A well-kept secret treasure (as opposed to guilty pleasure) here in America, the British rock band known as Elbow is a real big deal back home in the U.K. Right out of the gate, the band made its grand intentions known when its 2001 debut, "Asleep in the Back," was nominated for British music’s highest honor, the Mercury Prize, an accolade which the group eventually won in 2008 for "The Seldom Seen Kid" (to these ears, one of the best rock albums of the new century).
In other accomplishments, all six of Elbow’s studio releases have placed in the top 15 of the British album charts, the group was invited by the BBC to compose a theme for the 2012 Summer Olympics, and played at the opening ceremonies (NBC failed to show the performance in its coverage here). When Elbow plays shows in the U.K. and Europe, it’s likely to be top billed at a festival or headlining an arena.
Elbow’s lucky fans in the U.S., however, have been able to enjoy more intimate shows in clubs and theatres, as on the band’s current tour (launch date May 11 at Washington, D.C.’s 930 Club; full list of dates below) – though, as its U.S. reputation increases, this might be the last time the band appears in such cozy spaces.
The group has been booked on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon next Friday (May 16th). Its recently released album, “The Takeoff and Landing Of Everything,” is its first to crack the U.S. Top 100 album charts, and is rapidly earning praise from music critics drawn to its intelligent, contemporary version of art-rock (more wit than pomposity in this variation) and literate, emotional lyrics sung by a genial front man with the voice of a whiskey-loving choirboy, Guy Garvey.
The rest of the band consists of bassist Pete Turner, drummer Richard Jupp and the brothers Potter - guitarist Mark and keyboard/producer Craig, the latter being the friendly Elbow-ian who took to the phone to talk about the new tour and album from the band’s recording studio in Manchester, England. The space was now, he said, “turned into our rehearsal studio” as the group was working on brass arrangements and set lists in anticipation of hitting the road again. (Check out past Elbow shows and set lists.)
Potter insists that planning for America’s smaller spaces doesn’t require a new approach. “We don’t change the set much because of the smaller venues but I think the atmosphere definitely changes and, depending on the venue, there might be more audience interaction.”
With more than 20 years of gigs behind them, the members of Elbow are a rarity on the music scene – five mates who came together as teenagers to make music and, after two decades of riding the ups-and-downs of a fickle industry, have not just kept the same line-up, but remained good friends.
“Lots of people ask us, ‘how’d you get on so well?’” Potter admits, and has a simple answer. “We made a conscious decision to split the money five ways right from the beginning. I think that’s a massive part of it. I’m pretty sure the reason most bands break up is because of things like that. But really, we’re just lucky that we get on. We’ve been through a lot together, so that helps. At the end of the day, I think we’re just lucky.”
Lucky, yes. Talented, yes again. And not resistant to change. The making of "Takeoff..." saw the band try an entirely new creation process – it’s the first album that Elbow did not write together as a group. Band members composed songs separately and brought nearly completed works to the others for final refinement. Garvey, who spent much of 2013 flitting back and forth between his Manchester home and a sublet in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, (such movement being the source of much travel imagery) often roamed the streets of New York with headphones on, listening to instrumental tracks and composing lyrics in day-long sessions at coffee shops where he could write undisturbed and unrecognized.
Despite the material coming in from different sources, at different times, and in different combinations of players, Potter, who has produced Elbow’s last three albums, experienced few challenges in bringing a consistent feel to the finished work. “We always like each song to have its own character and this just emphasized that, really,” he says. “The consistency comes from the arrangements and Guy’s voice and certain sounds that we use. So no, I embrace that, really.”
As producer, he says, he gets no extra vote in settling creative debates, but sees his role as “gathering people’s ideas and making decisions on the direction a song should go in because of that. I think it’s important that someone is leading the session. Otherwise you can get a little bit lost.” He mixes the albums, as well, “So, if there’s a few people having different ideas about how something should sound, they sort of trust me to put the foot down in that situation.” But he is not a follower of the old adage, “we’ll fix it in the mix.”
“If you’re thinking like that, then something’s gone wrong in the recording process. You need to get it right in the first place. And if you do have to drastically fix something in the mix then you might have to think twice if the song would make the album.”
The songs that made the cut for "Takeoff..." have well earned their place in the band’s impressive catalog, still marked by sustained synths, inventive guitar and occasional orchestral power, but with a somewhat more ruminative tone as Garvey's lyrics reflect on growing older (the band members are hitting 40), settling down (all but Garvey have kids) and moving on (he’s the one who recently, amicably, had a long-term relationship end).
“Yeah, it’s more thoughtful,” Potter says of the album, “It’s generally a little bit darker, a bit more intense.” Still, he adds, “I think there’s a couple uplifting, celebratory moments. ‘New York Morning’ gets there even though it’s quite moody at first.”
As most of England and a growing segment of America knows, Elbow’s music doesn’t shy away from acknowledging some of the sadder moments of life, but it also revels in the joy that comes in the comradeship of family and friends – and a full-throated concert audience singing along in songs that celebrate it all.
That’s what Potter and his mates are bringing to the States and it’s a musical event well worth seeking out. A number of shows on the tour have already sold out but some tickets remain for the band's dates in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Oakland and Los Angeles. Visit the band's web site for more info.
Elbow’s US & Canada Tour
11th - Washington, DC, 9:30 Club (Sold Out)
12th - Boston, MA, Royale Nightclub (Sold Out)
13th - Philadelphia, PA, Electric Factory
16th - New York, NY, Webster Hall (Sold Out)
17th - Toronto, On, Danforth Music Hall (Sold Out)
19th - Chicago, IL, House Of Blues (Sold Out)
20th - Minneapolis, MN, First Avenue
23rd - Vancouver, BC, Commodore Ballroom (Sold Out)
24th - Portland, OR, Wonder Ballroom (Sold Out)
25th - Quincy, WA, Sasquatch Music Festival
27th - Oakland, CA, The Fox Theater
28th - Los Angeles, CA, The Wiltern