Elbow: Out of limbo

How would you respond if your first album became a Mercury prize-nominated bestseller? When it happened to Elbow, they were paralysed by arguments, illness and insomnia. But they're over that now, as Guy Garvey, the band's front man, tells Alexia Loundras
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The Independent Culture

"Yeah, I feel old, but I'm comfortable with it. I really appreciate a cup of tea. And Radio 4 - the shipping forecast is a wonderful thing," smiles Elbow's amenable front man, Guy Garvey with a degree of irony. Sitting outside a pub in London's Leicester Square, Garvey is warming up for this afternoon's appointment - a live radio session for the Capital-owned alternative radio station Xfm - with a few gin and tonics. He thoughtfully strokes his rough, long stubble - more late-summer wheat field than beard. "There's a part of me that would love to be 22 and sexy and throwing myself round the stage with snaky hips, but I'm not. I'm nearly 30 and I'm a big fella!" he chuckles.

In the grand scheme of things, the Manchester band's singer is hardly ready to start making plans for his golden years, but at 28 and still only about to release his second album, Cast of Thousands, Garvey is the spinster at the debutant ball - in fledgling band years, he is positively middle-aged. But Garvey is undeterred. "At least I can be absolutely certain I've never sold a single record on the strength of the way I look," he says smirking. And with over 200,000 worldwide sales of Elbow's startling 2001 debut, Asleep in the Back, under his burly belt, this is a feat to be proud of.

But that darkly intense record, eagerly lapped-up by those seduced by Garvey's comforting vocal caress, vibrant lyrics and the bands' powerfully driving, layered sounds, did more than just sell. It also earned Elbow a Mercury Prize nomination - a deserved fairy-tale ending for an album that was the result of a decade's worth of dogged determination. During that time, while other bands Elbow's age (see Radiohead) were busy notching-up gold discs, the five-piece were signed by a major, dropped when the label was taken over, then endured a string of false dawns as others leaped to the rescue only to pull out. But still, these minstrels of magnificent miserablism stuck with it, until finally, after releasing their debut EP, Newborn with independent Uglyman Records, V2 stepped in and offered Elbow a record deal.

But while the acclaimed Asleep was born of fierce bloody-mindedness, Cast of Thousands was conceived in a pressure cooker about to blow. Instead of feeling encouraged by their success, Elbow were frozen by expectation. "It was terrifying. All the pressure came from within the band - making the album was like dragging a plough. You can get so worried about something being right that it doesn't become anything because you won't allow anything to happen," says Garvey, struggling to convey the stifling stress his band felt.

The tension was unbearable. Garvey became ill suffering from insomnia, an unshakable bout of flu and, he says, all the skin came off his forehead - possibly due to excessive furrowing of brow. Seemingly paralysed by an unspoken fear, even the close-knit band members were buckling under the strain as arguments broke out all over the place. The fact Garvey lost his lyric book and was forced to start from scratch, didn't help matters either. "We were at breaking point," says the front man, exhausted by the memory. Eventually, the situation got so bad V2 ("not at all living-up to the record company stereotype") stepped in and suggested the band take a rest. Three weeks off turned out to be just what the doctor ordered.

When the band reconvened, the heavy shroud of doubt had lifted: "It was like bubbles popping inside ourselves. For months we'd struggled through this very considered, terribly slow process, but we'd reached the final straw. Whatever had stopped us from feeling like ourselves was gone and we just ripped through the entire album - both physically and metaphorically. It was like, right, get rid of that - I don't care that it took three weeks; lets put that in," he says in his thick Manc drawl.

"We realised we could do what we want, because this is our record," Garvey says excitedly. In Hollywood-flick terms, this was the climactic epiphany after which things thrillingly just fall into place. And the result is a hugely confident album, pulsing with vibrant emotion and flooded with gorgeously effective, subtly experimental instrumentation. "We thought, there's going to be at least half a million copies of this record made, if not sold - at the very least! It's going to be available long after we're dead, so why don't we have a kazoo solo? We were tapping our own epitaph into our headstone," says Garvey, inspired.

Perhaps fortunately, the kazoo interlude didn't make the final cut. But for the band, a boulder-sized creative obstacle had been smashed. Their lush sonic foundations of electronica, bass and guitars remain, but now it comes with a glorious Technicolor wash. Swooning rainbows of gospel choirs, brass and string orchestras and a Glastonbury crowd were recruited, then mangled through unconventional recording techniques just for the hell of it. "There's no fun like having a great orchestra play something, then being really irreverent with that recording - throwing it through really cheap guitar pedals with run-down batteries. We always wanted to do this. And, for once, we could afford it - so we really felt we should have a go."

The album is an explosive sigh of relief, swollen with defiant optimism; beautifully sensuous and crackling with electric tension. It's bigger, brighter and even better than their rain-sodden triumphant debut, yet still as intimate as a lover's touch. Elbow's rich music box of emotive sounds give even more life to Garvey's already heaving, exposed words. Iron buckles on "Fugitive Motels" lonely waltz, screeching metallic feedback floods the bile-filled cesspool of "I've Got Your Number", and a chorus of clinched breaths and throbbing heartbeats climax together on the lovelorn album standout, "Switching Off".

"This is not just good enough, this is really good!" says Garvey passionately. "I want people to hear what we've been doing." And everyone should. But for Elbow success doesn't just translate to record sales. It's about earning respect for what they do. "One of the most flattering things that we get, apart from critical acclaim, is seeing our band's name cited as an influence on those 'Guitarist Wanted' ads pinned up in record shops," he says. "It means everyone in that band enjoys our stuff. For us, the best bands are the ones all five of us agree on, so seeing ourselves on those is really amazing."

After the interview, Elbow cross the square to Xfm's offices for their live session. As they cram into the lift they join a man on his mobile who goes red as he clocks Elbow. "I've just been joined in the lift by a band whose T-shirt I'm wearing," he says into his phone, cringing in embarrassment. As the band pile out, they erupt into boyish giggles, embarrassed a little themselves. Garvey laughs warmly: "If I were him, I'd be gutted!" But from the pride bursting from his wide grin, gutted is the last thing any of Elbow are feeling.

'Cast of Thousands' is out now on V2