Elbow: A long-term joint venture

By Scott Kara

It's been quite a slog for British band Elbow, so, as singer Guy Garvey tells Scott Kara, success is proving sweet

Elbow got together as teenagers in the 1990s. Photo / Supplied
Elbow got together as teenagers in the 1990s. Photo / Supplied

Guy Garvey laughs when he thinks about the early days of his band Elbow. They were teenagers and in between playing songs at rehearsals they would still be play-fighting and wrestling each other.

"It was this thing we did for fun when we were 17, but the fact it's feeding and educating the lads' children these days is just a beautiful fairy tale really," he says sounding chuffed.

Though not on a Coldplay or Radiohead level, Elbow are a big band in Britain. And here they are playing two nights at the Powerstation on March 28 and 29 with the first night sold out - which isn't bad going.

But for Elbow, who first started out in 1990, making ends meet as a band took a while. Their story is a long and often depressing one with many years of hard work and gigging throughout the 90s not amounting to anything. Yet through it all, the original line-up of Garvey (vocals), brothers Mark (guitar) and Craig (keyboards) Potter, Richard Jupp (drums) and Pete Turner (bass) have stayed together.

"On the practical side we all find sleep deprivation very funny," laughs Garvey. "I think you have to if you're going to tour in a band for as long as we have. It's fun and exciting but it's also difficult if you're not cut out for it. We love all elements of it - we love the writing, the recording and the touring."

And it helps that they are good mates too. "It's just a lovely thing."

It's perhaps not surprising Elbow's early music never took hold. "We kind of played bad jazz funk initially," admits Garvey.

"It was kind of a vehicle for learning our instruments and it was great fun at gigs."

During this time, Garvey, who is an accomplished, poignant lyricist these days, didn't even bother writing words to their songs and would just improvise. "We were playing through such bad equipment that nobody could hear what I was saying so I didn't bother. It was just about the music."

But then they came up with a song called September Sometime ("about a heartbreak that happened") in the mid-90s and that was the first time their music began to sound like "something I would purchase and listen to".

"And that was the first song of ours that was in the direction that we were going to pursue. It made it feel tangible and achievable."

It would be a few more years before Elbow would really break through when their debut album, Asleep in the Back, from 2001, was nominated for the Mercury Prize (Britain's premier songwriting award).

They didn't win but the Mercury people obviously have a thing for Elbow, with three of their five albums nominated for the prestigious award and 2008's The Seldom Seen Kid winning it.

Not much has changed for Garvey and his band mates though. He still lives in Bury, in greater Manchester, though he's moved into a house rather than a flat. "But I'm on the same street I lived on 10 years ago and I can see my old bachelor pad from the front door. I drink in the same pub. I've got slightly nicer shoes and more of them and that's about it.

"But," he continues, "then there is the absolute mind f*** of playing to people in arenas around the world. But then we get to have a normal life alongside this amazing situation."

And Garvey says with a laugh that he really knew he had made it when he found himself singing a duet with Black Francis on the Pixies song Cactus at a Texas music festival.

"If you told me that was going to happen to me that would blow my mind."

He's an affable and incredibly down to earth chap. He talks about everything from touching family tales about his grandparents ("They were incredibly romantically in love," he says proudly) to the influence of pioneering British band Talk Talk on Elbow ("I can't get my head around how brave they were. So delicate, so beautiful, so considered, but out-there experimental music.").

Latest album Build a Rocket Boys! from last year is the band's most elaborate and ambitious record to date. Or is it? "I don't know. There are less self-conscious songs on that record than any previous one. And it's got a much more well-rounded theme than any of the previous ones have had. We were exploring memories in the past lyrically, and again, sort of making the music as simple, and as much space as we could."

They break the eight-minute barrier on opener, The Birds, and it sets the tone for the album as it broods, smoulders and escalates in the beautifully melancholic Elbow style.

"I suppose you do write the same thing over and over again. I just think we got better at doing what we do and with a little bit of success you get a little bit braver."

Garvey used to think about making albums as having a mountain to climb - "that this is what is going to define us" - but not any more.

"We're more settled with who we are, and what people can expect from us, and we want our records to be like regular diary entries from now on, rather than every one of them being a career-defining thing," he chuckles.

The song Lippy Kids, which has the line "build a rocket boys" in it, deals with the idea of children growing up too quickly and this theme has been one of Garvey's major preoccupations over the years. "I suppose when I was writing the words to Lippy Kids I was initially writing to the kids hanging out on the corner, the statement 'build a rocket boys' - that's saying go and follow what ever you want to do and do as much of what you want to do before life's responsibilities become more apparent. But the main theme of the song is talking to people my age, to make sure you give the people coming behind breathing room and encouragement rather than treat them with suspicion.

"Because that magical time of getting more freedom and exploring who you are, and working out what you do for yourself, there is nothing more exciting."

And with that Garvey is off for a spot of wrestling and play-fighting with his band mates.

LOWDOWN

Who: Guy Garvey, singer and songwriter in Elbow
What: Quite, loud, bittersweet British rockers
Where and when: Powerstation, March 28 and 29
Listen to: Asleep in the Back (2001); Cast of Thousands (2003); Leaders of the Free World (2005); The Seldom Seen Kid (2008); Build a Rocket Boys! (2011)

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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