Heads, shoulders, hearts, Elbow: affecting chatter with Guy Garvey
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Guy Garvey is a common man elevated by the gods to that inch higher than most of us mere mortals. You can hear it often in his lyrics; a way with words, an ability to wring the last, untouched emotion from a common theme or every day occurrence.
Rewardingly, he’s also fully unable to acknowledge that status, and a conversation with Garvey is more like a few beers down the ale house with a close chum than an interview proper, albeit with a friend who’s more than happy to touch on celestial themes.
“It’s all about writing honestly,” he opines, wrestling with the notion that he and his band have the rare ability to find the magic in the minutiae of life. “The only thing we’ve ever said as a remit is that the music can go anywhere and the song is the most important thing – not even the band, just that each individual piece of music is the important thing. It’s taken us a lot of places, but generally speaking the one thing we won’t do is be dishonest in our music and portray ourselves as something other than what we are. Who we are, what’s happening to us and where we’re from, I suppose.”
When I put it to him that it’s not just honesty – any number of bands can write with an un-tethered truth, but will gain little praise or critical worship – but an art or craft that stands out in Elbow, Garvey reacts like I’ve offered him an all-in cruise to the Bahamas. “Yeah, absolutely, you’re right," he grins. “The gold dust for a lyricist is to find something that everybody’s felt but haven’t put into a phrase or a feeling, and the more specific you get, the more people realise you are telling the truth, and ultimately the more they connect to you on a personal level.”
Video: 'Leaders Of The Free World'
“Take Leonard Cohen on ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’”, Garvey continues, warming to the theme. “He wrote, ‘Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes, I thought it was there for good, so I never tried.’ The guy took her somewhere he couldn’t, and connected with her in a way he couldn’t and he thanked him for that – that is too complicated and duplicitous a statement not to be the God’s honest truth. The best lyrics are either incredibly simple sentiments that are very catchy and just root themselves in the fabric of song writing, like Neil Young’s ‘Only Love can Break Your Heart’. He must of shit himself when he wrote that on the page for the first time and thought, ‘Surely someone’s already had this?’ You mean Shakespeare hasn’t written this down?”
It’s the magic that Garvey still sees in his work, the incredible pride he takes from what he does that makes him such a warm character. It’s rare to meet a musician, much less an artist, who seems to understand how lucky they are for their gift; not just of the money and the worship, but in being given a gift to create that in the first place.
Now on their fourth record, Elbow are warming to their tag as the elder statesmen of music – “Well, that’s pretty cool. Better than old bastards, isn’t it?” To be honest, it felt like that from the start, given the grandiosity and gravitas they displayed from year one. New LP The Seldom Seen Kid sees the band hem in their more epic, fret-wrestling moments, relying on skill and craft to create the same effect instead. Initially, it gives the effect of a subdued record, but on closer inspection, reveals a dignity that shines brightly.
“A lot has happened recently,” muses Guy, pulling on a cigarette. “There have been deaths and births, excitement and disappointment, so it’s been a roller coaster. [The Seldom Seen Kid] is the last two and a half years condensed into 11 songs.” There is a preponderance of thoughts about age, life and death. Inevitable for Garvey, as the band continues to document his life, and in that, many other people’s too. “The things that inform it that are the good and the bad things, a bloke in me early 30s, as are the rest of the band – and the contemplations that throws up are new feelings and different stuff.” There’s joy to be gained, he pronounces, then quickly adds: “And discomfort, in old age”.
Garvey notes that there are now five children in the Elbow brood (“enough for a small football team”), and it’s clear that extending his legacy impacted on The Seldom Seen Kid. “Having a kid will make you contemplate your relationship with your father and you appreciate what he went through for you for the first time.”“I’m quite proud that we’re a band that isn’t afraid with dealing with big questions,” he adds. “There’re plenty of people dealing with on and off feelings, she loves me / she hates me, I hate yer, I want that watch, I want that car. Those lyrics leave me a little bit cold.”
Previously, Garvey admitted that he took the lengths of his writing, and real life experiences, too far; purposefully sabotaging a relationship in order to create ‘material’ – feelings and emotions to draw experience from. Has he found a happy balance between writing about what he knows without impacting on his life to far?
“I did that when I was younger and foolish,” he laughs ruefully. “I did that when I was hurt myself and was fucking up a relationship in its infancy. [As you get older] life takes on a little bit more weight in different areas, like you realise things you didn’t realise when you were a young man. I would never do that now.”
Now it’s left to the crafting and perhaps, partly on drawing from a reserve pool of emotions to play his trade. Talk turns to art and artisanship, and when pushed to declare which of the two he thinks Elbow are, there’s a long pause before a longer exhaling and well contemplated answer. “It’s a very, very odd thing, isn’t it?” he deliberates. “For a bunch of five northern blokes who have had great fun and avoided work for 17 years to suddenly be calling themselves either is still a little uncomfortable.”
“Wanting to make a noise came first, then wanting the noise to be recorded and cherished came second, and then working on how to play instruments and craft songs well. I don’t know... It’s moved forwards until it’s become incredibly important to us. I don’t know which informs which anymore, whether life informs the music or the other way round, I don’t really care. I feel incredibly privileged to be doing this for a living.” Garvey emphasises the word ‘incredibly’ to the point that it leaves no doubt as to the truth and vehemence expressed in it.
Before we end, Garvey has one more thing to add on his lyricism and body of work. “You can be looking out of a window at any moment, and you think, ‘If I can put what I’m looking at now in a way that no-one’s ever put it before’, it’ll be around longer than my gravestone, and it might inform someone else’s music or someone’s writing,” he adds, wide-eyed.
“Occasionally what’s really nice is if I’ve come across a way of explaining something I’ve not heard before, you then hear it echo in other people’s stuff, and far from being annoyed if that’s gone on to make another person a lot of money. I think ‘wow’."
It happened with the lyrics to ‘Station Approach’ – “I feel that I design the buildings I walk by,” he says, “and that’s a specific form of pride about when you come home to somewhere, and I’ve since heard it three times in much more successful records. (Chuckles) And I know that’s not come from anywhere else. And I feel very proud.”
And you sense the story is real, and the pride is genuine. A man who takes pride in being good at his work, skilled in his trade, Guy Garvey is an artisan of the highest order.
Video: 'Grounds For Divorce' (released March 10)
The Seldom Seen Kid is released on March 17. Further information and songs: MySpace.
4 Glasgow ABC
5 Newcastle Academy
6 Leeds Met Uni
8 Oxford Academy
9 Bristol Colston Hall
10 Birmingham Academy
12 Sheffield Octagon
13 Manchester Academy
14 Nottingham Rock City
15 London Brixton Academy
21 Dublin Vicar Street
22 Belfast Mandela Hall
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