to be quite honest with you I’d drunk an awful lot of cider so I can barely remember what he said. And actually, if I’d been sober as a judge I’m not sure I’d remember what he said, because all I could think was, ‘Fuck me… John Peel.’”
I’m paraphrasing, but you’ve said that you find happiness inside a song while performing but also while listening to someone else sing. What was it like when you first heard ‘Mirrorball’ covered by Peter Gabriel?
“That was ridiculous! It was like the work that had gone in was the first thing. So, if you’re looking at an impressive building for the first time, it’s the size that hits you first. And then the intricate detail was so utterly humbling. ‘Mirrorball’ is one of our best songs and I started it in a flat in Manchester in 2003 on a guitar and the piano melody I wrote on an acoustic guitar. The reason the harmony works like it does is because I intended to double track the first melody you hear and I played it in the wrong place and found that lovely harmony. That led Craig to the rest of the song musically. It was the first time I deliberately went after a classic lyric structure in terms of throwing images together with a punchline, if you like. You made this one thing, you made this another thing. Just pure simple childlike visuals. The fact that it was Peter himself that went for that reaching vocal … A dream come true.”
Can I ask you a couple quick questions about songs on your new record? “All Disco” was inspired by something Frank Black said to you?
“Yeah. He said it off his cuff and in jest. But at the same time, he was aware of his status in my eyes. Only the day the before I’d met him for the first time. We were all up in Lynchburg, Tennessee making some money out of Jack Daniels, by performing together with people we really admired. Really great set up. I was introduced to him as Charles, his real name, and I couldn’t look at him. He’s such a hero of mine. I think he sensed what was going on, and a few minutes later he came across the room. I said, ‘Hello, big fan.’ But I really had no chat. Then a few minutes later he came back across the room, and he said, ‘Dear Guy, my wife would not forgive me if I didn’t have my photograph taken with the lead singer of The Elbows.’ And I thought, ‘You beautiful gentleman liar.’ What a lovely thing. He was obviously just trying to put me at my ease. Never heard of the band, but trying to put me at ease. I’ve spoken to him a good few times since then, but it stuck in my head, the old disco line. I was asking him where he was going to, genre-wise, next and he said something along the lines of ‘hard rock, punk, blues…it’s all disco.’ Which I just thought was amazing. And it stuck in my head.
“The whole mention of the ‘27 Club’ makes me violently angry. It’s nothing other than a tragedy. And I was trying to write a song about that. And then I thought rather than writing a song that betrays my anger on the subject, why don’t I be a bit more Charles about it and write a song that lets people know that it’s okay to take a step back from the heat of your own desire to create. And hopefully that happened. It sounds more like an anthem then a funeral march to me.”
Do I hear Lee Dorsey’s influence on “Kindling”? I heard you play Dorsey’s “Working in the Coal Mine” on your BBC program recently and I also heard Elbow’s cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” from 2005, which both have a similar kind of sound. Do you hear that?
“That clunking chain gang sort of vibe, is that what you mean?”
“That hadn’t occurred to me actually, but now that you mention it, totally. It was a tentative start. We dropped a bag of firewood in order to start. We had no drummer for the first time. Our old friend was missing. It was like, what do we do? And somebody started banging things, wandering around the room knocking things over. I think it was Pete dropped a bag of firewood and they made that loop. That’s why we ended the record with it. Because, I suppose – quite aside from the romance of the lyric, which is all about me commuting between Manchester and London to be with my now wife – in terms of the band, it felt right to finish the album with a song that started it. The fact that my old mates with a load of whiskey inside them throwing firewood around can then meet the Hallé Orchestra, the oldest professional orchestra in the world, it’s just the best thing about my job, in a nutshell.”
You wrote a happy album. It almost sounded like you felt guilty about it in some ways. You’ve also talked about 2016 being considered a “bad year.” From a music standpoint we lost David Bowie, we lost Leonard Cohen…
“I’ve always got a big bank of lyrics kicking around, the boys have always got the odd riffs. But for the first time ever we sat down and we said, ‘Let’s make a record that’s uplifting and positive and full of hope.’ Because hate is on the march, hate is on the rise. People’s little prejudices are becoming huge, huge movements of hysteria and chaos. It’s a terrifying time. We’re not known for our protest songs. We’re not known for an angering song. We’re known for uplifting positive songs about love and friendship and kindness, and what people can do when they get together. We thought rather than take a stand and punch the air we’d offer people a little bit of a safe haven. To let them know that there are plenty of people out there who are full of love and acceptance and want things to move forward.
“I’m not worried actually. I’m actually endlessly optimistic, and not foolishly. I’m very, very politically aware and engaged. But, I thought the best thing that we can do as a band, and the rest of the boys feel the same way, is offer an uplifting album that reminds people they’re not alone in thinking that this madness is wrong. The best way of protest we could think of was by doing something we’re quite well known for doing to the best of our abilities. Which is say, ‘Wow, can’t believe we’re here and alive and doing this stuff. Can’t believe we’re given these opportunities. Let’s celebrate them together.’ Love with a capital L from now on.”
Photo by Andrew Whitton.