In the thick of a deeply unremarkable industrial estate, perched in a kind of no-man’s-land between Manchester and Salford, Blueprint Studios has just opened for the day. Elbow are this place’s most famous tenants, having cut every record since 2005’s Leaders Of The Free World here, and they’re nearly on time for rehearsals. Mark Potter (guitar), his brother Craig (keyboardist and producer) and Pete Turner (bass) are all punctual; only frontman Guy Garvey is running late, and his apologies are profuse upon arrival.
Today, once this interview’s out of the way, the group are officially entering the final stage of preparation for their UK tour, running through the first draft of the agonised-over track list. “Putting it together,” says Garvey, “is a time of much stress. Everybody’s got their own idea of how it should go, and we even have pre-emptive conversations about having the conversation about the setlist.”
Fierce as the debate might be, what is for sure is that there’ll be new material in the cut – by the time the run of dates kicks off in Dublin later this month, the band’s seventh LP, Little Fictions, will be a few weeks old in the public imagination. After The Seldom Seen Kid bagged them the Mercury Prize in 2008, Elbow quite managed to replicate that album’s sharp sense of identity; 2011‘s Build A Rocket Boys! shot a little bit too obviously for anthemic territory, and by the time The Take Off And Landing Of Everything followed it three years later, they’d begun to float back towards their gentler tendencies, as Garvey reflected on fresh heartbreak and reaching forty.
Until now, that is. Little Fictions feels like a different kind of Elbow record – sparse, beat-heavy, and with a sort of taut urgency the band haven’t captured quite like this since their debut, Asleep In The Back. Garvey finds room to temper his customary optimism with anxiety (‘Trust The Sun’) and anger (‘K2’) against an unusually bare-bones musical backdrop, one that finds ways to use the group’s showier inclinations sparingly – the Halle Orchestra’s strings subtly turn ‘Magnificent (She Says)’ into the group’s most convincing pitch yet for a Bond theme, and the Halle Ancoats Community Choir bring intimacy rather than bombast to the album’s one arms-wide moment, ‘All Disco’. The sprawling title track, meanwhile, opens up into a veritable maelstrom of distorted samples and looped guitars - there’s no clear frame of reference for it in the band’s back catalogue.
Key to the landscape changes was the departure of drummer Richard Jupp, who called it quits just days before work began on the record in January of last year. It marked the first alteration to the Elbow lineup in their history, after twenty-five years, and cast a shadow over their customary early writing sessions on Mull in Scotland. “We spent a lot of time sitting around going, “Fucking hell, he’s actually gone,” says Garvey. “That was the same week Bowie died, too, so there was plenty of cold contemplation in this big old house, full of long shadows and mystery. And, also, a lot of playing games whilst really pissed. We were the least articulate Articulate! players ever.”
The band waited until March to quietly confirm that Jupp had left the fold to focus on his drum school, and the time on Mull, away from family and friends, gave the remaining foursome space to process what had happened – mourn for it, even – before, as Craig tells it, the situation began to reveal itself as an opportunity for reinvigoration. “We’ve always performed well under a bit of pressure, and we were in a situation where we had to do our best work a man down. Weirdly, I think we’ve ended up with an album that’s pretty heavy on the grooves and the beats, maybe because we were trying to compensate for him not being there.”
The announcement was so low-key that I’d actually forgotten about it by the time I got hold of the record, only for it to quickly become obvious that something radically different was happening with the percussion - the loops on ‘Gentle Storm’ and barely-there shuffle of ‘Trust The Sun’ bring that home to the listener early on. This was apparently the reaction Garvey was looking for, as he leans in for a high five. “Music to my ears, that! We had a lot of the grooves already - they were either samples or patterns that the lads had come up with. In the case of something like ‘Trust the Sun’, Mark put something together at home, and Craig kind of jiggled it about in the studio. We pinched a few grooves here and there, too, but we kind of did that on the first record! I remember trying to make Jupp sound like a looped sample right back in 2000. That was because we were big into trip-hop, though. DJ Shadow and all that.”
Garvey came into Little Fictions off the back of a hectic period of what should’ve been downtime in between albums; instead, he released and toured a solo record, Courting The Squall, met and then married actress Rachael Stirling, and curated Meltdown Festival at the Southbank Centre in London. His bandmates didn’t exactly skive off either, with Craig producing Steve Mason’s latest, Meet The Humans, Mark forming blues outfit The Plumedores, and Turner working towards new Elbow material on his own. They reconvened with a real sense of momentum, and Little Fictions came together quicker than any album they’d made previously – for the first time ever, they set themselves a deadline and met it.
Craig took on production duties for the fourth record running, and set about making some changes to the band’s setup at Blueprint; they avoided the big, airy room in which they’d cut the last few albums, swapped the grand piano for an upright one and set up close to each other to record, much as they used to in the cramped rehearsal rooms of their early years. Much of the writing and composition, meanwhile, was done in the loft of Garvey’s house in Prestwich, where he also records his 6Music show, Finest Hour. “A lot of it was written remotely, too,” Garvey explains. “That’s really exciting, but it’s something you can only do with people you’ve been working with as long as I have with the lads. You can picture what they’re going for. ‘K2’ opens with the line, “I’m imagining rippling fingers on keys, miming it wild on a cold stone table.” That was just verbatim the truth; I heard that song for the first time in the middle of the night by a lake in India, just sitting out on the balcony, and because it’s got these lovely Rhodes vibes on it, I was literally picturing Craig’s fingers playing those lines.”
Mark chips in. “I think the thing about having played together for so long is that we’re comfortable throwing ideas around that might be daunting to other people, just because we’ve done them over and over again. The songs on this album that have got strings on – we knew that’s what we’d do from day one. On ‘Kindling’, we thought we’d just keep it rough and ready and throw these great big lush strings in later. You can only really do that when you’ve experienced it in the past - “Oh yeah, we’ll chuck strings at it. That’ll work.”
“It does still make your spine tingle, though, the first time you hear the Halle kick up with something the four of you have come up with together in your heads,” adds Garvey, who’s been one of the Manchester institution’s most vocal champions in recent years. “You hear it, and think, ‘Fucking hell, that’s it. That’s the one.’”
The record’s opener and first single, ‘Magnificent (She Says)’, makes dramatic use of the string section, and was another track that Garvey contributed to from overseas, having written the lyrics on his honeymoon in Sardinia. After accidentally catching the news headlines on his phone, despite his best efforts to avoid 2016’s rolling horror show whilst he was away, he penned the track as a paean to the innocence and naiveté of youth. That penchant for finding beauty and cause for optimism in the face of adversity has increasingly become his calling card as the years have gone by.
“We almost called the album Love, because we were determined to go after the celebratory in the face of how bleak things have been, but we’ve already got a bit of a reputation for writing those kinds of songs. They’re never thoughtlessly hopeful, it’s not like they’re cheesy or anodyne. I mean, our most famous song’s ‘One Day Like This’, and the chorus is actually saying that I haven’t had a good day in a long time! And I have written some nasty lyrics, too. Did you hear Alan Bennett’s diaries on Radio 4 recently?”
He segues into Bennett’s trademark drawl with a seamlessness Rob Brydon would’ve been proud of in The Trip. “It doesn’t seem to matter that I have considered myself a firebrand for many years; I think I could put a pitchfork through Judi Dench and they’d still call me a teddy bear.” Peals of laughter round the table. “And that kind of is how I’m viewed, even though there’s some pretty fucking nasty stuff on this album. I had to tone down ‘K2’ – terrible bad language. I just don’t want to do dark for dark’s sake – that’s like showing somebody a poo in a shoebox. ‘Ooh, look at that, it’s bloody horrible innit?’ That’s just pointless.”
Garvey’s lyrics remain very much open for discussion within the band; Craig mentions shooting down one passage by telling him, “If I was an Elbow fan, I’d expect more from you.” Everybody’s ideas are up for debate, and the final decisions are usually taken together: “It’s like problem-solving,” as Garvey puts it. “Which is great. We’re like The Famous Five, except there’s only four of us now.” As the years have gone by, this dynamic has developed to the point that Garvey will pitch lyrical ideas to the others early on, just so that they can view it through the prism of their own lives.
“There’s one I’m working on at the minute,” he explains. “Somebody who listens to my radio programme emailed me, and he was talking about how his other favourite radio show was on a station that was no longer on the air. And I was thinking about that, and maybe it’s because we nearly lost 6 Music a few years ago, but the idea of there being dead air where your station used to be is something I found profoundly sad – and a really good metaphor for the end of a relationship, or the death of somebody close to you. That image of somebody straining their ear to the static, to see if there’s any remnants of what there used to be. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve told the lads about it, and now they’re on my wavelength, I know they’ll be thinking about it in terms of how it relates to them personally, and I’ll hopefully get some interesting feedback.”
“Especially from Pete,” says Mark, “who’s opinions are becoming less and less predictable. Recently, you never know what’s going to come out of his mouth. Is that because you’ve progressed as an artist, or because you’re losing your mind?” It’s both, he confirms.
When they take Little Fictions on the road, meanwhile, the band are set to break with tradition; for the first time since The Seldom Seen Kid, the initial run of UK dates will take them to theatre-sized venues rather than the arenas they’d started to call home. “It’s four nights work for the same income, I suppose,” says Craig, “but I’d always rather see a band at the Apollo than the Arena. They’re better gigs for everyone involved, really.”
Elbow’s relationship with arenas had been one they’d worked hard to tailor both to their music and their fanbase; Garvey’s ‘vanity thrust’ would go down into the audience, rather than over their heads, with the main lighting truss positioned over the crowd instead of the stage. On their first jaunt around the country’s enormodomes, back in 2011, they even came up with the novel idea to identify the people with the worst seats in the house, and then have the rest of the room give them a standing ovation and a Mexican wave. “That went a bit awry one night, though. We focused the camera on this couple, and the bloke very hastily dived out of the way. Obviously they shouldn’t have been there together. I think we might have exposed an affair in front of 20,000 people.”
“That side of things always felt like harder work to me than it would be in a smaller venue, anyway” Garvey goes on. “If there’s one aspect of it that probably doesn’t suit us, it’s that certain bands go out with a real ‘let’s really blow them away’ attitude - it’s adversarial, and a bit gladiatorial. Did you see Robbie Williams on New Year’s Eve? It was like he’d lost his marbles. He does or says what he wants - as we now know from that Carex incident. That level of lunacy reminds me of when we went to see George Clinton, who’s never stopped touring, and his show is absolutely mental – it’s like he’s kept adding ideas and never took any out. So you’ve got girls in bikinis, and characters coming on and off stage, and I suppose the idea is to just try and wow the audience, like it’s a bit of a competition. It’s not like that for us. We don’t own the music, everybody does. We just want to be part of it.”
It’s not that they haven’t tested the water for the return to smaller venues, either; on the victory lap for The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, they played four nights at the Manchester Apollo and then three at its Hammersmith counterpart in London. They’re back at the former for another four shows on this run; last time out, they took the opportunity to play around with the setlist, introducing the delicate, arena-averse likes of ‘This Blue World’ as well as deep cuts from their debut, including ‘Powder Blue’ and ‘Bitten By The Tailfly’. “We’ll probably do something like that again,” says Craig, “even if a few people did disappear to the bar when we played the lesser-known stuff. Including Pete, actually.”
“That’s one of the advantages of the arenas, actually,” offers Mark. “It’s easier to spot your mates fucking off to the bar, because you can see them filing up the stairs. Oh, look at that, they’re off again.”
Garvey’s giggling. “It’s like the fucking Muppet Show! Everyone else is listening, rapt, and then there’s a load of people getting really annoyed, because they’re stuck near our mates in the guest bit and they’re all leathered. Remember Jobson at the Arena? Fucking hell. My best mate, Pete Jobson from I Am Kloot, was prattling onto someone half way up the stairs when we played the M.E.N., and I was going “Pete! Pete! Pete Jobson!” The whole arena’s staring at him. ‘Shut the fuck up!’ And he still carried on. We should start splitting them all up.”
“I think he got thrown out just after that.”
“Yeah, he did! For smoking! Knobhead.”
Garvey’s now very much on a storytelling roll. “I’ve got another good one, since you mentioned the Apollo. The first time we played there, in 2001, we were supporting Manic Street Preachers. They hadn’t played for ages at that point, and from the minute we got on stage, the crowd were booing us. You could’ve dug up John Lennon and put The Beatles up there, and they wouldn’t have fucking cared.”
“They were singing ‘You’re shit and you know you are’ before we’d even played a note,” recalls Mark. “I looked down into the crowd and all our mates were joining in! Laughing at us getting booed!”
“Anyway, it was that bad that we came off laughing ourselves, and there were two gigs, so we had to go back on the next night! I went, ‘Was anyone here last night?’ and before I’d even finished saying it, this bloke in the front row absolutely roared ‘FUCK OFF!’ Christ almighty. We did get a cheer at the end, though, when we announced we only had one song left.”
The chances of a repeat of such scenes in March are slim to none. These days, the people of Manchester handsomely reciprocate the affection with which Garvey’s so often written about the city; in fact, something he once said in an interview about his fellow Mancunians - “they return the love around here, don’t they?” – ended up printed on mugs, magnets and coasters sold by the Manchester Information Centre. There’s something genuinely affecting about the fact that this mutual love affair extends so much further these days; across the country, the continent, maybe even the world. “We never knew we had fans in Russia until we turned up at a festival there and there were four thousand young people waiting for us, all having a lovely time,” smiles Garvey. “So we’ll be going wherever we’re invited. It’s usually up to the record to tell you how long you should be on the road for. The better it goes over, the more people want to see you play.”
Mark’s at pains to point out that they’d like to get started on LP8 sooner rather than later, and hope to break the three-year release cycle by getting another album out in 2019. Until then, though, Little Fictions should keep them on the move for the foreseeable, with Al Reeves replacing Jupp behind the kit. They’re tight-lipped on Glastonbury, where they’ve long since made the sunset slot on the Pyramid their own, but there’s a telling gap in an already busy summer schedule – one that’s also going to see them going out on a tour of UK forests, which gives Garvey the opportunity to squeeze one last story in.
“I’ve already done Sherwood Forest, on my solo tour last year. Me and Jobson piled off the bus, and they’d set up bows and arrows for us with suckers on the end. Four in the morning, pissed out of our heads – what better time for a bit of archery? We were really good at it drunk, actually, and then when we sobered up, we were rubbish. That logic might have applied to the gig too, come to think of it.”
Little Fictions is out now via Polydor. Elbow tour the UK from March 1st.