Elbow: You Can’t Go Home Again

elbow_h500bThe members of Elbow may have impressed the world with their prog-bent pop, but back home in Manchester, the conquering heroes have so much to answer for. By Tom Lanham

There are people whose mere presence can fill a room. All they have to do is stroll into some soiree, and every other attendee instantly shrivels up in shameful comparison. There are those kinds of folks, and then there’s Guy Garvey. A mighty 6-foot-plus Mancunian who’s physically and figuratively imposing, Garvey commands a crowd no matter where he goes, no matter what he happens to be doing. He may not dress the part—always appearing in rumpled dress shirts, loosened neckties and beat-up old dinner jackets, three days’ worth of stubble customarily clouding his face—but this husky singer for prog-rock revivalists Elbow just can’t help winding up the center of attention.

Which is why it’s so unusual on this nippy New York afternoon to witness the big guy slumped over like a boiled shrimp, hobbling along with the help of a grandfatherly walking stick. As he makes his way from the Hiro Ballroom—where Elbow will be playing in a few hours—to a nearby sidewalk café, even the elderly step aside to let him lurch past. “Hey, wait up!” he pleads in a mastiff-booming bark as Elbow’s wiry, dreadlocked bassist Pete Turner quickly outdistances him.

But Garvey has a good reason for why he’s limping. He lowers his hulking frame into a tiny wicker chair, raises his injured left leg onto an adjacent seat and winces in pain before beginning his tale.

“I am a volunteer fireman, you know,” he shrugs. “And this old lady needed rescuing. She was twice my weight, and down I went.” He pauses. “No, no. The true story is really boring. I was crossing a road and they had these dots on it, like floor braille for blind people. My right foot slipped on the braille thing, my left ankle took the brunt, then down I went.”

As rickety as he appears post-trauma, Garvey still manages to turn heads. “There was this gorgeous waitress in the restaurant the other night, and everybody was looking at her, but she fancied me. I’m sure it was my injured-serviceman look.”

“It was the stick,” sighs Turner, rolling his eyes. “The stick definitely did it.”

No sooner had Garvey suffered his spill than he was surrounded by lawyers. “The amount of people who told me that I should sue somebody over ridiculous,” he snarls. “Sue who? Sue the blind for having braille dots on the edge of the crosswalk? I was being contacted by Lionel Hutz from The Simpsons. And it’s just that litigious culture of today; everybody claims some sort of injury and nobody takes the responsibility. Everybody, whatever they do, whatever part of the world they live in, has a responsibility to stick their hand up and say, ‘That’s bullshit,’ one way or the other.”

Garvey’s sentiment is echoed on the title track of Elbow’s third album, Leaders Of The Free World (V2). Until now, the band has carefully sidestepped politics in its ethereal, vintage-Genesis-echoed music. “Leaders Of The Free World” is an accessible, jangle-chorded shuffler with a chorus that clearly calls out the machinations of Bush and Blair: “Leaders of the free world are just little boys throwing stones/And it’s easy to ignore ’til they’re knocking on the door of your homes.”

“Now, of course, the watchwords are ‘terror’ and ‘evil,’” muses Garvey, sipping the first of several shots of whiskey. “Which give my words to ‘Leaders’ a terrible new poignancy. We’ve got a prime minister in England who has regular meetings or phone calls with Rupert Murdoch or whoever’s running the media. And you’ve got a president who was mis-elected, thanks to his connections with the media. The media aren’t just the eyes and the ears of the people; they’re the voice of the people, as well. So I think there should be some sort of Hippocratic oath for journalists; they have the greatest responsibility ever now. What scares me the most these days is apathy. It’s like everybody is the mayor in Jaws: ‘Nothing to fear here. Nothing going on. It’s never gonna affect us! Don’t worry!’”

The 31-year-old Garvey groans and adjusts his foot on the chair, recalling that he and his bandmates spent the previous night in The Back Room, a bar co-owned by Tim Robbins. Garvey later discovered the actor was there when they were.

“I didn’t even know,” he says. “If I could shake one hand, it would be his. I was dancing on my fucking cane last night, though, which is why my ankle still hurts today. But if a lady wants a twirl, what can you do?”

With Garvey’s rhetorical question hanging in the air, it’s a fine time for an Elbow flashback. Cut to late August 2001, in another hip little café: the Night & Day in downtown Manchester. The quintet, which hails from nearby Bury, has pretty much claimed the place as its own; Elbow stickers are plastered everywhere, underscoring the fact that the band has risen to prominence within these walls, gradually building a huge local audience from its dinky, kitchen-sized stage. The waitresses all wave hello to Garvey and Turner as they shamble in one early evening and sit down with me for their first American interview. Over Budweisers, the duo relates the story of Asleep In The Back, the dreamy debut album that will earn Elbow a Mercury Prize nomination later in the year.

One of seven children, Garvey studied art, drama and physics before getting kicked out of college and his parents’ home. He found steady employment at the Roadhouse, a Manchester venue that also hired Turner as well as future Elbow drummer Richard Jupp and keyboardist Craig Potter. Garvey coordinated security, looked after visiting artists and collected the money at the door each night.

Studying so many bands up close proved good practice. Elbow soon won an unsigned-band competition, found national airplay through the support of BBC DJ John Peel and, in 1998, inked a big-time deal with Island Records. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be: Island dropped the earnest group shortly thereafter and held on to its finished album masters. Garvey and crew had to start from scratch via local indie label UglyMan, which issued two EPs and built up a V2-enticing buzz. Asleep In The Back was like nothing in Britain at the time; the ornate keyboard/guitar interplay of the Potter siblings (Craig and guitarist Mark) hearkened back to early Genesis masterworks. For his part, Garvey sang in a wheezy, pneumatic drone that recalled Peter Gabriel circa Foxtrot and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.

But a strange thing happens at the Night & Day this August evening. A struggling young Mancunian combo takes the stage and purposely begins a squealing, interview-halting soundcheck an hour too early. Its members seem to sneer with bratty pride as Garvey and Turner rise and head downstairs, where we finish the chat in the club’s spooky basement offices. No more than 10 minutes later, the lights suddenly flicker off, leaving the three of us to feel our way along a cobwebbed, pitch-black corridor to the cellar door. Upstairs, everyone feigns innocence. Nobody knows who switched off the power or why. Garvey could throw his considerable weight around, demanding an answer. Instead, he just shrugs, says hello to the shocked young outfit and orders another beer. Garvey sweeps this petty jealousy under the carpet. After all, the lyrics of Asleep concern themselves with everyday tales of drinking (“Don’t Mix Your Drinks”) and dating (“Bitten By The Tail-Fly”).

“We’ve been accused of not really understanding the people we’re writing about,” he rationalizes. “In terms of the sort of meatheads you come across in Bury and Manchester. But we actually understand exactly why these people go off, why they get into football hooliganism. Thatcher killed any sense of community, divided and conquered using the police force as her army. So these guys today have gotta find their own community, and they’ll find football or whatever they can. And if they can’t be proud of who they are, then they’ll be proud of who they aren’t.”

Back in New York, Garvey is recalling another troubled tale involving fame, friends and his hometown. Returning to Manchester for Christmas after a whirlwind world tour in 2001, Garvey was at a pub when he saw one of his old mates: Lee, the singer in his first band, Synoptic Reverb.

“He was as drunk as a skunk,” says Garvey, who played drums in Synoptic Reverb. “I’m like, ‘Fuckin’ hell, Lee! How ya doing?’ And he said, ‘Slumming it a bit, aren’t ya, rock star? What the fuck are you doing back here? You’ve forgotten where you’re from, you fucking cunt! You’ve forgotten your roots!’ So hearing this, I was devastated. And I went to the other side of the room and thought, ‘How can I let this guy know that nothing’s changed? That I’ve just had some good luck and nothing’s changed me?’”

Garvey hit upon an ice-melting idea. “I remembered every word of the first song the guy ever wrote,” he says. “And I went back across the room and sat down in front of him and started singing it. Initially, he looked a little confused. Then his jaw dropped because he remembered he’d written it. And I made it all the way through the song, singing it to him.”

Instead of heartwarming hugs all around, Garvey got shut out: “He went, ‘You’re living in the past, you. You fucking cunt!’ So you just can’t win.”

On some level, Leaders Of The Free World concerns itself with international affairs. It even bears the logo imprint of MAG (Mines Advisory Group), the anti-landmine charity once touted by Princess Diana that’s now become Elbow’s chief humanitarian cause. However, Garvey says Leaders Of The Free World is really about Manchester. Elbow has seen the world, but now the band is just happy to be back home. Garvey sings its praises over tambourine and soft, feathery keyboards on the opening “Station Approach.” As his train pulls into Manchester, he exhales verses such as “Coming home, I feel like I designed these buildings I walk by” and a modal, repetitive chorus of “I need to be in the town where they know what I’m like and don’t mind.” Over the jittery, jarring arrangement of “Picky Bugger,” Garvey continues his Mancunian missive, noting with pub-crawling pride that he’s been “drinking in order to feel.” Which leads straight into the lost-weekend scenario of “Forget Myself,” a melodic processional that finds him addressing his hometown directly: “I’ll forget myself if the city will forgive me.”

If it seems like Garvey has returned home to lick his wounds, well, he has. Raised with five older sisters who bombarded him with their record collections of—you guessed it—Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, he grew up sensitive to thoughtful, intelligent music. He’s sensitive to the world around him, as well. So when he entered into a tabloid-trumpeted relationship with British radio DJ Edith Bowman in 2004, Garvey had nothing but great expectations.

“It lasted just short of a year,” he recalls, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “And it wasn’t a very high-profile romance until the very end, when she got very busy with her job and became a household name, almost overnight. Which was weird. She can handle that; I can’t.”

Garvey holds no grudges. “She and I are still very good friends,” he says. “I spoke to her yesterday, in fact. So yeah, we tried something, we both wanted it to happen. It became more troublesome than it was pleasurable, so we retired to a safe distance. And it was sad that it didn’t work, but I don’t regret it because I’ve made a lifelong friend out of it.”

And there’s a lesson there for the average single male, Garvey insists. “The modern relationship isn’t based on conquest and acquisition of a woman,” he says. “That just doesn’t happen anymore. But I know a lot of people who still think like that, and they can’t bear the idea of being friends with an ex because there’s been some rejection involved.”

Suddenly, Garvey realizes he may be criticizing some of his local Manchester lads, and he grinds that grouse train to a halt. “I once sat in judgment of these kids who come into the town center and kick off with a pint or a fight,” he cedes. “I sat there loathing ’em and judging ’em, and then I understood the pressures in their lives, the unhappiness. You just start to realize the kind of pressure that people are under every single day.”

There was a time when folks might’ve justifiably compared Elbow to the similarly adventurous Radiohead. Elbow has moved away from that now. The band had employed producer Ben Hillier (the textural-minded svengali who took Blur to Marrakesh to record 2002’s Think Tank) on both its debut and 2004’s Cast Of Thousands. But for Leaders Of The Free World, Elbow decided to work alone at Manchester’s Blueprint Studios.

“It was this big, massive room, and we just filled it full of gear,” says Turner. “Craig was on eBay buying all these weird instruments that were sent over from India. And I’ll tell you the best part: You know the beginning of ‘Mexican Standoff’? There was a mountain bike in the studio, and I don’t know how it happened, but we turned the mountain bike upside-down and fastened plectrums onto the wheel, the actual tire. Mark had this old, knackered Spanish guitar, and he held a chord on it while Guy was turning the wheel. Jupp’s little boy Dylan was there, giggling, so that’s what you’re hearing on that song. It was silly, pointless and stupid, but it was kinda the way we were in the studio.”

Elbow is also coming to terms with prog, which Turner asserts is no longer a dirty word. “I know that sometimes it’s really pompous and over-the-top,” he says. “But I know exactly where we were coming from when we were writing Asleep In The Back, and we were listening to Genesis’ Trick Of The Tail and Foxtrot.”

“Prog is a positive thing,” says Garvey. “It’s not about sex or style. It’s about experimenting with music, about loving the job and having a laugh, about putting your work out there with a hell of a lot of effort involved, with no contempt whatsoever for your audience.”

Garvey still recalls the night when Peter Gabriel walked in on Elbow during an after-session dinner at his Real World Studios. “I had a spoon on my nose,” cackles Garvey. “A spoon literally balanced on my nose.” A minor Garvey/Turner argument ensues over the inherent worth of Phil Collins, who assumed vocal duties for Genesis after Gabriel’s 1975 departure. Despite his own percussionist past with Synoptic Reverb, Garvey growls, “You cannot trust a drummer who becomes a singer. Especially one who finishes his marriage by fax.”

Later this evening in New York City, Garvey balances much more than utensils: his own burly body, teetering to and fro on a barstool onstage at the Hiro Ballroom. Again, the cane comes in handy; he uses it to stomp time to the Jupp/Turner beat, to emphasize certain lyrics with extended gesticulations and to point to various audience members during an impromptu Q&A session that occurs when an amp goes momentarily haywire. After the show, Elbow engages in a night of nonstop drinking, then takes a quick album-promoting detour to Canada, but Garvey has his heart set on returning to Britain.

“The greatest thing about this past year was being at home, so you can sleep in your own bed, see your partners and friends,” he says. “For me, Leaders was released when I went into The Temple—an underground bar where I go every day for a liquid lunch—and heard it on the jukebox. When your album’s on the jukebox in your local bar, the album is out; that’s just the way it goes. But because the owners are friends of mine, whenever an Elbow song comes on the jukebox in that bar, they have a reject button behind the bar they hit so I don’t have to sit through it.”

Turner is aghast. “But I like that, though!” he barks. “I like hearing our stuff in places! Because I’m just quietly proud inside. Proud and very happy.”

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