Elbow’s elegant new album finds the Manchester band exploring themes of home, change and growing up. Alan Corr meets lead singer Guy Garvey and bass player Pete Turner
It is a bright sunny morning on the balcony of Dublin’s Gresham Hotel and two members of Britain’s most popular band are sipping coffee and trading wisecracks. Guy Garvey, even bigger than he sounds on record, is dressed in a plain dark blue coat of rough material that can only be described as factory floor chic while his childhood friend and Elbow bass player Pete Turner is in the casual designer uniform of the recently-successful rock band member.
Both share a wry Mancunian wit and both are justifiably but quietly proud of their band’s new album, build a rocket boys! It is a less polished affair than their 2008 breakthrough, The Seldom Seen Kid, and its gritted grooves recalls the slightly frayed edges of their excellent debut Asleep at The Back. Elbow have developed into a serious collective of musicians who play burnished, deeply mature music without any of the politeness that may suggest.
Build a rocket boys! is another collection of wide-eyed, emotionally candid songs from Garvey. It’s not rocket science but it continues to hit that rich vain of moist-eyed northern romance explored on Seldom Seen Kid. From Lippy Kids, a wistful trip down the backstreets of their hometown of Bury to the strange and unsettling imagery of the crackling Neat Little Rows, it really does make Garvey the new pop laureate.
Alan Corr: Guy on the basis of the songs on build a rocket boy! you’ve gotten more poetic as a songwriter. How much of this is an influence of your girlfriend Emma Unsworth who is also a writer?
“Oh god she’s love that! Hahahaha. I think it’s down to confidence really. If you’re going to write poetically you have to be open about all things – love, insecurity, everything. Actually, on the first album I didn’t use the word love once.”
Pete: “I remember thinking after our first album, how are we going to be able to make another one? We’ve got to this point where we’ve made five albums and now it’s just what we do, there’s a confidence that we can do it.”
Build a rocket boys! is a lot less polished than The Seldom Seen Kid. In fact, it reminds me a lot of your debut Asleep in The Back . . .
“We weren’t deliberately doing that but it makes sense given the subject matter of the record, writing about the past. We didn’t go into this record with any fear whereas with every other record a lot hung on it – if this one isn’t great, we’re finished. This time we thought we might get away with on that wasn’t as amazing as the others and that allowed us to relax and let things get stripped back.”
You’ve grown as musicians and you’ve gained confidence but as people are you still riddled with insecurities?
Guy: “Yeah. We’re always waiting for the comedy anvil to drop on us. We are living this amazing charmed life. Even before The Seldom Seen Kid’s success we’d been living off music for ten years and you’re always waiting for that to end because you’re not supposed to follow your dreams and we have.”
Peter: “There are new insecurities as well. We’ve all making families now and that brings a new set of doubts and a new set of things to balance. I feel sorry a bit for Guy because when we’re talking about baby things he must feel a left out because he doesn’t have any. When I first had my kid Martha I was so happy I really wanted Guy to have a kid so he could feel the same way.”
Guy: “Emma and I are planning a family. We’re all about that at the moment. We’ve got a house and we can see a couple of kids in it.”
The music you grew up with was quite menacing and aggressive whereas you seem to be much more thoughtful. Do you think you’ve taken the danger at of rock `n’ roll?
Guy: “That’s fine by us. We were talking about this when we were making this record – we never question a dramatic movement coming into a song, something coming crashing in and we think, where did we get that from? Why do we all love that? When we were younger we loved Soundgarden and The Smashing Pumpkins. The Pumpkins' album Siamese Dream is nothing but a collection of dramatic moments and we appreciate that as much as we appreciate real subtlety and melancholia.”
Sometimes I get The Blue Nile from Elbow and as a songwriter Guy, you remind me of Paddy McAloon . . .
Guy: Well that is the weirdest thing because I’ve just been playing Dublin by Prefab Sprout! I’ve been singing that song since I arrived here this morning.”
Dublin and Manchester have a lot in common but you’d have a totally different view of Manchester than that other son of both cities, Morrissey . . .
Guy: “I just appreciate all my friends and family and the music scene in Manchester. We’ve all chosen to stay living there and it’s got a great deal of character about it. It’s nice to belong to something and I think that’s why we joined a band in the first place. It’s as much about being in a gang as anything else.”
Pete: “It’s nice writing music in our studio as well because you look out at the window and you see Strangeways and what some people might see as quite a grotty backdrop, to us is beautiful. When the sun’s out it’s gorgeous.”
Have you know each other since you were kids?
Guy: “You lot grew up together didn’t ya Pete? I met the lads when we were 17. I remember the first time I met Pete. It was in a pub. I had met Mark and he said he had a band and would I come and sing for them. I said yes and that week was the last week of the first year of sixth form so I was 16 actually. I was in the pub and Mark came over and said, Guy this is Pete, the bass player in the band and I remember thinking cool! We’ve got a black guy in the band!”
Guy, you have five sisters and Pete you have three. How much of an influence were they?
Pete: “Their music was all over the place. There was dodgy things going round like Chicago but then my sister Lou got me into Japan and The Wedding Present and The Smiths. There was always good music and then Chicago. Hahaha.”
For you Guy, your older sister Becca was a big influence . . .
Guy: “Yeah. Because I was the first boy of five girls they all wanted me and my brother to have their music taste. It was only a little house with one hi-fi and I would be sat down and told to listen to everything from Motown to soul to punk and an awful lot of prog rock and singer songwriters as well. Becca’s influence was early Genesis, Yes, 10cc, a real crazy mix but then Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.”
You and your girlfriend Emma are both writers. Would you be hyper critical of each other’s work?
Guy: “Yeah. More checking that things work on each other – does this sentence work, do you know what I’m saying here? In the same way, I’ll try lyrics on her. Alongside the band she is quite a fierce critic and we also end up writing about the same things. She finished the first draft to her second novel recently which is about the daughter of an archaeologist. It’s called The Museum of the Heart and around the time I was writing Neat Little Rows she was talking to me about the first draft of that book. A lot of the images that were in my head were from reading her book.”
Is the line “I never perfected that simian walk” from Lippy Kids a reference to Liam and Noel or is that just how everyone walks in Manchester?
Guy: “Yeah it’s just how young boys walk, certainly in Manchester but I think everywhere. Hey Pete remember that young guy on Guest Row, that really tall young guy, used to wear his hair in a pony all the time? Well he was a very, very sweet kid from a very respectable Catholic family but he was walking Snoop from a really early age.”
So when you formed the band as teenagers did you start getting girls?
Guy: “I didn’t start getting girls until just before I met the band actually. I couldn’t believe that women found me attractive. I had plenty of girlfriends growing up but never a girlfriend. I had lots of girls phoning me for relationship advice but I wanted a snog!”
Pete: “I can trace my luck with girls back to the band. Why did I decide I wanted to be in a band? Hahahaha.”
Guy is meant to be the nicest man in music, the northern gent with the heart of gold. Pete, you really know what he’s like. Give us the dirt please . . .
Guy (in menacing voice): “Give him the right answer or you’re out of the band . . . “
Pete: “He is very much a gentle giant. There’s not an angry, horrible ego in the band at all. We disagree on things always but if you see that someone feels really strongly about something you’ll be patient and always let them figure it out. I would be naff and lame if we just agreed on everything.”
Guy: “We have pre-fixed comments like (clears throat), I can see from the way you’re reacting to what I just said that you’re taking this personally and I want you to know it’s not personal but it’s f***ing sh**!”
Pete: “What you do if you don’t like something somebody’s doing, you say something positive first and then you say but I think . . . You have to be like that or otherwise we’d fall out and wouldn’t want to be in the same room together.”
Guy, in the song Fugitive Motel from your second album album A Cast of Thousands you sing about being thousands of miles away from home. Before you made this new album you moved back to the area you grew up in and a lot of the songs are about your younger self. Was it homesickness or nostalgia?
“On that song I was enjoying being out in Texas and enjoying the romance of that motel. I loved Kerouac when I was growing up so I think I was just playing with that great lost America vibe. That was the first song I wrote about Emma actually so I was missing her and I certainly miss her when I’m away.”
You supported U2 a while ago. Did you get the Bono Talk?
Guy: “The Bono talk? What's that? Hahahaha. Well, he was very lovely to us. They all came up and they were very, very nice. We were big fans when we were in school and it was actually quite an emotional thing watching their show which was ridiculously impressive, more than a gig and hearing songs of theirs that made us want to be in a band. They were absolute gentlemen.”
The opening song on the album is called The Birds. Was Hitchcock an influence?
Guy: “I love birds me. I was writing that song in the countryside in Real World studios in Bath and there are so many birds around there and I needed a vehicle to describe a nostalgic thought about the last encounter of a doomed love affair and I thought what could trigger that memory on a regular basis and I thought if the character in the song considered the birds the only key to the secret because they’re the only witness to this moment of passion in a field. In a lot of mythology and poetry, birds inhabit people’s souls. I like the idea of an old man sitting in his bath chair looking at the birds and remembering a certain moment.”
You were in Real World which is Peter Gabriel’s studio. When Elbow’s first album came out a lot of people compared your voice to his and early Genesis were an love of yours. Did he come down and day hello?
Guy: “He dropped by for a cup of tea and I was absolutely over the moon. He has mentioned us in interviews and it makes absolute sense because Genesis records were my nursery rhymes (or Nursery Crymes – Ed).”
So you’re all hurtling toward 40. Have you totally calmed down or will you be out tonight in Dublin painting the town ochre?
Guy: “Yeeeaaaah. We’ll get the tv out of the way and we’ll have a few light ales. We’ll have a few in my hotel suite. The last time we were here (The Gresham Hotel) we wrecked it (which means they moved the tv a few feet to the left), Pete busted himself up the last time he was here.”
Pete: “I smashed my foot in. I got in the wrong elevator, a service elevator, and found myself in the basement and I couldn’t get out. The elevator left and wouldn’t come back and the only door up the stairwell was locked and I thought the only way I could get out was to do in the door, I had a few on me, and I smashed my foot. I woke up the next morning it was killing me. I’d torn a load of ligaments but it was great because we had another night here and I went on stage in crutches and got loads of sympathy.”
Build a rocket boys! is out now. Elbow play The o2, Dublin on Thursday, 31 March