Mike Atkinson

Interview: Mark Potter, Elbow

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on April 11, 2008

Your new album The Seldom Seem Kid is out today. It’s been on sale for, what, about three hours now, so it must be an exciting and nerve-wracking moment.

Very, very exciting. Not so nerve-wracking, really. I’m very proud of it, and it’s been a long time in the making. It’s been a couple of years, for various reasons, with record company negotiations and such like. We had the luxury of quite a long time to make it. We just locked ourselves away in our studio, and in my opinion we’ve made the best record we’ve ever done.

I see that the album is self-produced for the first time. Hard-Fi and Athlete did the same thing last year, and a few bands seem to be going down this route. How did the decision come about for you?

It’s something that we’ve always dabbled in. We’ve always had a pro-active part in the production, even when working with other producers. Leaders of the Free World was pretty much recorded by ourselves, but we didn’t quite have the confidence to mix it, and so we worked with a guy out in L.A. Whilst we were out there mixing, we basically came to the decision that we’re actually quite capable of doing this ourselves. My brother [keyboardist Craig Potter] has really proved himself as the producer. I’m very proud of him, and for me it’s our best sounding record.

So you now have your own dedicated studio, which is part of a larger complex?

Yes, we rent a large space on the top floor. You can actually see it in the DVD that came with Leaders of the Free World. There’s a really big room up there, in which we do a lot of the live stuff in, and a smaller room which is our control centre. Over the years, we’ve made a point of upgrading and building our own studio whenever we can. You never know when record companies won’t exist, and so hopefully we’ll always be able to put records out.

The album isn’t what I was expecting. I had you down much more as a sort of straight down the line, meat-and-two-veg guitar band, so it came as a pleasant surprise. A couple of things stood out: the sheer musical variety on offer, and also, as you say, the quality of the production. There are so many little details tucked away on there, and so I think people need to hear it on CD, rather than getting it on a cheap download.

The fact we had such a long time to make it definitely contributes to that. You talk about the finer details – we’re very much perfectionists about what we do, especially my brother as the producer. Some songs can come literally from a sound – that’s where they can begin.

Elbow songs are written, recorded, re-written, then played live, and then re-recorded. So it’s quite a long process, before the song ever comes to completion. I think it’s that attention to detail which sets us aside from other acts.

The flow of the album is quite unusual. It starts quite lively, building up to a crescendo with the fourth track Grounds For Divorce, before slipping back into a quieter, slower mood for the remaining seven tracks. You’re the lead guitarist, and you supply that grinding riff onGrounds For Divorce. Was there a part of you that felt frustrated at not being able to rock out for a bit longer?

(Laughs) I am the rocker in the band, and I’ve been playing around with that riff for many years now. Eventually, the rest of them picked up on it and thought: Hang on, it’s pretty good, that riff. Let’s get that in a song.

The fact that all five members of the band contribute to the writing is what gives it its eclectic nature. We all love bands like Radiohead, Queens of the Stone Age, and more recently Smashing Pumpkins, on the heavier side of things. But then we love stuff like David Sylvian – and Talk Talk, who are a massive influence on all of us. I actually think that delicate beauty is what we do best, and I think matches up well with Guy’s lyrical style.

There’s a very pronounced emotional quality that runs all the way through. The album’s title refers to a friend of yours called Brian Glancy, who died last year. Can you tell me a bit more about him?

He was a very good friend of ours – a local Manchester musician, who had been around for many years. He did some stuff with Mark Burgess [The Chameleons] many years ago. He was just such a loved guy: he was best friends with multi-millionaire rock stars and homeless people in the street. His music was very delicate: he played beautiful, heartfelt songs on an acoustic guitar. He’s very sadly missed. I don’t think there was a musician in Manchester that wasn’t mourning for quite a while when we lost him, to the point where I think there’s going to be a tribute record coming out, of local Manchester bands performing his songs.

The album’s final track Friend Of Ours is clearly dedicated to him.

It is. That’s a direct goodbye to him, from all of us. Whereas the lead single Grounds For Divorce is really about the way we felt. After his death, there were a lot of people drinking heavily, in a couple of our local bars in Manchester. Guy’s lyric – “I’m working on a cocktail called Grounds For Divorce” – was basically him saying: it’s getting a bit on top me now, and I want to get out of this feeling. So it’s not about divorcing your missus; it’s about divorcing a feeling within oneself.

I’ve not seen a lyric sheet, and I have struggled in a couple of places without one. I’m particularly curious to know more about the lyrical concept behind Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver.

Guy [Garvey, singer and lyricist] actually met a guy in a pub – there’s a theme running here, the pub seems to come into it quite a lot! – and he was a power crane driver on one of the work sites near the studio. They started talking, and Guy was saying: Oh, it must be great doing your job and being up there. The guy was saying: Yeah, I absolutely love it, I’ve got my own little toilet, and I’ve got a TV up there.

But after a few beers, it came out that this guy was very lonely. He wasn’t liked on the site, because his was the highest paid job and so he was making more money than anyone else. And at the end of the working day, by the time he’d got down from his power crane, everyone had gone. Therefore he didn’t have any friends on the site. So it’s really about that isolated sort of feeling.

What would you say are the album’s main lyrical themes?

Love is something that Guy has always written about. He’s very much in love, for the first time in a long time, and so it’s about the way that love make you feel. Mirrorball is about how you feel the day after you’ve met somebody that you know is special, when the world looks differently to you.

So it’s about love, it’s about loss – with Brian, obviously – it’s about hope, and it’s about us being comfortable with where we are musically. I don’t think that we’ve ever been so confident with the music that we make.

One particular departure is the track One Day Like This. In a way, it’s the nearest you’ve got to a stadium anthem. It’s notably more uplifting, with a singalong chant (“throw those curtains wide”), but it’s actually a very personal love song at the same time, so there’s quite a contrast.

That was quite intentional. I do find it hard commenting on Guy’s lyrics, because they’re so personal to him. On Weather to Fly, Guy talks about how we feel as a group of mates, and as a group of musicians, who are lucky enough still to be doing what we love after all these years. It’s actually my favourite song on the album, and I’m afraid it brings a bit of a tear to my eye, because it’s a bit of an “I’m proud of you, lads” from Guy to the band.

There’s also a duet with Richard Hawley on The Fix, which is a nice piece of Manchester-Sheffield crossover. How did that come about?

Guy met Richard as part of a strange collaboration in Memphis, Tennessee. I think it was Jack Daniels sponsored, and so it was a small gig in a distillery out there. They used some legendary local Memphis musicians who had played on a lot of Motown stuff, and Frank Black was also out there. Guy became very friendly with Richard out there, and they sang with Frank on a Pixies song. On the plane back home, they made a decision to do a collaboration.

The song is about a couple of friends who fix a horse race and then disappear on their winnings. As soon as we heard it, we thought it would be great to get Richard on. He came down one afternoon, we set two mikes up, they stood opposite each other, and it was pretty much done on the first or second take.

It was interesting to hear that you write the songs and play them live, before going back and re-recording them. Because the production is such a key feature of the album, I wondered whether there would be problems translating those songs to a live setting. But it’s like you’ve done that first, in a way.

Almost, but not with everything. In an ideal world, you’d write a record, then tour it, then go into the studio and record it. That’s because songs evolve live.

We never try to do an accurate, bang-on version of the actual album. We’re not big fans of backing tapes, or anything like that – although there are certain sounds that we will use on stage, as long as there’s one of us playing a similar thing. As long as there’s a visual, actual live representation of it, then we’ll occasionally use subtle sounds to back up what we’re doing. But we will actually be touring with a string section as well.

Cool, I was wondering about those orchestral flourishes…

I hate it when you see a band, and halfway through the gig, a string section comes out of nowhere. It’s not good enough, in my opinion.

I also read somewhere that this might be your last new album in the traditional sense of the word, and you might switch to releasing EPs and single tracks from now on. Is that correct?

I think that was slightly misquoted, actually. In fact, it definitely was. Guy was talking about how these days, the album as a format is a dying thing, because of all the downloading. We wanted this to be a record where people listen from to start to finish. We took it to the point where we had written three songs, and then we started putting them together in the order we thought they would work on the album. Then we’d listen to them and we’d think: OK, what would be great to follow that? For example, there’s a high backing vocal at the end of Weather to Fly which starts the following track, An Audience with the Pope. I don’t think there are many people doing that these days.

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