Elbow: Interview Extras

The Manchester band Elbow finished its North American tour last night in Los Angeles. I caught up with them in Toronto on Wednesday.

I first heard of Elbow when they did a gig with the Hallé Orchestra as part of the Manchester International Festival in 2009. It didn’t occur to me to get a ticket, as I expected it would be another rock band with the orchestra playing whole notes in the background.

Wrong. It turned out to be the most talked about shows of the festival.

Elbow’s new album build a rocket boys! is a masterpiece. More emotional than Radiohead, less angry than straight-ahead rock and more sing-alongable than prog-rock…the most Brahmsian of rockers [an abundance of 2 against 3 and BEARDS]

Writing about rock is more difficult that it looks. Every genre has its shorthand and it was immensely frustrating not have the vocabulary to describe what I heard or the shared reference points with the audience.

Despite my inadequacies, the boys were lovely chat with and it was a pleasure to get a peek into how they crafted their music.

Here’s a few bits that got left on the cutting room floor.

No teenage retrospective is complete with a tale of sexual awakening and on this album, “Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl” is it. Said Garvey, “I was brought up a Catholic and around the time I started losing my faith in God, I moved out of my mom’s house and basically this angel, this beautiful creature, Kath from Rochdale used to visit me and give me food and love and comfort.” Garvey’s time with Kath is clearly a happy memory and he pauses for a moment to enjoy it before continuing with an impish grin, “Catholics aren’t allowed to have sex before marriage….fuck that! She helped nudge the last of my Catholicism out of me.”
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“Everyone liking the Seldom Seen Kid [2008], it won every award in the UK and made us want to show them people what else we did. We deliberately made a really subtle album, not churlishly, we didn’t want to make something inaccessible and I don’t think build a rocket boys! is.

I think the next logical step in people’s minds was that we do something big and stadium worthy. But there’s nothing logical about that to me at all because then you have to come down from that or replicate that, which is even worse. I want to make records that people care about, we so why would you make one you know people are only going to care about for that summer? I want to make something subtle that will last for life.”
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Talking about the Birds (reprise), sung on the album by an old man
“We worried that the fact that The Birds was written by the point of view of someone being patronized by their carers. The first half of the song is a very melancholy love song talking about the last encounter of a failed love affair.

We wanted a frail old voice, so we had to audition old men. That was something I never thought I’d do for a living! He’s called John Mosely and he showed up with his wife along with the other interviewees. John had been a piano tuner in life and a watch mender. He was this very mousy, sort of churchy but very well dressed man. Utterly charming but very softly spoken. He wife was on his casting picture with him too. Very cute. Utterly in love.

We picked him, he did the job, did a great job and we thanked him very much.

Months later, his grandson gets in touch with me through my radio program and tells me, ‘At Christmas granddad dropped the bomb. What you probably didn’t know was that granddad was a secret service operative during the Cold War in Hamburg.’ So, he was basically running people back and forth over the [Berlin] wall masquerading as a piano tuner and watch mender.

So this beautiful, frail-voiced man on our record singing this melancholy song could probably snap my neck in half.”

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