Elbow - Guy Garvey on Spirituality, Avoiding Fist Fights, and the Band Moments He’s Most Proud Of

Taking Stock of Things

May 09, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Nearly 20 years after the release of their independent debut EP, Elbow's frontman Guy Garvey still talks about music like a child on holiday. The very act of creation has retained its magic over the course of the band's seven studio albums, and even with multiple plates spinning in the present, Garvey is still enamored by the songwriting process.

With a greatest hits project (fittingly titled The Best Of) in the rearview mirror, we recently sat down with Garvey to ask about the band's longevity, the rules he follows when writing, and finding an unexpectedly large fan base in Mexico City.                                                                                                                                                      

Matt Conner (Under the Radar): You've reached the "best of" stage, where you've had the chance to make several statements on several albums. How is it to write from a place of eldership, so to speak, having had many chances already get something off of your chest, musically speaking?

Guy Garvey: In my studio, there are two pieces of paper. One of them is right in front of my eye. It's on my studio monitor stand shelf right at eye level, and it says, "What do you want to hear next?" The other piece of paper I have up is a John Lennon lyric, "When I cannot sing my heart, I can only speak my mind." My mom always left physical notes for herself all around the place, and sometimes they were just day-to-day shopping lists and things to do. But quite often, a note would remain on the wall for many years and get yellowed and be replaced several times, curl up near the toaster or something.

My mom's a Christian, and what they called a charismatic Christian back in the day. She's very community-conscious and active and full of joy. She preferred the word spiritual to religious. She's also hilarious and very, very well read. Anyway, in front of the toaster, there was a sign that said, "Slow me down, Lord." It was a daily reminder to her to take stock, keep calm.

My two little reminders to do with my writing are the golden rules. All you have to do is what you want to hear next, and if you love music, and if you love other people's music, and if you love words, then it makes it all simple. It boils down this huge amorphous blank canvas kind of mentality that you have when you sit in a chair with a beautiful piece of music crafted by your best friend and you have to put words to it. The only thing you need to remember is write what you want to say next.

Is there a spirituality that sort of roots the music, or is part of the music-making process for you? 

Well, I realized recently when somebody very, very close to me was very, very ill what I believe. Because I was brought up a Christian, but I haven't considered myself a Christian for well over half my life now. But I realized in the desperation of prayerand it was the absolute desperation, I don't want to go into the details because it was just horrificI found myself saying God, all the gods, anything anybody's ever believed in, every proton of good will that's forced the universe to change for the better, spare me a few scraps here, for this person I love.

I suppose in that, you can't dispel somebody else's belief on account of not agreeing with them, because even if you don't believe in anything spiritual, any higher power, you don't have the right to take that away from people. And religion causes all kinds of bad things, of course it does. But it also gives people will, positive will. Martin Luther King said in a letter that he was a Christian before he was a black man, and it was his faith in Christ that gave him the impetus and strength to do what he did, knowing where he was going with it.

I don't believe in a deity. I don't believe in a physical embodiment or a creature. I believe in will because I see the effects of it all around. I believe in lives spent sharing and lives spent moving positively and thinking about people afterwards and doing it because it's right. In a nutshell, I believe in positivity. I believe in people. I believe in good will, and there are all kinds of energy that we're not aware of.

I'm not somebody who reads auras or believes in ghosts, any more than I'm a Christian or a Muslim, but I read atmospheres. I read atmospheres in a room. I always have. You walk in and you feel a prickle because a character's there that you shouldn't trust. It's probably an extension of my natural cowardice where physical violence is concerned. I've managed to not get punched my entire adult life. In fact, when I was in charge of a nightclub in Manchester for four years, there was never a punch thrown on my watch, because I could spot the problem makers before they could cause any trouble.

When there's a best of release, do you find yourselves reflecting as a band on the accomplishments along the way

It's a truth that when we're together, we fit like we always did. [Richard] Jupp not being there took some getting used to, but it has changed. It made me more keenly aware of who and just what is in the dynamic after 20 years or whatever it is. We all realized some time ago that we've spent probably about 7 or 8 years making music and touring it. The other 20 years have been spent trying to make Pete Turner laugh, because he's just the most positive person you've ever met. We love making him laugh because we all love him. He's our baby.

I'll give you an example, right? So we're going to the States, and we've got to have new pictures done for our visas. We all, of course, waited to the last minute. Hadn't thought of bringing them to the American visa place. I go to the photo booth in Manchester, and there's a sign telling me not to smile. And it's something to do with photo recognition. It says something like, "Save your smiles for the holiday snaps." It's a government issue. I thought, George Orwell, in his darkest mood, would have considered that a step too far, a government-sanctioned poster saying, "Don't smile." So not surprisingly, my visa photos are incredibly angry. I look really angry. I thought I had a great poker face, but I don't.

I showed them to Pete, and he showed me his, and he's trying not to laugh. I said, "Pete, you're trying not to laugh in these photos." And he went, "Well there was a sign in the photo booth telling me not to smile." And I thought, "With the exact same stimulus, you're having a much better time than me." As far as a Best Of, it's just amazing. It seems somehow weirdly timely, particularly with looking back on the first album without [Richard] Jupp. It is sad. He is a great drummer, and he's doing more great work with Rogue Emperor, etc.

How much does making music today feel like it did in the beginning?

Well, there isn't the same arguing, wailing, gnashing, endless insisting your point being the right point. We just rowed for 10 years about over what should happen next. Like storming out rows. That doesn't happen anymore. There's intense discussion, but it doesn't get personal. At the same time, that was an incredible passion.

I remember the first time we played as a band at St. Anne's Church hall when we were all 17 and Craig [Potter] was still at school. Craig was 15. We were playing a song and when we stopped at the same time, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that we'd coordinated ourselves to the point where we could play a song and know exactly where it ended. [Laughs] And that feeling was the spark of the buzz.

Today, I've just moved house and I set up my speakers and I put the same record I always put on when I set up my hi-fi. It was put in storage for a year. I put Talk Talk's New Grass on the speaker as the sun went down, and my wife was on the stairs playing with our son, and I just bathed in the sound. Just got lost in the moment. I'm so passionate about other people's music, and consider it such an honor to be able to add to that great big beautiful cloud that is all music.

If you were to look back, musically speaking, what are you most proud of?

It varies different days. The fact that people still get married to our biggest hit, "One Day Like This," I literally met somebody last night that got married to it. It's just become a staple here in the U.K. and abroad. That makes me very proud. And there are individual songs, the show we did with the BBC Philharmonic when we played the whole of Seldom Seen Kid in 2018. I loved that.

I played Mexico City for the first time at the end of our U.S. tour just a couple of months ago, and there being 90,000 kids there choosing to sing along, more like a football match, just getting into music. Mexico City became our biggest Spotify city overnight. We just met a whole new audience that we didn't know were there. That was amazing. Electrifying. And I just found the Mexican people to be so coolso laid back and so warm and cool. I just loved it, loved the experience.

Then I was talking to my wife last night, after a few drinksI don't want you to think I talk endlessly about my songwriting achievements with my wife. In fact, there's no way in God's earth she would put up with thatbut I was talking about writing in our new place, in our new house, and sort of finding out how it is creatively for me. I remember finishing the chorus to "Lippy Kids." I was on my own at Real World Studios in the producer cottage. It was 3 in the morning. I thought, "I've got something really good." The rest of the boys were working on something else, but I was concentrating on words. And I finished it, and I listened to it, and I drank a bottle of red wine, and I listened to it again, and I distracted myself with some shit telly, and I listened to it again.

By this time it's 5 in the morning, and I'm pretty sure I've got something really special, something I'm really proud of, and I can't wait to play it the band and I texted them to say as much. Then the next morning, I sent the file, and we were due in the studio at 11, and 10 past 11, Skype went live and all four of them were applauding me. [Laughs] That was a really strong memory. Then I found out that Elvis Costello and his wife and their kids are really fond of that song. That made me dead proud.

With such a busy season over the last year or so, does that mean you'll take some time to yourself in 2018?

In a manner of speaking. My wife's doing some work in Canada, so I'm going to be in Vancouver for 3 months with our family, but I'll be writing remotely with Elbow, and I've got some other side projects I'm going to co-write going on with various people. I'm also starting a soundtrack company with Pete Jobson from I Am Kloot called Garson. We've got two major releases in the coming months that we're very, very proud of. So taking time to myself, no. I did get a PS4 for Christmas, but I don't think I'm allowed to take it to Vancouver.

www.elbow.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Full disclosure: this interview was done a few months back and is only now being posted for the first time due to various boring reasons.]

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