Catching up with Elbow

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Few singers revere Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelejah” enough to expound upon the nuances of more than 120 remakes of the song, as Guy Garvey did on his BBC radio program in 2008. That same year, Garvey’s band Elbow released The Seldom Seen Kid and its own sleeper anthem, “One Day Like This” —a middling chart hit and Brit Award snagger currently experiencing a heady afterlife in Apple commercials, at sporting events, and as walk-on music for U2 concerts. Although the ditty’s Brahmsian strings, tender vocals, and blokey optimism make it as worthy of exposition as any Cohen number (Best song ever with “holy cow” in the chorus? Discuss!), Elbow’s not a one-song band. The quintet’s brand-new Build a Rocket Boys! (in stores Apr. 12, available digitally now) is a fitting primer for freshmen fans, for whom “The River” and “Open Arms” should prove that these fellas from Ramsbottom are so much more than the missing link between Peter Gabriel and Radiohead.

Garvey called on the eve of the album’s release to talk about his favorite instrument and how his own childhood influenced the new single, “Lippy Kids.”

Paste: After the success of The Seldom Scene Kid, do you feel like people are expecting you to deliver a worldwide hit with Build a Rocket Boys!?

Guy Garvey: You can’t completely ignore the fact that when you’ve had a bit of success, people—especially financiers—are expecting more of the same, but we didn’t let it change the way we wrote the album. There are a couple of songs that should do well on the commercial level, but at the same time, it’s another Elbow record, with all its light and shade, its stories. We had lots and lots of fun making this record. There was nothing like the pressure on this record on any record that was made in the past because we knew it was actually coming out [laughs]. It was a bit of joy.

Paste: Tell me about your classical-music approach, the pristine vocals, the instrumentation, the love of dynamics. Are you meticulous in the studio to get it just right?

Garvey: We’ve decided that we should be as minimal as possible initially. After the songs are written, then we decide how to frame them. We’ve really stripped songs back to their root essentials, beat-wise, then we’ve added these great big swashes of color in terms of the Hallé Youth Choir that we used and the string section that we used. We have to find things in the big room [studio] so they really have a depth to them. It was almost like we were crocheting at the edge of a huge canvas for a long time and then suddenly hitting it with huge slashes of color and a big wide brush. It’s got quite a bit of detail, but ultimately we wanted it to feel like a full-sketchbook, like a well-formed diary rather than a shiny concept like The Seldom Seen Kid was. We’re very proud of that record, but it’s grand and so very ambitious, and we wanted this album to sound like a mixture of diary entries or sketches.

Paste: What is your favorite instrument?

Garvey: Well, when you said it just then, the oboe came to mind. I’ve never given that answer before, so I guess the oboe.

Paste: The Guardian has predicted that “With Love” will be the big track on this record.

Garvey: Yeah? Cool. Well, I was on my way to work and it was a beautiful day, and I thought, “We don’t have anything that’s sort of unapologetically positive on the record,” so we threw that song together very quickly, and it was so much fun getting all the boys [in the band] singing. That might well be a sneaky little favorite of the professional crowd.

Paste: One of Elbow’s trademarks is your ability to use very simple vernacular and phrasing with anthemic melodies. Who else would write a song called “Lippy Kids”? Tell me about the lyrics for that song.

Garvey: My contemporaries, my friends, are having families. And I was talking to one of my friends and he said he wanted to move. And I asked him why. He said he’d been threatened by some 10-year-olds that live near him and they followed him home. He wasn’t concerned for himself, but he’s got young kids and they were with him. He had to circle the block and eventually they stopped following him. He didn’t know what they were capable of, those boys. I was thinking, “What’s going on here?” And this is making him want to live in a different area? I was a little shit when I was a kid. I threw snowballs at people’s windows in order to get them to come to the door; I’d pull the heads off people’s roses and throw them, you know, shit that kids do. [When I’d do that], they used to come to the door and say, “I know where you live, Guy Garvey.” That doesn’t happen so much anymore. You don’t know your neighbors. Kids are being demonized by just standing on the corner and talking. Back when I was standing on that corner, I was finding out who I was. I probably could have used all the encouragement I could get. I’m trying to remind people my age that everybody was there and not that long ago. I’m still in the same gang I was in at that age. I have very fond memories of my first kiss, and my first cigarette and all those kinds of things that you do. I guess [the song’s] just celebrating that.

Paste: Elbow has been together so long that you really are that gang, aren’t you? Ideas become grander statements when you know people on that intimate level like family members or band members.

Garvey: Yeah, 20 years for us in June. So much of being in a band is being in a gang.

Paste: You recorded some of Build a Rocket Boys! on tour. Portable studio? How was that?

Garvey: On the one hand, it’s a way of killing the dead hours that you’re waiting to go on stage or waiting to sound check. On the other hand, it makes sure that you don’t have just a big blank canvas when it comes time to make another record. We came up with lots and lots of starting points and that’s always what happens. We get 40 or 50 fine little ideas, and we start processing them. One by one, they don’t make the cut, and you end up with your final 10, which are your best, hopefully. You try every idea until you run out.

Paste: Are there any that turned out the way you thought they would right when you first started writing them?

Garvey: “The Night Will Always Win”—that was the first and only performance of the music and the vocal. There’s not a great deal of production on that track. “Lippy Kids” was a strange one. The music started as a jam on Christmas. I found the melodies on the piano, which is unusual because I don’t really write on the piano. We took the drums off of it and replaced it with a rhythmic synth. We didn’t have the chorus for a long time. It was almost like the rest of the album was missing a centerpiece and then when [guitarist Mark Potter] sent me the guitar chord to make the chorus. The way I sing “build a rocket boys”—lower at first and then higher and harder—that was naturally how I sang it at first. “High Ideals” was the last to be finished.

Paste: You have perfect pitch and amazing tone—were you classically trained?

Garvey: I don’t have training of any kind. I was an altar boy, which is not the same as a choirboy. But I grew up with five older sisters who were always singing around the house, and I always wanted to join in. They wouldn’t let me initially because I didn’t make the grade; I guess that was a motivation for wanting to do it—sort of a stubborn belief that I could sing. I do everything by ear and don’t read music or anything like that. I just really, really enjoy the human voice. I really want to write an album for women to sing. I just love it. And I don’t have a female voice. I wish I did sometimes, I guess [laughs].

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