Elbow: Misery Loves Company
With the Gallagher brothers now pre-historic exhibits, Radiohead becoming too avant-garde for the masses and Blur turning into Gorillaz, Adly Syairi Ramly finds solace in Elbow.
DO not try to talk about being depressed and miserable to Guy Garvey. The sleepy-eyed, square-jawed and flaxen haired Mancunian has spent the last 10 years of his life wallowing in it.
“I don’t think I was well [mentally] for a couple of years,” he told me over the phone from Manchester.
Together with childhood friends Richard Jupp (drums), Pete Turner (bassist), and brothers, Craig and Mark Potter (keyboards and guitar respectively) they are known as Elbow, Britpop’s most treasured next big thing at the moment.
Their debut, Asleep in the Back, is the current Brit favourite of the year, receiving a minimum four stars (out of five) in reviews from Uncut and NME. Best of all, it has also earned the quintet a nomination for the coveted Mercury Music Prize next year.
This is the recognition that has long eluded them. Like the saying “There’s a price to pay for success,” the band have paid a hefty one and Garvey has a lot say.
MELANCHOLY AND THE INFINITE SADNESS
May 7, 2001, Cardiff Wales.
There was nothing special about that Monday, but for the quintet, it was monumental – their debut album Asleep in the Dark was released on that day. Garvey remembers that day as being ecstatic.
“We actually went to the record store to wait for the record to come and made sure that it would be displayed on the shelves [laughs]. It is just a moment… [pause] to see your album being displayed on the shelves,” he said.
The album, like their fellow Mancunian Badly Drawn Boy’s The Hour of Bewilderbeast, is sardonic, but is far from being light-hearted. The spirit of Talk Talk, The Blue Nile and early REM hovers over the album, but Asleep in the Back is equally fuelled by a love for trip hop and the fearsome punk energy of Joy Division. It’s epic and monumental, but yet human and vulnerable, affirming that Elbow have thrown the Mancunian “mad for if” stereotype out of the window in order to produce a wonderfully crafted debut album that is unrivalled in these post-Radiohead days.
Garvey, the man himself, prefers to be objective on the issue.
“I know that it’s a bit melancholy, though not all of it. Lyrically, it’s just my personal experiences. It’s honest music, I would say.”
Recording it took the band to two countries, four cities and seven recording studios to get there. “Our initial plan was to re-record all the songs that we had for the album. But after many takes, we were unable to capture the original vibe. That’s when we decided to use the original recordings, no matter how bad it may sound.”
Songs like ‘Newborn’ and ‘Bitten by the Tail Fly’ came from 2000’s The Newborn EP. ‘Any Day Now’ and ‘Don’t Mix Your Drinks’ came from 2001’s Any Day Now EP and for more history, ‘Powder Blue’ and ‘Red’ came from their legendary Noisebox EP in 1998.
The rest that made it to the album was written during the darkest period that the band had ever gone through, as told by Garvey.
BEFORE GARVEY BROKE HIS ELBOW
Besides the football team Manchester United, Malaysians pretty much know nothing about that industrial city – like the fact that, if you live there, you have three options in life: play for Manchester United, work in one of the factories or dedicate your life to music.
Many choose the more secure option – working in one of the mills, but there are also many who pick up a guitar and form a band. Bands like Joy Division, The Stone Roses, Doves, The Smiths and Badly Drawn Boy all came from Manchester’s simmering, ugly, dark side and each of them took the British music scene by storm. Now, Elbow should complete the manoeuvre.
All, except Garvey, have known each other since nursery school days in Tottington, or as the band describes, “the posh end of Bury”.
Mark Potter, Turner and Jupp were playing in various bands together like General Public, RPM and Miscellaneous Sales in the fourth year of high school. Garvey was playing in a group called Synoptic Reverb from 1989 to 1991.
During ‘A’ Levels in Whitefield, he joined the trio with’Mark’s younger brother Craig and formed a band called Soft, a progressive rock band specialising in “rancid shite,” as described by Garvey.
Struggling with their riffs and beats, the young quintet braved stage fright at their first gig at the Cornerpin pub in Stubbins, winning a massive following among tassel-skirted, Doc Martens-booted female sixth-formers.
Thinking that a record deal would help to boost their popularity, the band was led to believe that the only way to achieve that was by writing commercially oriented stuff. Not quite as, by September 1997, they could only draw a crowd of six people at a gig at the Roadhouse in Manchester.
Stuck in a corner and trying to avoid disintegration, the group decided to do things more for themselves and dropped the ‘made to order’ compromises.
Inspired by one scene in a Dennis Porter play, The Singing Detective, where the protagonist tells his luscious nurse how he believes ‘elbow’ to be the most sensual and erotic word in the English language, the band changed their name to Elbow and wrote new material. Then they made this plan. And only after the last three traumatic years, the plan has actually paid off.
THE ALBUM THAT NEVER WAS
“There was a point when the band would have no longer existed in a space of half an hour,” explained Garvey, referring to the EMI decision to call off their contract offer in the midst of negotiations. “It was just awful. I would say, that 30 minutes was the darkest and scariest period for the band,” whispered Garvey.
I bet it was. Especially when it wasn’t the first time they had been dumped.
Right after the success of their first self-released Noisebox EP in 1998 (one song from the EP, ‘Powder Blue’ was at number 34 on the influential BBC Radio 1 John Peel’s Festive 50 chart for the year), the band penned a deal with Island Records.
“We were warned by the guy who signed us, because it was being taken over. But we thought we couldn’t turn it down,” recalled Garvey.
While the ink is yet to dry, the label sent the band to France, for three dismal winter months, to a remote cottage in the Loire valley, to record an album.
The scenario: Five musicians on the verge of a breakthrough. Aware of the instability of their new label, 10 years of rejection, frustrations and irritations, they just needed to let it all out.
The plot: get into a fistfight with some French blokes about their inability to breakdance.
The aftermath: “It was such an unpleasant experience in a way. That was also when we had our biggest row ever. We were avenging the pain that had been building up all this while,” recalled Garvey.
Back in England a few weeks later, the band waited and waited for the day of the album’s release. When Island was bought over by Universal, there remained no news about the album and the band was told that they weren’t in the label’s plans.
“That incident made the band more cautious in putting too much hope in anything… I don’t know about the rest, but at least I do [now],” explained Garvey on the impact of Island’s decision on the band.
While still recovering from Island’s decision to drop them, EMI brought a ray of hope with a contract offer – at least that’s what they thought.
Garvey recalls that moment: “We were at the rehearsal studio when our manager told us that the EMI deal was off. All of us asked ourselves where we went wrong for quite a while.”
While the band were picking up pieces of what’s left in them, they were offered a two EP contract from Manchester-based independept label Uglyman Records.
In August 2000, Elbow made their entrance into British music with The Newborn EP.
A collection of songs inspired by love and lust, the EP haemorrhaged inconceivable tenderness and romance. It was chosen as Record of the Week on BBC Radio 1’s Mark and Lard show, and an Elbow blow fractured the British music scene.
When they released Any Day Now EP in January 2001, a collection of four tracks of gliding guitars, shimmering, expansive keyboards and Garvey’s scuzzily angelic voice that recalled Talk Talk, Nick Drake, Doves, DJ Shadow and Radiohead, there were rumours that some A&R guy was kicking himself for being silly enough to overlook them.
GARVEY THE GUY
Now signed to V2, their long-awaited debut full-length finally has seen the light of day. The dark nature of the album is often misinterpreted by the media and Garvey sounds a little uncomfortable in answering our question if the band is as dark as their music.
“Truly miserable people don’t listen to miserable music. They’re the people who can’t share their feelings, who don’t have anyone who understands them because they’re afraid to talk about the shit that really affects them,” Garvey said.
Still, that question is something that the band can’t avoid being asked, considering their journey to success and Garvey’s emotional, honest and intense lyrics.
“Maybe I did put too much honesty in Asleep in the Back. Maybe I was miserable when I wrote that stuff three years back but Guy Garvey is a happy person now,” he explained.
Well, he’s not alone. The rest of the band, Craig and Mark Potter, Jupp and Turner are, according to him, enjoying the best moments of their lives as they rightfully deserve.
“They are just remarkable people. Craig is very honest, considerate and tends to be a perfectionist and that drives me crazy in the studio. Besides that, he’s a very lovely gentleman. Mark, he is very reliable. Whenever he says he wants to do something, you can expect him to deliver and without doubt, he’s the rock star of the band. Rick [Richard], I think he’s the best drummer in the world. And Pete is my best friend,” Garvey said, in a tone upbeat enough to dispel the myth of Mancunian misery.
*Originally appeared in TONE August 2001