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Blast off with a 'Rocket'

Mar 12, 2011 Elbow Bookmark and Share

Our Winter 2011 Issue (on stands until mid-April) features an interview with Elbow’s Guy Garvey. Below are bonus quotes from the interview that didn’t make it into the print article.

Late last year, Elbow‘s Guy Garvey narrated a BBC radio documentary about his hometown titled The Rainy City. As Garvey explains, it’s “about Manchester’s weather and the influence it may have had on the culture, industry, and the art that’s come out of this city.”

Elbow’s emotionally stark post-rock—typically downcast in mood; always in search of a silver lining—has always seemed like a soundtrack for Manchester’s umbrella culture. On its fifth album, build a rocket boys!, the city provided a different sort of influence on the music. Garvey recently moved from a city flat to the neat little rows of houses of his childhood neighborhood. The familiar environment, with its invisible codes of memory embedded on every street, unlocked a vault of nostalgia that inspired him to write the album’s lead single, “Neat Little Rows.”

“It’s to do with where I grew up and how I feel about the place,” says Garvey. “That’s really the centerpiece of the record.”

Musically, the album also sees Elbow returning to its roots. Garvey says that build a rocket boys! harkens back to stripped-down virtues of the band’s 2001 debut, Asleep in the Back. That’s very much true of stark songs such as “The Night Will Always Win,” “The River,” and “Jesus was a Rochdale Girl.” (In case you’re wondering, Rochdale is the name of a Manchester suburb.) But the new album is no retread. The band incorporates voices from the Hallé Youth Choir into a basket weave of vocals on the delightful pop song, “With Love.” An almost Klezmer music motif playfully darts around ascending chimes of guitar on “High Ideals.” And the epic opening track, “The Birds,” swirls around a pulsar-like keyboard figure before going supernova for the rousing outro. Throughout the album, Garvey’s uncommonly soulful voice is front and center.

The album, now available in digital stores, is released on CD in North America on April 21, just days after Elbow’s performance at the Coachella Festival in Indio, Calif. Under the Radar recently chatted to Garvey by phone.

You’ve made four great records so why do you think The Seldom Seen Kid became your commercial breakthrough album rather than any of the others?

I think it was a combination of things. We had a song [“One Day Like This”] that resonated with people that summer of 2008. So that really helped. We had an amazing early evening sun breakthrough [spot] at Glastonbury that was televised-that really helped us. And then we won all the awards it was possible to win, in this country [England], and that really helped. More than anything else, I think it was a combination of a big positive record-celebrating love and friendship-and having a great record label who got behind the music and made sure people knew it was out there. That hadn’t happened in a little while. A team effort, and a lot of good luck, is the answer to your question.

Over the past two years, have there been any anecdotal moments where you realized just how big Elbow had become?

I guess how often I am recognized in different cities now. The song [“One Day Like This”] has been used in everything from the British coverage of The Olympics to our World Cup Soccer. All that lets you know how much more popular we are than we were.

After all the accolades and attention, did you feel much pressure to create the follow up to The Seldom Seen Kid?

Funnily, no. We wanted to make sure that the album we came back with this time wasn’t just another dead-cert., commercial, 10 big songs you’d hear on the radio. We wanted to continue what we’ve always done, which is to make the best record we possibly can. To write about what we’re feeling and thinking about. It’s a much more diverse album than The Seldom Seen Kid. It’s a different record altogether, which some people will like, and some people won’t. But, first and foremost, we like to consider the people who have always followed us.

Am I correct in thinking that you went to Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios in Bath to record?

I actually just went down to write lyrics. It’s such an idyllic beautiful place and it’s very reasonably priced. It’s a great spot for anyone in the world to come and work in. Peter came around for a cup of tea, which I was honored by. He’s a lovely man.

Peter Gabriel recorded a version of Elbow’s “Mirrorball” for his Scratch My Back project and you, in turn, recorded “Mercy Street.” Did he give you any feedback about your cover version?

He was so complimentary, it was truly humbling. He loved it. And that was really the blueprint to this record in terms of the sound of that song. I wanted to make it as minimal as possible. I wanted to draw attention to the themes of the song and how strong the melodies are, as well. It’s very difficult for me not to sound like Peter Gabriel because I was such a huge fan of his music growing up that part of his sound is engrained in me. So I didn’t bother trying not to!

Similarly, when I heard the orchestral arrangement of “Mirrorball,” the arrangement was just fantastic. To hear one of your heroes singing your material like that was really very moving.

What can we expect musically and lyrically from build a rocket boys?

There’s lots of subtlety, lots of natural sounds. It probably has ‘special effects’ on it than any other record we’ve ever made. Lyrically, it’s a very, very broad theme. I’ve moved back to an old neighborhood of mine. I’ve always lived in Manchester but my partner and I consciously moved closer to our folks because they’re getting older. Moving back to that neighborhood reminded me of my childhood and it made me consider how my priorities have changed recently just very naturally. And all the positive and negative feelings that come with that. The album is very much about my experiences of becoming a man and how, even with a not particularly troubled childhood, that can be quite confusing and difficult.

I’ve been interviewing my father a lot about his life. He’s in his 70s. I’m considering the fact that I’m in early middle age, in my mid 30s. My priorities have changed.

Any love songs on the album in the vein of “Mirrorball”?

There’s only one love song on the album and it’s called “The Birds.” It’s about the last encounter of a failed love affair. And this guy’s reminiscing. There’s a reprise on the record and we got a local actor called John Mosley, who’s in his 80s and used to be a piano tuner here in Manchester at the school of music. (He was responsible for maintaining the precise tuning of a 160-odd grand pianos.) So we got him to sing a reprise of “The Birds” with a youth choir and that’s worked terrifically.

I heard a 2008 interview in which you said you were writing a song to sing as a duet with Jesca Hoop about an old couple looking back on their lives—is that song going to be on the album?

Jesca’s busy producing another record over here and we haven’t had time that a project like that deserves. It’s still on the backburner. But she’s making a terrific record. Her stuff goes from strength to strength.

You famously encouraged Jesca to relocate to Manchester and the move seems to have saved her career. She’s doing very well in the U.K. and she met her partner through you. You changed the girl’s life, didn’t you?

It was one of The Watson Twins that turned me on to Jess’s music. Meeting her has been so inspiring for me as well, we’ve become such good friends. So Leigh Watson is to thank for the whole thing. I can’t eulogize about her music enough. It’s changed the way I think about writing. She lives in three places at once. She lives in her dreams, she lives in this world, she lives in her memories. And she weaves them together in such a unique way. It’s so rich and deep.

It’s the biggest damning illustration of failures in the music industry that she hasn’t had a lot of money and support thrown at her. Half of the population of the world are women and they, particularly, would benefit from listening to her. She’s a zeitgeist heart and she’s a noble old soul, too.

Elbow recently did a cover version of U2’s “Running to Stand Still” for charity and you were the support act on a couple of dates of their current tour. Did you hear their take on your version?

That’s right, Wembley stadium and Sheffield stadium. They were absolute gentlemen. Whenever we’re in Ireland, if they’re not in town they send a case of Guinness and some champagne. They’re real ambassadors for their part of the world.

You seem to relish discovering new bands and artists for your BBC 6 Radio show, which is available online for U.S. listeners, and you invite listeners to submit recommendations. I imagine that must feed your artistic inspiration when you write music.

The most wonderful thing is the recommendations. I don’t do requests, but people can submit recommendations. I get all the new releases and I get at least 30 recommendations a week. It’s a real filtering process. I usually pick three or four recommendations per show. It’s expanded my record library. I used to consider that I’d fall in and out of love with music. I sometimes go through periods of not listening to anything. What the show’s done for me is brought my attention to so many wonderful lost tracks and so much great new stuff that it feeds me.

This time, more than any other record, we’ve been bringing music in to each other and playing to each other and saying, “This is what I love about that song.” Just to communicate more effortlessly with each other on our own material. Everything from Red House Painters to Jolie Holland to Joan As Policewoman to Fredo Viola to Jesca Hoop. Jolie Holland is fantastic. I recently found out that it’s one of Tom Waits’ favorite albums. That’s high praise, isn’t it?

That’s great to hear because some artists reach a point where they stop listening to new music and you can hear it in their work because they stop growing.

I strongly believe that most people write the same songs over and over again and they morph and they change naturally. The more input you have, the more the songs change. It’s rare that you have a band that’s been together as long as Elbow. We’ll have been writing songs together for 20 years in June. We’re very different people now than we were 20 years ago. But you can still hear threads in the music. You can still hear us trying to get to where we are now. I know it’s a cliché, but I really do think this is the record we’ve always been trying to make.

You and Jimi Goodwin of Doves have often talked about a musical collaboration. Will that ever come to fruition?

We’ve got some files floating between the two of us and have done for a while. Jimi’s going to concentrate on his house for a little while. He’s going to do some nesting. But we’re very good friends. We’re both nature lovers and we both like to drink. I think what will happen is that we’ll hit on the right idea. That guy has got a dynamo in his soul when he gets an idea. I’m hoping to get something together over the next 12 months. Whatever we do, it will be art for art’s sake and nothing else.

You both enjoy bird watching, don’t you?

Yes. I’ve got to tell you this story. Do you know Richard Hawley?

Sure, he’s the singer/songwriter who appeared on The Seldom Seen Kid.

Richard is a very good friend of mine. He phoned me up the other day and said, “You, of all people, are really going to appreciate this. I woke up this morning and there was 30 guys with telephoto lenses on my lawn. I started flipping through my rolodex of past sin and thinking, ‘Which fucking skeleton’s tumbled out the closet?’ I ran downstairs and told my wife and kids, ‘Stay away from the curtains, I’m going to call my lawyer.’” His wife said, “They’re not here for you.” There was a cloud of Waxwings, which don’t roost every year in the British aisles, in the tree of his garden. I found this hysterically funny. Then he said, “They weren’t paparazzi, they were flaparazzi!”


(To read more of our interview with Guy Garvey, look for the current issue of Under the Radar, now on newsstands.)


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