I am waiting to meet Guy Garvey in his local pub in Salford, which also appears to be his office. “Is he in yet?” the publicist asks the publican, who knows exactly who he means.
“Not yet. He was here a little while ago. Do you want a drink?”
“Will Guy be drinking?” I ask, wary of the etiquette of ordering an interview beer only for the subject to arrive and ask for a mineral water, especially since it’s only mid-afternoon. They both look at me as though I have just asked the most ridiculous question of all time.
When Elbow’s singer eventually fills the doorway, mischievous eyes all but buried behind heavy coat, scarf and beard, he is handed a Guinness without having to ask. Two women settle themselves in the snug across the hall, waiting to speak to him about becoming “a patron of Manchester history”.
First, it’s my turn to have a long chat, during which it becomes obvious why the 40-year-old is in such demand as a BBC 6 Music DJ, a spokesman for his hometown and leader of a band that music writers are now contractually obliged to describe as national treasures. In conversation he can roam entertainingly from dinosaurs to libraries to Mike Leigh to football mascots without breaking his stride.
“We’ve not got any liars, any smackheads, any robbers. Everybody in the band is a gentleman,” he says, attempting to explain why Elbow have lasted without line-up changes or punch-ups for close to 25 years — only the past seven of which have been as a widely adored, Mercury- and BRIT-winning success story. Even their manager, Phil Chadwick, has been with them since the start and is from Bury like the rest of them. “I called Mark [Potter, guitarist] an ignorant twat once. He said, ‘Say that again’, while holding a Stratocaster quite threateningly, and I took it back immediately. That’s the closest we’ve ever got to a fall-out.”
So it’s easy to believe him when he insists that his first solo album, one-third completed and due later this year, does not signal the end of Elbow. “If anything this is something I feel I can do now without rocking the boat. The lads know, love and trust me enough. It’s just that I’ve got more time than them.”
Garvey is the only band member without children, so while the others are on the school run he’s got the space for extra creative projects. There are eight Elbow nippers knocking about the place now. “It’s brought out the best in all of them,” he says. “The eldest of the kids turns 13 in May, which is crazy. That’s only four years younger than when I met his dad.”
While the others have been nesting, Garvey split with his partner of 10 years, author Emma Jane Unsworth, during the making of Elbow’s 2014 album, The Take Off and Landing of Everything. He has since transformed her study in the house they shared in Prestwich into what he calls “the Silly Room”, a cosy space decorated with records, radios and a model of the Titanic.
Now single and throwing himself into multiple new projects — writing a semi-memoir inspired by his striking lyrics; music for a proposed remake of Billy Liar; the theme song for a new Simon Pegg film called Man Up; next week’s “intimate” Elbow theatre tour and the solo album — he claims to have no regrets.
“I was with my ex last night. We still talk a lot,” he says. “I don’t have to miss her, do you know what I mean? We talk to each other all the time. She’s in love with another man now. I’ve only met him briefly but he sounds like a great bloke. It genuinely warms my heart. Plus we’ve still got our joint ideas account.”
They maintain their shared love of words. The line, “The way the day begins decides the shade of everything” appears in both her book, Animals, and the Elbow song New York Morning, because they can’t remember who came up with it.
Musically, at least, he’s allowing himself a burst of nostalgia at the moment, with three Elbow concerts at the Apollo in Hammersmith next week, which follow four at the Apollo in Manchester. Garvey promises a set list that changes every night and plenty of old songs that haven’t been aired in some time. It’s a deliberate step away from the arenas where Elbow’s biggest anthems work so well. Their song One Day Like This can swell the heart as far back as Block 26, Row Z.
“We did a tour of America last year, where we’re not as big as we are here. It was all old theatres and we found it much more relaxing. So this is a bit of a retrospective. It’s more for the fans who have been there from the beginning.”
After that, however, it’s boldly forward into a new era. The Take Off and Landing of Everything was written in a new way for the band, with members developing songs separately before submitting them (Garvey is in charge of lyrics but otherwise it’s anyone’s game). They want to carry on using that as a way to work faster — he says there should be a couple of surprise EPs later this year before another album appears. “It’s an opportunity to mess with the formula. An album is a mountain to climb but with an EP you tend to loosen up and be more creative. A good EP is a comfortable commute. It’s a really nice place to be for 20 minutes.”
And he’s racing forwards with solo material too, again working differently. He only writes with his team around him, in Elbow’s studio, Blueprint, around the corner from the pub where we’re sitting. They include the band’s three-piece horn section, Bat for Lashes drummer Alex Reeves, Garvey’s best mate Pete Jobson — who plays bass in I Am Kloot but is on guitar here — and Elbow’s cellist Chris Worsey. Garvey, who can’t read or write music, gets the latter to transcribe his ideas.
“I’ve got my cast together and it’s whatever transpires when we’re in there. I’m doing it like Mike Leigh makes films,” he explains. “It’s fast and it’s fun. If I’m bored of a song I just say ‘Right, let’s move off this one’. In Elbow you’ve got to discuss every decision five ways. I’m absolutely loving it.”
Elbow fans should love it too, he assures me. “You can hear Elbow all over it. I would say it’s perhaps a bit more playful because I’m not feeling like I need to bleed onto the page. It’s funkier in a kind of New Orleans way too.”
It’s almost as if he has a sign displayed prominently somewhere that reads No Slacking. Elbow’s belated success has opened all sorts of interesting doors for him, and he’s grabbing everything with both hands. Recently he’s been on Desert Island Discs, read a bedtime story on CBeebies and written music for a big-budget Australian musical version of King Kong. In 2012 Elbow wrote the BBC’s theme for the Olympics. He says he’s been offered a part in Game of Thrones but couldn’t film it as he was touring with the band: “They wanted me to be some kind of gladiatorial ringmaster.”
Turning 40 last year may have something to do with it. “I’m not accepting it at all! It worried me to the extent that I realised I have to work more. Let’s do more, let’s do as much as we possibly can.”
So there’s definitely no split, and no retiring either. Elbow intend to follow The Rolling Stones to wrinkly greatness. “The only thing we don’t know is how it ends for the band. Hopefully it only ends when all five of us are in the ground. I want to be shuffling on and off stage when I’m 75 and people thinking that that’s OK.”
Before then, there’s much more work to be done. Garvey finishes his pint, bids a friendly farewell and gets ready to take his next meeting.
Elbow are at the Eventim Apollo, W6 (0844 249 1000,eventimapollo.com) from February 10-12