It’s been a trying period for English band Elbow since the release of 2017’s Little Fictions. From Brexit and the bombing of a concert in their hometown Manchester, to the deaths of friends and family, the Elbow we hear now is darker, less anthemic, but still massively powerful. Their latest album Giants of All Sizes is a powerful testiment to friendship, family, and love. KEXP’s Owen Murphy spoke to lead singer and lyricist Guy Garvey via Skype about this new direction before the band hit the stage in Munich, Germany.
KEXP: I'm struck by how great this record is. Most artists don't sustain this kind of artistic, creative success over a long period of time. You have. How do you do it?
Guy Garvey: I think we're still so in love with exploring. We're still in love with exploring music, and we're still sort of turned on by what can be done. Also, you see, it's never cases of, "Shall we do on the record?" It's always, "When are we doing the next record?" It's so many more things than just knocking around with your friends and trying things out. It's become documents of all of our lives, and we still love it.
Is there a trust between the group that maybe most bands may not have? What does the process of practicing and recording feel like?
I think there's a couple of things. We write separately, and we write together. For instance, this record was started in Hamburg, and then the four of us and the guy who drums for us, Al Reeves, sat in a circle and started digging in. We were in quite an industrial landscape, so the big riffs will come in and the heavy beats. Then, that ended up being the thing I reflected on lyrically. That became the blueprint for the record. All the members of the band will write music on their own, and then give it to the rest of the band to play with and work separately that way. I nearly got 20 or 30 pieces of music that I can work out at my leisure in order to get the get songs together. That's how we did it this time.
You talked about the heavy beats, and this album is huge. It almost feels like a modern update of a Phil Spector record. There's so much instrumentation, so many twists and turns. What was in your head before you started recording and making it?
We decided we didn't want to consider commerciality this time. We decided that in Hamburg. We decided we wanted to just switch that element of it off to the point where I phoned our manager Phil, because I thought the more of a heads up he's got with that situation the better for business. I sort of said, "Hey! You're probably gonna have no singles to deal with, and you will probably want to get a bit creative with how we get this one out." It turns out that we've had plenty of radio success in the UK. The album went to number one, but it had not been a consideration. Phil's been with us since the beginning. Phil's from the same town as us, and we were the first band he managed. He was just really a great facilitator. He just said, "You tell me what I've got to work with, and I'll work with that." So, we had that feeling of freedom.
It deals with everything from the death of my father to two of our close friends passing away just over a year ago, all against the backdrop of the divisions that Brexit is causing, the Grenfell Tower disaster, the Manchester Arena bomb, and a traincar suicide. I was on a train when somebody threw himself in front of it. We knew it was going to be a big bleak beast, and it felt good to reflect rather than distract from our surroundings. We are known for this big positive, diversionary anthems kind of approach, and this time we decided to spill it. I'd say the overriding feeling lyrically for the whole record is bewilderment. The country is in mourning in some way, because the situation in Europe and because the really harsh cuts to social services that been made over the past decade under the Tory rule in the UK. According to the Office of National Statistics, that has resulted in one hundred and thirty thousand premature deaths, so the Tories taking money out of where it's most needed in order to balance the books has been devastating in itself. It isn't a country that's proud of itself at the moment. This is a deeply divided one. It's the same wedge issue politics going on your side of the pond as well.
It's hard to keep hope, but I am hopeful. How do you feel?
Same as you. It's very, very difficult to be hopeful. It feels like it's got to collapse before we can build it again. Mind you, I also remember the feeling surrounding the most nuclear the Cold War got, and it was unimaginable that situation would ever resolve itself. Arguably it didn't, but I do remember it weighing heavy over my childhood, the idea that we could be under nuclear attack at any time. We still could, but it's funny how things shift and things move. Who knows what's gonna happen? Partly you think, "Is it just my job to be this worried because I'm a dad in my mid 40s? Is it just my time to be the warrior?" I don't think that's the case. I was talking to a friend of mine about our teenage daughters, and she said that she considers them a war generation and that they don't want to stick out. They want to do their better and blend in, and they're really cautious of who they are online and not wanting to make any statements of youth in the way that we did. We were desperate to belong to something specific, and kids aren't like that now. I think it's harder for young people than it was for our generation.
Yeah, probably true. How does a band come together to write something as interesting, challenging, dense, and cool as the song "Dexter and Sinister?" Why did you choose that as your first single? That song is a real statement. The second we got it, we got it right on the air. It was so cool.
Thank you very much. I think it was in some ways an overture for the rest of the record, and it sort of hints at all the themes really. Dexter and Sinister themselves being a reference to my two friends that died who were both pillars of Manchester's music and bar culture, so I imagined the coat of arms without its left and right figure. It talks about the feelings of bewilderment. It talks about wanting to opt out of society and maybe even go and stare at the sea for the rest of my days. Musically, this sort of second part, the quiet prog-y wig out, our second part with just loose vocal over the top, that was us setting out our stall. More than anything we wanted to reset perceptions of what we do. I think is still very much an open record, but it doesn't have the usual moves on it.
I think it's wonderful. You mentioned your father. Your father knew your son, right?
They met a couple of times, yes.
Would you mind telling us about that? Your father is infused within this album. Would you mind telling us about him? What was he was like?
So, dad lived to 84. I'm a carbon copy of him, really. He was a big guy. He was a trade union leader for a newspaper group most of his life. He was very, very intelligent. He decided to go to work instead of university. He was part of the first generation in the UK who have the option of going into further education for free. His one regret was that he didn't take it. He didn't take the opportunity, but he was a profilic reader. That led him to discovering all kinds of different languages. He realized quite late in life that he loved travel, and I wish he'd got to do a bit more of that. He was very warm and friendly. He loved to drink. He was an unrepentant cigar smoker, and it's amazing he lasted as long as he did if I'm completely honest. He was a very funny man. I was with my dad when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and in his darkest moment, he was effortlessly cool and just so generous to the young woman doctor who told him (he had cancer). He was telling her not to get upset and saying, "I'm so glad it's you that's telling me. I think you're a wonderful person." He was utterly charming and really, really wonderful. Also, because he was breathless and weak, he was always very well turned out.
Dad wore pomade in his hair. I asked him if I could give him a shave and do his hair for him just to sort of perk him up in his hospital bed. Then throughout the day, whenever his hair was out of place from rustlin' around in his bed. I would pat down my work. I would pat down his hair in the middle of a conversation about "do not resuscitate" and chemotherapy. He said to my sister, "You know what? Maybe I will have chemotherapy if it will stop Guy from touching my fucking hair (laughs)." So, he was nursed to his death in my sister's house. She's a trained nurse and her husband, too. He never lost his appetite, and he felt no pain. He was surrounded by my sisters, my brother, and all his grandchildren singing, talking, and cracking jokes. He had the most amazing farewell you could imagine. He said in these last few weeks of life that he'd never felt so loved in his whole life, which is just what you want. Also, [my son] Jack is a little carbon copy of me, which his mother resents a hundred percent. She's like, so you just supply some code and get a replica of yourself, but I have to do all the growing. That's how this works. So there's something about that. Also, losing your father for a bloke, to generalize wildly, takes you out of spotlight. It stops you being the point of things. It's really foolish to consider yourself (different than) your old man, when you've got so many some similarities with your dad.
Thank you for sharing that. Sounds like you have a really beautiful family.
Very lucky I do.
I've been playing "On Deronda Road" over and over. Would you mind telling me about that song? It's incredible.
Well, this piece of music before the guitars were on it, when it was just the synths and the beats, was entirely Craig Potter's work, our producer and keyboard player, so I had this piece of music kicking around. I went to India with my wife, and I witnessed a fisherman who whose method was to sit on a tractor innertube, using ping pong bars as paddles. He would fish an enormous keepnet around a glacial lake at this crazy meditative pace. This huge net! Then at the end of the day, he'd go through his catch. Anything too small it throw back. I wrote a very, very detailed diary account of this man. I remember the opening line was, "I know right now in Udaipur a man as thin as mist moves around a glassy lake at an ancient patient pace," and it went on from there. I've got the diary entry detailed enough. I was really happy with the story, but when I listen to it back, it just sounded like, (mocks himself) "I've been to India, yeah (laughs)." So, I just scooped the entire thing off the music.
Then, I was on a bus of my son coming from where I lived in South London into Brixton to take him to a drum workshop that they do for toddlers. One of the stops is Deronda Road. Deronda is a George Eliot character. I'm guessing that she must have lived somewhere around there. And whenever the bus got to it, and the bus speaks and tells you where you're going to alight. It would say (in a computer voice) Deronda Road, and I would start singing to my son, (sings) "We're on Deronda Road. We're on Deronda Road." And there was just this moment of elation where I was just absorbed by my son's beautiful face. I was telling him something, and he was searching my face with his eyes for answers, and I just realized that I've never felt at home in that way before. It was the deepest, simplest, easy-peasy love I'd ever felt. It extends into "Weightless," the last track on the album, as well. That's about how simple it was to love my father towards the end of his life because dad's and lads gets complex, but when we knew he was going to check out, it was so easy to love him. History records he was a fucking great bloke. So "On Deronda Road" is for Jack, and "Weightless" is to Jack but for my dad.
I love it.
Giants of All Sizes is out now via Polydor.
Although they're mostly critical darlings in the United States, Elbow have been headlining stadiums and festivals in their native UK for a few years now, so it's no surprise that their Sunday evening set on the main stage at Sasquatch was a brilliant display of showmanship. Their latest album, Ma...