It's been fifteen years and three remarkable full-length albums for Elbow. While their contemporaries are churning out radio hits like fast food coming out of a drive-thru window, Elbow have held fast to a sensitivity and care for quality that speaks to their adoration of musical composition and live performance.
Their latest record, Leaders of the Free World, tackles not just new musical territory but also subject matter that until now has been quite foreign for Elbow. Not to say they're becoming political spokesmen; rather, they are merely sticking fast to a mindset that's driven them from the beginning, which is to do what they want, not what's expected of them.
the U.K. and U.S. releases of the album, singer-songwriter
Guy Garvey told us his feelings about the state of the world
today and what makes Elbow tick.
It was almost exactly one year ago when we ran into each other in Los Angeles as you were in town to finish up the new album. I remember that you said it was going to be a bit more positive than the last album, which is interesting given there are tracks like "Leaders of the Free World" which sound upbeat but aren’t necessarily.
Yes, that's true.
Aside from that, the album is full of tracks that are just really beautiful accomplishments, so congrats on that. What other feedback are you getting on it?
Well, I’m very pleased. Just recently in England, there’s been a poll published, the Poll of Polls, done by HMV, a big record shop over here. Basically, they find all the radio polls and press polls concerning end of year lists that journalists have made—it’s not just critic’s lists, it’s readers polls and listeners polls and all kind of things—and then they compile this Poll of Polls. We were at number five for last year and if you don’t class the Gorillaz as a British act we were the highest British act on the list, so we were really pleased. It seems to have been universally received really well.
That’s great! I know that V2 did a limited release over here when the record came out in the UK, but then it went away and now we’re preparing for it to come out properly, so what do you think it’s going to be like when it comes out in the States?
It’s really difficult to say. Because of it’s political content, I’ve heard some quite pessimistic opinions. But I really don’t think that the kind of people who would be interested in our music… I don’t really attract any Bushites. (Laughs)
(Laughs) They’re not going to feel suddenly betrayed, because they’re not listening anyway.
Yeah, totally! So I’m hoping for the same response as we got for the last record. I don’t think we’re gonna blast up the charts or anything, but I think it will be well received. I’m fairly optimistic.
Right. Do you guys operate with any sort of hope or ambition, not necessarily conquer the U.S. as is held up as such a standard, but maybe with every album think, “Now we’ll get some more fans,” or does it not really matter?
I would just say that we’ve never been about conquering the world, really. The kind of things it would seem for us to have a number one album would involve, a.) a lot of compromise musically and lyrically, and b.) a hell of a lot of touring. Three of the band have babies now and we’re just not willing to compromise being around the kids. I mean, it’d be great if we had a hit on our hands— we’d pick up sticks and do everything we could to support it. But we didn’t aim at that; it’s not really one of our ambitions to be huge in the States.
And is that the way that it’s always been, from when you were very first starting even before the first album, or has it changed now that you have grown up and had families and such?
Yeah – if you’d got us a few years, maybe ten years earlier, if we were at this stage and certainly when we were all young, drooling bachelors, then touring would be fine, perpetually. But I still love touring, I still love traveling, but I’m not sure if we’ve got what it takes to go and live in another country for a year. I don’t think we have that anymore. But who knows? You never know what’s going to happen.
Lowest common denominator assessment of audiences these days does not bode well for your album storming the industry–
But I would say that’s a good thing. (Laughs)
Yeah, me too! I’d rather be very appreciated by a small, dedicated, music-loving audience than kind of regarded enough to be shoved in the basket of every sort of everybody…as Saturday Afternoon Man, you know? (Laughs) That’s who most record companies are trying to get the attention of.
Right – yeah, just buy this because you have to buy it, not necessarily listen to it or feel it and think about it.
Yeah. So many bands seem to be selling a lifestyle and I think we’re selling perhaps a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday morning.
(Laughs) What would I classify you guys as? Probably 2:45 in the morning on a Thursday. I don’t know—it’s hard to pin you down. When I try to tell people that they should listen to Elbow, I get the inevitable, “Well, what do they sound like?” and it’s like, “Um…” I think my first instinct is to say, “They’re British”, so then the question is, “Do they sound like Oasis or what?” There’s these inevitable comparisons and I would say that you guys do sound British—there’s a sensibility to it that most American bands don't have. But the way that you switch things up and comment on current events or have a fearlessness about being honest in your songs also makes you sound a lot like bands from South America or other parts of Europe. You just don’t buy into commercialism, I suppose. It is hard to say what you sound like, but in the listening, hopefully people are won over.
So tell me what the challenge was for you, both as a songwriter and then the band collectively, with this album compared with Cast of Thousands. Were there things you consciously set out to do or to not do again?
We decided we wanted the songwriting structures to be simpler. It’s very interesting to us that as soon as you start tackling the classic songwriting structure—the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, chorus, end—as opposed to it being a reliable formula that makes it easy to write music, we found that straight away you’re competing with every song that was ever written. It also helps strain out what’s different about your songwriting, what’s more individual about your sound. So we were very conscious that we wanted to make an album in an environment that you would then hear on the album so that you would feel a part of the process and almost witness to it—because that’s how it feels being one of the writers a lot of the time. I felt like I watched our album being made. Of course, I was involved very heavily, but one of the greatest things I think about making music with people is that it always feels greater than the sum of the parts. Some songs feel like you could all stop playing them and it would keep going without you.
And yeah, we did an awful lot of experimentation and we stripped away what we didn’t feel was necessary. I guess just to throw a different perspective on things; there are choirs and crowds and strings and trumpets and whistles and bells all over the previous two records, lots of production experiments, lots of sonic safaris, as we used to call them. We wanted to do something a lot more simpler, I guess because of that—something more intimate.
So does that mean that you guys were pretty strict about who did what in that everybody had their prescribed role in the production of the album?
No—we still played each other’s instruments. Conversely to the previous two records, all the heavy guitars on the record are mine, whereas previously it was Mark and I was strictly sort of simpler, more acoustic stuff. Mark the last couple of years has been exploring the simpler side of his instrument and I’ve been turning on the pedals and having fun. So we’ve kind of switched up our roles in that respect. At the moment what’s happening with the fourth album, which we’ve just started writing, is everybody’s singing, which feels great.
And is that something that you came up with or did everybody say, “Let’s try this!”?
It was because there were a few songs with multi-tracked backing vocal parts on them on Leaders of the Free World, and the boys have been singing live a lot more because of that and they’ve been really enjoying it, so we just decided to make it part of the writing this time.
Speaking of live, when are you coming to the U.S. for a headlining tour?
I’m not sure yet, it’s not been decided yet. Hopefully soon.
Yeah, hopefully – there are some people here getting ready to storm the offices of V2 to get you over here.
(Laughs) Yeah, we’re looking forward to it – we love coming over there.
I guess that’s one of those downsides about being so non-obviously commercial, that maybe it is harder to handle logistics of these things. I presume that it’s not a guarantee because of money and commercial statistics and stuff – is that more or less true?
That’s right. Plus, all the countries in the world where we release a record are always hungry for us to go and support it, so these decisions are made a lot of the time on the overall gain for the band, and that’s not always something we’re privy to. It would be impossible really to keep an eye on everything worldwide. We kind of have to go where the opportunities are.
So do you really rely on the business people in your life—meaning the record company—to be honest with you about that kind of stuff?
Well, more the management, to be honest with you. Our manager, Phil, came up with the band; he’s been a part of the outfit for nearly as long as the rest of us have. He wasn’t a band manager before he met us and he learned his role alongside us learning ours. He’s our friend to be trusted as much as each other are.
That’s incredibly valuable in this business.
So when I saw you last year, you were here for mastering of the album or mixing or both?
Mixing with Tom Rothrock.
Why did you guys decide to do that here? Wasn't it a very purposeful decision you made to record it at home? If so, why did you go away to mix it?
Yeah, we recorded it in this huge space in Manchester, which is beautiful—Blueprint Studios. It’s the first album that’s been made there because it’s a newly built place. We made the album ourselves and towards the end we decided that we needed to seek an objective, outside opinion to help us mix it, one that would maybe draw out things perhaps we were taking for granted in the mix. Tom came over to the U.K.—the one thing we stipulated was that anybody who got involved had to come and see what we were doing in the room, because as well as making the record we were making a DVD to accompany the record and it was a real Factory/art installation sort of vibe all the time we were writing in there. There were fifteen people working on different things to do with the release.
Tom got the vibe and became part of it really easily, and we really, really enjoyed his company. So then he was like, “I want you guys to come out to Los Angeles to finish the record." Our experience of Los Angeles before then was always very fleeting; we perhaps saw the golden tap shoes of the city every time we were in town and nothing more. And we were concerned that it felt like you could be swallowed whole going to a town associated with show businesses quite so much. But Tom was a great host and a wonderful guy, and my friend Jim Fairchild lives in Silverlake—Jim is the guitarist with Grandaddy—and I became good friends with Lee Watson with the Watson Twins as well. And the whole thing was marvelous; I saw this really great sort of sequins-missing, faded charm side of the city, and a great, really, really healthy sort of underground music scene, and I really fell in love with the place because we got to spend a month there I had time to properly check it out.
And I think swapping our view of Strangeways Prison, which was made famous by the Smiths, for the Hollywood sign, which you can see from the windows of Tom’s studio, allowed us to have a real sense of objectivity about our home, which is a big theme of the record. I finished the album lyrically in Los Angeles; I changed some of the songs last minute. It was great!
Meaning you changed parts of the songs, or did you switch out entire songs?
I mean a couple of whole themes. Certainly “An Imagined Affair” had a completely different theme lyrically; musically it was the same. It was kind of an eighty-percent there love song, but there was just something not ringing quite true about it, and being away in Los Angeles made me realize the person I was writing about I wasn’t in love with at all, I’d just imagined a love affair with, and that changed the theme of the song and it rang true a hell of a lot more with me. And I think being away from home and the person involved was really sort of integral to finishing that song in particular.
To me, it’s also funny that you say a lot of it is about home when there’s certain things that stand out on the album—like “Leaders of the Free World”—which obviously is about as we said Bush, but then there’s something like “Mexican Standoff” and my mind doesn’t jump to Manchester when I hear a phrase or a song like that, especially your Spanish version, which is excellent.
I’m Mexican so it was very amusing to hear you. (Laughs)
How is my Spanish?
It’s...very solid. I’ll put it that way.
Come on, be honest with me. I’ve spoken to you honestly! Does it feel clunky?
It does, but it’s charming! I’m not going to insincerely flatter you and say that you sound like a native—
But you gave it a shot and that’s what matters, you know?
(Laughs) Oh, well, cool—I’m glad you approve.
Oh, I definitely approve, especially because so many bands just don’t do things like that, so it was great to hear. Was that something that you did just on a whim?
Kind of…my friend Mark Thomas—who heads up the Soup Collective, who made the DVD—it was his idea. I don’t know any Spanish, as you can probably tell. But he was really keen on the idea as he had just moved to Barcelona when we started the record. So I said, “If you can get somebody to translate it and then you can write it out phonetically for me, of course I’ll give it a go just because it’s something I’ve never tried.” And that’s what happened. It took an awful long time for me to get it right. I don’t know if you’ve seen the DVD—it came free with the limited edition of the record in this country and I’m hoping the same’s gonna happen when it’s released over there—but if you watch the DVD, you’ll see me grinding my teeth and laughing at certain points. (Laughs) And that’s me wrestling with my Spanish.
Well, it is a tough language if you aren’t used to it, I’ll give you that, but you did a pretty excellent job. Let's go back to the rest of the album and particularly to “Leaders of the Free World”, both as a song and as the record's title, and back to the theme that you were talking about, which is home. Giving an album that title and drawing particular attention onto that song in particular seems to be a pretty bold move and definitely a political statement. It doesn’t seem like it’s something that you guys usually do, go out there with your political beliefs on your sleeves and rally people up.
No, it isn’t something we usually do, definitely.
So why was the choice made to give it this title and bring people’s attention onto that message?
Well, I’ve always followed politics and now I realize I used to follow it like most people follow football scores or soap opera; I knew all the characters involved, I was interested in predicting how things would turn out, I championed certain characters and not others. And then came the absolutely appalling nature of our involvement in the Middle East and the tinderbox reactionary shit that’s going on… The whole of the world is on high alert, and I think in those situations everybody, not just musicians, but everybody has a duty to their race to at least consider their political opinion. Interestingly, I’ve recently found that good friends of mine who are intelligent, freethinking individuals have started posing arguments for the Bush administration being the only cop on the block. And I’ve realized under scrutiny when their arguments break down that they’re no longer arguing what they believe but what they want to believe because the truth is just to fucking awful for them. I’m also very aware that the world’s media is very tightly controlled and I know we get angles on stories and stories are given attention in this country that they’re not in the States, which is very disturbing, and I’ve considered it my duty as a human being to at least put our hand up and say which camp we were in.
Yes, I guess you've got to use what you do. But a lot of people criticize entertainers for speaking out about these things, but you’re just using your talent and your work to state your beliefs, so why is that wrong for you but not for anyone else in another profession?
Yeah! It’s amazing to me—because of the lapdog nature of the leaders of my country where the Bush administration is concerned—that the decisions of such a small group of people are causing division in the community in my hometown. That is so wrong.
Right—so it became a way to bring it back to the personal and bring it back to where you live and what you do every day. It’s not just commentary on something big and far from you.
Yeah, which is why the song isn’t standing on a box waving a flag and stating what everybody knows. It’s dismissing these overgrown children and sending them to bed, and that’s the way I feel about it.
It’s incredibly daring in that regard; to take that stance seems a lot more political than some of these other statments that are more forthright using names and statistics. Yours is very blatantly, “Stop!”
Well, it’s ridiculous, it’s absolutely ridiculous, and as such they should be dismissed in every respect of the word.
Have you gotten any negative feedback like say from those friends that you mentioned or fans who are like, “How dare you?”
Naw, only because I’m so good in arguing. (Laughs)
Because you speak a little Spanish to them and they fall instantly under your spell. (Laughs)
Exactly. My clunky, charming Spanish always bails me out of a tight spot.
Let’s talk about Elbow having been together for so long, since compared to a lot of other bands that you guys usually get talked about alongside, you’ve been together so much longer than many of them. So tell me what you think has been the glue that's held the unit together over all this time. There’s been a lot of turmoil that could have potentially broken up other bands—being dropped by Island just as the band got started or that time when you lost your notebook with all the notes for the next album—you know, stuff that’s really hard to get through. But you stuck through it. What's the reason?
A real lust for music amongst all of us. And mutual respect. They never stop surprising me as musicians and we’ve grown very close. Even at times when perhaps individuals in the outfit haven’t been getting on with each other—and you know some of those times are years long in the past—there’s always been an overriding respect for each other as musicians and that’s such a strong bond. Of course now you’ve got the fact that we have our entire adult lives to date in each other’s company. I would say that probably my friendships with the other members of the band now forms a huge part of my personality! It’s bound to have influenced the way I respond to things and what I consider important. In many ways I’m closer to them than I am members of my own family.
You know, there’s so much balance that is required for a band today, especially one that’s successful as you guys are, in terms of business and creative decisions, then you get into stuff about social responsibility and your families. It’s a big juggling act.
Yeah. I have to say in the first place we were incredibly lucky to meet each other. And then there’s also just quite a high level of dedication; I think one member of the band has ever missed a rehearsal without explanation once, ever, in fifteen years.
(Laughs) And do you still chide that member for it?
Oh, yeah The example that was made of him...(Laughs) I don’t think that anybody’s ever trying it again!