Elbow’s last album was the first album they made knowing it was actually going to be released. For a band with more critical acclaim and underground praise than Doves, Embrace and Athlete, roped together with a copy of NME and a Brit Award and the knot-tying of the entire BBC, this Manchester fivesome have spent twenty years deserving some goddamn recognition. “We’ve come a long way, but we’ve had a lot of knockbacks,” says keyboardist Craig Potter. “We’ve lost our record deal three times now or something, so every time we really appreciate [the next step]. We never take anything for granted. I think that’s where a lot of bands go wrong initially; it’s easy to progress quite quickly and not really appreciate it at all. God, we appreciate the good stuff.”
Potter has emerged on a Thursday morning from their resident haunt Blueprint Studios in Salford, where the fivesome have been casually self-producing their sixth studio album, one month in, one month out. This time around, Elbow are taking the follow-up to 2011’s darling complexity Build A Rocket Boys! one a track at a time, working each piece through to completion and finishing what they start like proper grown ups.
Consistently labelled as something of a “secret” underground alternative sensation (despite support slots for Coldplay and U2, headlining Leeds, Reading and Glastonbury, and watching their melodically innovative albums soaring up the UK charts and beyond), until recently Elbow’s sales success had been criminally underwhelming. If we’re going way back, their first EPs and album in 1997 were signed to Island Records before the label culled the band in a major shift. Admirably, Potter’s attitude towards the industry players who gave up on his band is relatively lenient. “[Island] dropped us because they were taken over by [Universal] basically, and there were no other reasons than that. But we hadn’t even released the album yet, we had recorded it but not released it, so it was a bit of a shock. The same album that Island dropped was nominated for the Mercury Prize a few years later. That was nice, especially because we saw some of the guys who dropped us at that ceremony,” he laughs. “Might have been a bit of a mistake there…”
Flipping the bird at their original label with a swag of accolades (a Brit Award, a Mercury Prize, the Ivor Novello Award, the South Bank Pop award, an NME award and Mojo Magazine’s Song Of The Year), the Mancunians have every reason to be smug little chavs. But with their roots still firm in Greater Manchester, Elbow would eat their hat before losing their heads to fame. Potter chuckles recalling the band’s first gig back in 1990 under the moniker Mr Soft, a ramshackle performance in the now-defunct local pub the Corner Pin in Ramsbottom. “We were squeezed into a space, probably two by two metres square, next to the bar. It’s funny because we played there so many times [over the years], and we had lots of friends who used to come down and watch, so I remember it quite well – even down to the little PA we used to bring along. The guy who used to run pub would give everyone a lift home afterwards – they were really good to us, and it was almost like a residency. I’ve got a lot of memories from there.”
Potter’s wistful talk of British rugby as a youngster and starting a band as a 15-year-old tells of an appreciation for the past – but then it’s hardly unlike Elbow to get nostalgic. The band’s last studio album Build A Rocket Boys! saw notoriously introspective singer Guy Garvey declare he was “too happy” in his songwriting, the result of which was a swirl of reflective longing and a celebration of youth, with the singer posing the question, “Do they know these days are golden?" (Lippy Kids). Potter assures that the memory trip of “stealing booze and hour-long hungry kisses” was one to be shared. “The last album is very much about Guy’s views, and we were part of that as well,” he says. “We’ve still got a lot of friends who grew up with us over the years, and Guy describes things that we all remember so well. The songs mean so much to everyone, really.”
Garvey’s honesty was plain when he told Jools Holland last year, “We don’t expect gold medals.” In a lovely irony, the five have just been commissioned to write the official BBC music for the London Olympics – a piece the band has described as “soundscapey”. But like their music, nothing about Potter’s reflections on his bandmates is hollow or pretentious, an attitude that has probably kept the lads (wisely) somewhere between being The Biggest Band In England and carving their own unique brand of deeply intelligent, intricately detailed, semi-but-not-quite commercial, explosive sound. Children have been born, friends have died, labels have been argued with, records have been made, sold, toured and treasured – twenty years is a long time for the same five guys to keep their heads together, however with no lineup changes since Potter, his brother Mark, Garvey, bassist Pete Turner and drummer Richard Jupp first rolled into the rowdy Pin, the solidarity between such serious musicians is pretty damn commendable.
“I think we’re just lucky to get on so well,” Potter says. “We split all things five ways, all things including money. I think a lot of arguments in bands ultimately come down to money, so we learnt quite early on that [an even split] is probably the best. It’s amazing how far we’ve gone considering we’ve been living in each other’s pockets for 20 years. We’re just good mates.”
BY BRIDIE CONNELLAN
ELBOW play Festival Hall on Wednesday March 21 with support from Bombay Bicycle Club. Build A Rocket Boys! is out via Universal Music.