The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, Elbow’s sixth album, is out on Monday (March 10) – in this archive piece from Uncut’s August 2011 issue (Take 171), Guy Garvey, Mark Potter and Craig Potter stroll through two decades’ worth of musical memories. “We’ve never had the word ‘can’t’ bandied around the room,” says Garvey. “It’s like a red rag to a bull.” Interview: Graeme Thomson
The Newborn EP (Ugly Man, 2000)
Having been dropped by Island Records without even releasing an album, Elbow sign to local indie label Ugly Man. The proggy title track on their second EP proves a watershed.
Mark Potter: Getting our Island deal was an amazing moment for us, and to have it pulled away at the last minute literally put us on our arses. Pete Jobson from I Am Kloot was with us when we found out we’d been dropped and he said, “I know a guy who would love to put your music out.” That was Ugly Man. So right away it was, “We don’t need this deal, we can do this on our own.” There’s a real defiance on that EP.
Craig Potter: “Newborn” was very much a breakthrough song. We’d been picking through these early Genesis albums and one song, “Entangled”, jumped out. The way that song developed and took its time was a big inspiration on “Newborn”. We had the front half of the song and in the studio we started experimenting and it just grew and grew. We knew we had something special when we finished it.
Guy Garvey: We’d never written anything that ambitious before, although I’m very proud of all the songs we chose for the EP. “Kisses” is a crazy piece of work based on a field recording that I made on a bus, and “None One” was the first bitter heartbreak lyric I’d ever put together. First of many!
The Any Day Now EP (Ugly Man, 2001)
The influences on the third EP range from Bowie to Funkadelic, but the Elbow sound is beginning to emerge. It’s later reissued by V2 in truncated form.
Mark Potter: At the time we weren’t sure exactly what we wanted to be. We were still developing as musicians and working out how we wanted to come across. We learned to play together by playing funk music, Sly Stone and stuff like that, and there was still a bit of that in “Any Day Now”. I’m actually thinking of getting my wah-wah pedal back out on the next album!
Craig Potter: We were determined these songs were going to see the light of day, but it was all done on the fly, really. Getting favours pulled in from friends who had little studios just to get these recordings done.
Garvey: We wrote “Any Day Now” close to the time we wrote “Newborn”. They’re very different songs, and yet it all seemed to happen in this single month. The root sensibilities of what we’re trying to do haven’t changed. The buzz when all five of us are feeling the same thing was there then and it’s still the same. It’s really lovely and not lost on any of us. We’re different people now but I think we’re still doing what we set out to do on these EPs. Even the sleeve of “Any Day Now” is very us.
Asleep In The Back (V2, 2001)
Having already recorded their debut album once for Island with Steve Osborne, after signing to V2 they have another go. It’s nominated for the Mercury prize and a Brit, while the title track goes Top 20.
Mark Potter: I have a copy of the original version and it’s quite different sounding. The first time around it was a bit overwhelming to have people criticising your music and picking apart the arrangements. Second time it felt better. Ben [Hillier] was one of the team. Very much, “Throw it at the wall and see what sticks.”
Garvey: It was a case of, “Fuck it, we can do what we want”, whereas the first time it was a case of, “This has got to be perfect”. Lots of fun and experimentation. At the end of “Bitten By The Tailfly” I’m chanting “Portillo is a fascist bully-boy”. If you know it’s there, you can hear it! There’s also the sound of me hitting myself on the head with a crate. In my mind it sounded like a Wagnerian timpani, but that’s three bottles of red wine for you.
Craig Potter: It doesn’t sound like a debut to me. It sounds like a bold, confident album, maybe because we’d been through the shit beforehand.
Mark Potter: It got some acclaim and we felt like we were on our away, but had it had the success of The Seldom Seem Kid, I’m not sure
we were quite ready for it then.
Cast Of Thousands (V2, 2003)
Recording in Liverpool, the band suffer a severe case of Second Album Syndrome, though in “Grace Under Pressure” – “We still believe in love so fuck you” – they mint their first anthem.
Garvey: There’s a book to be written about this record. Every single one of us was going through something fucking weird. We were buzzing because everything had gone so well, so we arrogantly strode into the studio with half an album’s worth of material thinking, ‘Ah, it’ll be all right.’ It dried up pretty quickly.
Mark Potter: Ben Hillier sat us down and said, “Sorry lads, I’ll give you a month to go away and write some songs and we’ll go at it again.” I know Guy got quite ill from worrying about it.
Craig Potter: There was a lot of pressure on everyone, especially Guy. At the end it was like, “This can’t happen again.”
Garvey: They were probably the bitterest rows we’ve ever had. They were mostly about music, but they couldn’t help get personal at times. It was awful. At the same time I became much more interested in lyrics. The build-up to the Iraq War was going on and all I could see were bare-faced liars. I wanted something that spoke positively but had a bit of an edge to it, and when I went on at Glastonbury to sing “Grace Under Pressure” those words came all at once: “We still believe in love so fuck you”. If I’d thought about them more they might have been a little better…
Leaders Of The Free World (V2, 2005)
Fuelled by “the odd beer and other things” at Blueprint in Salford, the band self-produce an album packed with dynamic songwriting.
Mark Potter: It was the first time Craig took the reins production-wise. We found this amazing space, a big old textile mill in Salford. [Art group] the Soup Collective came in and put cameras all over, there were animators in one corner, painters in another, it was a really buzzing environment. We’d often work until 5am, helped by the odd beer and other things that go on at that time of night. It was amazingly creative.
Garvey: Leaders… was made while the studio was being made. We had to stop recording so often because of the sound of manual labour – we ended up using it on “Picky Bugger”: the loops are all hammers, whistles and bells. It was great initially but there was a certain air of trepidation because we’d decided to make it ourselves. “Forget Myself” was running to 128 tracks of audio when we mixed. And with the Soup Collective’s involvement, overall it was an ambitious project. We were there day and night. I was drinking a load of red wine, really knocking it back, and there was a heartbreak for me in the middle of it, which informed the lyrics. It all poured out. The result is something that’s light years ahead of Cast Of Thousands.
The Seldom Seem Kid (Fiction, 2008)
A slow-burning sensation created in the shadow of further industry upheaval and the death, aged 39, of local musician and close friend Bryan Glancy. They win the 2008 Mercury prize; “One Day Like This” becomes a summer anthem, and boom – Elbow hit the big time.
Mark Potter: Leaders… came out and even Elbow fans didn’t know about it, which was really saddening for us. V2 were happy for us to be an underdog indie band, but we always had ambition. Halfway through the Leaders… campaign we said to our manager, “Look, we’re going to down tools, see if you can get some interest.” Fiction expressed interest straight away but negotiations were complicated, so we decided to get back in the studio and work on the next record while all this industry stuff was being sorted out. In the end it took two years.
Garvey: We had enough money in the coffers to last pretty much exactly the amount of time it took to make the album. Bankruptcy was on the horizon. It could have very well spelled the end of the band, but we never talked about that. I encountered a different sense of responsibility about my songwriting on that record than I’d ever had before. Once we’d made the decision to dedicate it to Bryan, it was a whole different ball game. The front end of “Friend Of Ours” was written about a week after he died, and it’s really angry. I sang it only once because I told the band I was never going to sing those words again, and then I didn’t look at it again for 12 months. All the end stuff on that song, about how he’s remembered and how much we love him, was one of the last things we did for the album.
Craig Potter: As far as we were concerned, the record was finished, but [Elbow A&R man] Jim Chancellor came in and said, “I think you’ve got another song in you.” “One Day Like This” started with me and Guy sat around the piano. We wanted to write a song that sounded like a classic, starting off with the simplest of chords and the melody following the vocal line. Then we sat down as the five of us and finished it as a song. We were under a lot of pressure on that album but I don’t think the pressure comes across in the music. Somehow we managed to keep a positive slant on the whole thing.
Garvey: It’s something we’re immensely proud of. We had such fun doing it, despite everything going on. Some of that first album feeling is there again: “Fuck ’em, let’s do what we want.”
The Seldom Seen Kid Live At Abbey Road (Fiction, 2009)
Elbow perform their breakthrough album live at Abbey Road backed by the BBC Concert Orchestra. Broadcast on the BBC to one million interactive viewers – later released on album and DVD.
Mark Potter: I’d never seen the band so nervous in my life. Absolute fear! We turned up at Abbey Road with all these “real” musicians and had one day’s rehearsal with them. We only got one shot. We hadn’t heard the arrangements so we didn’t know what it was going to sound like at all. We started playing “Grounds For Divorce” and when the orchestra struck up behind us it was shivers-down-your-spine. Unbelievable. When the concert was over I sat under a table for 10 minutes just to recover. Guy came to see me and said, “S’alright Potts, we’ve pulled it off.” It’s perhaps the highlight of everything we’ve ever done, I’m so proud of it.
Garvey: Like riding a unicycle on a tightrope. The most difficult thing was calming myself down between songs so my voice didn’t quiver. On top of the awards and the Glastonbury performance, that single event doubled our audience. It allowed people of all ages to realise they were as welcome at our concerts as kids.
I AM KLOOT
Sky At Night (Shepherd Moon/EMI, 2010)
The two Manc bands were old friends. A decade after Garvey produced Kloot’s debut, he and Craig are invited to oversee John Bramwell’s most sublime set of songs.
Garvey: Kloot have always been our contemporaries and good friends. It was bad timing, actually, because we were supposed to be finishing up Build A Rocket Boys, but Johnny’s songs were too good for us not to get involved. They wanted this late night record, and there were some astonishing moments. “I Still Do” is just gorgeous. That’s Johnny on a plate: chilling and incredibly beautiful.
Craig Potter: We wanted to do everything we could because here’s a brilliant songwriter who should be appreciated a lot more. I think there was a worry we were going to turn them into something they’re not – and we did, in a way. We spent time on arrangements and subtleties, but it was the same way we always work. You need to support a song and do whatever it demands.
Garvey: We knew our names being attached to the record would help, but it wasn’t favours for a mate. We were honoured to be asked. I hope people are going back through Kloot’s back catalogue because John is a classic songwriter.
Build A Rocket Boys! (Fiction, 2011)
The task of following a massively successful record is gracefully negotiated. This spacious yet intimate album is again recorded at Blueprint, though its character is shaped during a week spent together on Mull.
Craig Potter: “Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl” cropped up while we were on Mull and thematically something clicked for Guy. At the same time the rest of us embraced the idea of doing stuff with more space.
Garvey: I was very conscious that most of what I’d had in the way of new experiences were life-affirming, but anyone who writes an album about just those kinds of feelings is a twat. So what to do? I realised I had all this drama in my past, so that was a starting point. I’m talking about things that affect people our age: new insecurities, new things to feel guilty about.
Mark Potter: There’s a feeling that this album rounds things off and now we have even more room to go somewhere else, although I’m not sure we know yet where that is.
Garvey: This isn’t really a proper job, but it’s something we’ve worked at out whole lives and we want it to keep moving. It feels like we’re just at the start. Isn’t that ridiculous after 20 years!