Elbow Are Trying to Make Sense of a Senseless World
Amidst Brexit, Trump, and their drummer of 20 years walking out the door, Elbow have created a lifeboat record. We talked to singer Guy Garvey the day of Trump's inauguration.
It's January 20, 2017, and I'm waiting for a call from Elbow frontman Guy Garvey at literally the moment where Donald J. Trump places his hand on two more books than he's ever read in his life and is sworn in as the 45 th President of the Unites States. Needless to say, preoccupied doesn't even begin to describe my state of mind, and even when speaking to someone as jovial and perennially good-natured as Mr. Garvey, the conversation begins a bit stilted, and I find myself apologizing for my jittery state.
"That's alright," replies Guy, "I'm in the same boat. I've just walked in, and me and my wife are like, 'What do we do?' She's gave me a glass of wine, so... that's what I'm gonna do." Hearing his voice puts me at ease, somewhat, not because we're great friends or anything, but Elbow's music, and by extension, Guy's unique and instantly-recognizable vocals, have had a calming effect on me since I fell under their spell over 15 years ago, when they released their first album, Asleep in the Back. At the time, they found themselves lumped in with the early-00s glut of UK indie MOR bands such Coldplay, Travis, and Embrace, but Elbow were always a different beast: softer, more bookish and witty, happy to linger on the more genuinely painful side of love and life without resorting to grand melodrama. Since then, from plane rides to school exams to moving days, I've used the Bury band's music as an emotional pacifier, and, as I learn during our conversation, it's a mood stabilizer we may need now more than ever.
All these years after Asleep in the Back's subdued indie rock, Elbow's seventh studio album, Little Fictions, harks back to those simpler times when the band were first beginning, before the stadium tours, and the Mercury Prizes, and truckloads of records sold. It's slower, and more personal, swapping the grandiosity of, for example, tracks like "One Day Like This" off the their platinum-selling album The Seldom-Seen Kid, for quiet introspection. But there's a bittersweet reason for this return to form: a little over a year ago, Elbow were dealing with their own little apocalyptic event in the departure of Richard Jupp, the band's drummer and a founding member. It was the first time anyone had left the group since their inception 20 years ago, and it proved to be a make-or-break moment. "It was tricky, very sad and bewildering," says Guy about the decision to continue without Jupp. "It took us a while to process it and think, 'How's this going to be now? What's gonna happen next?' Of course, we were sad about him leaving, but we had a writing trip planned, and we decided to keep to the trip, and went up there anyway."
The band rented a mansion in the Scottish countryside called Gargunnock ("I've always been a huge fan of those stories about Led Zeppelin when they made Led Zeppelin IV, doing it in an old mansion house with an outside broadcast truck," confesses Guy) and set about making Little Fictions, keeping their minds open to the possibilities of continuing Elbow as a quartet. "It was cold, and we had a great big open fire in one main room, and even with three layers on we had to set up our equipment around the fire, and keep feeding it, which was kind of cathartic," says Guy. "Of the two songs on the album that were recorded at Gargunnock, one was "Kindling," which was also the working title of the song, because the percussion loop on that track is a bag of kindling being dropped on a tambourine. It has a sadness and a note of hope to it, and I think you can hear the mood really quite starkly."
This uplifting, emotional swell is present throughout Little Fictions, with Jupp's departure ironically leaving space for the band to breathe and experiment with percussion and tempo in a way they may have shied away from before. "I have to say, if you know something's wrong, in any relationship, as we did with Jupp, it can slowly creep up on you so you don't realize that the atmosphere is quite intense," states Guy in serious tones. "The situation was definitely an elephant in the room, which was then gone, and consequently, we made a record full of energy."
And you can hear it—it's hard to imagine tracks like "Gentle Storm," where a hushed disco beat effortlessly intertwines with an upbeat bongo loop while Guy croons an 80s love ballad over the top, existing in any other configuration of Elbow. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the album also boasts shades of Guy's debut solo record, 2015's Courting the Squall, which itself took cues from world music, jazz, and 60s psych rock. "I would be speaking for the other three a little bit, but maybe the upbeat nature of my record made them a little more willing to try uptempo stuff'," explains Guy. "But this is also twinned with our keyboardist Craig really getting into hip-hop. He's definitely brought some of the hip-hop production aspects to the album in terms of the size of some of the drum loops, and the spareness of some of the songs. Also our guitarist Mark, who formed a three-piece called the Plumedores, a blues band, and they are very, very rhythm-based. So, between my Afrobeat, Craig's hip-hop, and Mark's jug band strumming, we found something pretty rhythmic when we most needed it. Quite lucky, really, that that's what we've been doing. There have been a lot of us looking at each other sheepishly, with big grins on our faces and saying, 'Can we do that? Can we write a love song over a straightforward disco beat?' And it's like, yeah. We can try."
This new musical philosophy is never more present than in "K2," which begins with the muted handclaps and twinkle-star keyboards and then slowly descends into spiraling anxiety about the current state of the world. "We wrote this album against a backdrop of, internationally, pretty frightening times. So, I think that's all mixed in," says Guy, and just like that, we're back to discussing the never-ending cycle of dire news. "On tunes like "All Disco" and "K2," there's a real sense of resignation. Like, watching Brexit slowly evolve, and watching Trump climb to power, and then just all the violence that came with the terrible mishandling of what's been going on in Syria, and now huge swathes of lost people needing help and not finding the help, and in fact, it's just bringing right-wing fanatics confident enough to speak. And there are other reasons for those things to have happened, but certainly both Trump and Brexit are based on a fear of immigration as opposed to building on love and understanding and acceptance and equality, and all the things our civilization has spent hundreds of years trying to build. It [felt like it] all got knocked down in a couple of years. So yeah, "K2" has me threatening to fuck off to South America and live in a static caravan," he laughs.
The song in question also possesses one of Little Fiction's most affecting lyrics, rife with the shame and bewilderment of watching one's country make all the wrong decisions in a matter of months:
Hands up if you've never seen the sea
I'm from a land with an island status
Makes us think that everyone hates us
Maybe darling, they do
But then, in typical Elbow fashion, the verse ends with the political bleeding into the personal:
But they haven't met you.
Guy explains that the lyric is a direct product of his feelings after the Brexit vote. "The day after Brexit was announced I was playing in Belgium, at Werchter Festival, where either Elbow or I have played every summer for 10 years. We went onstage and there was someone holding a sign the crowd that said 'Hey UK, This Is What Europe Looks Like.' As we were being announced by the DJ, I said, 'Would you explain, please, in all the languages of this country, that nobody in the band or crew voted Brexit, and I haven't met anybody who has.'"
This isn't the first time that Guy has tackled the political realm with his biting lyrics (and in ways, "K2" feels like a spiritual continuation of themes explored on their 2005 album, Leaders of the Free World—and who would have thought we'd ever be nostalgic for the Bush administration), but this time it feels starker, more definitive, a long shadow cast upon some of Little Fiction's lighter moments.
But more often than not, the album's content matches its overwhelmingly positive tone. You can practically feel your brain producing excess serotonin during the sweeping crescendo of opening song, "Magnificent (She Says)," and "Head for Supplies," the second track the band completed during the reunifying sessions at Gargunnock, is an homage to Guy's wife, whom he married in 2016. "There's something about the guitar and the double bass drum on that song, it just reminded me of when the city's really cold, and you can see all the exhaust fumes and there are moments where the air is so cold sound isn't traveling like it normally does. You can be in a street with hundreds of people in it and it's suddenly mute, and beautiful, with all the tail lights twinkling."
Guy sighs, vividly painting a picture with the same skill he uses as a lyricist. "And yeah, I thought, why would I be on a street like that? And it became, leaving the flat with somebody I've just met, to go and get booze and food, incognito, and then scooch right back to the bed." Regardless of the wars being waged outside, "Head For Supplies" is a song of solace, the same sanctuary many fans find waiting for them in Elbow's songs.
All in, Little Fictions feels like the culmination of so many aspects of Elbow, imbued with a new maturity and world-weariness that sees the band settling into a new phase in their career with renewed enthusiasm. "When we released our first album, the fact that our music had sort of been accepted by a little local zeitgeist, we felt like we belonged somewhere, for a little while. And that didn't go away, but it didn't grow in any way," muses Guy. "Even with the success of the other albums, and playing bigger and bigger rooms, that feeling of being close to what was happening didn't grow. And suddenly, deciding to make an album about love, and about hope, and about peace—which we've done before, but this time we decided to load the balance of the themes towards positivity and hope and comfort, and it feels like a really good time to be a band of old pals, having a little bit of a change, flexing new muscles and exploring new love at the same time. I feel very, very lucky to still be in this band."
Positivity and hope and comfort: if between international turmoil and personal rifts, new romances and old friendships, that's what Elbow have to offer, we'll gladly take it.
Cameron Cook is a journalist living in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.