Interview: Elbow

Published on February 17th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams

Guy Garvey, for all his radio presenting and celebrity dating, is generally accepted as the public face of Elbow; and why not? He combines black belt lyrical mastery and smoky dulcet tones with a personable nature and self-deprecating wit. Craig Potter is undoubtedly the Elbow grease, taking on as he does the lion’s share of production duties – no mean feat for a band with such an expansive sound – as well as playing keyboards.

Guitarist Mark Potter makes the music soar with his enormous guitar sounds, while bassist Pete Turner is responsible for the kind of heaving, soulful bass lines characterised straight from the off on ‘Any Day Now’, the opening track of 2001 debut album Asleep in the Back. All of which leads us onto the hulking, groovy rhythm sections which underpin all of the above; step forward drummer Richard Jupp.

I had the pleasure of catching up with Jupp ahead of the release of Elbow album number five, the eagerly anticipated and superbly titled build a rocket boys! (use of lower case here is vital, according to Garvey) in order to discuss, well, Elbow, Elbow and more Elbow…

Build a Rocket, Boys! has a tough act to follow, succeeding as it does 2008’s Mercury Award-winning The Seldom Seen Kid. Did you feel under any pressure to produce another commercially successful record?

You know what, I can honestly say we didn’t. The pressure probably came the moment we delivered [the album]; then you’ve got to make decisions about artwork, the vinyl cover, the singles’ covers, this, that and the other. We’ve got the tour in March and it’s quite a close turnover so we have to make decisions on the promotion side of things but we’re also trying to rehearse so our schedule is quite manic. But, during recording, there was no pressure. When we finished touring Seldom… in September of the year before last, we were going to say, right, let’s take the rest of the year off and reconvene in January but we were just sitting twiddling our thumbs; so we got right back into it and used the success of Seldom… as a springboard.

It’s nice not to have pressure from the label and nice knowing that we’ve actually got a label because we didn’t have one during the initial recordings for Seldom. We knew we had the support – we’ve sold a few records, we know this is coming out, we know when it’s coming out – so I think all that sort of pressure was alleviated. We just thought, right, we just need to knuckle down and do what we do best, really. (Pause) That’s a horrible cliché!

What can we expect from the new album?

It’s a lot simpler, a lot more direct. We’ve not actually changed our writing style but, during our initial sessions at a friend’s house in Mull – which is absolutely beautiful and as far away from anybody as you can probably get – we hunkered down after the Mercury madness, tried to get our heads together and work out what was going on, basically. It was a bit of a confusing time for us.

The first track we wrote for this album hasn’t actually changed from its demo form. It’s called ‘Jesus is a Rochdale Girl’ and it’s kind of about a guy who lists stuff from his past, reminiscing about where he used to live, how he was feeling as a young buck, so to speak, growing up. The music really fitted that in that it was very simple, just a kick drum and bass, some random keyboards and a very simple guitar line. And that’s how I think we carried it on, even the bigger tracks like ‘Neat Little Rows’ and ‘Open Arms’ are very simple in structure and instrumentation. So it’s a lot more direct and a lot more fun, in a way, because it’s more or less just the five of us having a bit of a blast.

‘Blast’…’rocket’…no, let’s leave that one. So, tell us how an Elbow song comes together. It hardly strikes as your traditional singer-songwriter fare…

It takes us a while. It’s like a slow roast: you put all the ingredients in…(pause)…no, that’s a terrible analogy! But, you know, we have to let things simmer. There’s five of us obviously so, when there’s a decision to be made, it has to go to a vote. You know, it’s got to be 3-2. Some you win, some you lose but, invariably, everybody’s happy when it does all come out.

The writing process is quite elongated for us but, in saying that, the tunes were simpler this time so it was a much easier writing process. Although, again, you’ve got to put stuff into the pot and let it simmer. We listened to a lot stuff together; before we started the sessions, we put an album together of songs that we love, in order to formulate a shape as opposed to just going headlong into the writing process.

Care to divulge the identity of any of these songs?

I’m a bit of a metal head still. I like the big rocky ones so that was first up on the album, then sort of midway, then towards the end. So it had a nice undulating sort of shape. Again, it can be anything; we could be shouting a melody into our phones and bring that in, somebody could accidentally hit something and we’ll go, “God, that sounds great!” It can literally be anything. Guy could just turn up with a full set of lyrics, a couple of words or an idea and then we’ll base it around that. It’s completely random.

The first two Elbow albums had some rather dark themes coursing through them. What brought the sunshine out on the subsequent couple? Success and acceptance?

I think so, yeah; and getting paid! The whole recording for Leaders… was a great experience for us because we found Blueprint Studios in Salford, which is run by a few mates of ours from way back. It’s got this amazing, huge live room so we sort of decamped in there, paying very little rent. These guys said, “Just come in and record in there, that’s all we want. Just pay the nominal fee.” They were building their studio underneath and rehearsal rooms in the cellar, so it was a proper hive of activity. As a young band, we tried to do visuals with a company called Soup, a guy called Mark Thomas who again is an old friend. He came in and we thought, “Why don’t we document it, try and do a visual side as well as an aural side?” During Leaders of the Free World, it made for a real fat-free kind of creative buzz around the place because they had CCTV cameras in the roof, one corner was doing stop frame animations, the other corner was doing something else. It really energised us.

So it was great and there was some success around Leaders… but unfortunately V2, the company we were on, was a sinking ship so we kind of downed tools and said, “We can’t really work this way.” Eventually we got onto Fiction but this was after we’d already started writing for The Seldom Seen Kid so there were some dark times but we knew it would come good. I don’t know why but, thankfully, it did.

Craig, your keyboardist, again took on the task of producing the album. Did you ever notice the workload getting to him?

You know what – bless his cotton socks – he’s an absolute machine. I’ve wondered about this but he never gets snappy. He regards that [the production] as being as much a part of the creative process as putting down his piano and keyboards. He has to separate the two to some degree but he does see mixing and editing, moving stuff around on Pro Tools and trying things out, as a creative process and it’s an absolute joy to watch him, really. He does go down on his own quite a bit but we keep in contact with him with texts and phone calls so I don’t think he ever feels as if he’s out on his own. He does have that support. We totally understand, you know; he can be sat there with red eyes because he’s been up half the night but somebody makes him a brew, gets him a bit of lunch and it keeps on feeding the fire.

Elbow’s songs have been used rather a lot to soundtrack various campaigns and television programmes. Does this bother you?

Not at all. It’s fantastic to hear your own tunes on a myriad of stuff, like Big Brother, Top Gear and the Olympics. It’s good that it’s covering all bases rather than getting pigeonholed. The Big Brother thing was a real shocker; [it was used] right at the end with the montage of all the ups and downs. I was lying in bed with my wife and it suddenly came on. It was like, oh my god! I got a bit of stick for it but it was alright, you know. For any kind of montage, we’ve got a track for you!

How much of a say do you guys get in terms of where and how your songs are used?

As soon as a record’s recorded and we’ve done as much as we can, we have to let it go to the publishers. Fortunately, we’ve got a fantastic guy called Nick Angel at Salvation Music who has been with us since year one, really, when we were signed to Island Records initially. He was the guy who signed us. He’s been with us for years and he knows what we’re like so he would never push anything untoward. We’ve turned down quite a few bits and pieces but stuff like Big Brother and the Olympics is great press for us so, from a business point of view, it’s fantastic that we’ve got all these things. From an artistic point of view, we are blessed in that our publishers, and also the guys at Warner/Chappell, actually give a sh*t about where the music is going to be used. So we’re blessed with great publishers who understand what we’re about.

Given that none of you are all that into sport, how did you feel about ‘One Day Like This’ being chosen to soundtrack England’s (ultimately failed) bid to host the 2018 World Cup?

We were pretty honoured, actually. There was a chap from Bury on the committee and I think he suggested that ‘One Day…’ could be an anthem, that it might hypnotise the judges into choosing us. Unfortunately it didn’t happen but it was an honour nonetheless.

Finally, what is a) your favourite Elbow album and b) your top three albums of all time?

I would say Asleep in the Back is definitely my favourite Elbow album. Obviously it was the first one, it was the one that broke us, brought us out into the open and there’s a lot of raw stuff in there. ‘Little Beast’ is a favourite track of mine, you’ve got ‘Newborn’, you’ve got the title track ‘Asleep in the Back’. Looking back over eighteen years of being a signed band, we spent a good few years trying to learn our craft, so to speak.

As of this moment, my top three albums of all time would be: Superunknown by Soundgarden, Spirit of Eden by Talk Talk and The Brown Album by Primus.


About the Author

Editor of Rocksucker and the website's founder, Jonny is passionate about the music he listens to, both good and bad, as well as interviewing his favourite musicians.

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