The search for sophistication via melancholy


By Álvaro García Montoliu

Elbow are on top of the world. They got the Mercury Prize for their previous album - “The Seldom Seen Kid” - whilst their recent “Build A Rocket Boys!” got a new nomination. Not for nothing: the album is one of the most solid efforts to come out of the British alternative pop and rock scene this year. It's safe to say life is finally smiling upon the band, after two decades of hard work. We chatted with the hard-core of the Manchester band (Craig Potter, keyboardist and producer of the two most recent albums, Richard Jupp, drummer, and Mark Potter, guitarist) a few hours before their performance at Festival Internacional de Benicàssim 2011. Talking about such diverse matters as the nostalgic message hidden on their latest LP, the cup of tea Guy Garvey had with one of his heroes (Peter Gabriel), the pros and cons of playing at festivals and the Red Bull girls' hot pants.

If I had to describe your music with one word that would be sophisticated. Would it be correct to say you look for some sort of sophistication in your music?

Richard Jupp: (Wow) I don’t know really, it’s hard to be objective about your own music. But I suppose that’s how’s it been defined.

Craig Potter: Yes, it’s been described as “grown-up”. And I don’t know… we really take a lot of time working with the arrangements. Not much of it is thrown together in any way, it’s very considered.

Richard: It just takes a long time for us to get an album together. We sit on things for a few months and see how things develop and - you know - we never sort of rush into the project.

You worked with Peter Gabriel in his studio. How did that go?

Richard: It was just Guy. He went down there.

Craig: He didn’t even go into the studio; it was just in the cottage. He was just writing lyrics. He wanted to go somewhere to get away. He wanted some time for himself to write lyrics.

I imagine his feedback was quite useful.

Mark Potter: I think he met him once. Peter Gabriel came in for a cup of tea. Guy said it was all quite strange (laughs) because he is one of his heroes. You know: “Do you mind if I come for a cup of tea?” The thing was that Guy needed some headspace - to get away from the city - and it was a beautiful place down there. It was cool because when he was down there we were working on the music back in our studio and we were Skypeing each other. So we were playing sort of developments in the songs to Guy through the computer. It was great and comical at the same time because his face was in the room while we were working on the music. Everything was cool.

Why did you decided having Craig produce the record again?

Mark: He just fell into the role, really. We all have an interest in the production side of a record, we write and record alongside. But it is all just part of a process, and Craig just took more of an interest and learnt how to use Pro Tools. He has a very good ear for it. So it just sort of happened, it wasn’t a conscious decision.

Richard: I think he did a pretty good job last time, with all the awards and the success of “The Seldom Seen Kid”, so we had to give him more credit.

So it was the logical option?

Richard: The only option.

Craig: We have fallen in a certain way of working. It is difficult to imagine someone else involved, but I think that somewhere along the way we will change the way we work and have other people in the studio. But, you know, we write together and we have our own studio. So it’s all a joint effort in the recording and writing, everyone contributes.

I find hard to choose a single from your new record. I think it’s quite compact and consistent; no song really stands out from the rest. Was that your idea?

Richard: I think we try to make each album like a body of work rather than having a collection of songs. You know, the tracks have to work well with the other tracks. The way we write is by making sure the songs fit together. So, yeah, it’s a conscious thing, we don’t want to make a collection of songs; we want to make an album.

And what did you wanted to transmit with this record?

Richard: It’s mostly about reminiscing, about growing up, your formative years, being a teenager, then sort of into your late teens, thinking about what you want to do with the rest of your life, hence the title, “Build A Rocket Boys!” It’s something like: reach for the stars, do the best you can.

Mark: It’s the first time we’ve been in the studio making a record that: A, knowing it’s going to come out and B, knowing that some people are going to hear because the last album did quite well. That allowed us, really, to do the record we always wanted to make. Many people might think we had a lot of pressure after “The Seldom Seen Kid”, but that’s not correct. We didn’t have any, because for the first time we were making a record for ourselves, almost exactly what we wanted. And I think you can hear that the music is more stripped back, it’s more about the songs and the arrangements. We had real confidence in what we were doing.

Yeah, that was a question I wanted to ask you further on. I had a sense that you didn’t feel under extra pressure due to the fact of winning the Mercury Prize and you did exactly what you wanted.

Craig: Although we won the Mercury Prize and all the other awards we didn’t want this fact to change us. We didn’t want this to be reflected in the album. It’s difficult not to imagine in the tens of thousands of people when you are writing the songs, but no, it’s all about the song. We were very conscious not to go down the road of the anthemic, punch the air songs.

You were talking before about the record being nostalgic and some sort of a recollection of your youth years. What do you remember about it?

Richard: Well, we’ve kind of always been together. Like 20 years…

Mark: Yeah, we’ve been together for 20 years. So we’ve been in this band longer than we have not been in this band. It was nice when Guy was working on lyrics. I think the reason why we wanted to look back is because we are all getting older, we have our families, we have kids, and that kind of makes you look back into your youth. What’s nice about Guy writing the lyrics about that time in his life is that we were together then, so we can relate. We were friends and growing as musicians then. We could really relate to the lyrics, which helped us work in the music.

Talking of friend, I wanted to ask you this question: “Dear Friends” is my favourite track of the record, but you don’t play it that much. How do you decide the set-list of your shows?

Mark: (Laughs) We physically fight.

Craig: We have played “Dear Friends”, but when we do more of an acoustic stripped-back set. I think we all really enjoyed playing it so we will probably add it to the set next time.

Next time you mean today? (Laughs)

Craig: Sorry, no. (Laughs). We will probably add it during our next tour. But, you know, it’s difficult with festival sets because we only have an hour, so we really have to think about what’s really going to work out well. There’s so many songs that we wished that we could play, but we can’t that it’s a shame. “Dear Friends” is one of them.

Will you change the format of your show on the regular tour?

Richard: Yeah, there’ll be differences.

Mark: Yeah, we’ll probably play for an hour and 45 minutes. So it allows the set to have more of a journey when you have more time. You know, you can slowly build it and bring it back down. In festivals you have to win people over so you have to play your strongest songs and it’s less about the journey and creating a mood. When you are headlining you have more time to bring people in.

Craig: It’s difficult to do festivals because there are always people running around in the background. You are not in one room and have everyone focused. So you have to be careful.

So you are more comfortable playing in a regular venue than in a festival?

Craig: You enjoy both of them. It’s just different. In your own gigs you are allowed to do whatever you like, more slow, quiet and varied stuff. But festivals are great.

Would it then be correct to say that in festivals you choose your more uplifting songs?

Craig: Not necessarily.

Mark: Just our strongest songs. The ones we consider to be our best songs.

Craig: And maybe the ones that might be more immediate, because many of our songs take a bit of time to get your head around.

Mark: It’s also important for us to represent the different sides of our music. Yes, we’ve got anthems such as “One Day Like This”, but then we have the more romantic songs like “Mirrorball”. And it’s important to have them so we can show our range and palette of music that we play rather than: “Here are our rocky songs”.

The first time you played at Benicàssim was the day after the storm that forced to cancel some of the acts. I imagine you could chat with some of those bands, what do you remember of that day?

Mark: I think The Paris Riots played the day before; they’re friends of ours from Manchester. It was weird because we arrived around 4 or 5 in the morning and we could see what was going on from the tour bus, with the stage being ripped apart. You arrive in the middle of the night and you see all that carnage

Have you played under harsh circumstances?

Craig: Yes, it was in Southside Festival in Germany. There was a massive hurricane. The tents were blown over, people running around.

Mark: The best bit was seeing the Red Bull girls with their little hot pants trying to hold the tents down.

Craig: But thanks God we finally had the chance to play because the weather calmed down, but some bands couldn’t.

The Manchester band is on top of the world. Their new album, “Build A Rocket Boys!” has just been nominated for the Mercury Prize and their performance at FIB 2011 was intense and emotional. Mark Potter, Richard Jupp and Craig Potter tell us all about it.

Review: " Build A Rocket Boys!"

Elbow @ FIB 2011 Óscar L. TejedaElbow FIB 2011 by Óscar L. Tejeda

Elbow Elbow FIB 2011 by Noelia Rodríguez

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