Guy Garvey Talks MOJO Through His Meltdown

The Elbow frontman is curating the annual arts explosion on London’s Southbank (June 10-19). He talks us through booking acts, stealing lyrics and much more.

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FOLLOWING IN THE footsteps of Nick Cave, Yoko Ono, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith and more, Guy Garvey is curating this summer’s Meltdown Festival. The ten-day (June 10-19) contemporary arts festival takes place at venues around London’s Southbank, including the Royal Festival Hall, staging both ticketed gigs and free events and artistic workshops. With the Elbow frontman’s festival kicking off on June 10. We spoke to him about the musical equivalent of being a poacher-turned-gamekeeper, an artist booking his own festival.

MOJO: How did you come to curate Meltdown this year?

Guy Garvey: The guys at the Southbank get in touch with your people, which in my case is one person, Elbow’s agent. [laughs] I was like “Fuck yeah! That’s amazing.” I was honoured straight away. I couldn’t believe they wanted me. The nicest part is being able to do for bands and artists I know what Massive Attack did for Elbow in 2008. Rob [del Naja, 3D] phoned me up and said “I want you to do Meltdown, what do you want to do? I’ve got choirs, I’ve a church organ if you want…” and I said “I’ll have all of the above, please Rob!” A lot of people are doing their thing in the beautiful spaces of the Royal Festival Hall and its Ballroom, but there are some special one-off things happening and more will crop up as the festival unfolds.

You’re confident there will be some unique collaborations?

Yes, because I know the majority of the artists I’ve programmed. When you ask someone to curate an event like this, really you’re appealing to their vanity, you’re saying: “Who can you get? What are your contacts like?” [laughs] But then there’s the overriding thing which is… fun. Initially I thought, I must make sure every facet of my musical taste is catered for, and then I thought, No I don’t, let’s just get my friends in and have a right laugh. I know all these musicians, their music is brilliant because that’s led me to go over and speak to them in the first place and we’ve become friends. They will do something astounding.

“Howe Gelb is a friend because I stole a lyric off him.”

Who did you book first?

Laura Marling was my first phone call because I think she gets better by the record and she’s one of our best songwriters now. Then of course there’s no show without I Am Kloot! Plus there’s a great platform for stuff people won’t have heard. The free stuff in the Ballroom and outside will be really exciting. I’ll be surprised if a lot of the artists playing don’t go home with much bigger audiences. I hope that happens, anyway.

Robert Plant was due to play the festival but had to pull out because Led Zeppelin are in court over Stairway To Heaven. What are you doing instead?

It’s really dangerous that stuff, and so dark that these lawyers are getting involved in music. So Robert is tied up, which was such a shame because he was really enthusiastic about the festival and had loads of great ideas. So there’s a free event going ahead instead in the Ballroom on June 19 with Nadine Shah and a choir made up of professional singers and refugees who have been trained to sing. It’s going to be a really special thing on the last day of the festival.

That’s part of a few things you’re doing on Meltdown’s final day to mark Refugee Week. Why did you choose to incorporate it?

Meltdown is an arts funded project and it’s a privilege of a society like ours that there are common funds for the common good on an intellectual and aesthetic level. But that also means you have to look after one another – that’s the deal. When someone is knocking at your door starving you’ve got to give them a hunk of bread. No one is saying you’ve got to give them your homes – just stop them dying! They are fleeing war zones with hell behind them and thanks to indifference and political game-playing they now have hell in front of them. So the start of International Refugee Week is the last day of Meltdown and Refugees Welcome is something the Southbank do where they hook up recent arrivals with organisations who can make their lives a little bit better. So I want to use my Meltdown to extend the hand of friendship to these people who need our help. Let’s ask ourselves the question: How kind are we?

MOJO readers will know all about Richard Hawley, but who else should they be getting tickets for?

How about Lift To Experience? We toured with them in France in 2000, I think, certainly early doors for Elbow, and we became instantly friends with all of them. They were about to embark on their third tour of the UK but circumstances intervened and they had to cancel. They split up leaving one amazing album, The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads. Josh Pearson, the lead singer who released a solo album several years after called Last Of The Country Gentlemen, has one of the best turns of phrase and the best male vocal that’s singing today. He’s by far my favourite male vocalist alive, while Lift To Experience were the gnarlyest three-piece I’ve ever seen, an amazing rock show. I never thought I’d get to see them again, but when they heard I was doing Meltdown they got in touch and said: “How about we reform the band?” That’s a real coup and something not to miss.


Richard Hawley joins Elbow to perform The Fix. The Don Of Sheffield and Guy Garvey both play solo shows at Meltdown.

You’ve also got Femi Kuti, which might surprise some people who think they know your music tastes.

He was straight away a ‘yes’. And in the spirit of the festival his wife is doing a dancing workshop. If you’ve never seen his dancers, it’s something not to miss. The best live show I’ve ever seen was a Femi Kuti gig at Glastonbury.

Was anyone hard to get?

Connan Mockasin was a coup! I was told he wasn’t doing music but was “painting this year”, so I’m dead pleased.

You’re letting Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb loose on the Royal Festival Hall’s grand piano. It might be hard to move him on…

Howe is a friend because I stole a lyric off him originally. When I wrote “Kiss me like a final meal” for One Day Like This I thought, That came easily – I wonder if I lifted it? We Googled it but nothing come up so I thought, Nice one! Then the song comes out, it becomes Elbow’s most successful song, it’s the national anthem for 12 months it seems, but one day I’m listening to my iPod on shuffle, I get this funny feeling in my tummy and a song of Howe’s that I’ve only heard once before comes on. He sings “Kiss me like it’s our last meal”. I thought, Oh fuck! A few days later I was doing an interview in Belgium and the journalist mentioned he was interviewing Howe next. So I asked him to pass on a note which just said: “Dear Howe, I’ve stolen a lyric. Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it.” He emailed me the next day saying: “Dear Guy, it will cost you one beer. I am in Manchester tomorrow!” [laughs] So I had him on my radio show to talk about me accidentally stealing his lyric and right near the end of the programme I mentioned we had another lyric in common which is “she’s got a belly full of life” to describe a pregnancy and he went, “Oh hang on is that on your album with the blue cover [Elbow’s debut Asleep At The Back]? I think I stole that from you!” [laughs] So it’s one all.

“Let’s ask ourselves the question: How kind are we?”

Tell us about the Bryan Glancy Stage…

This is a free stage to introduce artists to anyone who wants to come along. Bryan was my friend who died in 2006 – he is The Seldom Seen Kid! He introduced me, Pete Jobson and John Bramwell from I Am Kloot and everyone else in Manchester music really. He was very good at hooking people up in that scene. He’d walk in and just go, “Meet my friend who is a photographer, you need a photographer don’t you?” He was so good at that, so I named the Bryan Glancy Stage after him because it’s a stage to hook people up with their new favourite act.

For the full line-up, tickets and much more, please visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk.

PHOTO: Victor Frankowski / Southbank Centre