After a gala year in which his band provided the soundtrack for the Olympics and toured the nation’s arenas, Guy Garvey of Elbow is bracing himself for a break. This garrulous northerner, proud possessor of the freedom of Bury, is becoming a New Yorker and taking time out from his industrious quartet.
“In 22 years, we’ve never not seen each other for more than three weeks,” he tells me between rehearsals for the new tour, which comes to both of London’s main arenas, Wembley and the O2, next week. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like.”
Weird, certainly, but necessary too. What could top a commission to provide the BBC’s Olympic theme tune with their specially created instrumental, First Steps, and then playing songs Open Arms and One Day Like This live to millions as the athletes filed into the stadium at the Opening Ceremony? “It was really great, though what you couldn’t see on the television was that the athletes came in the other side of the stadium and we were actually singing to about six gleeful-looking volunteers.”
Shortly after that, the release of a B-sides compilation, Dead in the Boot, looked like a thorough clearing-out of the cupboards before a fresh start. “It feels like we’ve rounded off a body of music that has lasted our whole career so far,” says Garvey.
“I love it when people deliberately reinvent themselves. I wonder if we’re going to make a real sharp left turn, like Radiohead.”
To find out, he and his girlfriend (author Emma Jane Unsworth) are upping sticks to America for at least three months at the start of next year. Meanwhile, the rest of the band, who all have young families, will spread out across the globe. Bassist Pete Turner is having an extended stay in Thailand. Guitarist Mark Potter, whose wife is from Boston, is also going to America. For Garvey and partner it’s a writing research trip — he’s looking for inspiration to spark somewhere other than the Manchester and Bury roots that have coloured so many of his exquisitely detailed lyrics.
“I’ve always lived around Manchester. I never went to university,” says the singer, now 38, who has kept a journal since he was 14, the source of the striking images in Elbow’s songs. “I’ll be the corpse in your bathtub,” he sang on the darkly beautiful early love song, Newborn. “I think every boy of my generation has an obsession with New York. It’s so iconic,” he tells me.
He also has another writing task in the pipeline. He’s been commissioned to write the lyrics for a new blockbuster musical version of King Kong, due to open in Melbourne in May 2013. It should head to London eventually — demand to see a six-metre-high animatronic gorilla on stage, operated by 14 puppeteers, is likely to be huge. The score is being written by Marius De Vries, who worked on Elbow’s Leaders of the Free World album in 2005 as well as the score to Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge! Overseeing the show is London-based American Daniel Kramer, who directed Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna and has worked with ENO and Opera North.
The rest of Elbow aren’t involved in King Kong, so Garvey’s words will accompany new music by Massive Attack, Australian group The Avalanches and French dance duo Justice. “I have no experience of musical theatre whatsoever,” he admits. “I’m friends with Danny Boyle, who’s talked to me about what an important genre it is. I’ve been given characters and remits and music. It’s like a tricky crossword puzzle but actually, writing to a brief is a lot easier than writing Elbow songs.”
The other bonus of a temporary move abroad is a return to being an unknown musician, a situation that has characterised most of his career since Elbow formed as schoolmates in the early Nineties. “A lot of my writing was based on people-watching and I haven’t been able to do much of that lately,” says Garvey of his current UK fame. Before they became Mercury- and Brit-winning national treasures, they were known, if at all, as the unluckiest band in Britain; signing with Island Records in the late Nineties and recording a debut album, but being dropped before it could see the light of day. When they started recording their breakthrough fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid, in 2007, they were again without a record deal.
In this newspaper I was still describing them in underachieving terms in a live review from Porchester Hall in February 2008 — one of the first public airings of their then unreleased song One Day Like This. I wrote: “Even this probably won’t hit paydirt for these perpetual underdogs, but at the very least it’ll make for a great sports montage soundtrack the next time England win something.” That tickles Garvey when I read it to him today, for the string-laden anthem, with its euphoric chorus, “Throw those curtains wide/One day like this a year would see me right”, has become the definitive sound of sporting success.
“I was upstairs the other day and could hear ‘bom-bom-BOM-BOM, bom-bom-BOM’ coming from the telly. I thought, ‘Jesus, it’s on again.’ I went downstairs and it was a woman from the British hockey team walking on to the set of Surprise Surprise.”
He’s far from sick of it, though, and promises it won’t become like Radiohead’s Creep and be stuffed down the back of the sofa by a band seemingly embarrassed by its prominence. “It’s certainly an over-achiever where the songs are concerned. It’s impossible not to feel affectionate towards it because more people know who we are because of it. Thousands of people have got in touch saying they got married to it. That feels good. I wish I had a clip of every single wedding, it’s such a nice thing to be a part of.”
Where to go next after what he calls “one of them songs”, though? Their sixth album isn’t scheduled until 2014 but the songs are already written in skeletal form. When we speak, Garvey is enthusing about an “extraordinary” fortnight the band have just spent in Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios near Bath. “The songs are really sparse and stripped back at the moment. We’ve got the keyboards, the drums, the chord progressions and the themes. They’re all there in essence, it’s just about how to dress them. We could keep it minimal and make a very different sounding record, or we could go to town with the choirs and the horns.”
At the arena shows, fans will hear one new song, currently called Charge. “It’s quite a dark little number with a real fierce groove to it.” But after that, the five will go their separate ways, and it’s anyone’s guess what they’ll look like when they get back. Just as long as Garvey doesn’t start singing with an American accent, this great British band can return to the top floor where they belong.