2012 could well be stamped with the tagline ‘Year of the reformation’. With the Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets and New Order all set to hit the road again, not to mention continued rumours of a possible Smiths reunion, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the time machine is stuck in reverse.
It could be considered against the odds then, that on a bitingly cold day I find warmth and hospitality in a Manchester recording studio to meet the frontman of a band who have not long celebrated their 20th anniversary. The band is of course Elbow, and the frontman in question, the ever affable Guy Garvey.
Over the next hour we will discuss; tough times, including record labels and the lack of them, the Olympics, how a gentlemanly request and a hatred for Frank Sinatra heralded a real change in fortune for the band, The Brits, top tips for singer songwriters, and much more.
‘You’ve had more problems with labels than most over the years and it’s been by no means an easy ride. So have Elbow ever come close to calling it a day?’
There’s a palpable pause and exhale of breath before Guy answers. “Probably the closest we got was when Jupp got his A levels, he would have gone on to university had he got the right results.
I remember he came into the Met café in Bury where we used to hang out looking f**king miserable because he’d not got what he needed to get into uni. I remember asking him what he’d got and he told me. The grades weren’t particularly great and I had to say, sorry mate, but I’m over the f**king moon.”
We’re both laughing and still happy it seems, that Jupp failed to get his A levels. But it wasn’t the answer I was expecting, so I ask again but what about your record label problems; did that not have an impact?
“I’m sure we’ve all individually wondered at times, but no one has ever been serious enough to say anything to each other. By the time the label problems started, we’d all been at it so long that there really weren’t any other options. We’d all dropped out of college to varying degrees, so we’d kind of burned our bridges really and it became do or die.”
“The other thing is, that the base line, the bottom of the graph as bad it got was still so much better than not doing it. It wasn’t for years that I realized that it’s so much more than just a choice of career. I mean, one of the band used to get so sick with nerves (I’m not saying who as it’s not gentlemanly) before we went on that he’d physically vomit. I mean why would you do it if that’s how it made you feel? It’s so much more than just a career, it’s a calling. He’s much better these days, but why you put yourself through that if you didn’t really love playing music.”
Ask a group of Elbow fans to name their favourite album and a hot debate is certain to ensue. So do you have a favourite Elbow album?
“I love them all equally and I really mean that. I’ve had my doubts about all of them at some point as well. After touring them extensively you can’t see the wood for the trees after a while, but that doubt is what keeps you going.
Seldom Seen Kid was such a success it took the band to a different league, were you surprised by the level of success or did you feel it was due?
“Well, we’d fully expected Leaders (‘Leaders of the Free World’) to go over the top, because of the title track more than anything, it had single written all over it. It’s so much more than just the quality of the record though. We didn’t have the right people or the correct amount of money pumped in to advertising, and as you know, it’s as much about the team around the band as the players themselves and indeed the album.”
“So we effectively ended up downing tools half way through the campaign because the record company wasn’t pulling their weight. It wasn’t out of laziness; they just got themselves into budget trouble and didn’t have any money to promote the record.”
“Soup (the Soup Collective) were here filming with us throughout the entire writing and recording of the album and shot an amazing film which was always going to be with it, that was the deal we’d done with V2 (the label). But V2 stiffed them on their pay, which created an argument between one of them and us. I’m happy to say we’re friends again now but it left a real sour taste in everybody’s mouth.”
This must have had a knock on effect on the ‘Seldom Seen Kid’ record?
“Well, the writing of Seldom was two and a half years of talking to our manager, who was talking to our lawyer trying to extract us from V2 and get us on to Universal, and it was f**king rough man.” So you started the album without a record label?
“Yeah, we finished the album without a label, because we told them that we wouldn’t play them a note until the ink was dry on all the contracts. It was a bold move, but it kind of showed us their dedication to the project.”
“It paid off, because we negotiated a great contract with fantastic people, who really work hard, who’ve individually won awards for their marketing campaigns. And they offered us an old fashioned deal (no live or any of that stuff), which is pretty much unheard of these days.”
“I think the key thing with ‘Seldom’ is, a phone call I got from David Joseph (head of the company) saying”; Please, please, please take this the right way. It’s a beautiful album, as good as any Elbow album I’ve heard, it will do you proud and we’ll get it out more people than have ever bought Elbow records before, but…. Have you got another song?”
The gentlemanly request (as Guy put it) resulted in the band’s biggest song to date ‘One Day Like This’.
“As it turns out it was a complete anomaly. Because Pete and Jupp were on tour with Stephen Fretwell playing as his backing band, Mark was in America with his wife, so it was just me and Craig in the studio. I said we’d give it two weeks and if we had nothing by then, we’d go with it as is. So Craig and I threw ten or eleven ideas together in quick succession and one of them was ‘One Day Like This’.
“Actually, because we were in a new situation, because I’d had a break over Christmas, because the band was very happy and I’d just fallen in love with Emma, it was really easy to write this unapologetically positive song. So yes, it was tacked on to the end of the record but I think it makes it balance very well, and of course it’s by far the biggest song we’ve ever had.”
I ask Guy If David Joseph has ever taken any of the credit for this happy accident? I’m told that “It’s down to his modesty that he never has” We also discuss how Guy feels about the song having become a staple at weddings, having (as best man) seen two brides walk up the isle to the song. The answer is one you might not expect.
“It’s brilliant, I get at least five or six people a week telling me the same.”
“Can I be completely honest with you? When I sat down to write the lyrics in the first place I used a Dictaphone, As well as using it for lyrics I quite often record my dreams. So I was sitting on the end of my bed (recording a particular dream), and the end of this dream was set at a wedding, and everybody was dancing to ‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra. That’s an idea! Let’s write a f**king song that replaces ‘My Way’, I f**king hate Frank Sinatra!” So that’s what you woke up to? Yeah, that’s what ‘One Day’ is.
And it’s not just weddings where the song has been prominent. You would have to have been living in a biscuit tin not to have noticed the stream of sporting events to which ‘One Day Like This’ has been synced. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Elbow were asked to pen the music for the BBC’s coverage of the London Olympics.
So were the band surprised to be offered the chance to write the music for the BBC’s Olympics coverage, and what can we expect from the piece?
“When we were asked to attend a top secret meeting at the BBC we guessed straight away, as you say, just because of all the syncs to sporting events ‘One Day’ had got. So we kind of knew what they were looking for.”
“The first thing is that I’m not singing on it, it would only be a distraction. Other than that, it’s a six and half minute piece of music with a driving beat, orchestra, choir and natural trumpet flourishes, very anthemic with different themes.”
When working on choral parts Guy found inspiration in a video call received from bassist Pete Turner.
“I got this video call from Pete and his wife of their daughter Martha taking her first steps. You could see in their faces how proud and excited they were, how much was invested in that moment, and that was it. I decided to call it ‘First Steps’. It sums up that spirit of achievement and will be something fantastic for Martha to look back on when she’s older”.
Speaking of success, the BRITS are coming up; so who do you think will win the (BBC Radio 2 promoted) Best British Group award?
“I have no idea, is it voted for? If it’s voted for the biggest band will win”. This statement is followed by a wry smile, but Guy will not be drawn on naming names.
And if you could give it to anyone?
There’s only slight pause for thought before Guy answers confidently; “I Am Kloot would get it of course, it’s the reason we still work with them. Me and Craig are producing their next album. Yes of course we’re friends and everything, but we’ve become friends over the years because they’re the best band in the country, so Kloot would get it.”
I know your 6 Music show is very close to your heart, so what is on the Garvey playlist at the moment?
“I’ve gone back to the ‘Blue Roses’ album from 2009 which is f**king awesome. I’ve been playing it because I’m wondering if she’s going to make a new record, which she really should. I really love Josh Pearson’s album from last year and the Malagrave’s album; it’s nice and easy with really good lyrics. I’ve just received a copy of the new Jessica Hoop album which is really floating my boat, in fact it’s astonishing. And I’ve been revisiting the ‘D Sides’ Gorillaz album which is fantastic. Last night though, I put on my massive bright red arctic explorers coat which Steve Fretwell brought back from New York for me. He was really pissed off because it took up most of his luggage space. Anyway, I put it on last night when I got in from the pub and lay on my bench in the freezing cold listening to Talk Talk, I f**king love em”.
Talking of new music (and old I guess), how do Elbow find the digital world, does the good outweigh the negatives?
“Yeah, because of the opportunities, it’s easier for more people to get their music out there than ever before. Also, it’s better for women in music. They were always encouraged at some point in previous years to exploit their sexuality. Now they can just be themselves and get their music out there un-edited.”
“It’s bad in the fact that if you’ve made a couple of good recordings of yourself it’s easy to assume that you know best, but you can always learn from somebody else. I mean. Jesus f**king Christ. If I’ve got any advice for singer songwriters, it’s think of a name that is not your name and DON’T DOUBLE TRACK YOUR VOCALS, it bleeds all of the character out of the song. Elliot Smith left us with a pretty sh**ty legacy on that front. It might sound nicer to the singer but you lose all the character from the voice. There are so many boys and girls with just an acoustic guitar out there, some of them with brilliant songs beautifully arranged. But there’s no character because they’ve double tracked the voice.”
“More than that; when you hear a performance of a song, and it’s always a performance, never a rendition. If you hear a performance with a nuance in the vocal, then that performance is for you. If you double track the voice it’s obvious to the ear that the nuance is rehearsed. That takes a moment in time and turns it on its head, it makes it manufactured…So don’t do it.”
Speaking of whether or not to do things, I can’t help coming back to where I started this piece and have to ask Guy how he feels about all the band reformations taking place.
So, the Stone Roses, Inspirals ’ and Happy Mondays, New Order to name a few. Good idea or not?
“I think it’s great….. There are times of course when it ruins it, when you say oh man you look terrible what are you doing? But sometimes it’s just like a gift from the gods. When the Pixies reformed they were better than they ever were. Arguably it was more punk back in the day, it was more out there, but the performances (post comeback) were f**king astonishing. So I’d have to say it is case specific.
I will say, if you do reform a band you have a duty to do it really well, to rehearse the absolute arse out of it. Who’s ever producing the ‘Roses’ tours will know that, so I think it’s marvelous. It will be a fantastic gig”.
It’s been a pleasant hour or so spent in Guy’s company, I even got to hear new material in the making as we discussed the ever changing and democratic way in which Elbow go about writing. The song is called ‘Cold Morning’ (working title), and in its formative stage I can safely say Elbow fans will not be disappointed should it make the grade for the bands 6th studio album due sometime next year. It’s time to bring things to a close but I can’t resist trying my luck with a final question.
Thanks for your time Guy… Is there anything you wished I’d asked you before I go?
“Do you know what; I’ve had that question before and never know what to say.”
Other than the sound of cogs turning in Guy’s head a silence descends in the room. It’s a silence that persists for some time. I tell him not to worry about it, but it’s the sort of thing that will bug you all the way home if you let it and he continues to look to the heavens. Then from nowhere and with a big smile etched on his face;
“Who’s the best shot in the band, who’s the best shot with a shotgun?”
After I confirm we’re talking about clay pigeons (well you have to be sure) I tell Guy to consider the question asked.
“It’s me! Of course it is (there’s much laughter), even with double clays, by a country mile, that’s why I wished you’d asked”
The laughter continues and it seems the perfect time to switch off the tape recorder and draw proceedings to a close.