With Elbow’s seventh studio album, Little Fictions, about to drop, recently-hitched frontman GUY GARVEY talks about his (slightly) healthier lifestyle, the departure of drummer Richard Jupp, the twin disasters of Trump and Brexit, and why his actress wife makes him feel naughty.
Fly Boy Blue. Or should that be No-Fly Boy Blue? It was gradually becoming something of a tradition that every time Elbow put out a new album, Hot Press would travel to Manchester for an exclusive playback in their Salford studio before retiring to nearby hostelry The Eagle (which the band nickname ‘The Downfall’) to do the interview over a pint or three.
Sadly, for various logistical reasons, that isn’t happening on the release of their seventh studio album, Little Fictions. Instead of buying me a drink in his local, lead singer Guy Garvey rings me at home shortly after 9am, while obviously still midway through his breakfast. “Good morning, Olaf!” the affable 42-year-old calls down the line, speaking through a mouthful of crunchy toast. “How are you, sir?”
“I’m fine, Guy… though it’s an ungodly hour for a rock ‘n’ roll interview.”
Guy guffaws as only Guy can. “Ha ha! I see all times of day!”
This is undoubtedly true. Obviously not a man to rest on his rock star laurels, Guy likes to keep himself busy. He’s been fronting Elbow for more than 25 years, but in recent times has started seriously multitasking. He has been presenting a successful music show on BBC Radio 6, Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour, for the last five years. In 2015 he released and toured a well-received solo album, Courting The Squall. Last year he curated the prestigious Meltdown Festival in London’s Southbank Centre (previous curators include John Peel, Yoko Ono, David Bowie and Nick Cave).
Amidst all of these extracurricular activities, following a relatively whirlwind romance, he also somehow found the time to wed actress Rachael Stirling of Tipping The Velvet and The Bletchley Circle fame. They’ve just bought a house in London, though given that his bandmates are all near neighbours, he intends to keep on his Manchester home as well.
“Being married is great!” he says, happily. “It’s like I don’t just think for myself anymore. I’ve got my family, my great big sprawling Catholic family. Then I’ve got Elbow, I belong to them as well, and now I’ve got this really exclusive two-member club that I’m in. Everything we do affects each other so you’ve got to think for both of you.
“And also, when you’re an adult and you don’t have a partner, which I was for three or four years, you can’t do anything wrong. Because everything you do is your own decision. Nobody tells you off! And then when you’re married, suddenly you feel naughty again. If there’s something you do that you said you wouldn’t, or if you forget to do something, or whatever. So it’s good. It’s a return to youth, being bollocked by my wife!”
Elbow’s last album featured a song called ‘Lunete’, which partly celebrated Guy’s unashamed love of fags and booze. Has he slowed his unhealthy lifestyle down since getting hitched?
“Yeah, I have… a bit,” he admits, reluctantly.
So you’re out jogging every morning?
“Never… in… this… lifetime!” he mock-firmly insists. “I would be letting sooo many people down. But I’ve swapped cigarettes for a Battlestar Galactica cigarette. I’m a vaper these days, and I don’t hit the whiskey as often as I would like. But I still had six pints of Guinness for my dinner last night. So yeah, everything in moderation, which in my world is maybe not somebody else’s idea of moderation, but there it is. It’s about slowing down in favour of longevity.”
He laughs again before continuing, “Actually, Dustin Hoffman said something very funny when he was asked what was the secret to a long marriage. He said (adopts Hoffman drawl), ‘The secret to a long and successful marriage is you’ve gotta be shit-scared of your wife’. And that’s where I am.”
He’s presumably not shit-scared of his bandmates, but Elbow have definitely enjoyed a very long and successful musical marriage. Although they only adopted that moniker in 1997 - originally they traded under the rather underwhelming name ‘Mr. Soft’ - Garvey began playing with schoolfriends Pete Turner, Mark and Craig Potter, and Richard Jupp while still attending sixth-form college in Bury. It took them many years of wandering the indie wilderness before 2008’s Mercury-winning The Seldom Seen Kid garnered them proper mainstream success, but it’s been all gravy ever since.
Their last album was 2014’s The Take Off and Landing Of Everything, which debuted at No 1 in the UK. It was their very first chart-topper. So although the expectations are high for Little Fictions, Guy isn’t overly concerned. After all, this is most definitely not Elbow’s first rodeo…
“It does get a lot easier,” he muses. “I don’t know, there’s a confidence by album seven, and also having a little break from the boys… because we had time off from Elbow, where I did my solo thing, and Craig produced a Steve Mason record, and Mark formed The Plumedores. We had a bit of time off so we were really, really happy to see each other.
“It’s like 25 years at the age of 40, and you have been in the band longer in your living memory than not,” he continues, chuckling. “So you know, once you’ve had a big long break from it, you take stock and you realise what you have. And we were all running into each other’s arms!”
Not quite all. Little Fictions is their first album not to feature the talents of Richard Jupp. The percussionist left the Elbow fold last year, but apparently it was an amicable, drama-free departure.
“We’re minus one, yeah,” Guy admits. “Jupp decided he’d had enough. Well, not had enough, he’s still drumming. In fact he’s teaching drumming, that’s what he does now, but I think he wants to be closer to his family. And we can hardly call him a fly by night or a flibbertigibbet – he did do 25 years, you know, somebody had to call it a day at some point. It was still very sad, and a bit of a shock, but again, the slightest change in dynamic after such a long period together throws up all kinds of freshness.”
The initial sessions for Little Fictions began in rural Scotland in early January of last year before moving down to their regular HQ of Blueprint Studios in Salford.
“We hired a stately home called Gargunnock House, which was a Landmark Trust hired out to the public, and the four of us set up around the fire there around this time of year,” he recalls. “And basically we got snowed in, and played and talked, and you know it was very sad to lose Jupp. You can kinda hear that in the two songs that made the album from that trip, which are ‘Kindling’ and ‘Head For Supplies’. They’ve both got a cold melancholy tune to them, and it was weird up there, you know? It was also the week that Bowie died, so all sort of strangeness going on.”
Did you ever met Bowie?
“No I didn’t, but this is a good story,” he says. “He was being interviewed by Radcliffe and Reilly on 6 Music,and Bowie came in to be interviewed because he loved them very much. We were due to play a cover version of the ‘Bewlay Brothers’ the moment the interview finished. So long story short, the whole of the BBC is crammed into the control room, watching Bowie being interviewed.
“Craig from Elbow, our producer and keyboardist, was stood near the door, and as Bowie was hustled out by security guards, I saw Craig sorta chuckle to himself. Then it was all systems go, I had to get the gear in, so I didn’t have time to say, ‘What were you chuckling at?’ So, afterwards in the pub, I was like, ‘Craig, what made you chuckle when Bowie scooched past ye?’, and he went , ‘Oh yeah, he did exactly what you wanted Bowie to do’. I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ And apparently as he went past Craig, he went (camp pantomime singing voice) ‘Hellooooooo!!!’”
Back to the album. Featuring ten beautifully crafted songs, Little Fictions is the sound of Elbow doing what they do best – marrying Guy’s poignant and poetic lyrics with lush strings, strong beats, horns and alt-rock guitars. Jupp’s departure has resulted in a new, more experimental approach to rhythm, with the band utilising percussive noises, sampling and loops to build tracks.
“We’ve always used loops, and we’ve always written with whatever we had at hand,” he explains. “So quite often I’ve written lyrics over somebody else’s songs to start with, and then just gave it to the lads and not told them what songs it was written over, and then it ends up somewhere completely different. I’ve written two or three drumbeats for different songs, in various stages, but it was nearly always Craig and Jupp. So Craig got a bit busier than normal. He just got stuck in, and it was really refreshing, and in trying to compensate for not having a drummer in the room writing with us, it’s actually become our beat-iest record, and it’s great fun to play it live.”
The album’s title-track is an eight-minute epic, experimental but never overcooked, showcasing Elbow at their musical finest.
“’Little Fictions’ in the context of the song is about the constructs we put around ourselves in argument with the people that we love the most. It’s crazy when you think about it outside of the framework of arguing with somebody, but you do. It doesn’t matter how much you know this person knows you, it doesn’t matter how much you shared intimately, when you argue with someone you love, you go back to the construct of yourself you think the world sees.
“I suppose by extension it’s talking about the fact that we’re all edited versions of ourselves through things like Facebook, you know, having a profile online and stuff with very edited versions of ourselves. But in the song it’s saying we’re only falling out like this because of the incredible rollercoaster of life, and what it’s doing to us. It’s that we’re frightened.
“It’s kinda celebrating arguing, really,” he laughs. “There’s so many love songs on the album, I had to balance it with some cold hard kitchen sink drama.”
The soulful ‘Firebrand & Angel’ is another standout song.
“It’s probably the most specifically fictional story on the record,” Guy states. “The character in the song is single and in New York, and wondering how he’ll meet his true love. Firebrand & Angel is a fictitious street corner, where the man knew this bar, and it’s also the chief attributes of man and wife (laughs). I was single in New York, wondering what to do, but I fictionalised this account for the sake of the song.” He’s already got a couple of Ivor Novellos on his mantelpiece, but Guy retains huge enthusiasm for his craft.
“It’s good, it’s like, most of my life has gone into songs, and now retrospectively I can play with all the different places I’ve been, and all the different states of mind that I’ve been in, and construct new stories. A friend of mine, Charlie Avery, he’s a very celebrated artist from Scotland, he’s created a whole world, with its own law of physics and different religions, and he said it’s a lifelong work which he calls ‘The Island of Onomatopoeia’. And as his work spreads and as he gets on, it’s amazing. He can play with this stuff in the same sort of way I can develop the characters on this record for as long as I want… for years to come, if I want. In the same way that Tom Waits does, I guess, and Bowie did to a degree, although Bowie tended to go and inhabit his characters a lot more. It’s just a new thread of writing for me, and Little Fictions is the flagship record for it.”
Bono once said that he isn’t a singer, he’s actually more of an actor. Would you say the same of yourself?
“Well, yeah, in a way,” he reflects. “I mean, it’s strange, you’re kidding yourself, or people know that you’re not doing it (laughs). I like to think that I can spot an honest lyric, or a real life experience. The way to touch people going through a similar thing is to be honest and to put something of yourself in there, and because the music that’s meant the most to me does that, I try to do that as well.
“But I think I’ve been guilty of being too honest in the past,” he continues. “I’ve laid my entire life out there in song, and now the lines are blurred and it’s made it quite difficult, so as the song, ‘All Disco’ from the new album proclaims, ‘What do you prove if you die for a tune/ it’s really all disco’. I think you should put an awful lot of yourself into your art, but not everything. You should keep something back for you and the people you love. And if I’ve learnt anything in selling records, it’s that.”
Hugely helped by online music technology, Elbow’s approach to songwriting has evolved over the years. They no longer have to be in the same room to work together. The first verse of album opener and lead single ‘Magnificent (She Says)’ was conjured up while he was away on honeymoon.
“It was a somewhat different process writing songs on this album,” he says, “because I got married, and curated the Meltdown Festival, as well as touring with my solo record..So I was away from the lads for the majority of the writing. We started in Scotland together, we spoke every day, and we did this stint when I was in Real World while they were working in Manchester. But it was great, ‘Magnificent’, which is the lead single for the record… after about three days on honeymoon I said to my missus, ‘Any chance I can check me emails to see if the lads have written anything?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, okay then’, and the music to ‘Magnificent’, minus the strings, was there in my inbox, and the first verse was pretty much written on the spot. It was just a lovely way to work.
“And some of the album, like the song ‘K2’ – the first verse was written in fear of Brexit before it happened, when I was in India. And me writing about home and everything I missed about it and everything I hate about it and am ashamed of, and the second verse was written post-Brexit and I kinda resolved to fuck off to South America by the end of the song.
“But yeah, being able to work wherever you are in the world is such a gift, because when we started you were still putting things to tape, you still edited using a razor blade, and now the options afforded you by digital technology are almost limitless. I mean, as well as making it very hard to make money out of music because of streaming and download culture, it’s also the case that there has never been a better time for music in terms of what you can achieve creatively. It’s a joy when you do get back into a room together for final performances of this stuff, you’re all buzzing fresh. You know, it’s great.”
Needless to say, he was utterly gutted by the Brexit vote.
“I think Brexit is the most disheartening, disappointing thing that’s ever happened in my lifetime,” he sighs. “It feels like not even a return to Thatcher’s years, but a return to fucking Dickensian values. A third of Britain’s poor, people living under the poverty line, are in fulltime employment. So I think the Brexit vote wasn’t a vote for anything. It was people throwing rocks at the machine. It was a vote against the system, the system is letting a lot of people down, and I think the Trump vote is the exact same thing.”
Not that he’s necessarily blaming the voters.
“It’s too easy to dismiss these people as stupid – they’re not, they’re dissatisfied, and yeah there needs to be a change, generally. I think we need a new system of politics. At the minute, the head of the school debating society ends up leading the country, and it’s just a joke. It’s a popularity contest and, you know, Theresa May banging on about making the tough decisions… Jesus fucking Christ, make the right decisions! “Alan Sugar and Donald Trump and all that being the top dog culture, step on the guy next to you, greed is good bullshit, it’s like there’s nothing remotely human about it. It’s not terrifying because, I don’t know… it’s just too laughably sad.”
To more positive things…
Elbow will be kicking off their new tour with two shows in Dublin’s Olympia at the end of February.
“The reason we come to Ireland at all is a very personal one for me,” he avers. “I was forever asking why we didn’t go to Ireland, and with our first record label we were told over and over again that it didn’t make financial sense. And I was like, ‘But I love the place!’ I have a sister in Waterford, and obviously Irish roots on both my mother and my father’s side.
“And so it was me and Pete from the band who pushed specifically for us to go to Ireland, and to play there every time we released a record. So yeah, it’s always a lovely place to start. I know you’re probably told this by every musician you speak to, Olaf, but Irish audiences are the best in the world. Because you lot are so musical, everyone always singing, everyone’s clapping, and clearly cool with getting involved, and it just makes for a happy gig… so clearly why not start in Ireland?” Will you have a touring drummer?
“Yes, Alex Reeves, who has played with Bat For Lashes, among many other people. He’s a superb drummer. And he was the drummer on my solo record, he’s coming out with us live, which is great. Mr. Jupp’s shoes are big ones to fill, but Alex is up to the job. So yeah, it’s fun having a new boy in the band. I’m not the only new boy in Elbow. After 25 years I was still the new boy, can you believe that? Because we all knew each other from school… and now we can pull his pigtails!”
We’ve now gone well over the allotted time and so he must go. But just before he hangs up the phone, does Guy Garvey see Elbow hanging up their boots at any stage? Or do they intend continuing forever a la The Rolling Stones?
“Oh yeah!” he immediately enthuses. “As long as anyone is willing to listen, I don’t know why we’d stop.”
Little Fictions is out now on Polydor Records. Elbow play Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on February 26 and 27.
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