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Manchester Guardians

Elbow’s Guy Garvey talks about his hometown, the band’s latest album, and reaching out to the smart and sensitive kids.

Words: Jason Paris
Photo: Steven Kendall

Stream video from Elbow's DVD Leaders of the Free World, released 21 Feb 2006:

"Forget Myself"
"Mexican Standoff"
"The Stops"

Elbow’s headlining slot at UKULA’s recent Bright Lights Festival in Toronto gave Jason Paris the chance to track down front-man Guy Garvey. They chatted at a café in The Distillery District prior to the show.

Tonight’s show will be performed in a location that was, in its heyday, the largest whiskey distillery in the British Empire. Do you think it’s an appropriate location for your music to be experienced?
Most certainly. I’m a whiskey drinker and a lot of our lyrics were written and influenced by the aiding and abetting of alcohol.
Your music seems to ooze Manchester. How does one make songs that can be intensely local in subject, yet universally loved?
I think lyrics are one of the tools of the box in order to try and get the feeling across. I don’t think it matters if you use local imagery as long as it’s part of the bigger picture. Basically, anywhere with a drinking culture is going to relate.
“Station Approach” sets the stage for the album and is about the road leading down from Piccadilly Station which, correct me if I’m wrong, is now a symbol of a regenerated Manchester?
Indeed. If you are on foot, it’s the first thing you see when you get into Manchester. You are on eye-level with the tops of most of the buildings when you come out of the station. And then you sort of very gently curve down into the heart of the city. So it’s sort of like the feeling I get when I see breaking daylight.
Is this regeneration of Manchester working, and what is it like being a citizen of Manchester in the year 2005?
It’s amazing! It’s a vibrant, safe and multicultural place. We have one of the largest student populations in Europe so every autumn you get this new influx of young people. There’s really interesting sorts of subcultures setting up all over town. There are loads of international scenes cropping up everywhere, but united in music and culture. I love it.
Touring rigorously has allowed you to see more of the world than you probably would have otherwise. Has seeing other cities changed your view of your hometown?
When you’ve been away it gives you increased objectivity. It makes you realize what parts of your culture are completely unnecessary, but it also makes you realize which parts are missing. So it can be as disappointing to come back as it can be exciting. I love being back in Manchester, but I’ve also been very disappointed by what’s happening nationally. I’m much more proud to be from Manchester than I am to be from Great Britain. That’s for sure.
“Forget Myself” references, perhaps unceremoniously, a local Manchester bouncer. Does this person know, and if not, what would he think if he found out? No, he doesn’t know. If he did I doubt I’d hear him coming!
Your latest album was primarily written on the road – efficiency, or more an effort to change the process?
A little of both, but more than anything it was so we wouldn’t have to leave and then re-enter a frame of mind. You know, the hardest thing about writing music is “starting to write music again”. After the first record it was just awful trying to write again. It’s not like riding a bicycle. Not at all.
Speaking of changing the process, this album was also self-produced. Why? And would you do it again?
We definitely would. Despite having a really positive experience with Ben Hiller, the producer still works for the people paying. I’m not saying that Ben was their man on the inside, but you still have to account for his daily work. And that meant giving him regular workdays which sometimes meant giving him a song before we felt it was finished. In short, it’s a lot easier to bury a song that isn’t doing it for you if there isn’t a company man in the room.
While some think of Elbow as a new band, you’ve actually been at this for 14 years. What has being in a band this long taught you about people?
That people change every couple of years and that you aren’t the same person you were 18 months ago. I keep very detailed journals and I can look back upon some of the thoughts I’ve had about certain members of the band and they are often gobsmackingly ridiculous. We all have to really be quite diplomatic, though, with each other, but overwhelming respect for our music has always held us together. I really do love my band members.
Leaders of the Free World was released to universal acclaim. Does it ever worry you that you won’t be able to raise the bar next time?
Yes, it does. It was such a great year making it I was terrified that people wouldn’t like it. I got a great piece of advice, though, during the making of Cast of Thousands that helped me through it. A friend told me, “You know, you’ve got one really good record….you ARE allowed to fail and you’ll still be given another opportunity.” Somebody saying the words, “you are allowed to fail” was just like summer rain, and it’s something that I keep in mind.
In the most political moment of the album you sing, “Passing the gun from father to feckless son / We’re climbing a landslide where only the good die young”. I’m curious to know if you get tired answering questions about that line?
No, I don’t get bothered about answering political questions. It’s the only vaguely political song on the record and we made it the title track for exactly that reason. Basically to make sure everyone knows what camp we’re in.
You’ve toured with some of the finest bands out there. Have you been lucky with scheduling, or have your choices been more deliberate?
We’ve been deliberately lucky, I suppose. It is stuff that’s worth waiting for and good to be ahead of the game. We were really lucky to tour Australia with Placebo. I’ve made a very good friend of Brian Molko and I think he’s an absolute gentleman. Sometimes supporting a band like Placebo, who have a very specific audience, can be pretty pointless. However, every night after the first number Brian would tell all the million little Brians that they felt really privileged to share a stage with us. I didn’t think our music would sit very well next to theirs, but I’m seeing so many Placebo t-shirts at our concerts. They do something very different from us, but it doesn’t matter. And really, I think the only thing we all have in common is that we all attract the attention of very smart and sensitive kids. Same goes with Grandaddy, South, and Doves.

Elbow’s third album Leaders of the Free World is out now on V2 Records.

Jason Paris works in the motion picture industry in Toronto. He is the former co-host of CHRY radio's long-running show "Negative Burn" and cites music, media, and urban exploration as his passions.

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