The knocks you take when you’re older hit you harder than those of your youth, but at least you’ve got the wherewithal to deal with them.
Guy Garvey split from his long-time partner, the novelist Emma Unsworth, after the release of Elbow’s fifth album Build a Rocket Boys! in 2011. Nearing 40 and taking the hint about change in life and work, this inveterate people-watcher moved from Manchester to hipster-infested Brooklyn. He became the anonymous observer in the corner of the neighbourhood bar instead of the conspicuous centre of attention.
The result is The Take Off and Landing of Everything, where Elbow’s facility with men and their emotions – summary: we don’t like to talk about them, but we might sing – is revitalised with a new cast of characters from the world’s most international city, and a bigger canvas.
There are celebrations of the metropolis and the brilliant, bizarre people who live there. A sidelined counterculture veteran in the song “Charge” addresses a new crop of heedless bright young things with thoughts like “I’ve broken jaws protecting laws that keep you free.” It’s hard not to see him as a sourer, less well adjusted version of Guy himself during his New York sojourn.
In short, the Elbow mission of providing a spiritual sensation in a godless world continues. Uniquely in my experience of rock musicians, Guy elects to be interviewed at 9am, Monday morning. “I’ve been up for three hours,” he says. “I had a big Saturday and a hungover Sunday, hence an early night. But I like to write early in the morning, too. Poetry at the crack of dawn.” And so we begin.
It’s an unashamedly poetic record, full of lovely cosmic-naturalistic lines like “You’ll see the coldest star in the arms of the oldest tree” from “This Blue World”. What puts the poetry in Elbow?
“Yeats is a big one for me, and I like the Americans like Robert Frost. A lot of it is to do with nature. I grew up on quite a normal Sixties new-build housing estate, a quiet bit of suburbia, but there were sprawling fields right next door. I can remember me and my mate getting up at 5.30 in the morning to bugger off over the fields and see the sunrise. My favourite poetry often involves nature. It got me into the musicality of words. Often I won’t know what I’m writing about, I’ll just look for vowel sounds, looking for the musicality until an idea settles in place. I never finish the lyrics till the very last minute.”
It’s good to hear your uncompromising pronunciation of “fuckers” on ‘Charge’. Is there anything more irritating than people writing the northern “fuck” as “fook”?
“It’s really annoying, isn’t it? British portrayal of northerners in general is really fucking irritating, especially in BBC sitcoms. I really don’t like the southern pronunciation of ‘fuck’. It sounds much harsher when you say it properly. Like it’s supposed to sound. [laughs]”
Why are we still told that men don’t like overtly emotional music?
“I honestly think we’re still dealing with the hangover from two world wars. To be a man you had to steel yourself and be impervious to emotion. And if you weren’t eligible to go, or you came back, then there’s an emasculation from not having died for your country. It’s very deep down in British people. I know whole families of wonderful people who never ever compliment one another or say they love each other. I’m lucky that I was born into a big, sprawling family of women who sorted that out. I don’t follow football but I do understand the animalistic, tribal side of being part of something. There’s no greater feeling than being part of a singing crowd.”
There’s a lot of facing up to age and mortality on the new album. The song “My Sad Captains” feels like a great funeral song, with the lines “If we only pass this way but once/What a beautiful waste of time”
“I’ve not thought about playing it at my own funeral but it wouldn’t be a bad choice, would it? I chose my epitaph the other day. I want my tombstone to say ‘I’d like to do that again, please.’ Like Dorothy Parker’s ‘Pardon my Dust’, or that country singer who had ‘Once I Wuz, Now I Ain’t’.”
It was a long journey for Elbow to get to The Seldom Seen Kid and recognition. When you were enduring all those false starts, was there ever a moment when you thought of jacking it in?
“It was more a fear that we might have to compromise and get day jobs. There was never a suspicion that it might end. Right at the very start, when we’d been cracking away for ten years to no avail, maybe that fear was there. When we changed the name of the band to Elbow [from Soft, in 1997] that was supposed to be our last waltz. For some reason it was always March that saved it. We’d always say, ‘If nothing’s happened by March we’ll knock it on the head,’ but March would always come round and you’d have a gig in April. So we’d say, ‘If nothing’s happened by next March…’ Maybe it’s just because it’s my birthday in March. Or because it’s spring and you’re feeling irrationally optimistic.”
You’ll be 40 this March. What would the 20-year-old Guy Garvey say to the 40-year-old you?
“He’d probably say, ‘Where are the hoverboards we were promised?’ [pauses] I think he’d be amazed that I’d got away with it, really. I’ve only been near to death once. I jumped off a jetty to try to impress a girl I was on holiday with. I banged my head on a rock and hit the water really hard. Two things went through my head. One, I could feel every single bone in my body. And two, I could hear this phrase very clearly in my head: You haven’t got away with this [laughs]. Afterwards – when I didn’t die – I couldn’t stop pondering it. So yes, I’ve pulled a fast one. Anyone who’s got somewhere doing something they love must think, God, when are they going to rumble that I’m nothing special, it’s only me? That never goes away.”
A 40th birthday is a big deal for anyone. Got anything special planned?
“Big-band karaoke. People I know and love singing the songs I choose, at my behest. It’ll end – of course – with me doing “Just a Gigolo” by Louis Prima.”
What do people most get wrong about you?
“A certain kind of person often mistakes my outward joviality as some kind of weakness. I’m sometimes challenged in the street by a big lad who thinks I’m a pushover. I mean, I am a massive coward. But it’s quite nice to confound that expectation. Not too often. Just once in a while.”
The Take Off and Landing of Everything by Elbow is out tomorrow on Fiction records
This article first appeared in Esquire Weekly, our new iPad-only edition. Containing 100 per cent new and original content, it’s published every Thursday on the Apple Newsstand.