Lovers Lane
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Cover Story: Elbow • Love & Friendship

| March 31, 2024

In Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film covering his early mid-‘70s music-scribe years, Philip Seymour Hoffman — channeling legendary rock critic Lester Bangs — has some sage advice for Patrick Fugit’s earnest teen hopeful William Miller. In the cold, cutthroat new world he’s entering of publicists, exotic junkets, free booze, and possibly drugs, it’s all on offer simply in exchange for a streamlined puff piece on showbiz’s latest picked-to-click artist. Artists — and I’m paraphrasing here — who aren’t contributing anything substantial to their genre. He warns that none of these people are your friends, so it follows that a true rock journalist “Will never get paid much, but you will get free records from the record company.” But Bangs repeatedly stresses his most crucial caveat to the kid:” You CANNOT make friends with the rock stars!”

And I can personally testify that all of the above is completely, almost heartbreakingly true. After 47 crazy, cash-strapped years following the Cameron Crowe path (but somehow always missing the book-authoring, script-writing, and movie-directing off-ramps he found early on, alas), I got as close to the rock stars as one could possibly get, simply by repeatedly asking only the most genuine, heartfelt and curiosity-inspired questions I could, while doing my best not to hurt with off-color interview info I might have gleaned. I genuinely cared about every performer I’ve spoken to, and I hope they all remember me somewhat fondly if at all I only wanted to help spread the word, words with which I concluded all my chats. And although I’ve ended up with quite a few home numbers and emails, I rarely use any, so it’s not like I’ll be breaking posh-bistro bread with any pop idols any time soon. Bangs was right — they are NOT your friends because that kind of chummy communion just won’t be in the cards if you want to keep playing a fair, objective game. But I can tell you this much— every once in a while, there’s a notable, faith-instilling exception to the rule. And Manchester prog rockers Elbow are that wild card for me. After 23 years of working together, I can’t truthfully say that we’re thick-as-thieves buddies. But we’re damned close.

First, a little backstory. Admittedly, I had an unusual way of looking at rock journalism. It wasn’t a career for me, exactly — I always had a day job as a backup so I could pick and choose who I wanted to support and then pitch said artist to various dailies, weeklies, monthlies, and — later — online outlets accordingly. I couldn’t think of anything more miserable than listening to some random composer drone on about his ‘craft’ while I’m quietly thinking, like Chandler in that “Big Head” Friends episode, “Your music sucks! Your music SUCKS!” So I never sold out, never shilled, never cranked out the pop fluff proto-piece for a fast buck (and yes, I turned down my first potentially lucrative assignment at People Magazine, “The Grateful Dead — Where Are They Now?” I wasn’t a fan, never had been, and thought it would be unfair to interview them from that discrete vantage point; naturally, I never got another assignment from People, alas). So Elbow entered my life in a suitably seismic fashion. Full disclosure — I happily took those exotic junkets whenever they popped up since employing an artist’s natural environment as a backdrop usually made the article just that much richer and more detailed. But I did it my way — every time I was scheduled to fly to some far-off locale like Great Britain, I always checked with every publicist I could to discern if anyone else over there had new music coming. So I would pad every trip with as many bonus foreign interviews as I could and bring ‘em all back like Frank Buck. This is how I wound up checking in with V2 label publicist Sid McCain — daughter of the late, great John McCain — before winging overseas to Manchester for a sit-down summit with that city’s pet post-punk combo, New Order. And Sid had a great, very timely idea. In a few months, V2 would be issuing the debut disc from another local combo called Elbow, so she overnighted me a white-label CD burn of Asleep in the Back, and I hadn’t heard anything quite like it in years, not since the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway glory days of Peter Gabriel-led Genesis.

So the always-enthusiastic McCain hastily set up a last-minute hometown lunch with Guy Garvey and his bass-slinging band sidekick Pete Turner; And she proposed scheduling the summit meeting at the Night and Day Cafe, the intimate Manchester nightclub where the group first got famous. And I was proud to be the first American scribe to talk to them, even though we had to retreat to the club’s dark, dank basement while a newer combo sound-checked upstairs, which became creepier still when a fuse blew, and we were suddenly shrouded in darkness. Inky, can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face darkness, and — sans flashlights — we literally had to feel our way along a maze of cobwebbed hallways to finally clamber back upstairs, where the younger quartet was smiling with cynical inner confidence; Had they just intentionally fucked with Garvey and Turner’s First Big Yankee Moment, tall poppy style (wherein any star that blossoms too fast gets unceremoniously cut down to size? The kids didn’t let on, so we’ll never know. But it provided an eerie but memorable starting point for our writer-and-musical-subject relationship that would continue over the ensuing years, album to album, as Elbow grew increasingly popular and won the Mercury Prize for 2008’s fourth outing The Seldom Seen Kid, as well as a BRIT and two Ivor Novello Awards; by 2012, the group had composed the London Olympics theme song, “First Steps.” Additionally, Garvey launched a parallel career in radio broadcasting via his long-running Sunday show Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour, which earned him a Lifetime Achievement honor from the Radio Academy in 2014. He has also issued a solo set (2015’s Courting the Squall). In June 2016, the singer married actress (and daughter of the late Dame Diana Rigg) Rachael Stirling, with whom he had a son, Jack, one year later.

And that’s been one of the treasured upsides of this often unrewarding music business — the warm, comfortable familiarity that settles over the proceedings when Garvey’s image first flickers on the Zoom-call computer screen this year, and he begins discussing Audio Vertigo, Elbow’s adventurous, sonically diverse new album, its tenth. And nothing much has changed since our Night and Day introduction — the man is still sleepy-eyed, droll-witted, and as affably unpretentious as Phil Harris’ lovable Baloo the Bear from Disney’s animated classic The Jungle Book. Nothing much seems to faze or anger him. He has a slew of wry observations prepared for every new track, from the jagged-chorded opener “Things I’ve Been Telling Myself For Years” through a horn-punctuated, bass-slithery “Lovers’ Leap,” a New Wave-punch anthem dubbed, ironically, “Balu,” and a calliope-pneumatic “Her to the Earth.” A punk heart pounds beneath “The Picture,” and shimmering guitarwork from Mark Potter colors “Good Blood Mexico City,” and everything leads inexorably to the clattering, Genesis-huge anthem “From the River” that closes the disc. And everywhere you look, Garvey is a better man, from his now-gale-force misty wheeze to his visceral choice of words and the Baudelairian way he links them together. He momentarily stands to grab some liquid refreshment — “A cup of tea!” He announces proudly. “I’m just adhering to the national stereotype!” — and when he returns to his kitchen-table seat, a new Sid of the chap is revealed: Beneath his right forearm, now visible both shirtsleeves are rolled up, sits a huge, stained-glass-ornate tattoo of a worker bee, the official emblem of the city of Manchester. Our chat bounces along so fast, though, that it’s suddenly, abruptly over without touching on anything apian.

Later, the more I think about that tattoo and the more I read up on the worker-bee Mancunian arcana, the more questions begin to present themselves. Why are worker bees, all female (as opposed to the all-male drones), prominently featured in the town’s art and architecture? Does Garvey raise bees himself? And does he believe in the old folklore custom of Telling the bees, informing them of every birth, death, and marriage in your family, lest the hive die off or stop producing honey? And what is the metaphor for this pre-Industrial Revolution business of making honey now, when climate change is threatening bee colonies all over the world with extinction? I casually mention my concerns to Garvey’s latest PR representative, a nice, affable guy who can’t promise any replies to my quick series of belated bee-related questions I ask him to forward to Garvey. But he’ll try, he swears, and he does. A couple of days later, just under my deadline, I got an actual voicemail response from the Elbow main man, explaining everything you might want to know about the worker bee in elaborate detail.

In 2015, Elbow quietly issued an EP dubbed Lost Worker Bee. Garvey and his friend Hannah designed the Roman-arty bee tattoo themselves, and both got one, his on the arm, hers on her ribcage, and it stands for the industrious work ethic of their hometown. “It also symbolizes unionism and togetherness and planning toward a common goal — all the things that Manchester is good at,” Garvey notes. “And in Manchester, the bee logo is on bins, it’s on lampposts, and in the Palace Hotel, all the numbers on the clock are actually bees, and it’s in the mosaic work on the town hall floor, and Boddington’s Bitters uses it, as well. And after the bombing of Manchester Arena at the Ariana Grande concert, which was an absolute fucking tragedy, as a symbol of solidarity, everybody got the bee tattoo, although mine was from a couple of years before that.” In conclusion, the singer says he’s never raised bees nor addressed them in any fashion. But Elbow did once use actual honey bees in a video for their song “Fallen Angel,” whose plotline revolved around Garvey gradually murdering every member of his group in twisted ways, like bees. “And for filming, we were in one unit in this vast warehouse, and in this other unit, there were the bees,” he recalls. “And I just remember the assistant director shouting out, “Yes! Keep filming the bees! Keep filming the bees until all the fucking bees are dead!”

And that’s possibly one of the best things I can say about my past four-plus decades of trying to ask all the right questions: I actually got a callback, just in the nick of time, from one Guy Garvey, a musician who I’ve unselfishly supported since Day One. And that’s about as good as it gets….

IE: You just turned 50. How and where did you celebrate?

GUY GARVEY: I got on a train to Manchester. I live in South London now, so all the usual suspects were there. I got on the train with Peter Jobson from I Am Kloot, who also moved to South London and married an actress. And when we got there, the band were there and all the old faces, and we ended up being big hams on Oxford Road. And I ended up trying this stuff called…beer? It was very good! And I got quite a lot of scotch, and I got quite a lot of T-shirts with logos on them. What else happened? But yeah, it was one night only because my wife was in final rehearsals for a play, so I had to get back to look after the little one.

IE: Years ago, the first time I interviewed Bowie, he’d just turned 50. And it seemed so intangible and far off, so I asked him how it felt. And he said that at 50, you ask yourself two questions — how much time do I have left, and what the hell am I supposed to be doing with it anyway?

GG: That’s about right. But it was kinda fun, and I’m still having fun being 50. So it’s kinda like, yes, how much time do I have left, etc, but also none of those feelings like ‘What have I done with my time?’ I’m quite pleased with what I’ve done with my time, although questions about how much of it I’m gonna REMEMBER in the future may be thrown up. But Hey! Tenth album, and entering into my sixth decade, was quite a nice…coming together of historical events.

IE: Looking back on your life, were there any other potential careers you might have chosen instead?

GG: Well, I suppose I accidentally became a broadcaster because I’m still doing that 17 years on. I’ve still got my program on the BBC (“Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour”). Except it was always TWO hours long. But now it’s three hours long — they gave me an extra hour last year. I prerecord it here in my studios, which are built out of the back of my house, and I make it a few days in advance. And my sister still does all my archive research and finds me interesting snippets to talk about and bits of music to play. So I make it wherever I am, but normally, I’m in this room.

IE: Have you investigated any new fields? I saw you did a recent TV series soundtrack for Hellraisers.

GG: Oh yes! I’ve done some soundtracks. Pete (Turner, Elbow bassist) and I got into soundtracks, so I did Hellraisers, and I did another one called Life, and I did a couple of movies, one with Sheridan Smith. And I’m also sort of making a gentle foray into musical theatre, so I might try to see if I can shake that genre up a bit. It’s too early to say officially, but let’s just say that I’m adapting a very beloved British text and seeing if I can turn it into a musical.

IE: How does one actually do that?

GG: Well, I know what I DO like about traditional musicals and what I don’t like about them, and so I kind of do what I normally do as a songwriter, although it’s a little more straightforward than writing your own songs, actually. I have a character, I have to move the drama from one place to another, and I have all the tools at my disposal that I’ve learned down through the years of being in Elbow. And also, with the music in. musical, the songs are just one part, one moving part, one tessellating piece, so it’s also about working very closely with the book writer and the director, and I guess eventually the actors, as well.

IE: Just your random use of the word ‘tessellating’ hints at the whole new mastery of vocabulary you wield on Audio Vertigo. Visceral descriptives like the “girl with the Plantagenet fringe.” You can instantly visualize her oddball Henry VIII haircut.

GG: Ha! You can SEE that Plantagenet fringe, though, right? You KNOW what I’m talking about! There’s a few of those, there’s a few of those strange references on the record. I’m having a lot of fun on this album. We had a lot of fun making it, and it extended into creating characters out of various phases of my life, and there are some pretty nerdy scientific references in there, as well.

IE: And you somehow managed to work “Long Tall Glasses” singer Leo Sayer into a song, inexplicably.

GG: Ha! Yeah! I knew I could trust you to pick up on that one! I wrote, “A cannon loosed/A golden goose,” and then I wrote, “Sayer of the unsaid soothes.” And then I thought, “If I’m saying ‘Sayer,’ I’ve gotta say ‘Leo’!” So yeah — Leo Sayer makes an appearance.

IE: I also particularly enjoyed “I’m the dashboard hula girl of nodding self-deception — another visceral image, and you either get it or you don’t.

GG: And that reference comes from the first present I ever bought my wife. We were watching a video by Here We Go Magic, and I was trying to turn her onto that band. But then she saw a hula girl, and she said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted one of those!” And I thought, “Well, I can grant that wish.” And that was the first present I ever bought her. But the inspiration for the song “Things I’ve Been Telling Myself For Years” was it started with a few things that my wife really enjoys pointing out that I’m wrong about and have always BEEN wrong about. And then the lyric — through the slider of the song and Mark’s (Potter) blistering guitar solo — made me explore the character in the song a bit further, and I started wondering, “What if I hadn’t been surrounded by my excellent friends? What if I’d gotten really into amphetamines earlier in my career? What if I’d basically turned into a dick?” And then the rest of the song becomes me if I HAD. So yeah — there’s a lot of fun to be had there.

IE: Ah, yes—the ‘road not taken’ (and full disclosure: this writer took an insane detour down the Breaking Bad path back in the halcyon of the late 1980s — my apologies to any innocent bystanders I careened into until a Midwest rehab finally taught me the life-saving mantra of You use? You die, But I digress.)

GG: Exactly. And I think, actually, the road not taken is possibly…well, it goes back to when I had a little bit of therapy, probably ten years ago now, and it was very instructive, very useful. But when the therapy ended, my therapist admitted to having been an Elbow fan early on, which was very professional for her, not to mention it until the ending of the thing. And she said, “My favorite song of yours is ‘Bitten By the Tailfly,’ from the first album.” Which is, as I’m sure you’ll remember, a very dark portrait of a predatory man in a nightclub. It’s *very dark. And she said, “Why didn’t you continue to write dark songs?” But it wasn’t a conscious decision not to — it’s just that that was how our tastes developed, and knowing that big audiences were going to hear our music is how that influenced the music that we became famous for, I suppose — anthems to love and friendship. So that planted a seed in my mind, and I thought, “Why DID I stop addressing these dark thoughts?” Because I feel like lyrics should come from wherever you want them to, and they should be a reaction to the music, and the storytelling should be able to go anywhere, I feel. But I think because the last record, Flying Dream 1 (2021), was so very autobiographical and totally about my childhood and my son’s childhood, and growing up in Lancashire, I decided that it was time to have some fun with elements of my history. And I think I said it in the press release — “Nobody wants to know how verdant my bean tree is.” So, I thought I’d make it a bit more interesting and, while in a happy marriage, reflect on some of the more disastrous relationships I’ve been in.

IE: You casually note, “I’ll live to 96.”

GG: Heh, heh. Oh, I don’t think I will.

IE: But it reminded me of your late mother-in-law, Dame Diana Rig, who I just happened to catch on TV last week at the Alpha of her career as a Bond girl in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and then at her Omegas as the sinister landlady in Edgar Wright’s recent Last Night in Soho. Wish that we could all have such a long, illustrious artistic life like that.

GG: Yeah, man, Tell me about it! And literally, a week before she died, Edgar, the director of Last Night, said, “We have some additional dialogue that we need,” and Diana said, “Come to the house.” So Edgar and one of his sound recordists came to the house, and they spent an afternoon with Diana in her sickbed, recording the additional dialogue for the movie. And we crossed paths just as I came home from the studio, and a couple of days later, Edgar called me and said, “I’m missing ONE word, and it’s a really essential one for the end of the film. Can you record it and send it to me?” And I said, “Sure.” So I said, “Diana — Edgar’s missing a word. Can I record it?” And she was very weak at that point, but she said, “Let’s go! I’m ready. But what’s the word?” And I said, “Well, ironically, Diana, it’s the word ‘well.’” And that earned me my last “Fuck off!” From my mother-in-law! But oh, man — I loved her SO much. We were such good friends, and my God, her daughter carries her spirit if anybody does. Oh, and by the way, that technically makes me the last person to WORK with Diana Rigg. But when somebody is so ebullient, funny, and effervescent about words and language and art, and such a great raconteur, it’s impossible not to think of something she said a lot, you know? And as always happens with people that you love passing, as time goes on, the sadness ebbs in favor of pride and love and just…just celebration. So it was one of the brief but best relationships that I’ve ever had in my life — she was one of my most treasured friends.

IE: You say you’ve ditched the darkness. But it’s actually lurking just beneath the surface of almost every track. You even open one cut with, “We live in a troubling age.” And Holy crap! We certainly do!

GG: Yes. It’s horrible. It’s terrifying and disappointing. And everybody has the feeling that are rubbing their hands (gleefully) together at all times. But I can’t see how that can be the case. I think the whole world is scared, and the whole world is angry, and it’s divisionists, people who don’t care about the truth if it means getting their own power. And then everybody falls into a category and starts fighting with each other; I mean, ‘We live in a troubling age’ is quite an understatement, right?

IE: “Lovers’ Leap” actually sounds like suicide.

GG: Yes. Well. I wrote a verse of that, the bastardization of the classic bedtime prayer, but I wrote that as part of another song that wasn’t that great, probably 15 years ago. But there was something about it, and the music brought it up again. But I’ve always been fascinated and troubled by spontaneously occurring myths. So like, for instance, if there’s a homeless person that you always see, you know, somebody who lives on the streets, they’ll be given a name by everybody. And then, pretty soon, as people see them every day, a spontaneously occurring myth will appear that, in actual fact, they are millionaires if they’d only get off the booze. They’re in some kind of strange inheritance lock where — because they choose to drink — they won’t inherit all the money that’s due to them. And, of course, it’s nonsense. And on a smaller scale, it happens all the time in South London. You see somebody regularly, and someone will say, “He’s got a flat around the corner and a car, and he’s making all this money,” and it’s just not true. It’s just that people can’t accept that destitution isn’t some kind of personal choice. And then, of course, there’s the trope of the star-crossed lovers, who aren’t allowed to be together, so they die together, and I know where that comes from, and I know why Shakespeare liked that idea. It’s the love that never ends on account of that ultimate sacrifice. So I started having fun with it, and at the end of the song, Mark had written this wah-wah outro, this calming down of the violence that you hear in the song. . And I thought, “Oh, well, maybe these guys were planning to open a gift shop and sell statuettes of themselves.” So the song’s not laughing at suicide — the song is just laughing at the macabre appetite for that particular trope in the human psyche. Like, why do we like the idea of that?

IE: In “The Picture,” you note, “There’s no cocaine in this cocaine/ No wind in the willows.” It’s weird to think that if any of us were still doing coke as we did in our twenties, we’d all be dead from its latest secret ingredient, fentanyl.

GG: Yeah, and that’s it. I’ve got a friend who works for a charity called The Loop, that tests drugs at festivals. So the kids turn up, and they give them a sample of what they’ve picked up, and then they tell them exactly what’s in it, and then they’ll offer it back. And nine times out of ten, the kids leave the drugs with them, and they’ll turn it in to the police. But of course, the right-wing press gets ahold of a photograph of all the drugs turned in, and then say, “Seized at a festival!” But there we go — to be right-wing is to be a fear-mongering reactionary, right? But (The Loop) is a really progressive and smart charity, and my friend, you know, she TELLS me about what’s in this shit, and there’s all kinds of fucking wicked, evil substances. And if kids are buying drugs on the dark web, there’s even less responsibility. So at least if you’re getting it off a guy on the corner, you can go back to him if what you had was terrible. So yes, there’s no cocaine in this cocaine, and I suppose all the way through this record — while talking about my own past and my teenage years — I can’t stay away from, or I can’t stop myself as a father, from putting in the odd cautionary tale, you know?

IE: And “Knife Fight” really happened? And in Istanbul?

GG: Yeah. And the strangest thing about that is that I didn’t think about it for so long. I was in a cafe called The Little Wing, run by this adorable young couple, and I’d been sitting in there all afternoon, scribbling in my book. Elbow were in Istanbul for about three days, and on this day off, I was just at the cafe because I adored the place — it was just amazing. So yeah, these two guys came in, and they were old to me then, so they were probably my age now. But they came in, and they were talking at the bar, and then there were some raised voices. And I turned around just in time to see the barman leap over the bar — maybe he could even predict what was gonna happen — just as one of these guys pulled out a small knife and stabbed the other guy in his side, mirroring the thing that happens in The Royal Tenenbaums, between Gene Hackman’s character and his manservant. And I mean, I was just shocked — I had a complete whiteout, and all I could think was, “Turkish prison! I’m gonna get caught up in this shit!” So I hid for 20 minutes in the cafe where they’d been thrown out, and when I went outside, they were there, loitering and laughing, waiting for a cab or an ambulance. So the other half of the song, I suppose, is how  I said to my wife, “I can’t stop thinking about what happened.” And I’m very guilty of following my wife around and telling her what I’m thinking when she’s thinking about something else, and it drives her mental. And she said, “What? What are you TALKING about?” And I thought, “Right. Okay.” And I made the chorus about how we often have an inability to communicate properly.

IE: How old is Junior, by the way?

GG: He’s seven next week.

IE: What are you learning about him and yourself while watching Jack grow?

GG: There’s a ton of stuff. One of his best friends is this really adorable, lovely, artistic young man, and we’ve become friends with his parents. And then there’s a couple of other guys — you know, he’s got lots of great friends, and he loves school, and that is definitely NOT me because I did not love school. But he likes the naughty lad, the naughty lad who’s also very clever. And, of course, as a parent, I’m hearing things come out of Jack’s mouth, and I’m thinking, “I know where THIS comes from!” And I also know because I was exactly the same — I hung out with the naughty kids. Not always, but I was attracted to the more daring, naughty kids, who often were the more clever ones, too. So this one particular kid that I’ve got my eye on, I know that I would have headed straight for him, as well, because he’s really funny. So the way that I do things is, if something comes out of Jack’s mouth that sounds like it’s coming out of the other boy’s mouth, I’ll tell Jack it doesn’t suit him. But that’s as far as it goes — I wouldn’t presume to tell him who to hang around with JUST yet.

IE: Call me crazy, but the album’s closing “From the River” sounds prog-rock-pure and a bit like Foxtrot-era Genesis. Maybe?

GG: Oh, what a compliment!

IE: I’d also like to catch Steve Hackett’s new “Foxtrot” tour.

GG: Yeah! I would, as well. I’ve interviewed Steve several times, and I love that guy — he’s great.

IE: So now that you hit 50, what credos do you live by?

GG: Hmm…I trust people, knowing that every now and again, that trust will be broken. But by and large, it’s improved my life enormously because I think the vast majority of people are great.

-Tom Lanham

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