Photo: Shirlaine Forrest
When Elbow released ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ in 2008 for many it was the first they had heard of the Bury band, as the album’s singles ‘Grounds For Divorce’ and ‘One Day Like This’ became sing-along favourites on stage and on radio. But as every Elbow fan knew, the band’s fourth album was the culmination of almost two decades hard graft. Two decades which had seen them battle with record labels and creatively with each other as they tried to settle on a musical direction.
But times have changed. Elbow’s ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ arrives next month with a very different level of expectation, so what better time than to hear from frontman Guy Garvey about the album and just how the band’s lives have changed.
'Build A Rocket Boys!' is based on your life when you were 22. What was your inspiration for returning to that period?
“I've very recently moved closer to my family. I've always lived in and around Manchester - I've been living in the city centre for some years – but I bought a house on the street I actually used to live on with Pete Turner ten or eleven years ago, and I'm moving back more towards family life. I'm considering having a family of my own for the first time so it was a concious decision because having realised all our dreams and ambitions in the last few years, it feels like – maybe on a subconscious level – that I wanted to round it all up.
“We've got five albums that we're really, really proud of, and I think that might be a body of work – I think we might be moving on musically next time.”
'Lippy Kids' feels like a very prominent song to have released first and tells the story of children who are being demonised in the press. Do you feel like children aren't allowed to live their childhood now?
“I think kids are switched on in a way that I wasn't, and I think they're exposed to things I wasn't – mainly through the internet. But they still have to learn to be men and women, and what it means to be a man or what it means to be a woman. At such a fragile stage as when they first venture outside of their parent's houses and gather on street corners and find out what they believe, and what they like and what they are, that's exactly the wrong time for the Daily Mail to be screaming about them all being potential criminals – it's just ridiculous.
“I wasn't purely motivated by that, I just generally have really good memories of it, and I'm still in the same gang that I was twenty years ago so it's easy to write about.”
Elbow, 'Lippy Kids'.
Can you just talk about how the album started coming together? I understand that 'Jesus Was A Rochdale Girl' who kick started things.
“We've done that for the last four albums, actually, this place in Mull that our friend Pam owns – lovely woman is Pam. We went up there just to get our heads together, just to see what page we were all on because when you're touring you're never alone together, and you can't really talk freely and openly about you're musical ambitions when even one person is in the room who's not in the band.
“So we just went up to Mull and played each other songs, and 'Jesus Was A Rochdale Girl' happened very naturally, for me, while I was working hard at lyrics for other things. I very quickly scribbled the words down to 'Jesus...', and I just listed them. It's kind of a retrospective diary entry of me when I was that age. I can remember it so clearly so it's almost like a parallel you know, like seeing yourself at that age.”
After that, did things come together quite quickly when you moved down to Blueprint Studios in Manchester?
“To be honest with you, and so that everyone could be around new babies because everybody's got kids apart from me now, we did three day weeks. I've got my radio programme as well, that takes a day to do, so we did three day weeks for the first six months and then stepped it up a bit in the second half of the project. This record has taken just over a year which is very fast for an Elbow record.”
Were you conscious that you had to get an album out following the success of 'The Seldom Seen Kid' or were you under no pressure in that respect?
“Well because we’d spent more time doing ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ because it did so well and because of the awards, we were conscious that it would have been three years that we’d released an album by the deadline of March this year. So yeah, it was a conscious effort to make sure we had enough time to make the record that we wanted to make. We just said no to everything else for a whole year to make sure we had the time we needed.
“Whereas ‘Seldom...’ was a big construct - it was like a big piece of grand architecture - we always said we wanted this to have the feel of a full sketchbook.”
Craig Potter has once again produced the album. Did that feel like a natural decision to take again after ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’?
“There wasn’t a question from our point view that if Craig wanted it that way, then we should do it that way, and he’s so much more relaxed and confident because he won several awards for ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’. He’s not just a good producer, he’s a recognised producer now. So yeah, it was just a lovely thing that really naturally happened.
“He enjoys it, he puts in the work you know. We never rule out the idea of using somebody else but we just didn’t do it this time”.
Elbow, 'Neat Little Rows'.
Like all your previous albums, is it fair to say ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ is an album to consume in one listen, even though ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ contained big singles like ‘One Day Like This’ and ‘Grounds For Divorce’ it was still something of a single body of work.
“Yeah, it wasn’t even discussed within the lads really, it was just a natural thing. Commerciality, of course, is a concern; we’d be lying if we said we never thought about it, but it’s one of the few things to consider - it’s never been a motivating factor. If anything, it’s just a bit of a pain in the arse when you get to that stage and you want to move on.”
Looking back at 'The Seldom Seen Kid' was there ever a period where you thought, 'Wow, this has gone much further than we imagined it was going to'?
“It was ridiculous. There was a piece of good news every day for a year - that we’d won an award or that somebody famous loved our stuff or that somebody wanted to work with us. There was good news every day for a year after 19 years of having barely any, so yeah, it was ridiculous. It was like, ‘God, it actually does happen still.’
“I don’t think it’s something anybody could repeat, it was just such a weird thing. The groundswell of good will for us winning the Mercury Prize was perhaps the pinnacle of the whole thing. The fact that the following day there was nobody bitching about the decision in the papers, I was astonished. I got all the papers on the train and nobody said...there’s always contention after the Mercurys, yet unanimously everyone said yeah it was the right thing for Elbow to win. Honestly, buckets of tears on the way home - we couldn’t believe it really. Part of this record is still celebrating that if I’m honest, that’s another reason it’s retrospective because I’m very very proud of the lads.”
Your fan base was also completely behind your success, there was a genuine feeling of delight that you’d finally made it, and not a hint of resentment.
“It was just so lovely, and because of that - because of the people that have been with us from the start - that was the reason behind the decision to put ‘Lippy Kids’ on YouTube as soon as it was finished because we just wanted them to know that we weren’t going to turn into a stadium band. If I was an Elbow fan then I’d like to know that they were still making albums first and thinking about the dollar second, which is exactly the way it is. Don’t get me wrong, little Elbows have to eat, and I’m not saying we’ll never go after the dollar - that’s not the truth, we will - but not to the cost of our albums. It ruins a band’s back catalogue to do a stinker, doesn’t it? So we’re not going to do that.”
When I last spoke to you before the release of ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’, we spoke about how being in Elbow had felt like a battle of survival. Do you still feel that way or do you feel more secure now?
“My nephew found a YouTube video of a Barfly programme that was on Channel 4 that Dermot O’Leary hosted from the year 2000, and it’s me and Pete talking about having just lost a record deal with Island. Apart from the fact that I’m skinny as a f*cking whippet, the pair of us are so cockey and so spikey and so disillusioned, and that was ten years ago. So yeah, we’re so much more comfortable now. My life improves the older I get."
'Build A Rocket Boys!' is released on March 7.
Elbow - live