Poker Face: elbow’s Guy Garvey Interviewed

On their new album and upcoming tour...

When CLASH is patched through to Guy Garvey there’s a slight weariness in his voice. Rehearsals for elbow’s upcoming tour are going well, he reassures us – so well, in fact, that the band went straight to the pub after last night’s session, and he’s suffering the consequences of being the last man standing.

Currently seeking out his guaranteed, no-fail hangover solution – lamb nihari, some garlic naans, and a can of fanta for those who want to know – he’s gathering his thoughts, and searching for a takeaway. “Nothing can survive that” he laughs, and you detect a knowing smile emerging on the other side of the line.

Of course, he’s got every reason to be confident. New album ‘Audio Vertigo’ is fantastic, containing the kind of strip-the-paint-from-the-walls energy you’d expect from a band on their debut, not three decades in. Pulsating with rhythmic energy, there’s a newfound directness in their work, mirrored to the dark humour of Guy Garvey’s pen.

Ahead of their massive UK tour CLASH chewed the fat with the elbow frontman and 6Music broadcaster, moving from advances in the band techniques, subliminal in-jokes, and a piece of life advice from Neil Finn.

Congrats on the album! It’s genuinely, genuinely superb.

Thanks! It was a lot of fun to put together. We just tried something different. We threw fun into the mix! And also we had the youthful exuberance of a drummer who wants to drum. We invited him into the creative process a bit more. In order to survive this long we’ve had to change the way we’ve worked several times – if we were stood in the same positions in the same room for 30 years it just wouldn’t have worked. 

I mean, after about 10 years we realised that we used to fall out in the rehearsal room, because if you’re shouting to be heard over some drums then your body thinks you’re angry already. And there’s no way to be civil to each other! Then we started wearing headphones in the room. Then we’d have days off, to mix up the people in the room. With this one we’ve come full circle, with amplifiers gathered around a drumkit.

Also, the last one was so subtle, and so autobiographical in its lyrics, and so tender – on account of when it was written and why – this one was like… oh fucking hell! Let’s not reflect what’s going on in the world. Let’s not dwell on the things that we’re all worried about as parents and as people. Let’s offer distraction and have some fun. And as it happens I’ve got a very dark sense of humour.

The drumming is really strong on this record, does that push the songwriting to a different place?

Well, Al is so animated when you’re in a room with me. He was nicknamed by our dear friend and long-time assistant, Athena, the boy who can’t not drum. He once went to the toilet, right? And it took about 20 minutes… and it turns out he’d run across the road and sand himself up for a jam session. So when you’re in a room someone like that the energy is coming off him and he’s so gleeful that he rubs off on you. 

And also all the boys… you know some men hit their mid-forties and turn into grumpy fuckers. But with us, everybody’s settled into their happy selves. We’re all happy with our life choices. I think we have more of a laugh than we’ve ever had.

That’s a superb advert for middle aged life you’re giving there, Guy!

I mean, yeah! And even without discussing it, we’re all keenly aware that if we stopped doing this right now we’d still be defined by it, in the great sum-upping. There’s no mountains to climb, let’s flip some switches and have some fun.

Me and Pete, our sons are bosom buddies. We took them to Nerf Gun World in town – brilliant, just shooting each other. The lads are into it, you can’t get a word in edgeways. Every single building we went past, we had a memory of something funny that had happened in it. We didn’t need to say anything – we just burst out laughing! And it’s like that onstage. We only have to look at each other.

‘Things I’ve Been Telling Myself For Years’ is a great opener, how did that one come about? We it early in the process or a little later?

Erm… (gargantuan pause) Sort of in the middle? We went on this two week writing retreat to a place called Migration studios – it’s in the Cotswolds, this beautiful place… it’s in a farmyard. It’s a labour of love studio by this guy Dicky. He built it all himself. Now, normally in a position like that, we finish the songs we’ve already started. But instead of doing that, we started more songs until we had a raft of about 30. We took them all back to our studio in Salford, and I was sat at the Vox organ – mind you, I can only play with one finger – and I wrote that very simple, ploddy, elephantine riff which gives the drums loads of room.

The lyric came two, three weeks later. The line at the end of the song – “I haven’t paid for cabs or beers / Or met a cunt in 20 years” – I actually said that to my ex once. We met a guy at a party who I hated, and she said: “He was nice!” And I said, God, maybe I just haven’t met a cunt in 20 year! Halfway through the writing, I thought it was more fun to paint a picture of myself as extremely unpleasant maniacal, possibly cokey bastard. And I thought that was more fun than telling the truth!

The last record was extremely autobiographical, but this one feels like these fictional stories. Do you enjoy plotting these storylines?

I really love it! I couldn’t tell you what’s changed that’s allowed me to do it. Tom Waits has long been my favourite lyricist. He started as one character – this little ol’ barfly, semi-Bukowski thing. Then he meets his wife, and separates out into different characters – the hobo, the madman, the sailor. I’ve done it once or twice in the past but it didn’t feel very authentic. All the characters on this album are based in truth or reality in some way. Often they’re not my life experiences. I’m happily married with a verdant garden and a happy son… I don’t think people want to hear about that! I have been in disastrous, destructive drug-fuelled relationships, and I thought maybe they do want to hear about that… and why not take even a bit further and paint some pretty bleak pictures.

Also, I have to bear in mind that I’m part of a creative process, I’m not the driving force. 

There’s a dark sense of humour here – that frames the record, this leering grin above the madness.

It’s always been there. Especially on the first record. That can be really dark. I had some therapy about 10 years ago, and when the session finished it turned out the therapy had been an elbow fan all along. And she said, can I ask you a question? Why don’t you write really dark shit like your first album? So I’ve had it in my mind all along.

When we went back to audiences, and hearing them sing your words, that led naturally to songs like ‘One Day Like This’. But it’s really nice to go back to that fork in the road.

You mention you’re one of five voices in the band, how does that lend itself to the creative process? Is it a lot of jamming, for example?

Well, Craig hates jamming. Hates it. The rest of us love it! (laughs) These started from jams… and then went all around the houses. Lyrically – when the first album came out, the Guardian gave us a very generous two-page review, and the writer guessed the meaning behind all the lyrics. And the lads read the review, and went: oh, is that what the songs are about? I went, yeah! I thought there was just this gentlemanly silence, and they understood it all. 

So now, I try to include them. The stock question is, what do you get off this? Because there’s no wrong answer to that. Sometimes they challenge it. But that just pushes me to do it better.

It’s a very dynamic record, but it’s also quite short, quite punchy.

We wanted it to be concise, yeah. Just because we haven’t done that before. One conversation happened right at the start, and I said let’s make a beaty record. So Craig and Al met up in London, and did a day together, coming up with grooves… and fired them out to everybody. And that started it all rolling.

‘Knife Fight’ for example started as a groove at Al’s flat in London. I started singing about this knife fight in Istanbul that I saw, which was kind of comic. These two middle-aged guys started fighting, and one stabbed the other… and I saw them a while later and they were sitting and laughing about it! And that came to mind because the music reminded me of… oh I can’t remember. It’s a guy called Sonny something…

King Sunny Ade?

No. He might be Sonny Williams… the music is raw, and swaggery. And a bit… New England…

Billy Bragg?

Oh no, an American. A Bostonian.

Dean Wareham?

No. (laughs) This is funny. It’s (sings) ROADRUNNER ROADRUNNER!

Jonathan Richman?!

Good shot! (laughs) Well Sonny Williams or whatever has a bit of that in him. The music brought up this knife fight, I’d forgotten about for years. I started telling my wife about all this, and after a while with me following her around speaking to her she can be quite snippy… and she basically told me to ‘fuck off’ with her eyes. So I wrote the chorus about us communicating badly to teach her a lesson! (laughs) Wielding my power!

This feels like a record that will really come into its own in the live environment.

It’s a lovely thing, songs that you assume will work live often don’t… snd then songs that you’re thinking “should we try that one?” come into their own. It’s a little bit of both. I think we’ll end up playing about half the album – which is unusual for us. We can’t wait to get out there. We’ve got the strings and the horn section in today – it’s great, you don’t get to hear it all until this stage. Can’t wait to get out there.

The kids are on the record, will they be performing with you?

(Deeply relieved sigh) No, they won’t be.

You know what, we met Neil Finn once after a gig in Auckland. Went for dinner with him. He asked us, do you ever take your family on the road? And we went, well… no, not so far anyway. And he went: don’t! It split my fucking band up! (laughs)

‘Audio Vertigo’ is out now.

Catch elbow at the following shows:

9 London The O2 Arena
10 Birmingham Resorts World Arena
11 Glasgow OVO Hydro
12 Leeds First Direct Arena
14 Manchester Co-Op Live
15 Nottingham Motorpoint Arena

Words: Robin Murray

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