Graham Reid | | 13 min read
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
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
Garvey 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
That's right, I'm walking round like
I'm Kylie Minogue.
I 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
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
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
In terms of what we write and the way
we write, I write what I know and don't really go outside that very
Let'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.
I 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?”
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
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.
There 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.