Elbow: Wide Awake In America

If you haven't heard of Elbow yet, you will. A five-piece out of Manchester, England, they were nominated for “Best British Newcomer” in this spring’s Brit Awards (England’s equivalent of the Grammys) and named “Breakthrough live Band of the Year” by Britain’s Time Out magazine. Prior to the release of Asleep in the Back in England last year, NME proclaimed: “With nods to Radiohead and Talk Talk, passion overrides traditional song structure in these intense, unquiet swells of whirring organ, rustic prog textures and celestial guitars.” And after its release, The Times declared, “Asleep in the Back is all about the smouldering slowburn rather than the instant fix.” The album has since been certified silver in the U.K.

Though they seem to have come out of nowhere, Elbow have, in fact, been playing together for ten years now. All of them childhood friends—Mark Potter on guitar, his brother Craig on keyboards, Pete Turner on bass and Richard Jupp on drums—save for singer/songwriter Guy Garvey, whom they met in sixth form college. Initially they called themselves Soft and played funk-fusion, though their hearts weren't in the music. “We were just writing to get deals, so the songs we were writing weren’t very honest songs,” Turner explains. “It didn’t work out like that at all, so we decided to change the name of the band and start writing the kind of music that we loved.”

And music that the fans love, apparently. Though that’s getting ahead of ourselves; it wasn’t that simple. With a new name (chosen by Garvey from “The Singing Detective,” in which a nurse proclaims “elbow” to be the loveliest word) and a truer sound, the band was quickly noticed and signed to Island. They finished recording their album just as Island was acquired by Universal, whereupon Elbow was dropped in a corporate game of shuffle-the-deck. Another near-signing followed, this time by EMI, and then another heartbreaking withdrawal. It took Manchester indies Uglyman to finally take a chance on the lads, releasing two EPs, New Born and Any Day Now. With supporting gigs for British heavyweights Doves and Granddaddy and “record of the week” honors on the revered Radio 1, Elbow was soon signed to another album deal, this time with V2. Asleep in the Back was released May 2001 in the United Kingdom and this January in the States.

Whereas the years of hardship and heartbreak might have forced some bands to call it quits, Elbow is its own beast; the fivesome is the best of friends and rarely take time off from each other, much less playing music. “The one constant I’ve had all my adult life is the band, and I absolutely do not know what I would be doing without them,” Garvey admits (he also admits to a less-than-dependable family life growing up). Instead of splintering apart, the bandmates became even closer, believing in themselves and their abilities. There was another positive side for songwriter Garvey: “The big kick is that I’ve turned a negative experience into good songs—I can’t think of another job where you get to do that. Exorcising your demons, screaming at 200 or 300 people every night about the things closest to your heart, is fantastic therapy. It just leaves you very relaxed.”

Elbow’s songs aren’t your run-of-the-mill girl-meets-boy drivel; they’re deeper, more personal. Garvey writes about the things that touch him personally, moments that have affected his life, from witnessing a junkie being comforted by her partner in the midst of a bad trip (“Powder Blue”) to a destructive relationship Garvey had to pull himself away from (the swelling, symphonic, and hauntingly beautiful “Red”); from the desperation inherent in growing up in a working-class town with no career path (“Any Day Now”) to the gang mentality in which fear is an unfortunate and desperate substitute for respect (“Little Beasts”); to the unparalleled beauty and simultaneous horror of growing old together (“New Born”). “I don’t write irresponsibly, because I don’t like music that does,” Garvey explains. “It’s got to be honest.”

And honest it is. Garvey’s voice assumes a breathy, gentle air just before breaking into anguished howls, reminiscent of Peter Gabriel when he was with Genesis. The music is experimental and beautiful, orchestral and surreal, led by the Potter brothers’ mournful organ strains and carefully placed guitar. The songs are introspective yet universal, highly personal yet ubiquitous. Asleep in the Back is a sort of soundtrack for your life.

The PlaybackSTL Interview
with Pete Turner of Elbow

PS: Tell me about the Pete Yorn tour. How did that come about?

PT: He came and saw us at L.A. at the Troubadour and then at the in-store the day after, and he just asked us. We weren’t really too familiar with his stuff, because in England he’s not as well known as he is over here, but people were saying, listen, it’s a really good tour to get on, so you should go on it. I think it’s quite a different audience, and the gigs have been going really well, so it’s definitely worth doing.

PS: Back in February, you said you were heading home to work on your second album. I guess that’s been postponed because of this tour with Pete Yorn?

PT: Yeah. Twenty-one dates [with Yorn], we’ve got about a month off, and then we’re back out with Doves [another U.S. tour, from June 2 to 21, Seattle to New York]. Things keep popping up. We worked so hard touring Europe last year, and because the album came out over here in January, we’re pretty much doing the same thing in the States. We’ve got lots of bits and bobs that we’ve been working on individually, so we just to get together and bandalize them. We just need a writing period of maybe a couple of months to get into that frame of mind.

PS: How do you work on stuff individually when you’re always together touring?

PT: We’ll get maybe two weeks in between tours here and there, and everyone’s got little eight-track recording studios, so when we’re at home, we just kind of drop a guitar or a synth or a bass or whatever.

PS: You guys have been playing together for a long time. Was there ever anything else you saw yourselves becoming besides musicians?

PT: I went to college and studied graphic design, but it was just a backup plan, I suppose. When people ask us, you know, if you weren’t doing this then what would you be doing, it’s quite hard to say because from the age of 16 we were doing it together, so I can’t really imagine doing anything else other than this. If I wasn’t doing this, then I think I’d be screwed. We’re lucky that we get on so well, so that makes it a really good thing.


PS: Were you into the Manchester sound when you were in high school, or was that too close to home to be cool?

PT: No it wasn’t; everyone was. The summer we were finishing school, everyone would be listening to the Stone Roses or the Mondays, Spacemen Three—no, they’re not from Manchester, so that’s no good. And before that you have New Order and Joy Division, so there’s always been good stuff coming out of Manchester. It’s unfortunate that occasionally you get someone like Simply Red coming out as well, but we tend to sort of leave them out.

There’s a good vibe there now; we’ve got a lot of bands like Doves and I Am Kloot and Alfie, lots of good bands coming out and starting to do well.

PS: And they all kind of encourage each other and grow from each other, you think?

PT: Yeah. There’s no rivalry or anything, it’s cool; it’s a nice environment to be in. Good, good fun.

PS: There’s a quote by Chris Martin of Coldplay in the current NME, saying how their next album might be their last: “We’ll only do another album if we think it’ll be better. I don’t really care about the whole 15-album thing. I like the Joy Division approach, two albums then…well, not hang yourself!” You’ve been compared to Coldplay, so it got me thinking: Can you already see past the second album for Elbow?

PT: Definitely not. I think because of the experience with record companies and the way that the music industry is, until something actually happens then we tend not to dwell too much on it, really. The next album we’re thinking about at the moment, but until it’s actually down and recorded then we don’t really know what it’s going to be like.

PS: So when do you start recording the next album?

PT: Ooh, good question. I don’t know at all. As soon as we get just a little bit of spare time, we’ll do it then.

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