Making Elbow room
Guy Garvey sits back and unleashes one of his trademark belly laughs. "What's the difference between Coldplay and Elbow?" he chuckles. "I couldn't run around like Chris Martin does. And he can't drink like I can! Hah-ha."
Slightly punch-drunk after an interview-crammed afternoon but nonetheless chatty and determined to be a sport, Garvey is here to discuss Elbow's new album, their first since winning the 2008 Mercury for The Seldom Seen Kid. Inevitably, conversation has strayed to Coldplay, for many year's Elbow's cheerleaders, friends and mentors. With Chris Martin's crew apparently on a long hiatus, there's a vacancy for a stadium rock band not afraid to wax cuddly and with a knack for feel-good orchestral pop. What better moment for Elbow to return with their most unabashedly uplifting collection yet?
"Coldplay have nodded to us as an influence and led people to our records," agrees Garvey. "There's a large proportion of their audience who would enjoy what we do. But it's a different thing really. So touring with them wasn't instructive, no. We do things our own way."
The interview is taking place at Elbow's rehearsal space in the Manchester neighbourhood of Salford. Immortalised by Morrissey in the 80s, today Salford is just another grey English suburb, characterless and faintly depressing. Downstairs, the record label has been plying journalists with tea and repeat plays of the new LP. Paranoia about piracy means these sessions tend to be rather starchy affairs at the best of times (whipping out your iPad for the purpose of taking notes can draw unwelcome scrutiny). This afternoon there is an added complication: the label insists the title of the record must remain under wraps, so that it can be unveiled several weeks later in a wildfire of publicity.
Unfortunately, nobody appears to have informed Garvey as he lets the 'secret' slip approximately 10 seconds after easing his burly frame into the chair. The album, he can exclusively reveal, is to be called build a rocket boys! -- the lower case was the band's idea -- and it finds the 36-year-old singer reflecting on, among other things, the position of young men in society.
"It really disturbs me the way the youth are looked at by the right-wing media," he says. "Particularly boys hanging out on street corners. I don't see them as particularly threatening. I remember it was where I formed my own ideas. One minute you're playing soldiers, the next you're considering music, thinking about what you want to do. You've got loads of role models at that age -- some good, some bad. You are finding a path without your family for the first time."
It's an interesting argument, one David Cameron arguably framed more succinctly a few years back when he called on Britons to 'hug a hoodie'. Garvey pulls a face.
"Well, that feckless twat also says he's a Smiths fan. I do hate the fact he says things like that. He's trying to get a woolly image across before he starts trotting out his new world order. It bugs me because I know it [the Cameron comparisons] will come back to me. I'm not saying, hey... [the album] is all about the kids. It's about remembering the positive elements of childhood and the negative. I don't like the way society treats young men. For that matter, I don't like the way society treats old people. We're all going to be there at some point. It's something that should be understood."
A proud Mancunian, does Garvey share the widely held fear that swingeing Tory cut-backs will fall most heavily on the north of England, traditionally a bastion of Labour support ? "They can try. We can ring-fence the city. Fuck 'em, we'll have the euro. They can't rip the heart out of Manchester because it's rebuilt itself. It's somewhere of excellence. You can come here for art, for music, for business as well. There is stuff springing up all the time. None of it comes from London. None of it."
More than virtually any other rock star you'll meet, Garvey is at pains to appear down to earth and unaffected by his relative stardom. Nonetheless, in the past three years, he's become rather famous and, by design or not, quite guarded. The last time we spoke, he was part bar-room philosopher/part stand-up comedian, the jokes flowing like cheap wine at a wedding. Maybe it's interview fatigue but today he is noticeably serious and a bit stand-offish. This, you suppose, is what happens when you are elevated from sweaty bloke in indie band to songwriter for the masses.
"It's always the same with the person at the front," chimes in bassist Pete Turner, who until now has sat out the conversation in thoughtful silence. "You're used to seeing just Bono, just Thom Yorke. For us, it's never been a problem. There is a bar we all drink in called Big Hands in Manchester. I remember me and Guy were leaving once. It took me 40 seconds to get to the door. It took Guy 10 minutes, with all the people coming up to him." He pauses. "Actually, now that I think about it, I may have fucked off and left him! Hah. But no, he handles it very well."
Garvey interjects. "As long as you've got your head right, it's okay. I know I wouldn't be recognised in the street if it wasn't for this band. I know I wouldn't have the [BBC 6] radio show if it wasn't for Elbow. For instance, on my radio programme I never say my name without mentioning the band. Because that's first and foremost who I am and what I do. It might be a problem if I was suddenly saying I was more special than the boys. I'm very lucky to be in the band."
Regarding the Mercury, Garvey is happy to report that the prize's infamous 'curse' seems to have passed over Elbow. After a decade of often thankless toil, they were thrilled with the recognition, he says. More than that, the ceremony was an opportunity to bond with their peers, something which happens less often than you might imagine.
"With the Mercury, when it's finished, anyone who isn't an artist or a guest of an artist gets thrown out and they throw a party. And it's the best party. You meet your contemporaries and tell them what you like about their music. It's something that only happens at festivals and award ceremonies. So, for instance, I Am Kloot were nominated last year and Pete and I produced their record. At the end it was Pete and me and John from I Am Kloot and Corinne Bailey Rae and Seasick Steve dancing to a jazz band, pissed out of our heads. If that happened normally it would be all over the papers."
They have had a whirlwind few years since the Mercury win. A highlight, reports Garvey, was opening for U2, a band they grew up worshipping. "When we formed, Mark [Potter, guitarist] had Rattle and Hum stuck in his Dad's Volvo. On the way to rehearsals we'd sing along to that. It's amazing -- amazing that we ended up supporting U2, who were so nice to us. We feel really lucky to have seen the way things were traditionally run. We've recorded in big studios with huge budgets, before all that stopped. Now we are making records ourselves and we have a gang mentality. We feel lucky so many people want to hear our stuff. Who could complain about that?"
Still, it hasn't all been gongs and garlands. Shuddering, Garvey and Turner recall Oxegen 2009 when, hidden beneath plastic macs, they performed into the teeth of a gale-force rain storm. "It was like playing on the deck of a ship," remembers Garvey. "The young kids were down the front where it was worst. Many of them were underdressed and pissed, wet through. I thought, 'if you can stand there and do it, so can I'. So I ended up down the front. My shirt got a bit clingy -- I had to suck my gut in for the high notes. I did catch a pretty nasty cold from it. The roadies were literally sweeping water off the stage by the bucketful. But you know what? It was a fucking laugh."
build a rocket boys! is out on March 4
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