Tales of the unexpected
This article is from 2008.
Elbow are regularly praised by such chart-bothering outfits as Coldplay, Snow Patrol and Editors so why aren’t they better known? Doug Johnstone talks to singer Guy Garvey about their refusal to compromise, being dropped by more than one label and the curse of the Frisbee
Elbow’s recently released fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid, was met by a whole raft of effusive, praise-filled reviews which all fitted a familiar template. The underlying message across the board was essentially, ‘This band are unbelievably amazing, and have influenced a generation of million-selling stadium rock bands; why the hell aren’t they absolutely, globe-straddlingly huge?’
It’s a good question, and one that has had critics and fans scratching their heads trying to think of an answer. Coldplay’s Chris Martin once famously declared that the Mancunian band’s second album, Cast of Thousands, was ‘The best album by anybody except Coldplay, ever’. Snow Patrol and Editors are another two chart-bothering bands obviously in debt to Elbow’s groundbreaking mix of the epic and the intimate.
So why aren’t they bigger? The answer lies in a gentle refusal to compromise. The commercial step up to stadium-filling rock band involves smoothing out the interesting bits, replacing experimentation with formula, eschewing genuine lyrical insight for easily digestible soundbites, and those are not things, frankly, that Elbow are interested in.
‘I think this album will define it for us,’ says affable and gruff-voiced singer Guy Garvey. ‘We wanted to do a little bit of everything we’d done before, and really define what was different about how we approach things.’
In fact, the question I asked him was if he felt any pressure to take that step up commercially, having seen plenty of other bands overtake Elbow in terms of sales. It’s interesting to note that, without seemingly even realising, he answered the question in terms of musical development, rather than the career side of things.
‘This time, it was important that some of the songs had quite unique architecture,’ he continues. ‘We do write in many different ways and one of them is literally more like making a building than writing a song. Sometimes we’ll think of a noise, and then find an instrument that makes it, do it that way round, which is maybe a strange way of working, but it seems to work for us.’
It certainly does. The Seldom Seen Kid is Elbow’s most rounded, varied and accomplished album to date, a claim it would be difficult to make for many other contemporary bands on their fourth long player. Entirely recorded, produced and mixed by the band themselves at their own studio in Salford, it is perhaps that hermetically sealed environment which has given the record its intrinsic musical integrity.
‘We’ve been aiming at that since day one, to be honest,’ says Garvey. ‘Way back when we were 16 or 17, we’ve always recorded ourselves alongside writing the songs. This time around, we just took the reins ourselves and off we went.’
That’s not to say that the period of making the album wasn’t fraught with problems. Those familiar with Elbow’s past will know that they have something of an unlucky history in the music business. Way back in 1998 the band signed to Island Records and recorded a debut album, but before it could be released, Island was bought over and the band was dropped in a widespread cull of artists. They then somehow managed to get signed by EMI, but were dropped again within two months.
After a handful of EPs appeared on Mancunian indie label Uglyman around the turn of the century, they finally hooked up with V2 Records and actually managed to get an album out.
That album, Asleep in the Back, saw the light of day in 2001, and won a Mercury nomination in the process, acting as a springboard for the band to push musical boundaries over the next seven years. But the band have continued to be plagued by the fickleness of the industry and, true to form, as they worked on The Seldom Seen Kid, their label was struggling to stay afloat.
‘We were trying desperately to get off V2 before it sank,’ says Garvey, ‘and we did, by about two weeks. Bizarrely, the company that had been trying to sign us for two years bought V2 anyway, so there you go. So yeah, we’ve had four major record deals and we’ve had four albums, that’s a full house. It’s a bit fucking ridiculous. If he wasn’t dead, I’d think Jeremy Beadle was waiting around the corner sometimes.’
Turns out, it’s not the work of the deceased prankster, but the fault of a Frisbee. Yes, a Frisbee.
‘Do you know about the Frisbee thing?’ Garvey laughs. ‘Every time we’ve found out we’ve been dropped by a label, we’ve been playing Frisbee. Every single time. And we don’t even play that often. We certainly don’t now, anyway. At a gig recently, our violin player had flown directly back from Barbados, and not knowing about this superstition, she pulled one out the bag, and went to throw it across the room. Everyone in the band shouted “No!”’
But they needn’t have worried, because their Frisbee-based curse seems to have lifted for the moment. The band are now happily ensconced with new label Fiction, an imprint of Polydor and, ironically, home to Snow Patrol among others. But even if they hadn’t found a new label, the band have become so used to the machinations of the music industry, that eventually they just let it wash over them, refusing to worry.
‘We were freaking out again, then about halfway through making this record we just thought, “Fuck it, it’s going to come out somewhere”,’ says Garvey. ‘Even if nobody wants to release it, we’ll just put it out free on the internet, it’ll find a home.’
That would’ve been quite a freebie, because The Seldom Seen Kid is sure to feature heavily in most music press end of year polls. Named in honour of the band’s late friend, singer-songwriter Bryan Clancy, it’s a record which lyrically deals with all the big stuff of life: death and mourning, birth and celebration, ambition, guilt, love and loss, and does so in a range of sounds and moods which effectively chucks out the ‘epic rock’ template.
Recent single ‘Grounds for Divorce’ is a weird Led Zep Cajun chain-gang chant, while the beautifully touching ‘Weather to Fly’ is hypnotic and compulsive, and opener ‘Starlings’ is an unsettling mix of trembling tension and alarming blasts of horns. There’s even a strangely haunting comedy duet with troubadour du jour Richard Hawley about a pair of rogues fixing a horse race. According to Garvey, the eclecticism of Elbow’s music these days is at least partly down to his job as a late night Sunday evening DJ with BBC 6 Music.
‘I have a slot on the show where I ask for suggestions for songs to play,’ says Garvey. ‘And we get a lot of old jazz, old country and Americana, right through to scratchy old gospel and reggae, all sorts of stuff – it’s turned me onto so much music. I’m sure all that feeds into the songwriting process.’
In the past, Garvey and the band have shut themselves away from the world of music while recording, but not this time.
‘I used to fall out of love with contemporary music when we were writing,’ admits Garvey. ‘When we were in the thick of an album, I couldn’t listen to a modern song without over-analysing, without analysing the snare sound or the guitar riff, but that doesn’t happen anymore. I don’t fall out of love with music anymore, because I’m kind of not allowed to.’
Elbow play ABC, Glasgow, Fri 4 Apr.