There's no shortage of good bands playing Coachella this weekend, but one of the best - and a quintet on the brink of a long-overdue Stateside breakthrough - is Manchester's emotionally eloquent rockers, Elbow. Their fifth album, build a rocket boys!, is easily one of the most exhilarating, strongest releases of this still-young year, harboring songs like the tender meditation "Lippy Kids" and the big-hearted anthem "Open Arms."
Elbow plays Coachella's Mojave Stage tonight, April 16, at 7 p.m. PDT and you can follow the band's West Coat progress via chatty tweets from members keyboardist/producer Craig Potter, bassist Pete Turner, drummer Richard Jupp and the man with the extraordinary voice, frontman and lyricist Guy Garvey (guitarist Mark Potter seems to be Twitter evasive). The band has lined up a rigorous tour of European and UK festival stops this spring and summer, including Glastonbury, Rock Werchter, Reading and Leeds, although a North American tour might take shape by late summer.
The band has faced its share of challenges, bouncing to several record labels while steadfastly surviving as a hard-working, critically-acclaimed band, never really aspiring to the bold, mainstream success of contemporaries like Coldplay, who they eventually toured with in 2009, or Radiohead, one of their great influences. The Manchester lads seemed content to pursue their own quiet, artful trajectory. However, their fortunes shifted dramatically when Elbow, surprising themselves most of all, won the prestigious 2008 Mercury Music Prize for their fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid. That album, dedicated to their late friend, musician Brian Glancy, won them a staggering array of new opportunities and high-profile recognition, including a Brit Award, the Ivor Novello Award and a stirring 2009 concert of their work at the Manchester International Festival with the Hallé Orchestra and Youth Choir, the latter which appears on build a rocket boys!
Earlier this week The Alternate Side caught up with Guy and Pete at an East Village hotel, on their way to Los Angeles, to not only talk about the new album, but the profound brotherhood that has bound these five friends for over twenty years:
TAS: When you were recording your last album, The Seldom Seen Kid, it was an unpredictable time. It was hard to get that album recorded and, as a band, you were going through a bit of a crisis. But it turned in such a positive way ….
Guy Garvey: In a way that life never does. Really quite poetic. Like a “Rocky” movie or something. It was against all of the odds, it really felt like that.
Pete Turner: We’ve been lucky. We’ve been through all these record labels and things, but we’ve not been unlucky. Even before Kid went off, we were a band making a living for ten years. It’s not a tragic story. A lot of bands that I know have not had the luck that we’ve had. We got away with a lot and a lot of good things have happened.
TAS: Guy, there was this moment, when the band was announced as the winner of the 2008 Mercury Prize, that you literally sat and held your head in your hands for a good, long period. Do you have any recollection of what you thought in that moment?
Guy: Well, my first thought, if I’m completely honest, is, “Oh God, I’ve got to make a speech.” That’s why I had my head in my hands. I’d been drinking as well! The big coup for us, on a day like the Mercurys, we’d learned long ago that you deal with what is actually going to happen, so we didn’t plan to win. Quite the opposite. We had an opportunity to play a song from the album on the program and they wanted the hit, they wanted “One Day Like This.” And we were absolutely insistent that we play “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver.” We even went as far as saying, “Or we don’t play at all.” We were so happy that we made that decision because in a room like that, in front of your peers, your heroes like Radiohead and Robert Plant, to play an album track that’s quite an epic number and really requires all of the band to put their heart and soul into it. As much as I love “One Day Like This,” it’s a simple, positive song and we really wanted the epic one there.
TAS: And “Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver” is so resonant to what the band has experienced.
Guy: Sure, it’s to have to do with ambition. And ambition sometimes leaves you lonely. It’s about the sacrifices of success. So yeah, we were really happy that we got to play and that we were in that room and played that song. We were proud of ourselves. As a band, we were like, “That’s the right decision.” We were patting each other on the back. I didn’t expect for a second that we’d win. It was perfect. I got to draw the nation’s attention to our friend Bryan Glancy, who had died, which was another wonderful thing. I think I said, “This song is dedicated to Brian Glancy who was one of the greatest men who ever lived.” His mother, Mandy, got the award, so she’s the only Jewish grandmother in the world to have the Mercury trophy.
TAS: So as we slip to Elbow’s new album, build a rocket boys!, following the success of your fourth album, the band met up on the Isle of Mull to discuss what your next move might be. Was it an active discussion?
Guy: Sure. Just to make sure we were on the same page. We really didn’t have to ask each other, but just to double check, because the band has families and the families are the priority so it would be completely understandable if one of them said, “You know what guys? I want to move to America.” Or, “It’s the end of the run for me, so let’s make a lot of money.” I could understand if the boys did that and it would crucitify me, it would be a really hard decision to make, but they’re my brothers first and I would do whatever was best for their families. So I would make a huge, deliberately commercial record with no twist, if that’s what they wanted. But nobody wanted that. There’s a couple of singles on there. There’s one very deliberate one.
TAS: “Neat Little Rows?”
Guy: Yeah, and “Open Arms” as well. Which although unusual, is still very commercial. (laughs) My girlfriend reminded me, I was sat at the foot of my bed one day and she came in and I had the dictophone in my hand, I was in my shorts, I’d just woken up and I was saying, “Write a song to replace ‘My Way.’ I f**king hate ‘My Way’ and I f**king hate Sinatra.” And she said, “Which is song is that?” And it was “Open Arms.”
You see, “My Way” gets played at the end of every wedding I’ve ever been to and the whole tone and message of the song is so selfish and arrogant. He’s basically saying, “F**k all you.” It’s so counter-positive even though it gets played at the end of every wedding. So I was like, what’s the sentiment? And I ended up writing about a homecoming in St. Bernadette's Social Centre in Whitefield which is where all my crew get christened and married. It worked, that idea.
TAS: It will be really exciting to hear that song done in a huge festival setting, like Coachella this weekend, where everyone knows the words as well. You've already experienced that a bit in arenas in the UK this spring?
Guy: The album’s not been out that long, it’s out [in the States this week] and it’s only been out a few weeks back home, so more and more people per show knew that song. But even those who didn’t know it, by the end, they had their arms in the air. So it does work as feeling of [communal] events, which was the whole point of it.
TAS: So does “Dear Friends” for that matter.
Guy: We haven’t played that one live yet. We didn’t want to overwhelm everyone with the new material. A lot of people on the arena tour are coming to see us for the first time on the back of The Seldom Seen Kid. So it’s as important that we play a lot of things off there. So maybe seven of the eleven songs are in the live set.
TAS: Pete, what do you think it is about the group that has enabled you to remain together for twenty years?
Pete: We’re just really good mates. We find each other really funny. It got to me, and I wouldn’t want to name names, but I’m going to! (laughs). When I first heard Is This It, The Strokes’ album, and I saw them and I was like, "Wicked, this is cool as f**k." But it’s really sad when you hear that they don’t really get on anymore and they’re writing albums under pressure.
I’m so happy that we’re friends. I don’t even question it; the band is there and it’s part of my life, like your family are. You don’t choose them, it’s just there and that’s what it is with all of us. It’s sad when this great, wicked gang, like The Stone Roses, fall apart. I know [Elbow] better than I know my family. I can’t question it to much, it’s there in my life.
TAS: You've grown to a sort of "manhood" with this album, but thematically, it looks back to boyhood and youth. The ache of growing up. When you were mulling over the record in Mull, what was important to maintain?
Pete: It wasn’t about making an effort to do anything, really. We all were absolutely on the same page and the album felt inevitable, obvious, that we were in it for the long haul. We couldn’t have gone anywhere else, it was the only place we could have gone, this album. Very straighforward, very easy, we didn’t want to cash in on it all. It was kind of aimed, I think, people who bought Asleep in the Back. All the new people who came along, it’s like: “This is what we do.”
TAS: Guy, “Jesus is a Rochdale Girl” was the catalyst of this album. Did you write that on your own, in Mull, or with the entire band?
Guy: We were in Mull and I had most of the lyrics to “Jesus is a Rochdale Girl.” Bizarrely, actually, the title, that line, was the only one that wasn’t written at that point. It was a very easy bit of poetry to write because it was fragmented images from a very specific time in my youth. I say youth, I was probably 22, and it was an important time for me because it was when I realized that I wanted to concentrate on writing. Previously, I’d been in the band for four or five years at this point and it was about showing off, having fun with my friends. But then I realized that I had something valuable here. If I really worked at the words, then we could strike different chords in people than just making them dance, which is what we’d been aiming at previously.
For the first time, sitting and working at a desk became a matter of pride and I started feeling responsibility to my work. Mainly because I saw the effort that the boys were beginning to put in to their writing and they charged me with the lyric writing. It was ultimately so satisfying but the responsibility is to do their music justice. That’s the first thing. And they’re fierce editors. That’s when it began, in this house. I had a real bad foot odor problem, I was extremely malnourished, there was no heating in the house, black mold all over the kitchen, and I was snappy. I was angry, but beginning to come out of that angry phase of youth. And this angel fell in love with me. I couldn’t believe it. One of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. She used to drive over from her father’s restaurant and bring me food and she’d bring me comfort and she’d listen to my records and she’d asked me why I liked the records and I got to talk about music. Her favorite thing was to listen to me talk about music. And I guess that coincided with me losing my faith as well.
TAS: Were you raised a Catholic?
Guy: Yes, my mum is, what you call, a charismatic Christian. There was no brimstone; my mum still lives her life in a very Christian way. She’s a big positive right in my life as well, but at that time in my life we weren’t friends. She threw me out when I was 17 for getting thrown out of college for the third time. I was getting thrown out because I was getting stoned and playing songs with Mark Potter in the common room rather attending my lectures! (laughs)
TAS: They really are your brothers. It’s quite amazing to know a group of guys that long.
Guy: Twenty years, yeah.
TAS: The lovely woman for whom “Jesus was a Rochdale Girl” was written, you’re still friendly with her?
Guy: Yes, I danced at her wedding, she lives in Spain with her husband and she just had a son; I’ve not met him yet. She phoned me about three or four weeks ago to tell me how touched she was by the song and that she remembered every minute of it. She’s lovely.
TAS: Guy, you recently moved back to Prestwich, around the area you grew up, in Manchester. Since the city of your childhood is at the heart of the album, did the songs come swiftly once you had that focus?
Guy: On Mull, “Jesus Was a Rochdale Girl” was underway, the lads were writing this music downstairs, which was so minimal, so sparse, so positive. Had something to do with the kick drum and the bass working closely together, reminded me of a heartbeat, and the urgency to Mark’s guitar on “Jesus” reminded me of repressed excitement. Controlling excitement. Which is how I felt at the time of those lyrics; every day was exciting. I didn’t any money, but I had no way of expectation either. It was so easy to put the two together and I realized - I’ve been trying to coin a phrase, but I don’t have the wording quite right: "A good song doesn’t run singing." I’m trying to get it right, I’ve not quite got there! The fact that I could very simply say the lyrics.
The way Craig played the electric piano is just so creative. There’s no effects there; the staggered effect is just so beautiful. That reminded me of excitement just gushing over the sides, the way that works. He doesn’t resolve that riff until the very end of the song and I love that. That whole thing came together so beautifully and stayed exactly as it was, aside from the other line that I added.
I’d actually gotten into four or five pages into the first journal for this album and it says in big letters, “Go back!” And it was because I knew I’d be sat here, talking to a journalist and they’d be saying, “Life’s pretty good. What have you got to complain about? All these miserable songs.” You get that trite sort of thing. A good album needs to leave you somewhere that it didn’t find you and that means that there has to be a journey, there has to be light and shade and a balance of feelings.
The one thing all the band agreed on where songs were concerned that we like offering comfort with music. I realized that I had all this drama in my past and not only did I have it, I had it pretty well notated. So I started writing down different periods of my life and I have to say, I’ve always measured time in who my girlfriend was because I look back at it and it has the name of a different person for that four-year period or that six-year period. I just thought, go back. Write about the past. Nobody wants to hear about my new shoes or the house that I just bought or how happy and balanced my life is at the moment.
TAS: Women have shaped you profoundly as a songwriter, it seems.
Guy: Yes, well, it’s something that boys don’t usually admit to, is it? I remember a great article in the Guardian about hip-hop guys and their mothers. It was a brilliant article and it quotes the most heinous, sexist lyrics and then there’s a picture of [the rapper] with his mother, talking about him. Somebody that I used to go out with, she knew a writer, Luke Bainbridge, who did an article about me, and she said that I’d always “hero-worshipped” women. And I couldn’t put it better, if I’m honest. I’ve got five older sisters who are all huge characters. My mum is one of four girls and I’ve always had girl “friends.”
TAS: There’s a real emotional quality to the entire album and I’m curious about how much Craig Potter worked with all of you to guide you and capture that?
Guy: Craig had a really clear idea of what he wanted to produce and how he wanted to produce us. We’ve always shied away from digital effects and he decided not to use them at all. I think we ended up using them on “Dear Friends,” just for the pay-off, but in some ways we always felt that song was leading to the next record, somehow. It’s good that the soundscape changes right at the end of the record like that.
All of the echo, all the reverb is all natural, it’s all in the room where we recorded it. Craig is amazingly patient, a real stickler for perfection and what he’s learnt this record is not to let that into his production. Not to let that perfectionism over-polish the songs. The Seldom Seen Kid was this huge, ornate, bit of engineering almost; it is a really complex record that runs around thematically. We wanted build a rocket boys! to feel more like a full diary, sketchbook or photo album, a bit bashed at the edges. For that reason he used a lot more original performances.
“The Night Will Always Win,” for instance, is the first time we played it and the first vocal take. We sort of wanted to exercise the fact that we could do that. The other governing aspect of Craig’s personality is that he’s got an incredibly strong moral compass and a real sense of decency which means he’s often let down by people since they don’t have his standards, generally. What it also means, and the way I think it filters into his production ethics and writing, is that he won’t do anything less than his absolute best for the listener. I think he was concerned, in producing The Seldom Seen Kid, that he didn’t do as much piano work as he would have liked; his style of playing didn’t move on any. There was a conscious effort for him, this time, to be sat at the keyboard, the piano keyboard as often as he was sat at the computer keyboard. I think he shone every time he touched his instruments, honestly; he just astonishes me.
Also, what’s happened more recently, is Mark [Potter]'s playing, in preparing for live [shows]. He’s always been great, but his playing recently is just amazing me. He’s throwing in extra stuff so fluently live that the next album is almost certainly going to be a guitar-heavy record. That’s the main reason we’re still together after twenty years is that they keep astonishing and surprising me. When I think I know how they play, they’ll pull something out of f**king nowhere.
TAS: Pete, does Guy usually wander around with ideas and fragments and then the narrative takes hold?
Pete: Bits and pieces. Guy’s in a difficult situation. The guys just write the music together but then Guy has to come up with the words on top of that. The thing that makes us special, a different band from other bands, are the lyrics. The lyrics are fifty percent of what make us the band that we are. It’s so important. You can have a band that’s musically fantastic, but if the lyrics are, “Baby, baby,” it’s just bollocks.
TAS: You've never seemed to be a band that was seeking out BBC Radio 1 play and The Brits, preferring to focus on the craftsmanship of the music you were making.
Pete: In France, we’ve never taken off the way we have in other places. And I was thinking, we don’t want to conquer the world. We don’t want to be the biggest band in the world. We want to play gigs for people who are into our music. We’re fans of music. I’m the biggest fan, at the moment, of Beach House or Radiohead. But we’re not out to be the biggest band. We’re out to make albums that will outlive us and be cool pieces of art. A body of work. That’s the thing.