The British rock group Elbow tell M how they keep their feet on the ground, despite healthy sales and a Mercury Prize.
A seldom seen side of rock stardom
In the internet age the concept of the "local hero" is a bit outmoded. But it's hard to think of a better description for the five members of Elbow. When we take a cab to their Blueprint Studios in the centre of Manchester, Guy Garvey (vocals), Richard Jupp (drums), Pete Turner (bass) and brothers Mark Potter (guitar) and Craig Potter (keyboards) are instantly recognised by the driver.
"S'pose you live down in that London now, winning the award and everything," he says. "Still, you've done this place proud."
Actually, despite multi-platinum sales and winning the 2008 Mercury Prize, they haven't moved to the UK capital at all. They all still live in or around Manchester. You only have to hear Jesus Is a Rochdale Girl from their most recent album, Build a Rocket Boys!, to know that much of their music is a series of open love letters to the North of England.
It goes deeper too. When we arrive at their studio they are welcomed by a handful of technicians and assistants, most of whom are friends they have known since they were 15 years old. There is no peer angst here. There is none of the semi-feudal hierarchy you find in the set-up of a high-profile band.
Later still at the Britons Protection pub in Manchester city centre their roots are on display more clearly still. A lunchtime patron recognises Turner and gives an approving back slap. He used to go to college with someone in Turner's family. The landlady, Gwen Partridge, leans over the bar to kiss each one of them on the lips.
"Come 'ere you!" she says, clutching each to her breast before allowing us the use of a back room in the 200-year-old pub. All in all the Mercury Prize winners (they have been nominated again for the 2011 prize to be announced on Tuesday) are revelling in an afternoon back on home turf.
"People are nice in Manchester. You get a few more thumbs up if you've been on the telly the night before, but generally people are content to let you blend into the background and leave you alone," says Garvey, who is, it has to be said, more portly and whiskery than most men of 37.
"That's because we are not thought of as proper rock stars," muses Turner. "Now if your frontman style was a bit more like Freddie Mercury, then we might get a bit more of the proper rock star treatment."
Turner is right. They are not "proper" rock stars. Their music and their personalities are too firmly rooted in the everyday for that. But also, in the X Factor age of the overnight sensation who can go from tiling a bathroom to headlining Wembley Arena in a matter of weeks, Elbow have been playing a conspicuously long game. This visit to the pub is part of a "rolling celebration" of their 20th year together.
"It was the summer of 1991 we formed. The last day of term in the lower sixth as I remember," says Garvey, referring to his days at secondary school. "It wasn't as idealistic and uncomplicated as you might imagine either. Mark asked me to get involved and, well, I wasn't sure if he actually even liked me at the time. I think he thought I was a bit of a show-off but that they'd better give me a go."
There were name changes and experiments. They were Mr Soft and then Soft. By the late 90s they were Elbow, named after a character in Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective who said "elbow" was "the most beautiful word in the English language". But their worrying run of bad luck was beginning: after being signed to Island Records they recorded a debut album. But in 1997 Island was bought by Universal Records and immediately Elbow and their album were unceremoniously dumped in a post-Britpop clear-out.
It was 2001, 10 years after they formed, before their debut was released. Asleep in the Back was critically lauded and nominated for the Mercury Prize. Yet somehow Snow Patrol and Coldplay became the choice of broadsheet-reading, mortgage-paying music lovers. Elbow were considered a little too avant garde. They struggled on.
It was only when they made The Seldom Seen Kid with their own money and produced by Craig Potter that the world sat up and took notice. They were signed to Fiction Records, a subsidiary of Universal, which had dumped them in the first place.
The Seldom Seen Kid spawned a huge hit, One Day Like This. And then they won the Mercury Prize. It was, they say, the best thing that ever happened to them. But the triumphalism is rather tentative when you have been led up the garden path as many times as Elbow.
"There's no chance of us forgetting what it's like to have your feet squarely on the ground," says Jupp. "We've been together for 20 years this summer and properly successful for the last three. Anyone can do the maths: we were never in this for the fame and fortune. We did it and do it because we love great music and there's always a challenge to make yours halfway as good as what's out there."
Success is gratefully accepted. Their Blueprint Studios has a nice new hardwood floor and a grand piano that necessitated a crane and the removal of a window to get it in. But listen to any Elbow music and you see that it is an appreciation of ordinary life that most keenly informs their music.
On their biggest hit, One Day Like This, a self-deprecating lover who seems to be recovering from a massive hangover tells his partner that he loves her eyes and the weather is nice and that "One day like this a year would see me right".
Similarly, on the beautiful Lippy Kids track from Build a Rocket Boys!, Garvey gets very sentimental about, of all things, stroppy teenagers. The credo of rock 'n' roll has, for a long time, been to live fast and die young. Garvey seems to turn this on its head and tells today's youth: revel in the ordinary, take your time. Never pass up a chance to look back because your youngest days are among your best.
"Am I sentimental? I suppose I must be because I can cry at the most unlikely things," says Garvey. "I might look like this hairy bear but I am soft in the middle. Always have been."
Recently he found himself shedding a tear over a building society TV ad. It featured a young girl putting down a deposit on her first flat. It didn't seem she had enough money. Her dad, who had baulked at the state of the building, stepped in to help out.
"Blubbed like a baby," he says. "And of course I understand this ad was conceived and executed by a bank and an ad agency to make me feel that way, but still. My tear ducts lapped it up."
If Oasis were once official ambassadors for the gruff Northern male, then Elbow subvert the stereotype. They are the band it's OK for men to cry to. On Starlings, Garvey tells his lover: "I'm stubborn, selfish and too old" before admitting she is by far the better person in the relationship.
This candour and self-flagellation, he admits, are something of a departure from his early days.
"I don't think you could easily see how I was going to turn out back then," Garvey says. "I was listening to hip-hop and all I wanted was to get a girlfriend. To be honest with you, I was a dirty little sod. I don't see the point in trying to dignify it with any notion other than that. I wanted to be on stage and get girls."
He certainly seems to have calmed down. Garvey's girlfriend is the journalist and author Emma Unsworth. Today he gets immense amounts of ribbing for the erotic passages in her recently published debut, Hungry the Stars and Everything.
"She must have had to do a ton of research to get all those steamy passages worked out," teases Turner. "Are you sure she made them all up?"
Oasis's Gallagher brothers celebrated their 20th anniversary by releasing solo albums and denouncing each other in the press. It's fair to say rock bands do not often reach their 20th birthday. And even if they do it's not without the help of lawyers and separate tour buses.
The working methods of Elbow, by contrast, could cheerfully double as a marriage guidance handbook: work at the relationship, air grievances, be loyal, try new stuff.
That's not to say there aren't squabbles. While Garvey gets it in the neck about his girlfriend's novel, Craig Potter is taken to task for taking up golf. Mark Potter is then reminded that he wasn't always a "serious musician", he was into rave and used to go out dancing carrying a glo-stick.
"I guess we've seen enough to know that friendship is what will really carry you through life," says Turner.
"And a sense that what is good is happening right now," adds Garvey. "Even the simplest things like a sunset viewed from a tour bus window. You're only going to see each day once, so you might as well look for something in it."
It's not always so cosy. This democracy occasionally means tough tests - such as the time Garvey announced he had written a brilliant lyric to a song and showed it to the rest of the band in their rehearsal room.
"It was about a lad who'd stolen a pig," he says.
"We listened patiently and looked at each other," says Turner. "Then we said: 'We think you'd better get back in that room and give it another go, mate.' None of us were prepared to indulge him on that one. We thought he was off his rocker, to be honest."
Next week Garvey will travel to Peter Gabriel's Real World studios near Bath. There is a writer's cottage there. He will sit alone and write for the new album that they plan to begin recording later this year. Garvey will enjoy the solitude but he will text them whenever he has a good idea.
"If I think I've had a brain wave I can't keep it to myself," he says. "They are the other half of my brain and I need to tell them everything. Even if I'm just having a cup of tea and a biscuit, this news must be made known."
"It is like a marriage," says Turner. "Much as you love someone sometimes it's nice if one of us clears off for a bit. There's more space. The dynamics of the band change. Sometimes you work harder and then it's refreshed when that person comes back."
There is a pregnant silence. Garvey sips from his glass.
"The thing is, you can think that, but you're not supposed to bloody well say it, are you? You've hurt me feelings now," he says.
"Awwww. Didn't mean to, mate," counters Turner and gives him a man-hug.
Like so many facets of the Elbow story, it all turns out right in the end.
ASLEEP IN THE BACK (2001) The title track became the Britpop band's first Top 20 hit, and the debut album, which went gold, was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. "Manchester has delivered its first great album of the millennium," gushed an NME review.
CAST OF THOUSANDS (2003) The title is literal, referring to the audience at the Glastonbury Festival in 2002 whose refrain to the song Grace Under Pressure was recorded live, A companion film features footage set to all 11 tracks, plus the music videos for the Fallen Angel and Fugitive Motel singles.
LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD (2005) This album also went gold and reached No. 12 on the UK charts. It "retains Elbow's best qualities - embittered romanticism and pretty, twisty melodies - while infusing them with hooks galore", wrote The Guardian reviewer.
THE SELDOM SEEN KID (2008) This double-platinum Mercury Prize winner, the band's most successful album, was self-produced and recorded without outside help. "An extraordinarily accomplished and thoroughly engaging piece of Mancunian songsmithery," praised The Skinny.
BUILD A ROCKET BOYS! (2011) A grown-up Garvey goes nostalgic and reflective in this album that debuted at No. 2 in the UK charts. Garvey "makes something moving and original from the experience of the man on the street", according to Helen Brown in The Telegraph.
The Mercury Prize shortlist
The annual Mercury Prize honours the best album from the UK and Ireland. A panel of musicians, journalists, music executives and other figures in the industry chooses the nominations. The shortlist for the 2011 award, which will be announced on Tuesday:
Anna Calvi Anna Calvi
Elbow Build a Rocket Boys!
Everything Everything Man Alive
Ghostpoet Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam
Gwilym Simcock Good Days at Schloss Elmau
James Blake James Blake
Katy B On a Mission
King Creosote & Jon Hopkins Diamond Mine
Metronomy The English Riviera
PJ Harvey Let England Shake
Tinie Tempah Disc-Overy