There are, doubtless, many theories as to why Elbow’s 2008 Mercury moment resonated so profoundly, transforming the band from bruised Bury outsiders into Radio 2 A listers, soundtracking everything from World Cup bids to Top Gear trailers.
Truth, though, must be at the heart of it.
Elbow’s songs might be cut and spliced to shift sports cars, but their manifesto is as far removed from Alfa Romeos as Rochdale is from…somewhere in the Dust Bowl.
Poignant, poetic and encoded with a sense of place so visceral they could use it as a sat nav to guide them home, Elbow’s fifth album Build A Rocket Boys! is all the confirmation you need that, despite prolonged and unequalled Mercury exposure, the band haven’t suffered any of its toxic side effects.
Four years down the line, and Guy Garvey doesn’t have any grand unified theory on it all.
“We’ve always been a band that takes more than one listen,” he says. “People discover us for themselves, in their own time. Maybe that’s why it took so long for us to be understood,” he offers, “and why the effects were so, um, dramatic…”
Maybe. But those of us who signed up at album one needed no flag to rally around. We – and the Mercury panel – were able to see through the back story, and the poetry of the perennial underdog on the podium, to appreciate The Seldom Seen Kid for what it was: the work of a band at the height of their game, and a set of songs so emotionally charged they should have come with a careline number printed on the CD sleeve.
Ultimately, Mercury simply threw the curtains open wide, and let the rest of the world in too. No wonder even their ‘Dead in the Boot’ B-Sides collection released this summer was clutched lovingly to the nation’s hearts -a worthy stop-gap until our next encounter.
“The groundswell of support really touched us,” Garvey recalls. “Coming back to Manchester the next day, we went to the Temple (of Convenience, Garvey’s once-favoured local, when he lived in Manchester city centre) and the whole place stood up and cheered. It was amazing. And the fact that, as the weeks progressed, there was none of that bitter backbiting you always get with awards. Everyone seemed to think the jury had made the right decision.”
His best memory, though, wasn’t the plaudits in the press, the celebrity endorsements or the industry backslaps: “Our postman popped his head in one morning, and said, ‘I didn’t really know your music, but when I saw you on the telly, and heard you were from Manchester, the wife and I opened a couple of tins to celebrate when you won’. I love that…”
He must have loved, too, the realisation that, after the struggles and set backs, and the record company fall outs (Elbow were dropped from V2 after lukewarm sales of Leaders of the Free World), the world came to them. In its own time, but resolutely on Elbow’s terms.
“Yeah, we stood our ground, but there were bleak moments,” Garvey confesses. “We knew One Day Like This hit all the right buttons, so we added the bells and whistles, put it in its best frock, and sent it out into the world…”
Despite everything, the song stuttered to a disappointing 35 in the charts.
“We did wonder then, ‘what have we got to do to get noticed?” Garvey admits.
They might also have wondered, SevenStreets suggests, why some sections of the media stubbornly kept Elbow parcelled up in the pigeonhole marked ‘glum northern dour-rock – only to be applied sparingly’.
“I’m seriously proud of where I’m from,” Garvey admits. “And I don’t want to gripe, because we’ve had great support over the years, but yes, there’s always been a handful of really powerful people in charge. Once they make their mind up on a band, there’s no changing their opinion. They’d have listened to our albums and thought, ‘no singles’, and dismissed us from the playlists.”
Not everyone, though. And, with the release of …Rocket, their fifth collection, Garvey and the band know that there’s more ears trained on them than at any time in their 20 year career.
“It’s a peculiar position to find ourselves in, so far down the line,” he ruminates. “But I’m more proud of the fact that the success didn’t affect the way we write,” he says, “I don’t know how it could have, really. But the fear, that’s the thing that you have to avoid. The fear of losing what you’ve achieved, that elusive first taste of real success. The fear of not being able to give the people a One Day Like This part two.”
While other bands – at their first glimpse of fame – jet off to LA with an inflated budget, only to discover the thing they were looking for they left back at home, the boys decamped to the Isle of Mull to work through their new material, before holing up in Salford’s Blueprint studios, with keyboardist Craig Potter behind the controls for production duties. Business, in other words, as usual.
“We went up there to spend time together, and see where we were all at,” Garvey says. “Even though we’d been on tour for over a year, we rarely had time alone together, and we needed that breathing space, to talk freely about what we wanted from this album.”
In the end, …Rocket was completed in just 18 months, half the time it took for its predecessor to work its way into the world. Of course, this being Elbow, echoes of One Day’s everyman endorphin rush do, in fact, make it into the new collection (notably on the massed vocals of summer-soundtrack-to-be Open Arms). They are, after all, the same band of brothers.
What emerges more, though, is the sound of a homecoming. Of a group of friends more confident in each others’ company than ever. Wistful, yes – the album’s recurring theme is of innocence lost, the inexorable tug of time, and the call of loved ones wrested away (much of the album was written during their last tour) – but, ultimately, Elbow’s universal theme holds fast: huddle together for warmth and you’ll prevail.
“I’ve been listening to a lot of our back catalogue recently, while we’ve been rehearsing for the tour, and it’s interesting how often I return to the same themes, and how the most unlikely of songs are connected,” Garvey says. “I never realised how similar album openers Starlings and Station Approach were, for example. It’s me, pounding the streets of Manchester, the cocky swagger, the insecurity. Feeling like you own the city, but, at the same time, never sure of the things closest to you.”
Yet while love lost, found, removed or otherwise entangled has underscored much of his earlier lyrics, Garvey – recently setting up home with his partner just yards from his boyhood stomping ground in north Manchester – is in an altogether more centred place these days. The inescapable gravity of home, and heart, revealed in lines like ‘You’re the stars I navigate home by’.
All of which makes us slightly ashamed to admit we’re happy they’re not heading home just yet. The lads have spent the best part of two years on the road – bookended by opening for U2 in Glastonbury, and closing the Olympics this summer.
“I could never look at the tour as a whole,” Garvey admits. “It’s terrifying. People ask me ‘when are you playing Manchester?’ and I honestly don’t know. I can only deal with it week by week.” Still, Manchester, and tour’s end, is fast approaching. And new songs have been written and recorded for a new album next year.
Still, this time around, life on the road must have been in a different league of luxury?
“Jupp (Elbow drummer) is thrilled because, for this tour, he got a practice room to prepare and warm up in,” Garvey reveals. “So I thought, I’ll have one of them. But I don’t do anything in it. I just give a quick scream before I go onstage. That’s the sum total of my vocal exercises.”
Still, he should worry. The Garvey tonsils have never let him down. Well, almost never…
“I lost my voice once on the last tour, in America,” Garvey says. “So we got in touch with the local radio station in Atlanta and told them we were doing an Elbow karaoke night, handed out lyric sheets, and invited anyone who wanted to sing to come on stage. We offered a full refund if anyone was disappointed, but we never got a single request for one.”
Let’s hope there’s no karaoke moments this time around. Printing song lyrics for an arena tour might dent the coffers a little. Talking of which, how does Garvey envisage translating some of …Rocket’s more delicate moments – such as the gorgeous paean to lost youth, Lippy Kids – to the widescreen experience of the nations’ enormo-domes?
“You just have to make sure everyone can see you, and that you connect with the back of the room. But for this tour we’re trying our best to make it as intimate as possible, we’re draping the places in red velvet, there’ll be a string quartet to greet you, and a lovely chandelier at the centre…”
Not that Garvey’s complaining at the situation he finds himself in…
“I remember seeing U2 years ago, and seeing 20,000 people singing In the Name Of Love as one. You can’t beat that. So I’d be lying if I said that arenas don’t have their emotive power too,” he says.
Then again, emotion is something Elbow have never been frightened of. And that’s the truth.
That, and the fact that the good guys always win, in the end.
Elbow, Echo Arena