Rock band Elbow talks ‘Taking Off’ into their golden years

03.19.14 4 years ago

Tom Sheehan

Elbow just scored their first No. 1 in the U.K. this month, with their sixth studio album “The Take Off And Landing Of Everything,” which has also become one of their best-selling sets in the U.S. The music itself contains as much up and down as the title suggests, even with the rock troupe's many successes; it's more about personal failures and regrets, sarcasm and lunacy, and — sure — a some triumph and optimism.

Produced by the band keyboardist Craig Potter, “The Take Off” now leaps up from No. 109 to No. 83 on the Billboard 200 this week. The group will be touring the U.S. May 12 through May 28, with several dates already sold out. Having previously interviewed frontman Guy Garvey, it's apparent Elbow are thankful for any success they've seen. With this release, I spoke to Potter, who also feels that shaking things up in the studio still has kept them on an “up” trajectory.

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Below is our abridged Q&A, on their single, their tour, beer and bloody marys, recording at Peter Gabriel's studio and embarking on The Golden Years of Elbow.

I”ve been listening to “Fly Boy Blue/Lunette” a lot since the song came out. Let”s start by talking about that song, can you talk about the making of that song in the studio?

What we did with this album, we sort of split up into different groups, didn”t necessarily all get together. We had one day off a week when we were writing so it meant that different varying groups of the whole band working together at different times trying to get different vibes out of different songs. So “Fly Boy Blue,” the bare bones of it, was written by three of us, musically.

It's so much more of a performance song, sort of band feel. Probably a little bit more like some of our older stuff. We always wanted it to feel quite foggy in a lot of ways, as some of the other tracks on the album do. They came up with this big heavy riff in the middle, this really long riff and it was just guitars and keyboards at first and then we decided to put the sax on to give it a bit of a twist.

It's basically a story of snapshots of Guy”s life in a lot of ways, the first half, and then “Lunette” is more of an honest sort of hit. It”s a sort of admission, just a very honest sort of tale, I think.

I like in particular the treatment of Guy”s voice. Can you talk about the evolution of his voice as you've known him as a producer and bandmate throughout Elbow”s career?

Interesting. Listening back to our old albums and listening back to early stuff that we did, it has changed quite a lot. Obviously his range as he gets older — he can't quite do the falsetto bits anymore so he used to sing a lot of falsetto and higher sounds when he was younger.

He's always layers his voice in a lot of ways, especially when we first started experimenting with recordings. One of his strengths is harmonies. So I'd give it a little bit of a twist. And more and more it got a bit more gravel. You can push Guy's voice up in the mix a lot and it's just really “wow” having it really loud and in your face. Other than that ,it's just the usual things really, a bit more grit has come in there.

Lyrically this album and the last touch a lot on major big life gestures and a moving through life. Do you feel like this new album says something new or touches on a lot of issues about aging?

Yeah, I think the feel of a lot of the things are definitely about approaching 40. I mean I'm actually a couple years younger than the rest of them, but yeah we”re all at that or around it. When you get to that I think a lot of it's when you get to that stage of life you do a bit of looking back, and you do looking forward, so you're sort of in the middle almost. And I think that comes through. Considering death and then considering your childhood and what was, all at the same time.

Did you imagine that you'd be still with this band and working with this band in this capacity when you started?

If you'd asked 20 years ago if we'd still be together, I would've said no way. I think we're just lucky to get on so well.

And what have you considered to be one of the biggest goals that you guys have achieved or what had you thinking, “Man, we really made it?”

The big moment that is sort of changed everything was winning the Mercury Music Prize over here. That changed a lot of things. But I mean – because of that we got to play with BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and on TV over here…

And you have your own beer, which I feel like is an achievement of its own.

Yeah. The beer thing is crazy. We did it with the last album and it went down so well so we've got to do it again. It is just to promote the album at the end of the day. But if people like it and it sells well it's like why not, it's a bit of fun.

It certainly makes you think a little differently about merchandising. Are you thinking about branching into spirits, perhaps some whiskey?

You never know. Maybe next time. We would think we'd quite like to do a bloody mary mix. I mean it's one of things because we travel around a lot and depending on how hungover you are, sometimes it's nice to have a morning bloody mary in an airport. Maybe next time that's what we'll do.

Visually is there anything that you're doing for your next round of concerts, stage shows, any overarching theme to your visual presentation?

No, but maybe we should. Maybe we should wear matching suits. We've put together the production for the arena shows over here and that's always changing. So the feel of it will be different for America. We used to try and sort of shrink the bigger venues into smaller ones and try to make it as intimate as possible. I think we'll pretty much be able to spread things out a little bit more this time so you can see the workings, try not to cover up the mechanics of things. Just make it a bit more raw atmosphere.

Getting back into the production of the album and creating this album, for you was there any kind of – was there any kind of a production sound or way of recording that you wanted to lean away from that you guys have done previously, or lean toward something?

I wanted to really try and sort of keep things as natural as possible for [previous album] “Build a Rocket Boys,” which meant not messing with the original sound too much…. But this time I felt there's no reason. I wasn't too precious about keeping things realistic in that way. And I think that maybe that made the old albums sound a little bit more modern hopefully.

How do you make something sound more modern?

Ah, well I guess you have to go into the future don't you? Buy a time machine.

I don't know it's the combination of things that end up creating something you had not heard before hopefully, or just that feeling. I just made a conscious decision not to do be too precious about getting things sounding really organic or really real, and started twisting things more than I did on the album before, not being afraid of not messing with it a bit.

You guys split your time between recording at Peter Gabriel”s studio and your own. What is the biggest difference between those? It seems like you would have kind of a home-field advantage in your own recording studio.

We do sort of try and do sort of 9 to 5 in our own studio during the week and it doesn't end up being that, ends up being more like 10 to 4. The main thing is when you [record] away from home, it's almost as much about “going away” rather than “This is a big studio.” It's going away and being able to spend a whole week-and-a half, two weeks. And if you want to carry on into the evening to early morning you can. You get such different [material] because of that. You're going to be able to get so much more done in a week-and-a-half that you could possibly could get done in a couple of months back at home.

And on top of that, it's different rooms. We've got this big room at Blueprint, in our own studio — it's become a sound on our last two albums and I was very keen to get different, more drier sounding rooms and drum sound and things like that. And at Real World, there's quite a few different options so it was that as well.

I'm going to assume there are times that you guys get sick of each other. And I'm wondering if you get more sick of each other in the studio or when you're on tour, and how do you cope?

Well, on tour there's a lot less pressure in some ways… maybe not for Guy because he's sort of in front of the show every night. But there's less pressure, because everyone so precious about the music when we're writing in the studio. I say it can get more tense potentially, more artist's break out in the studio because everyone's very attached to certain ideas and feeling greater responsibility.

The personal histories of the bandmembers seems to inform where Elbow is at in its career. People who have split up, people who have had kids, people moving… It sounds very much like you guys are your own family and your own familial entity. Can you kind of describe the era that The Family Elbow is in right now? How would you describe it as if it was a marriage?

We've been together a long time but success only happened for us six or seven years ago. I don't know, are we approaching retirement? Ha, not quite yet. That's a tough one for me.

You've had six kids together, you know.

I don't know, it's going really well, The Golden Years, I should say.

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