Elbow: Garvey pop’s everyman hero
Guy Garvey is an extremely likeable fellow. Since Elbow’s ascent to the major league, music fans have clutched him to their collective bosom.
A pub in Manchester seems the natural place to meet Guy Garvey, the big, bearded, soft-spoken, avuncular singer in Elbow. “I’m still be a little bit hungover from yesterday,” he admits, having attended a family christening. And Garvey has a big family, with one younger brother and five older sisters, for whom he is still “our Guy”, the much loved first boy, whom they played records to and encouraged in his rock dreams.
Searching for change for the cigarette machine, he rummages in his jacket, spilling a huge selection of coins on to the bar. “Drunk pockets,” he smiles, a phenomenon he explains of “finding it easier to make monetary calculations in notes while inebriated”. Carrying his pint of Guinness out into bright sunshine, other customers nod in friendly recognition, and he smiles back.
During the course of our encounter, a stream of people come up to tell him how much Elbow mean to them. It seems he is “our Guy” for more than just his siblings.
“The groundswell of goodwill was astonishing to us: we felt like the loved uncle,” admits the 37 year-old. Elbow have been together with the same line-up since 1990, a slow-burning career that saw them releasing three albums on three labels, sales never quite matching the critical acclaim .
“I think people understand that we really appreciate what’s happened. We don’t think we were born to do it; we don’t think it was owed to us.”
Garvey has become a kind of everyman figure in British pop. “I might declare myself The People’s Guy Garvey,” he jokes. “I used to wind the lads up, when we first formed, that I wasn’t going to answer them unless they referred to me as Flag Bearer of a Generation. So when 'man of the people’ came up, I was like, 'That’ll do.’ Just call me Manov for short.”
The enormous affection in which Elbow are held was consolidated at this year’s Glastonbury. Where many headliners looked as if they had arrived in sealed containers, Garvey took to the stage in mud-splattered trousers, beaming his way through a warmly uplifting singalong.
“My mum had something to say about my muddy trousers! I was wearing them like medals, like 'I’ve been here covered in s--- for two days like the rest of you. I wasn’t airlifted in on a chopper.’?”
This weekend, Elbow are among the headliners at the Leeds and Reading festivals, and, if their shows achieve anything like the sense of celebration and communion experienced at Glastonbury, audiences are in for a treat.
“I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly spiritual, but something happens when loads of people do the same thing, whatever that thing is. I’m not a football fan, but I’m knocked out when I hear a football crowd singing. So to have people singing your words – why wouldn’t you be grinning from ear to ear? We’re best mates, we’ve got a top job, none of us can really believe we’re getting away with it still. We’ve a lot to smile about really.”
Garvey’s father was a print worker and union leader, his mother a psychologist and counsellor, and in there somewhere are the roots of his working-class gregariousness combined with empathic sensitivity. Music was a big part of his childhood.
“We had a piano in the house, despite there not being room to swing a cat, and, if there was something good on the telly, I’d lie on the keyboard and my brother would lie on the top.”
As a teenager, he would design band logos, “changing the name four times and never doing a gig. The first band I joined, we just used to hang around and smoke cigs under a railway bridge and look like a band. We didn’t write any songs.”
He reckons Manchester was a good place to grow up, “big enough to realise your dreams, and small enough to have a strong sense of community”.
The line-up of Elbow got together when Garvey was 16. “Initially, it was showing off, our mates dancing, and girls in tassel shirts and Doc Martens fancying you for the first time. Then I remember consciously thinking that, if I worked hard at lyrics, I could possibly write things that affect people emotionally.
“We all agree on records that leave you somewhere other than they found you, that provoke thought but explore the tiniest details of very common feelings. The real Holy Grail stuff is when people find a new way to put a familiar feeling, I love that.”
One of the reasons it may have taken Elbow quite so long to break through is that there is nothing obvious about their songs. The music is epic and amorphous, the lyrics poetic and quite delicate, yet they combine with a real sense of empathy for the human condition. They’ve got heart.
Their current single, Lippy Kids (from their fifth album, Build a Rocket Boys!) seems oddly appropriate to the moment, a song about teenage gangs evoking all their uncertain motivation and untapped potential (“Do they know those days are golden?” Garvey querulously sings).
It was released just as the riots broke out.
“I was away on my first holiday in years, and the whole place went to f--- in my absence,” says Garvey . “I remember what this city used to look like. So dirty. And, due to a handful of forward-thinking people and a lot of hard work, it became somewhere to be proud of again. To see them torch it is so sad. Come on! This is ours. It’s something we have together.
“But I understand those kids. They feel they’ve nothing to live for. We’ve got to decide what we want as a country. It doesn’t seem like anyone is particularly sure.”
This may be Elbow’s area of speciality: the equivocal anthem. The uplifting singalong coda and glass-half-full sentiments of their most celebrated song, One Day Like This, have made it a staple of ads and soundtracks (from Big Brother to The Ashes).
“It’s strange, because it’s really a song about somebody who’s not having a particularly good time,” says Garvey. In a BBC poll to find the public’s favourite Desert Island Discs, it was the highest-rated song of the past 10 years.
“I’m dead proud of that. It feels as if we’ve added to the canon. That’s the goal. It’s like something [Elbow guitarist] Mark Potter said – 'That’ll last longer than our gravestones.’?”
In a live setting, Elbow’s poetic ambiguity is transformed into something else. “You hear bands saying, 'We’re gonna blow people away.’ I’ve never really liked that kind of confrontational thing. Its not, 'We’ll show them what we’ve got.’ It’s, 'Look what we can do together.’
“That’s the great thing about singalongs. It might not be very cool, but what the f--- is cool? I spent years trying to be cool, and I’m not very good at it. So let’s just get stuck in with the unbridled positivity.”