Guy Garvey does not suffer fools gladly. But, oddly enough, people are really starting to like him when he’s angry. As on Giants of All Sizes, the singer’s prickly, decidedly reactionary new treatise with his Mancunian ensemble Elbow, which opens on the despondent “Dexter & Sinister” line “I don’t know Jesus anymore” and just gets nastier, more despondent. Trump. Brexit. Corporate greed. The persistent right-wing denial of climate change, which is hastening mankind’s looming extinction. Don’t get him started on his litany of current societal ills, he growls, sounding as menacing as those juggernaut polar bears on HBO’s His Dark Materials. He’s still out there, fighting the good fight against stupidity and arrogance, he adds, via his weekly BBC 6 Music radio broadcast, Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour. And up until election day, he was using Twitter to announce his plans for the current British government: “I’ll be voting Labour in order to vote this lot out.” (Sadly, it didn’t go his way and Conservative Boris Johnson was returned to power.)
“So we’ve made this record, and it’s a response to what’s going on,” says the lyricist, 45, who just became a concerned dad with the birth of Jack, he and his wife Rachael Stirling’s son of two years. “And it’s not what people expect from us, and it’s not what we’re known for. But it’s impossible to offer any positivity—we’ve got to reflect how bleak the times are. And what’s happening is, we really didn’t think the record would connect because it is so different from what we’re known fo. But because it’s the era of fake news and untrustworthy people, I think people are relieved that someone’s saying something true, and it’s helping the album connect. There’s a collective mourning going on in the U.K., and I feel very much a part of it.”
Hence, Giants screeds like “Empires” (“Empires crumble over time”), “Doldrums” (“You found you a bona fide synthesized savior”) and the thundering “White Noise White Heat” (with the frustrated, perhaps universal conclusion, “I just wanna get high”). There are crackling embers among the ashes (the music-box-delicate “Weightless,” a lilting ballad called “My Trouble” and the snare-brushed perambulator “The Delayed 3:15”). But mostly, it’s a desolate landscape Garvey paints, much to his own chagrin. He checked in with Paste before the holidays, not serving any warm and fuzzy Christmas cheer.
Paste: On top of all this, your father recently passed away. Are you an orphan now?
Guy Garvey: I’ve still got a mother. I nearly lost her this year—she had an accident, and it was touch and go for awhile. But she’s fighting back at 84. But two of my best friends died last year, and it was within eight days of one another. One of them was Scott Alexander, who ran The Temple Bar in Manchester, and the other was Jan Oldenburg, who ran the Night and Day Cafe. And Jan’s death was sudden, but he was in his seventies, so he had a good long life, like my dad. Scott, however, was only in his early forties, and he left behind two teenage kids. And he was such a beautiful guy and such a good friend to me and the band. He had lung cancer, but it was fast and frightening and cruel. And the best thing about Scott was, Scott and Jan were really good friends, because they were both rock and roll bar proprietors, and supporters of young people, young artists, young musicians. And if you own a bar, sometimes it can get the better of you. But Jan was always there for Scott to guide him, and was a bit of a father figure for him. And the last time I saw Jan, we took Scott out to lunch to distract him from his treatments, but he only managed a few mouthfuls of wine for a half hour, until he was exhausted and had to go home. And once he was gone, Jan said to me, “This is all wrong — Scott isn’t supposed to go before me.” And then Jan dropped dead that Sunday, and Scott died the following week. So I carried two coffins and gave two eulogies at the same chapel in eight days.
And how did your father pass?
Garvey: He was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer in January of last year, and he died in March. And he was comfortable. He never felt any pain, didn’t lose his appetite, didn’t lose a hair on his head through the chemo. And when he died, he was surrounded by all my sisters and my brother, and his grandchildren, singing to him and laughing with him. And he said to me that in those last two weeks, he had never felt more loved. So it was as good as it could’ve been—he was 84. So I don’t have any regrets, and we didn’t leave anything unsaid. The only one thing that’s fascinating is, it seems he had a half brother that nobody knew about, and he’s like somebody out of a Mike Leigh film. We all found out at his funeral. So we’re keeping in touch and I’m going to go see him. He’s in Canada, so I’m looking forward to that.
On the upside of things, you have a son now, Jack.
Garvey: And he’s a wonderful little fellow and so much fun. He’’s two and a half, and his favorite thing at the moment is, whenever you say, “Please don’t do that, Jack,” he’ll say, “But I could…” He’s learning really elaborate ways to say no. I’m thinking of turning all of his complaints into a punk song. Can you imagine jagged punk chords with “I don’t want anything! Anymore!” Or “You’re not listening!” These are his, and he isn’t even published yet. So we’ll get to keep all the cash.
But Brexit hit you pretty hard, right?
Garvey: And it still is. I mean, now I don’t care whether we’re part of Europe or not. The condition in the country is so upsetting and aggressive, I just want it to be over, one way or another. And I think most people are beginning to feel that. Theresa May was very brave to take it on, or very arrogant, depending on your point of view. But now we’ve got our own little Trump, Boris Johnson, and he’s doing exactly the same stuff, trotting out wedge issues and hammering away as hard as he can. He is an appalling human being. He once said that Muslim women remind him of letterboxes or bank robbers. And he gets away with this shit. He’s a fucking evil bastard.
Is there an honest politician left anywhere?
Garvey: No. It’s so crazy. I think people are actually confused about what honesty is anymore. People think it’s okay to be immoral now. Where are their values? But we’ve seen this kind of bourgeois attitude before—right before the French revolution. Nobody wants to be a leader anymore, with all the scrutiny of the media on them. They don’t want to sacrifice themselves and all their family’s private goings-on. Not just for the sake of leadership. So the ones who are left are real sociopaths who don’t give a fuck. Even the good guys are sociopaths!
You moral compass seems to still be functioning. Have you ever considered running for office?
Garvey: Only in the same way as when I see a good movie, I momentarily want to be a director. So, uh, not seriously, no.