“It can start riots, it can end wars, and I’d be long gone if I’d not had it to lean on a few times” Elbow’s front man, Guy Garvey, talks to Clashmusic.com about the power of music.
To my ear The Seldom Seen Kid, is Elbow’s best album to date. It has a depth and focus hitherto unequalled, and an earthier, organic feel to it, with strains of gospel creeping in at certain points. Current single, Grounds For Divorce, has to be right up there with their classic track, Fallen Angel, when it comes to adhering itself like a limpet to your auditory cortex. After 17 years of making music together, I ask Elbow’s lead singer, Guy Garvey, what makes this new album different.
All music will be free within three years
“What happened differently this time was once we had our start, middle and end songs, we started listening to it as an album. Of course, we’ve made albums before, but [this time we were] inspired by – I can actually pinpoint the moment – there was a fantastic series of documentaries called the ‘Seven Ages of Rock’, and there was one episode on the art rockers, that began with The Velvet Underground and went through Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, David Bowie, and ended with Peter Gabriel’s, Genesis. We watched it together and it was so inspiring, it made us look at the record differently and so, arrogantly or not, we said to ourselves, ‘That’s where we’re from. That’s our heritage, musically’. Those were the bands I was listening to when I decided I wanted to be in music, and the same for a lot of lads in the band. So we started to write the album, linear: we’d finish track two and say, ‘Right, where does track three go? What do we want to hear?’ and we wrote it, as a body of work, like that. So there are great tracks – really, really good songs – that didn’t make the album, because the balance would have been out.”
Elbow are clearly a prolific enough group of songwriters to dispose of material that others would give their eye teeth for (although it has been hinted that there will be an album of b-sides and rarities in the future) in order to preserve a specific vision and theme. When asked where he finds his inspiration, Guy says, “Musically – everywhere from Ella Fitzgerald to the Cold War Kids. I’ve been listening to more music then I ever have done before because I have a little radio show on a Sunday night, so I get lots and lots of suggestions for music that people think I’ll like, and it’s led me down some amazing roads: I‘ve come across whole genres I’ve never thought of.”
“Personally – it’s been a great couple of years; it’s been an awful couple of years. On the down side, more business problems: four major record deals in four albums. If your music isn’t immediately commercial, it’s difficult to get funding, these days, but we’ve found some top people at (Polydor imprint) Fiction that believe in what we’re doing. That was frustrating, getting off one label and on to another: that was two years, while we were making the album.
Also, a very good friend of ours, Brian Glancy, died in January 2006, which was awful because he was a young man and very popular and very loved by the band, so a lot of the record is about that. On the positive side, [band members] Mark and Craig have both had sons, so there’s two more beautiful, healthy little boys running around the place, and fatherhood does great things to people. The questions that both fatherhood and losing a friend throw up are all to do with mortality. Also, I fell in love and that’s fucking marvellous. [The album] deals with all those [elements], and it’s ended up half, a celebration of friendship and life and love, and half, quite a difficult journey.” Guy tales off for a moment before adding, “So it’s all fucking in there!”
As Guy mentions, Elbow have, fairly recently, moved from an ostensibly indie label to a major one – quite the reverse of what a lot of artists are trying to do right now: Radiohead and Prince are prime examples of artists taking things into their own hands, empowered by the shift in dominance from the major labels to the Internet.
I remember really enjoying sex and feeling terrible about it afterwards
Do you think musicians still need the major record labels record labels?
“With all due respect, both the artists you mention can afford it. We’ve not sold anywhere as near as many records and don’t have the luxury of choosing ethically where to release our stuff. We’re still at a stage where we need to get our music to people who haven’t heard it yet. Too many bands say, ‘I make the music for myself, man. If anyone else likes it, that’s a bonus.’ Too many bands say it, and none of them are telling the truth. You make music because you want people to hear it, and you make music because you enjoy the process, but you want people to know you are capable of it. To show off, essentially.” So, who do you feel your audience is, then? What type of person do you write songs to impress?
“You can only write about what you know: I’ve never written about poverty because I’ve never known it. I’ve only written about politics in the terms of the same national frustrations that lead us all to oppose the Government’s war-mongering: you’ve got to put your hand up and be counted when it’s essential to. But, mostly I write about life and love and death and friendship and desire and frustration, temptation. There’s a song on the record about overcoming Catholicism in order to enjoy sex, which took a while.” To overcome it, or to write about it? “To overcome it… But that was years ago. The song’s called An Audience With The Pope, and it’s deliberately blasphemous. I just remember at 16, as a frustrated Catholic, really enjoying sex and feeling terrible about it afterwards.”
Read part two of our musings with Elbow frontman Guy Garvey here.