Interview: Elbow’s Guy Garvey on Manchester, Music and Fatherhood

Elbow released their latest album Little Fictions back in February and after a long year of festivals and shows around the world, the band is finally hitting the states.

We sat down with lead singer, new father and all around gentleman Guy Garvey to discuss the band’s upcoming shows, the state of the world, how Manchester came together after the tragic bombing and what’s next for Manchester’s favorite sons.

As our interview with elbow frontman Guy Garvey started off, he had to excuse himself as he tiptoed past his sleeping newborn baby boy.

Culture Collide: First off, congrats on the new guy. The last time we spoke you were a free man but now you have a tiny dictator running your life.
Guy Garvey: [Laughs]. Yes, the chairman as we call him. He’s currently asleep with a bit of a cold. He’s a delightfully benign dictator but he must be obeyed!

You guys are getting ready to hit the states. How much do you change the show for the American audiences? Do you alter the set list at all or is it the same show the rest of the world gets?
To be honest when we tour the UK we do it in a matter of weeks because we do a few big festivals. Doing shows compared to festivals is different in terms of having the audience the whole evening.

You consider the journey of the evening.
We consider what do we as a band want to play but obviously you want people to have the best time and hear their favorite song. That’s the sort of communal payoff, playing live together is a celebration of the hard work we’ve done because it isn’t hard work at all.

You’re on the road together, you eat together, you have a laugh together, you drink together you play together and you sleep and do it all over again.
It’s fun. I mean you could say we need to play the hits but we’ve not really had a big hit over in the states [laughs]. 

It’s funny you say that because I always feel like I introduce you to friends and I get feedback a week later “How did I sleep on these guys? What else should I get?”
Thanks mate!

But your shows are always packed. Your fans are here. You’re not an unknown band here but you’re not a household name. It’s a weird spot you’re in.
We really feel it when we don’t tour. It hasn’t happened very often but we’ve released an album and not toured the states for whatever reason. But we feel it quite keenly if we haven’t toured. If someone asks us “Why are you going over there?”  It’s not to make a profit that’s for sure. The answer would be because that’s what we do.  We make a record and then we go and see everyone. It’s what we do. The payoff couldn’t be less financially viable. We’ve never made a penny over there from touring. We avoid going into the red but it’s not a payoff. We come because we really enjoy it is my point. It’s the love of it. I enjoy seeing your amazing cities. Getting the updates on how things have changed from our friends that we visit. Dipping into their lives and such. It’s like a beautiful time capsule. I’ve been visiting the states for 17 years now.

You lived in NYC as well right?
I have. I consider it my second city. Not sure what NYC would say about me but…[laughs]. 

That leads to my next question. You guys are Manchester through and through. The city is in your blood. Now that you live in London more and like we said in NYC, how much do you see your writing changing with your vantage point?
As you travel it changes perspective on the world. You grow up in Manchester and then you grow up and see the world.

It doesn’t water down the Manchester in your music but what kind of effect does it have?
It all filters in. The key is to make sure it filters in in a recognizable way, a non-alienating way in terms of there’s nothing worse than someone banging on about their holiday in India and how they now consider themselves spiritually enabled. Those are the people to avoid at the party, but at the same time there are great travel writers, the songwriters who have traveled. Some where they’re persistent and you think that’s enough of that you know? It all filters in but you rarely mention the place by name. If you hear me say the name its normally Manchester but it could be any city really. The particularly inspiring cities I’ve been to like NYC,  I mean NYC is THE city right? But also cities like Istanbul and Lisbon, they’ve filtered in. The ones I namecheck are the ones where I was manufactured, where I’ve been built. I’ve been writing about London romantically  for a long time just in part here and there. It’s a strange one I don’t know it’s like I love the idea of commune, the idea of people being together, therefore I like cities.

Manchester has had a pretty intense year. When we last spoke about Little Fictions you said you didn’t want politics to bog down the record and instead turned towards a more inspiring feel to fight back against the doom and gloom. Do you feel the current situation of the world and recent events will filter into the next record?
Do you mean specifically the bombing?

No, not just that but the state of the world and maybe some of the more inspiring results of what happened after the bomb, the city coming together etc.
It depends if it makes good music. There is always reaction in our music but I try not to make it the focus of songs because in the same way you don’t want it to be the focus of a conversation. We all know what’s going on and we all know what’s wrong with it or certainly anyone whose opinion I care about does anyway, so it doesn’t need to be repeated. At the same time, I’m not afraid of it.  If the music brings it out of me lyrically then it’s there as with Little Fictions. It’s scary, the whole concept of fake media is all Orwell, it’s literally what he predicted but it all felt so farfetched until now this idea that everyone would know what’s going on. It’s pretty scandalous and I mean fuck me what’s going on with the president is a tinderbox. It’s just scary.

Yeah, things are very surreal as of late. It was really inspiring though to see Manchester come together in such a difficult tragedy.
And to come together in love as well. Manchester is a tough town. The city center is vibrant and modern but there’s not a lot of money and many people live in poverty. For everyone to uniformly adopt the slogan “Choose Love” and to adopt that attitude, I have never been prouder IN MY LIFE.

That is wonderful thing. Word is that you might have an EP or a prequel to Little Fictions.
That’s a possibility. We started along those lines. I’m not sure. We’re going to just keep making material and if we have enough material it will become an EP.

I loved the last EP. It was nice surprise to see that drop as an appetizer in between meals
Thanks, but this material just feels it too good. I think you have to sit and write an EP.  What we did was sit and start writing songs. What we did last time is sit and wrote an EP.  Those songs in that order was always the plan. It was about a particular moment in time. I think the mistake we made here was to not have a focus on what we wanted to do thematically and so much has been happening in all of our lives particularly in mine. We want this work to be more a staple of our work, more canon. They saw the stuff I wrote about the birth of my son.

Can you give us a tease about the direction? Sound wise maybe?
They’re sort of an Ennio Morricone vibe to the songs.  Sort of experimental scenescape but very, very wordy which had already started to happen on Little Fictions but yeah, very wordy.

Is the band keeping up with you? Or is this just you churning it out and they’re waiting for you?
This is me reacting to their music. Reacting to their music and whatever else the world is going to throw at me.

How is it with your new band member?
He’s a wonderful man. I’d already worked with him on my solo record. It was lovely for me to watch him and the band’s friendship unfold in a way I kind of knew they would. Watching your best friends present their best selves to the new guy. And watching it in return. I knew him well enough to watch him fit in without stepping on toes. He knows we are peculiar bunch and have a way of working that is 27 years old. He’s doing a great job navigating that. He gives his opinion, he’s in the room and he’s funny as fuck. 

The John Grant, single took me by surprise.  That was out of nowhere. Where did it come from? This isn’t like teaming up with Taylor Swift to get a hit single. It seemed more organic. How did it happen?
We love John and last time we were on tour, he was on the opposite side of the states. I knew there was space in kindling for a duet but I didn’t know what kind of duet. We saw it as an opportunity to draw people to the album, new people maybe. We asked the label if they’d give us another crack at radio if we have a good reason and they liked the idea. It helped me with this niggling idea that I hadn’t finished the song. It was fun to write for someone else’s voice. So we made a list of possible artists and they were all women. Our only duet up until that time was with Richard Hawley.

I said “How about a guy?” and Craig said “John Grant” and we all said “Yes!” at the same time. So I wrote John a sort of blackmail letter where I said I’d love to do this but if you can’t don’t worry, if you have reservations about it that’s fine, don’t worry about it, but I’ll never forgive you sort of thing [laughs]. Luckily he loved it.  He found some stuff in it that has been going on with him and we really enjoyed playing together, so he is coming out on tour with us now. It was just a lovely thing.

He’s great live.  Can’t wait to see that. Do you use the stage to revise songs for a live setting?  Did you change Little Fictions at all for the tour?
No, I don’t particularly like when a band does a completely new version of a song I’m familiar with. I think we can play with volume and dynamics to help people feel the songs more. Songs naturally take on another dimension live just because it’s bigger and louder and volume is a tool we can play with live because no one really uses dynamics in the studio any more. The big bits are bigger and the subtle bits are softer. I’d hate to disappoint anyone. We’ve got the best sound engineer with us. We are always well rehearsed and no matter how small the venue we put on a big show.

You’re a great headphones band but also a pretty rocking live band. Usually you’re one or the other.
It’s hard for bands nowadays. Sometimes you have to throw a record together in your bedroom and then you can expand it live. Other times you throw everything on it in the studio and can’t afford to reproduce the big details live. We were lucky we made some records the old fashioned way before people stopped buying them.

You guys always surprise in the live setting because you go from these beautiful string ballads with the audience singing along and then grind out a raucous guitar song. Again, not many bands have both in their catalog.
Thanks man!

Well we all look forward to seeing you here in the states soon.
Cheers mate!

And with that Guy Garvey heads back to check on his sleeping baby boy.

Watch the new video for “Kindling (Fickle Flame)”, the specially re-recorded version of the Little Fictions album track, now a duet between Guy Garvey and John Grant. The single is available now.

03 NOV – Webster Hall, New York City, NY
04 NOV – 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C.
06 NOV – Danforth Music Hall, Toronto, ON
07 NOV – St. Andrews Hall, Detroit MI
08 NOV – The Vic, Chicago IL
10 NOV – The Showbox, Seattle, WA
11 NOV – Roseland Theater, Portland OR
13 NOV – Fox Theater, Oakland CA
14 NOV – The Observatory, Santa Ana CA
16 NOV – The Wiltern, Los Angeles CA

photo by: Andrew Whitton; background art Robert Hunter