Get off yer arse…it’s Elbow
“I haven’t been myself of late, I haven’t slept for several days. But coming home I feel like I, designed these buildings I walk by.” Guy Garvey’s opening refrain on Station Approach – the first track on Elbow’s new album, Leaders Of The Free World – wraps a comforting arm around muddled memories of last New Year’s Eve in Dartmouth. Waking up at 2am in a bus shelter, having missed the last ferry home, I set out on foot to avoid the comatose grasp of hypothermia.
Dressed only in a muscleman outfit and the invisible, invincible cloak of too many beverages, I planned a fearless journey around the coastal inlet that the ferry would have bridged. After five hours under the relentless rain – including a cloudy encounter with a herd of sheep – I met a farmer. Self-recrimination had turned to excitement as the adventures unfolded on my journey. And then the farmer casually said: “You’re bloody miles from home. Best off walking back to Dartmouth.” Another five hours later I was safely sat in the apartment, courtesy of friends, a car and a ferry. My new home. Familiarity. Anything was possible again.
As the acoustic footsteps on Station Approach build with a cantering optimism, Garvey sings: “I never know what I want but I know when I’m low, that I need to be in the town where they know what I’m like and don’t mind.” Useful advice if you find yourself contemplating life from the back seat of a car, dressed only in a sagging muscleman outfit. With your friends laughing, “sometimes, you can’t tell your arse from your…
Elbow. They were away from home a lot longer than I was. “You get in the cycle of recording and touring,” explains Elbow’s drummer Jupp (speaking from home). “And then you realise what you’ve got and where you are. It’s important to keep a sense of home. The first album was about getting away, the second about being everywhere and nowhere. I guess this new album has a lot to do with home.”
Elbow jointed during the 1990’s, spending much of the decade living in and around Manchester and its satellite towns. Home. “At the start we were learning how to play, enjoying pissing about,” remembers Jupp. But when did it come together? “It was when we were doing September Sometime, the pre-cursor to Newborn (the band’s second ep.). It took about four years, slowly coming together. We were tight because of the funk that we used to play. The funk helped us to learn how tracks build – the dynamics, where to chill out and where to build. I used to be a metal-head and then I realised that there is music out there! I had an epiphany, listening to stuff like John Martyn.
“We used to bring new music to each other, and still do. It’s great on the tour bus, a few drinks and then the Meters come out. We were listening to stuff by Talk Talk and Santana and were influenced by OK Computer. But there are enough of us to bring different elements.” The elements began to fuse and after an aborted contract with Island Records, Elbow released Asleep In The Back on V2. The 2001 debut album earned a Mercury nomination and reached giddy heights in end-of-year charts, compiled by magazines ranging from the NME to The Sunday Times Supplement.
The band’s online news page charts a subsequent three years of headline tours, support slots with Blur, Goldfrapp, Coldplay and The Black Crowes. Cross-Atlantic adventures. A second album, Cast Of Thousands, which includes the choral help of a Glastonbury crowd. 2000 of which are name-checked on the sleeve. And the prospect of more tours. “We travelled around a lot after Cast Of Thousands and decided to keep on writing on tour. We realised how much time we were wasting waiting around. So we took a porta-studio around with us.”
Elbow returned home in June 2004. “We just wanted to go behind closed doors,” remembers Jupp. “Our first priority was to find a room that was not surrounded by rehearsal rooms and with some light. We got off the tour bus not really in the mood but then we saw this space.” The band moved their equipment into a large, unused room above Blueprint studio, just around the corner from family and friends. “The room had a lot to do with Leaders Of The Free World,” continues Jubb. “We were so impressed with the space that we wanted to document our time there. We’ve known the Soup Collective for a long time; they do all of our visuals on tour. They came in and put cameras left, right, centre, everywhere! It felt like a youth club. They were saying come and have a look at this, which had an impact on what we were doing.
“It’s been a long process, doing it ourselves. It’s taken about a year and a half in total. We spent the first few months getting our head around the new gear. We got a reverb device that measures the natural reverb of a room and applies it to takes recorded elsewhere. We wanted one body of work rather than something that sounded like it was recorded all over the place. We wanted a warm, fuzzy feel.”
Leaders Of The Free world contains echoes that resonate with rock offerings, past and present. The ghosts of Donovan, Nick Drake, The Doves and Radiohead can be found lurking behind sun-bleached sofas. But Elbow’s latest sonic home is definitely their own. Carefully chosen and arranged sounds are layered, overlapping rather than slabbed. The atmosphere sooths and crackles with optimism, reflection and a wry humour. And the lyrics stand out against many of their peers’ predilection for position-painting platitudes.
“Talking about what the songs are about is a toughie, not being Guy,” comments Jubb. “We don’t want to be too anything; political or luvey. But you get this platform and your notions do come out, writing personal stuff. The track, Leaders Of The Free World is quite political, but it only reflects what a lot of other people think. It’s about the little boys in charge. There are a lot of people feeling the mistrust. And conspiracies are abound. I don’t mind the political side but it’s also entertainment. You come up against pop shit, which will sell and will carry on selling. We’ve purposefully been selfish, writing our own stuff. We do what we do and try not to make cute statements, get some balance. We certainly don’t want to be the next Billy Bragg.
“Forget Myself (the latest single) came about from going out in Piccadilly, seeing different gangs of people at 2am in the morning, fighting for taxis.” Literally fighting? “Yeah, literally! Being in an almost jungle environment. The song is based on Manchester. But these things happen all over the world. Travelling, you do get to see how different cities behave.”
Elbow’s four walls can be comforting. But the band rarely resorts to two-up, two-down functionality. Observational windows frame perspectives that, whilst familiar, can have the power to enchant. Now that Leaders Of The Free World has been released, with the DVD documentary due soon, Elbow are about to leave home again, to tour. Look out for them at a home near you.
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- June 13, 2006 / 5:46 pm