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LAist Interview: Elbow's Guy Garvey

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Guy Garvey is a busy... um... guy. As the frontman for one of the UK's most critically acclaimed bands, Elbow, he and his bandmates are in the middle of their global tour's North American leg, which ends here in Los Angeles Friday night at the Avalon. They have a newly-released album, The Seldom Seen Kid (read the LAist CD review here). On top of this, Guy is still selecting songs for his weekly BBC Radio show, and raising awareness for his favorite cause.

Despite his hectic schedule, Mr. Garvey took time to place a call to Los Angeles and answer several of LAist's questions, touching on topics such as his criticism of iTunes, his fondness of redheads, and land mines in Iraq. Unlike the lyrics he writes, which can sometimes be dark and introspective, Garvey came off as quite gregarious and friendly, with a sharp sense of humor...

LAist: You just played a show in Minneapolis. How was it?

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Guy Garvey: It was great. I really enjoyed it. They know how to party in Minneapolis, did you know that?

Well yeah, Prince is from Minneapolis, ya know.

Oh yes. His name is Prince. And he is funky.

He is indeed. I just saw him this past weekend at Coachella.

Oh really, how was that?

It was great. So... you just played some east coast shows, and you're working your way west now. Where do you feel more comfortable in the US... East coast? West coast? Midwest?

Well, I like different places for different reasons. If I had to name my favorites in order, it would probably be... (pauses)... New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. I really like LA because of it's recent history. It's got a faded charm, and a healthy underground music scene. I like New York for it's international flavor. I love how mixed the audience is in New York, it's really quite amazing. And I like Chicago because I could imagine living there.

I agree, Chicago is a huge city, but has a friendlier vibe, like a smaller town.

Yeah, it feels small enough to be part of a community.

So, you're now in the middle of a multi-national tour, how are you holding up? Do you like touring? Do you hate it, or love it? Or maybe both?

I like sitting up at the front of the bus, with the driver, going down these massive unbroken plains. The US is like so many countries rolled into one, in terms of climate and stuff like that. I love the travel element of moving around, the constant stimulus of the new. But, there's never really any silence. Even if you're in your bunk, the engine is going, you can hear traffic and stuff. As soon as you get into the venue, there's rigs being tested, and sometimes I miss the peace and quiet, to be quite honest with you. I'm gettin' old, I guess.

Coming up in June, you're playing a benefit concert in the middle of an English forest. And then later, a gig in a castle. Have you ever played shows in such unusual locations before?

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Probably the most unusual was when we were invited by a promoter in Greece to come over a play a benefit concert for an area of estuary that was being polluted by a massive oil refinery... all these chemicals had washed up on this beach, and it killed the surfing, which in turn killed all the local businesses. So this promoter gets this money from the Greek ministry of culture, and invited us over to play, and we played on this polluted beach next to this estuary, and the guy told me that if it rains, then my trainers (sneakers) are gonna melt, and there's a 40 mph crosswind, which meant I had to have a popshield on my microphone that was as big as my hat, and the support act there had brought in a naked girl, painted brown and green, bouncing around like a dancing artificial tree, while some guys in white coats made this minimalist music, and it was all.... a little odd, to say the least.

Sounds like something I saw at a festival once. Speaking of festivals, you guys play a lot of them. You're playing two sets at this year's Glastonbury, and you've done Glasto a few times before, and lots of others. Compare playing a festival versus playing a "regular" concert.

The biggest downside to a festival is that you can't ever get a proper soundcheck, you just gotta get on and play. You've got to rely on the speed and efficiency of your crew, and the local crew as well. Playing without a soundcheck can be utterly nervewracking, you really are flung into the deep end with an audience watching. The big plus to playing a festival is... there's no soundcheck! Because, I do find them boring. So, swings and roundabouts, really. I also love the fact that you have a floating crowd at festivals, not everybody's there specifically to see you, and you can see these people, and whether or not they're getting into it. That's always interesting.

Is that what it's like when you're in the rare position of being the supporting act, like you will be later this year when you tour with R.E.M.?

I think the majority of R.E.M.'s audience will get what we're doing, and hopefully some of them will like it. We've played other shows that surprised us. Like, we toured with Muse in the UK, and that won us a lot of fans. We still have people showing up at gigs saying, 'the first time I ever saw you was at a Muse concert.' By the same token, we toured with Placebo, whose fans are so dedicated to Placebo, and unshakably so. You know, they all look like Brian, to be honest. He's a good friend, and he's always been kind about our music, so when he asked us to tour with them, we said yes for the hell of it, not really expecting anything other than a good time. But again, we won a lot of fans over it, so it's interesting. It's only a short set, so it's more like an advert for your music than anything. It's a good 40 minute set, and then you get to watch a good band afterwards. I can't think of anything better, to be honest.

You've mentioned the possibility of an album-only tour, where your set would consist of the entire album, in order, start to finish. Is that really in the works?

Oh, absolutely. I really want it to happen as well, because A) It'd be very interesting. It removes all the anticipation on the crowd's part. It's pure expectation, a lot more to live up to. And, B) it acknowledges the fact of, that's what we do, we make albums. That's the band we are. We'd like people to listen to our stuff like that, by and large.

You've been critical of iTunes for allowing individual tracks to be downloaded, rather than entire albums. I was under the impression that if a band wanted to, it could request that their songs be "album only" couldn't they?

No. Generally speaking, you can do things like making a couple of tracks "album only" but that's about it. The songs for 79 cents or whatever, that revolution is something that hasn't left me behind. My entire collection is digital, you know, I've got three iPods, bizarrely. I use iTunes, as well. But where iTunes is protecting customer's rights, and giving the consumers the choice they've never had before, they're taking away some of the artists' rights. And it needs to be acknowledged that without the content, iTunes is nothing. Therefore, artists should be able to choose how the music is sold. It's such a fantastic instrument for getting music out there to people, it's hard to criticize it. But on this point, as the lead singer of an "album band" I do feel quite passionate about it. I think I'm gonna try to meet with them and discuss my ideas with them (Apple). Because, as I understand it, they're quite open-minded people.

Apple's a cool company, they'll probably hear you out. You have a good point, some albums are best listened to in their entirety.

I mean, it's fine for bands that do write song for song. There's a couple of bands that announced they're not going to bother releasing albums anymore, they're just gonna put songs out.

You've hinted that Elbow might even be moving in that direction. I heard something about how this may be the last full-length LP, and future releases may be EP length. Any truth to that?

I've discussed it as an idea. I certainly think that modern album lengths might be too long. It has nothing to do with attention spans getting shorter, I think that's nonsense as well. I think that original album lengths were based on 2 sides of vinyl, basically. And you might listen to one side of the vinyl, and then get on to something else, and come back for side two later on, or something like that. Maybe the modern album length only needs to be 35-40 minutes. Then people would get a whole episode, if you like, on their way to work or on their way home. I don't know what the average commute is, but I bet it's about 45 minutes.

All 5 members of Elbow are Manchester natives, and still live there, correct?


Colin Greenwood of Radiohead has said that there's an unspoken fear amongst them that if they move away from Oxford, they'll lose their "mojo." Is that how it is with Elbow and Manchester?

No, I don't think so. At some point in my life, I want to live in New York for a while. But Manchester will always be my home and will always be where I return to. It's the place that I want to see grow and move, and I feel like a very strong part of it. I've benefitted massively from being a part of it's music scene, and I want to continue to try and help other people the same way. Whether or not Elbow is still releasing records, we'll always be a part of Manchester's musical heritage, which is something I'm very proud of. Plus, I have an enormous family, most of whom are based around there. And my sweetheart as well, is as vehemently pro-Manc as I am. She's actually training to be a guide, which is brilliant. She doesn't need the money, she's just doing it because she loves the city so much! She gets a kick out of showing people around. Manchester celebrates the biggest international student body in Europe, which is something that I'm very, very proud of. It means that every September you get new blood pumping through the streets, and new ideas coming in from all over the world. It just keeps you fresh, it keeps moving day by day. It's a FAB city.

Los Angeles can be a fab city too, if you know where to go. But you once had some trouble here, right? Weren't you playing a show at the Troubadour about seven years ago that got shut down by the fire marshal because of overcrowding, and a riot broke out? Is that true?

Not exactly. The fire marshal came in, and told our tour manager that it was too overcrowded and we needed to stop. Tom said, 'Can they play one last song, otherwise you'll have a riot on your hands.' So, we actually only missed one song out of that set because of when he arrived. Our tour manager was convinced it was a disgruntled punter who couldn't get in, so he called the cops on us.

LA is a show-biz town, and there will likely be some famous faces at your show Friday. Is there any celebrity you admire that you'd be thrilled to see in your audience Friday?

There's plenty, I'm just trying to think of who lives in Los Angeles... (long pause)... Julianne Moore. In fact, Julianne Moore for Pope. I think she's amazing.

You like the redheads, then?

I do! My missus is a ginger.

So is mine.

Well there you go then. You've got very good taste.

So, is Seldom Seen Kid going to be the album that finally gets Elbow their long-overdue Grammy nomination?

Well, I don't know about that. It would be very nice, I'll put it that way.

You've had the UK equivalent, having been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and the Brit Awards.

You never can tell. You need to get started on our Grammy campaign for us.

Your bandmate Pete Turner said he was surprised that Fiction's choice for the first single was Grounds For Divorce (video). Which song did you think the label would want to push out there first?

I really didn't know. I'm terrible... by the time an album is finished, I've such a lack of objectivity that I really don't know. I was surprised as well that Grounds was their first choice, but it proved to be the right one back home. One Day Like This was always an obvious one to me, just because it's got that big 'Hey Jude' singalong thing at the end.

The video for One Day Like This is very interesting. It was actually shot here in Los Angeles, right?

That's right, and the kid doing the spinning and throwing the sign up in the air, that's where he works. That's his job.

One Day Like This music video:

You should track that kid down and give him tickets for your show Friday.

You know, I think that might be happening already. I'm really looking forward to meeting him.

You've done all your recent recording at Blueprint Studios in Manchester. Do you own, or co-own, that facility?

We own our studio, but we rent the space we set up in. The guys who own the building are old friends of ours, and they've done a great job with a much-needed sort of studio complex in Manchester.

Each of Elbow's four albums is kicked off with a distinctive opening track that really sets the tone for the rest of the album. Is it difficult to choose which song will get that coveted #1 track? Do you guys argue over track listing/song order?

Nearly always, yeah. I think 3 of the 4 openers are powerful tracks, but it's not a given. We think about it in terms of the last track of the last album is where the listener left off, so let's try and open the next album with as little preconceptions met as possible. We always like to throw something in there that will open up the listener's mind as to what's changed in the last couple years since the previous album.

Let's talk about your side job, hosting your weekly BBC Radio show, Guy Garvey's Finest Hour. You play an eclectic mix, and certainly don't sound like a typical DJ. More like an Anti-DJ.

Thank you very much.

It's actually quite similar to a popular radio show here in Los Angeles, Jonesy's Jukebox, hosted by Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols. Where do you discover the new music that you play on the show?

A lot of times it's listener suggestion, and I surf around on MySpace and Pandora, places like that, having a look. Record companies send me new releases. I like playing obscure old stuff as well, and sometimes familiar songs that need a fresh listen. I like to have a reason for each and every song I play.

Lately you've been playing some songs by The Bird And The Bee, who are one of our local LA bands.

Well, tell them I think they're marvelous. I don't understand why they haven't done better in the UK, because their stuff really lends itself to radio, it sounds great.

How did you get so involved with MAG (Mines Advisory Group)?

Their national UK office is in Manchester, and I initially got involved in a record called Cohesion, which was a benefit album for the Manchester Aid to Kosovo (MAK) when the war was still going on over there. I helped a woman named Pam Doors working on behalf of both Manchester Aid to Kosovo and Mines Advisory Group, so, both MAG and MAK. We put together a double CD of Manchester artists old and new, a past and present sort of thing, and it was when Badly Drawn Boy was enjoying his first bit of success, so all the Twisted Nerve bands were on there, but it went back as far as Ian Brown (of the Stone Roses) and The Smiths, and The Happy Mondays... everybody, basically, and I helped put together this 2-CD affair, and from that I got interested in MAG. I hadn't chosen a charity, and thought I've got a pretty big voice here, and rather than expressing my concerns on ALL things, I thought it's be much more important to stick to one or two things and do a lot for them.

MAG is such a fantastic international organization. Let me give you some figures here, because it is extraordinary... While the conflict was still raging in Iraq, MAG unearthed over a million unexploded munitions inside of a year. Those figures are staggering. They're digging them up faster than war pigs can fucking plant them. They're such a forward-thinking, strategic outfit... they'll spend money on looking at businesses and telling people who manufacture munitions how they could make more money building fridges instead of landmines and things like that. A clever organization.

Well, safe travels, and see you next Friday here in LA!

Looking forward to it!

Elbow is playing at the Avalon this Friday, May 9, 2008. Click here for tickets.

Click here to read LAist's review of The Seldom Seen Kid