“People Might Think, ‘What Is This, A Cult?’” Elbow Interviewed

As part of MOJO’s Glastonbury 2022 Collection, read our 2019 Elbow interview in full.

by Pat Gilbert |

In 2018, MOJO joined Elbow in Mexico, as they brought their quasi-religious humanism to tearful Catholics and Dave Grohl, fuelled by “wonderment” and mandatory alcohol. Does this, and the fact they’re battling Ed Sheeran and X-Factor to be Christmas Number 1, mean they’re rich and famous? asked Pat Gilbert. As part of MOJO’s Glastonbury 2022 Collection, you can now read the interview in full…

“I’ve absolutely no idea how big we are here,” rasps Guy Garvey, the band’s aforementioned man-mountain vocalist, mindful that most physical music sales in Mexico are bootlegs, and high volumes of streaming can be accounted for by free deals with mobile phones.

“I’ve had lots of emails from Mexican fans asking us to come here, but no one has recognised us yet…”

Then, after posing for pictures in a busy street-food joint, something magical happens. From nowhere, a woman approaches, explaining in broken English that her teenage daughter, bashfully hiding behind her in a grey union flag hoodie, is a huge Elbow fan.

Garvey bends down and puts his arm around the tiny creature. “Come and have your photo taken with us!” he booms. Twigging that tickets for the festival, at US $150 a pop, might be beyond her family’s means, he quickly adds, “Do you want to come and see us play tonight? I’ll get you in free. And why not bring your friends?”

The girl is overwhelmed, and fights back tears. And as if touched by the same potent emotional charge, so, behind their sunglasses, does virtually everybody else present. It is, as Garvey will describe later, “something of a moment”.

A careful scrutiny of Elbow’s seven-album career will reveal that spreading joy and love, like millennial musical shamen, is what Elbow do. But should anyone think that Guy Garvey – whose lyrics seem to find beauty and wonderment in some of life’s darkest corners – is just a big, cuddly, Northern milksop, then they ought to spend a riotous weekend on the road with him.

“I love a lively argument… and I’m always pissed on-stage,” he tells MOJO. And he’s not proved wrong on either count.

A decade since their fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid, scooped the 2008 Mercury Prize and launched them into the wider public consciousness, Elbow have become such a pervasive force in British culture that one struggles to remember what life was like without them. One Day Like This, The Seldom Seen Kid’s hymnal big-hitter, today ranks high in the list of songs people are married or buried to. Luminaries as diverse as Alan Bennett, John Cale and Timothy Spall are fans.

In 2012, Elbow’s common touch – plus a back catalogue of meticulously crafted LPs, delicately balancing folk, pop, found sounds, stirring strings and transcendental lyrical strangeness – earned them a place at the closing ceremony to the London Olympics, alongside the likes of Madness, Ray Davies and Brian May. And now, as if to underscore their status as national treasures, their cover of The Beatles’ Golden Slumbers is this year’s soundtrack for no less an institution than the John Lewis Christmas TV ad.

Elbow’s vertiginous ascent, after years of struggle, has, in keeping with their unfussy outward appearance, been comparatively drama-free. Yet 12 months ago, news emerged that February 2017’s Little Fictions was to be their first album made without drummer and founder member Richard Jupp. His departure was the first upheaval in Elbow’s line-up since they formed in Bury in 1990 – and has, it seems, left an indelible mark on a group who consider their friendships inviolate.

“He wanted to do different music, which he’s doing, and it was sad,” says Garvey, as we leave the food market. “It was a point of great pride that we were together as long as we were, and that no one had ever left the band. I’m sure he’ll have a different story, so I don’t really want to go into the specifics, but by the time he thought he should leave, we thought he should, too. I’d be lying if I said we were talking. None of us are talking to him now.”

Band and entourage have by now relocated to the sun-blasted terrace of a restaurant on a vibrant, tree-lined thoroughfare near the Frida Kahlo Museum, a Mexico City must-see. Garvey and the rest of the group – super-amiable bassist Pete Turner, and brothers Mark (guitars) and Craig Potter (keyboards, production) – are, as is the Elbow custom, tucking in to a round of lunchtime beers, together with colourful plates of tacos and tortillas.

During our short minibus journey from the Mercado, several intra-band tales were traded, which one would have thought by now had long passed their sell-by date. But when Mark – ‘Pots’ to the others – relates the story of how back in the ’90s Guy broke the axle of the guitarist’s beloved VW Beetle, taking it for a crafty spin while Mark was scoring some weed, the four men emit hearty guffaws. “I eventually confessed to my dad what really happened,” Pots smiles. “We were really famous by then, so he didn’t really mind.”

“What’s that programme’s called, The Apprentice? Oh my God, hideous bastards!” 

Guy Garvey

That Elbow had existed for over 15 years before they became a hit chart act is etched into their defiant swagger and unshakeable esprit de corps – and reflected in their empathy for the underdog. Here in Mexico City, poverty is visible even in the tourist districts, and, as we eat and chat, a relentless stream of hawkers, mariachi players and raggedy beggars have to be gently palmed away. It is, says Garvey, “heartbreaking”.

Yet Elbow’s left leanings – powerfully expressed in songs like The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver and the overtly political 2005 LP Leaders Of The Free World – have been made abundantly clear to audiences. It’s while discussing the growing rise of inequality, globe-wide, that Garvey sketches out the band’s ideological heritage.

“It was the way we were brought up,” he says. “Mark and Craig’s parents are teachers, and so are Pete’s. My dad was a proof reader for the Sports Chronicle at Allied Newspapers. Dad was a Maxwell pensioner [workers whose pensions were stolen by owner Robert Maxwell]. Most of his colleagues lost their jobs because of what happened on the newspapers in the ’80s and ’90s. Mum was a policewoman before she married, and dad’s brother was a policeman. Trades unionists were fighting with policemen, so it literally divided families. Those communities were fucked.

“But I also grew up in the haze of Happy Mondays and the Manchester thing,” he adds, “which also shaped me.”

MOJO suggests that the current political climate has served to normalise selfishness. The force of Garvey’s reply is unexpected.

“Alan fucking Sugar – top cunt!” he explodes. “Whatever that programme’s called, The Apprentice? Oh my God, hideous bastards. The worst was that Nick [Hewer, erstwhile Sugar boardroom sidekick]. He was describing something that had happened with one of the would-be twats on the programme and said, ‘He was all over it like a tramp on chips.’ And everybody round the boardroom were proper laughing, including Lord Sugar. I thought, That’s you lot in a nutshell. The image of a starving homeless man is funny? You horrible, fascist cunts. I hate that bloke.”

At this point, we are distracted by a sombrero’d busker performing his particularly challenging rendition of a Mexican air, both voice and frantic strums rising to a deafening crescendo.

“He’s now playing the ‘Give me a dollar and I’ll fuck off’ bit,” laughs Garvey. “I used to busk in Manchester, as a necessity. I know all the tricks.”

In the flesh, Garvey has a rogueish earthiness and mischievous glint that his more mannered broadcast persona doesn’t transmit. There’s the dominating, Henry VIII-style largeness which, coupled with his sorrowful, down-turned mouth and easy, avuncular manner, lends him an air of hard-fought resilience. Little wonder that Turner and the Potter brothers seem to defer to him as leader, though in every other aspect of Elbow, from writing credits to preparing setlists, they are exemplars of rock’n’roll democracy.

“We’re just great mates, who’ve experienced a lot together,” explains Turner. “Even when we’re away on holiday we phone each other to say hello or recommend some music we’ve just heard. It’s never been any different.”

After an hour spent recuperating back at our respective hotels, we regroup at 4.30pm for the hour-long journey across Mexico City’s dusty, gridlocked arteries to the festival site at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, aka the local Grand Prix circuit.

Playing to vast crowds – there will be 80,000 music fans attending tonight – is something that Elbow take in their stride, their pitter-pattering, uplifting song-poems tailor-made for such gatherings. The congregational atmosphere of Elbow shows makes MOJO wonder if, like U2 – the first group Garvey ever saw live in a big arena – they’re guided by a hidden religious rubric. ‘God’ is, after all, a recurring word in Garvey’s lyrics, and on Little Fictions he even sings the inescapably churchy line, “Love is the original miracle.”

“Well, I can’t think of an Elbow song in the last few years that hasn’t got some religious reference in it,” he replies. “And when we’re playing [in devoutly religious countries], you see a lot of the Pentecostal raised arms, people shutting their eyes, and they’re Christians. And people would be forgiven for thinking we are Christians. But we’re not, and the other content of our songs spells that out… But [religion] is 
definitely a frame of reference from my youth. My mother is a devout Catholic, a charismatic Christian. But there was no celebration in the church I went to, it was all very monotone and droney.”

But it’s not just the words. The way Garvey reaches his arms out to the audience, and gets them to join in his chants, is churchy too. Does he feel a bit like a guru?

“No,” he harrumphs, “but in terms of the way we write, the way we get people to sing, we owe that to the U2 concert I saw at Manchester Arena [back in 2001]. At that point I’d never been to a football match, so I’d never actually been in a room with that many people. And when everyone started singing Pride (In The Name Of Love) at the top of their voices, as you can’t sing it any other way, I found it profoundly affecting.”

The conversation swiftly moves onto other, more recent, things that Garvey has found inspiring, including becoming a father (to eight-month-old Jack with his partner, actor Rachael Stirling), his stimulating BBC 6Music radio show and the positive response to his invitations to Dave Grohl and Sheila E to dep for Jupp on Little Fictions, though neither drummer eventually contributed.

Such topics demand getting to the heart of the matter, which means more beer. So, after arriving at the carefully astro-turfed backstage area of the Corona Capital bash, more bottles are cracked open. Unlike many groups in their forties, Elbow don’t appear to see the consumption of alcohol and staging a high-spec musical performance as incompatible. The fridge in their Portakabin is quickly denuded of beer and spirits, as they settle into a circle of chairs, ciggies lit, to resume their seemingly endless stream of anecdotes and friendly debates, one focusing on the inherent ugliness of the phrase, “I’ll meet you halfway.”

As stage time approaches, and Polly Harvey is spotted mounting an elongated golf buggy en route to her slot on a distant stage, everyone bar the band is shooed from the dressing room for Elbow to make their final preparations. “We’re just going to put on our stage gear,” winks Turner, before, 30 minutes later, the group emerge into the balmy night air wearing exactly the same scruffy clothes, but a noticeably steely, pre-battle look in their eye.

As they wend their way to the wings of the huge main stage, Garvey bumps into Dave Grohl, fresh from the airport, and the two oft-lauded good-guys of rock – who’ve never before met in person – share a “rock hug” and make a loose arrangement to meet later (both knowing there probably won’t be time). Then Elbow take their positions on stage, augmented by their two female violinists/backing vocalists, and launch 
into their set, beginning with the beautiful The Birds and spectral The Bones Of You.

Initially, the crowd react tentatively, but after Garvey reads out a rousing welcome in Spanish, written on the back of a crumpled setlist, the crowd roars its approval and slowly begins to surrender to the roiling emotional undertow of Magnificent (She Says), Little Fictions and Lippy Kids. By the time the set ends with the dramatic rock detonations of Grounds For Divorce, tens of thousands of Mexicans are hollering its “whoah whoah” hook back at Garvey at deafening volume.

"I don’t consider myself a snake-skinned alien from another world. ” 

Guy Garvey

Back in the Portakabin, more booze is imbibed and Garvey insists MOJO tapes some more interview material on his own dictaphone. He’s happy the band won over the crowd tonight – but then, he says, Elbow always do. “At the end they’re always having it,” he beams. “People might think, ‘What the fuck is this, a cult?’ But I don’t consider myself a snake-skinned alien from another world. I’m keen to demystify what we do. You talked to me earlier about ‘wonderment’ but that’s just ’cos I’m always pissed on-stage.”

And what about the money and fame side of it – how does that mesh with Garvey’s socialist beliefs? He must be earning a few bob from the John Lewis ad…

“I’m from a working class Northern background, one of seven kids brought up in a small house,” he retorts. “Do you not think I’ve been hit with eyes of suspicion since the first time I was on telly? We’re doing all right. But no one buys music any more. Without festivals none of today’s bands would exist.

“So what you really asking?” he continues. “Is it that I’ve got millions and I should share it? The answer’s no. (Pause) It’s an interesting question, to ask on behalf of the general public: what is the average income these days for a Top 10 band?”

I wouldn’t know, I say. You tell me.

Garvey surveys MOJO with his watery grey-blue eyes. After a perfectly timed beat he growls, “None of your business. Ha ha!”

This article originally featured in MOJO 291.

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