GUY GARVEY OF ELBOW INTERVIEWED (2011): A homecoming to the top

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Elbow: Neat Little Rows
GUY GARVEY OF ELBOW INTERVIEWED (2011): A homecoming to the top

The very personable Guy Garvey – songwriter and singer for the award-grabbing British band Elbow – laughs when he describes himself as “a rock star”, in part because at 37 he's getting a bit old for that game, but mostly because he knows he looks more like the plump Ricky Gervais than the buffed Ricky Martin.

Garvey – self-effacing, good humored, immediately friendly and an astute observer/commentator on the landscape of contemporary music– is in a good mood when we speak, the band's new album Build a Rocket Boys! – reviewed here – has this very week (Monday March 14) debuted at number two on the UK charts.

But at the very un-rock'n'roll hour of 10am he could also be forgiven for being weary too. The band got into their hotel in Newcastle well afer midnight “and when I walked in our tour manager said, 'Primal Scream are here and Mani's in the bar'. So whoargh, I haven't seen Mani ages . . . so we had a few pints and I didn't get to bed until 3.30”.

Like Primal Scream, Garvey and the rest of Elbow are proudly from Manchester and their new album was largely prompted by Garvey moving back to his old neighbourhood, an area he loves.

220px_AsleepinthebackGarvey is happy about the album's chart showing – and we could add their numerous nominations and award wins, including the Mercury and Brit award nomination for their debut Asleep in the Back in 10 years ago, and more recently The Seldom Seen Kid which picked up the Mercury three years ago.

But equally, being back home is giving him great pleasure and he and his “sweetheart” Emma are “trying for a baby at the moment which is another new experience, so I'm also concentrating on that”.

And he bursts out laughing at the suggestion that drinking with Mani to 3.30 then this being St Patrick's Day (“Oh, another excuse to start drinking early”) might not be the best way to try for a baby.

But life is good and “touring is much more gentlemanly, it doesn't take 10 weeks to tour the UK anymore, it takes two because of the size of the rooms we're playing”.

But number two on the charts in the first week?

That's right, I'm walking round like I'm Kylie Minogue.

220px_The_Seldom_Seen_KidI was reading something a while ago about when you won the Mercury for Seldom Seen Kid. The quote I'm going to throw back at you is you said it was “the best thing that ever happened to us”. Is there ever that thought that after an award like that you think, “Where do I go from here? There is only downwards.” Was there internal pressure on you to rethink things or deliver in another way?

You know what came into my head when you described that? You know when you are in a car on the motorway and the tracking is off and the thing vibrates like it's going to fly to pieces, then you reach a certain speed and it's suddenly smooth again? It felt more like that. The overwhelming sense since that day has been “This is better”, not in an arrogant way like “We deserve to be celebrated” and it's not vindication because that is too strong a word, but validation.

We've spent 20 years wanting to be part of music and that one time we were the bride and not the bridesmaid [in 2001] . . . And you know I've given more awards than I've received by about 10 to one. It's something I'm asked to do a lot for my willingness to crack on at length (laughs).

To be the belle of the ball on that one occasion, it meant it didn't feel like we were playing at it after 20 years.

When I listen to the broad spectrum of your work it seems that you and the band see the notion of an album in an older way, that it is a compendium of thoughts about that place and that time. So many albums today are just collections of songs, but yours are something like musical photographs from a period.

Yeah totally. It's never something we've even discussed from day one. Our first rehearsal was laughably simple, we could only play 12-bar blues so that's what we played. But the fact we were making the same noise at the same time was so exciting that there no question of us doing anything else from that moment. And then we learned our craft and what we did individually.

And during that time there was never any question that it would be about The Album. We discussed for 10 years what the first album would be like and I realise now from hanging around and working with other bands that isn't the primary consideration for a lot of people.

I Am Kloot for instance whom I produced last year [Sky at Night] and are really great friends with Elbow and are part of our community, and on parallel courses the whole time. For John [Bramwell] and his songs the recording isn't the finished product, the songs are the thing and the recording is just a version of it. Whereas with us the finished product is the thing you hold in your hand and you put on in your office or car or however you listen to your music. It's always been about holding that CD or piece of vinyl in your hand for us.

But I think it's fine for people to do albums which are just songs. I know my nephew who is 26 is in five different bands and I don't think he's ever paid for his music. And he owns two or three Vangelis tracks alongside one or two Blink 182 numbers alongside Joan Baez. So for him it is a song-for-song basis, which I think is healthy in a different way because it means the quality of the individual song is being respected again, and it is less to do with image or are you in the right club or buying into an ethos in the way that perhaps I did with prog or masses of people did with punk.

It's really the quality of songwriting that appeals to his generation. And it's fine for people's albums to be collections of songs, and in fact with more musicians making their money out of live work, especially the younger bands, what I'm finding now is that they are releasing three EPs a year as an excuse to tour three times as often, rather than an album every two years.

Some of the most outstanding bands are doing that and not considering the album as a format anymore.

You wrote a very nice blog at Short List [in the Guardian] and made that distinction between pop and what it is that you do. Personally I don't care about Britney Spears, but it's not that I dislike her music, I just know she's not making music for me. People make music for different people. Your albums are made for people of your generation and sensibilities.

Right. I read something interesting recently, an interview with Leonard Cohen in a Sunday supplement. The journalist went all out, and lost his cool and kind of said, “How does it feel to be the greatest lyricist of your generation?” and Cohen said he just tended one small corner of a very big field.

He said what he wrote about was what troubled him and what he aspired to and was aware he wrote about those few things very well, so was just going to tend that small corner of this very big field. I thought that was great way of putting it.

In terms of what we write and the way we write, I write what I know and don't really go outside that very often.

220px_ElbowbarbLet's talk about the album in this context because the great saying is “You can't go home again” because everything, you included, will be different and changed. But you did go home to your childhood area in Manchester and it is your response to that.

Yeah, and of course I'm a different person from the one who lived there before and I appreciate it differently. For instance I started getting interested in birds six years ago and the place is teeming with them, and I'd never noticed them before. And I'm still on an adventure there.

I must admit I'm very proud of my own town, but I do wonder if – because I've stayed in the same place – it makes me look small-minded and provincial. But it's always been practicality which has kept me in Manchester, because that's where the band are and the band's families are and partners and children.

elbowthebandI could move elsewhere if I wanted to, but I don't feel I've missed my window to live somewhere else either. At some point I'd like to live in New York and – I hate the word “partner” – my sweetheart Emma feels the same way, she wants to live there at some point.

But moving back to that neighbourhood, I had different aspirations and different feelings of responsibilities because I have a different position in the community, and I'm really proud of that.

I've been invited to all kinds of things locally, and I was very proud to put my name to a campaign to save the local library from the Tory bastards recently.

And a primary school invited me to come and speak about being a rock star to about 230 little kids and it was hilarious. I walked in and I sat down on this little chair and they were all on the mat and I said, “Hello, my name's Guy and I'm a rock star” and they all chuckled.

I said “I don't look like a rock star, do I?” and they all went “Nooooo”.

So, “What do rock stars normally look like?”

“Purple hair!”

It was brilliant. I'm so proud to be in position for people locally to give a shit about what I say, and I wouldn't get that if I went to London and was swallowed by the media machine. I wouldn't get to see that side of things.

Can I ask you this then, you've helped save the local library and you are what, 37 getting close to 40, yet you write about – and in defense of – the lippy kids on the corner. When you were 16 and you were the kid in the hoodie on the street corner, would you have cared about the local library being saved by some 40-year old rock star?

Almost certainly not! (Laughs).

Well, you'd hope not.

(Laughs) Yeah, totally. I was probably obsessing about my hair or being angry about something that someone had done to me. I joined the band at 17 and we were all very different people then, there was quite a lot of homo-erotic playfighting going on every day. I remember there was always a pile-on at every rehearsal – and there was a lot of arguing and stropping out of the room.

Seventeen year old me? I see him on the bus sometimes, if you know what I mean. A kid that's dressed different to all the others for the sake of dressing differently, but you can't necessarily walk out of trouble unscathed. A big soft lad basically dressed like a dick, that was me at 17.

Are you the role model for those kids now, because you were the guy who dressed like a dick but “Look at me now, I'm opening libraries and I'm a rock star”.

(Laughs) Well I feel part of something now, and I'm part of gang. We were a gang before we were a band, and as I said before, we were totally shit – but I belonged to something when I really needed it. I don't think it has to be a band, it can be football team or just a group of friends. The album title was wanting people to have that feeling.

It's a great and encouraging title because it invites you to think about it. One of the things I noticed about the album, and I'm not trying to flatter you but it is a rarity, you manage to be reflective without sentimentality, your lyrics can nostalgic without sentiment. That's a hard line to walk.

Thanks man, because that was something I was very conscious of. There's a time and place for fond reflection and I prefer balanced reflection if it is possible. I would not be a teenager again for all the tea in China and I would hate it if the record in any way said different. There were marvelous things about it, but they were far from the best days of my life, my life gets better as I get older.

And the whole album is written with hindsight, for every Lippy Kids there's fondness and there's Neat Little Rows, and misplaced anger and frustration. I think it must be harder to be a teenager than it was for me half a life, 20 years ago. I think it's much harder.

In that regard I remember the guys behind Beavis and Butthead being interviewed and saying they went into high schools and told the kids that your life was not defined by high school years, that after you leave school you will be a different person. That's an important message to give kids.

Absolutely, your not finished developing until you are in your 20s, and not even then. The idea of these days of school makes me [angry]

Here's a lot of half-finished human beings so let's put them all in this pot there and see who comes out on top? It's he worst training ground for life I could imagine. You find the scared, hungry side of people where there's no inspiration, it's just a grind.

I went to a pretty good Catholic school but even so, a class of 30 kids with one teacher? There was no chance of connecting unless you were the brightest student in the class. I had an awesome teacher, but school begins when you are four and doesn't end until over ten years later.

Groucho Marx only went to school for one day in his life and it didn't hinder his career.

I gave up when I was 12.

If this whole thing hadn't worked out for you could you imagine yourself being in one of those godawful tenement blocks.

I was ruined, I was the first boy after five girls and had a brother who was 18 months younger than me. (Laughs) Had? I have a brother!

But we were mollycoddled and spoiled because we were these oddities in this huge family of girls, so there was no question either of us were going to do something normal for a living. We were brought up being told we were very special. I realise now we were quite average at the time, but being told you were special gives you the arrogance or confidence to pursue jobs that others would really love. My brother is an actor and I'm a musician.

Shockwaves_NME_Awards_2009_Winners_Boards_1ncOj6_RExGlThere was no doubt in my mind I was going to do this or die trying, and also the 10 years when when we weren't releasing records, I didn't feel we hadn't succeeded at that point. From the day I joined the band I was a musician and that was it. If people probed a bit further they'd find I was on a benefit . . . “So you're on the dole?”

Well, I was a musician and a singer in band actually, so you just need encouragement.

I can't believe that anybody doesn't want my job!

I imagine in another world you would even be on Top of the Pops this week.

We only just got on [before the show was axed in '06]. That was always the question. You speak to anyone over 30 who is in a band and it was always, “When are you going to be on Top of the Pops?”

One day I could say “Thursday”. I'm glad we got to do that before it disappeared.

Because that meant you were officially . . . A Rock Star.

(Laughs) Exactly!

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