Guy Garvey: 'In the old days, filling the Leeds Cockpit or Sheffield Leadmill was an enormous task'
With a run of arena dates in his diary for next year, Elbow singer Guy Garvey is reminscing with The Yorkshire Post about the kind of venues the band used to play back in their early days.
Before their first album Asleep in the Back came out in 2001, he says, the four-piece from Bury would have been content to fill modest clubs. “In terms of our perceptions they are different,” says the 49-year-old. “Filling venues like Leeds Cockpit and Sheffield Leadmill and The (Princess) Charlotte in Leicester was an enormous (task),” he says.
“I remember the first time people sang along to an Elbow song was at the Brighton Concorde 2,” he adds. “We reached the encore, and we’d come off and come on again although we didn’t really need to do that, but then we came off and literally hundreds of people started singing. We were going, ‘Did you hear that?’ We couldn’t believe it, that was extraordinary.
“Doves took us as their support, and we were such huge fans of theirs – and still are – but when we played the same venues the following year we couldn’t believe how small they felt. In our memories they were so enormous.
“Now we’ve got to do it all again, with these big rooms, the frisson of excitement coming towards these gigs is how can we put the best show on, can we fill this place with excitement, can we get people involved to the point where they’ll act like idiots? I’m already mulling it over.”
Given the intimate tone of many of Garvey’s lyrics, it is, he admits, a thrill to hear thousands of people singing them back to him. “You have to be careful because it also validates what you have written to hear people singing it,” he says. “If whether or not I was any good was measured in people singing along then my feet would’ve left the floor a few years ago.”
He remembers once receiving a card from the playwright Alan Bennett, who it turns out, is a fan of the band. “He said ‘it must be good to have so many people singing your words back to you’, and I suppose by then I was already taking it for granted, but for somebody like him, such a great man of words, to envy that element of the job, it reminded me to keep in mind how special it is. It’s such a privilege.”
Elbow’s arena-filling status has been hard won. In the late 1990s, and again in 2005, they found themselves dropped amid record label shake-ups. It took their fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid, to transform their fortunes. Containing the songs One Day Like This and Grounds For Divorce, it sold a million copies and earned them the Mercury Prize and two Ivor Novello awards.
Garvey says a close bond, forged when they were teenagers, helped them to weather more difficult times. “Mark (Potter, Elbow’s guitarist) started the band and invited everybody into it. When Craig (Mark’s keyboard-playing brother) had produced six albums with the band, only then did Mark tell him their father Gareth wouldn’t let Mark use the car to transport his gear to the rehearsal room unless he let his little brother in the band. So it’s like we’re family, there’s no two ways about it,” he says.
“It’s not the usual slightly queasy thing when you hear a band say, ‘These are my brothers, man’; in fact we are literally closer than family. Gareth and Cilla Potter in particular have been so supportive from day one. I challenge any parent to do what they did, to give them their university fund for equipment.
“If you’d asked me in 2005 (when things were difficult), ‘Could you ever see yourself leaving Elbow?’ I’d have said ‘Never’. And I guess if you’d asked the rest of them – even though (Richard) Jupp, our original drummer has left now – they’d have all said ‘Never’. You could never think of any circumstances under which you would because it’s fun.”
Elbow’s new album will be released next year. Although its title and release date is currently under wraps, Garvey believes it will “translate well” on stage. “I’m still working out what it is that we’ve done, but I know that it’s going to be fun to play live. We’ve made a punchy record which is full of groove and it’s also quite darky humorous,” he says.
The fact it’s their 10th studio record feels like a landmark, he adds. “It’s one of those things, it’s another achievement that once you’ve done it, it cannot be taken off you, like playing the Olympics closing ceremony or winning the Mercury (Prize), it’s done and it’s in history and that’s that. We got to 10 studio albums, that’s something I’m so enormously proud of – and we genuinely love each other and look after each other and most importantly we’re still alive.
“I think if we’re blessed in any way, it’s that we all find sleep deprivation funny. Rock stars age differently, they’ve been awake longer than everyone else.”
Mention of the Rolling Stones at this point sends Garvey off into another reminscence about supporting them in Cardiff a couple of years ago. Mick Jagger, he says, “wore us out, it was unbelievable, the whole crowd was knackered and he was still at it”.
Thematically the new album finds Garvey at a different point in life in midddle-age. “I’m happily married (to the actress Rachael Stirling) and I’ve got a lovely little lad, but nobody wants to know how I’ve fixed the odd water feature by putting my thumb over the spout over and over again, so I’ve ended up pulling on past disastrous relationships and grinding parts of my character down and adding steroids. The opening track of the album is a list of things I’ve been telling myself for years, but as I go through the list I separate from fact and enter into fiction and I kind of create this character that could be me under different circumstances.
“I’m very entertained when the frontmen of bands become maniacal gobs***e, lonesome b*****ds, and I imagine myself as one as the song gets darker and darker. And I’d say that’s probably true of a lot of the songs on the record – I’m taking truth and having fun with it, inflating it with steroids, so it gets pretty dark.
“Then of course, there’s an anthem to friendship, and these days I like to write for my son, thinking he’s going to listen to the songs with his dad, so there’s a bit of that. Craig, our producer, is at the height of his powers; he’s just so patient and inventive and carefree. It’s amazing to work with Craig still.
“Mark as a guitarist, he was a bit slow to get going and we had to go ‘Come on, mate!’, but by God, when he came out of the gate… and it was the same with everyone in the band. Al(ex Reeves) was more involved with the writing than ever before. This was the first record where our drummer Al was involved from the start, rather than working out his parts, so between him and Craig it’s a beat-heavy, groovy record and it was just an absolute pleasure. Every record is easier and easier, and this is no different.”
Last year, Elbow performed at the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Concert outside Buckingham Palace. Garvey says “it was quite funny more than anything else” that the BBC had placed his band’s portable dressing room next to Duran Duran’s. It was, he says, “a mistake” because “we really get on with them and we ended up having a massive laugh long before we went on”.
“Then you’ve got Hans Zimmer wandering around, Stephen Fry and George Ezra – you don’t get those people in the same place normally, so it was just really amusing, it was just fun. Then the aftershow was in the Palace and I think probably the most unusual thing about the whole day was if you wanted to go you had to wear trousers and shoes, to see the whole Elbow group in tuxedos was pretty wild. Actually, the hospitality at the Palace is brilliant; far from being stuffy, they’re really cool.”
Two months before the tour, Garvey will turn 50. He says it’s a milestone that he’s been anticipating for a while. “I’ve written so many songs looking forward to old age, now it’s actually looming I think, ‘Oh Christ!’" he jokes. “(But) my life’s improved the older I’ve got, and that’s never stopped being the case. I have to make some lifestyle changes, I could do with being a little bit fitter, but aside from that, I’m a very happy man.”
Aside from writing, recording and performing, Garvey continues to keep himself busy as a broadcaster. His Sky Arts show Guy Garvey: From The Vaults is due to return for a fifth series next year, but he credits its “very smart, funny, enterprising” director and producer Kerry Allison for doing all the donkey work sourcing archive music clips for the programme. “She puts all those together and I take all the credit,” he says. “She knows the bands and like and she’s got great taste in music and we have a right laugh.”
The TV show, he says, is “like a visual representation” of what he plays on his long-running BBC 6 Music radio programme, Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour, now in its 16th year. He reflects: “It’s funny, I’m afforded my job on TV and radio because of what I do in Elbow, so I’ve never had to learn how to present. I think the fact that I make mistakes constantly, announce the wrong songs and that kind of thing, it never stopped John Peel – and people like that.
“I just feel incredibly lucky, the BBC is very good, really, that curation is allowed to that degree on the 6 Music station. I was part of the handful of people who saved 6 Music when it was under threat of closure, so I feel very connected to it.
“Also, 6 Music was never given a remit. It was like, ‘Oh, digital radio? We need a new station. What should it be? It should be another music station’ – and that was the whole remit, so the fact is it’s organically grown into what it is. It’s become the first stop for musicians on the way up and the love that it gets internationally is really flattering.
“I played a clip from a guy in Beach House who said to have a national station play where you play cool music, the closest you get to it (in the US) is college radio which has a very limited reach. He said the fact that you have a national station dedicated to anything other than pop is amazing.”
In recent years, Garvey has also undertaken a couple of acting roles in Peter Kay’s Car Share and Bletchley Circle, in which his wife also appeared. It doesn’t sound like a job that he’d rush back to, however. “God, it’s boring,” he says. “There’s so much waiting around. I thought there was a lot of it in music, but acting’s not for me, really.
“Plus,” he adds wryly, “I’ve categorically been told by my wife and my brother (Marcus, who is a professional actor) that I’m lousy.”
Elbow play at First Direct Arena, Leeds on May 12, 2024. https://elbow.co.uk/