Before embarking on their upcoming tour in support of their sixth studio album, we had the opportunity to sit down with Elbow’s Richard, Mark and Craig, the drummer, guitarist and keyboardist, respectively, to learn more about their journey from pub band to arena rockers.
Let’s start from the beginning. Where did you guys first meet?
Richard: They’ve known each other the longest since they’re brothers.
Mark: We went to primary school together, so the group got together early on.
Craig: Mark, Pete and Jupp formed the band in high school and called it RPM for Rich, Pete and Mark – clever, very clever.
Mark: We had a really cool music teacher with red shoes and during break time he’d let us go in and rehearse. Richs’s drum kit was partly made out of stolen clamps from the chemistry labs because he couldn’t afford cymbal stands. So we were just like any band just doing covers.
At Sixth form college we met Guy, Guy was in my art class. We barely looked at each other; we used to give each other dirty looks across the classroom. He was kind of an indie kid with a floppy haircut, but I’d heard him singing in the common room and for some reason I picked him up in my car driving home from college one day. He started singing along to R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” harmonizing, and I said “Oh, I’ve got a band, do you wanna come and join?” And we invited Craig at the same time to join the band. So we had that first rehearsal and we were still doing covers, but it felt like we had something.
What songs were you guys covering at first?
Richard: Queen, wasn’t it? Well, we used to do a lot of stuff, didn’t we?
Mark: “Here and Now” was one of them, “Johnny Be Good,” the intro to “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Mind, but just the intro… (laughs)
Couldn’t get past that?
Richard: No, it was just too tricky.
Craig: And then we played blues and rock ‘n’ roll just because it’s something we could do. We did a Chuck Berry cover which is weird looking back on it, because we were sort of indie kids, really in a way, but doing weird rock ‘n’ roll.
Mark: And then I suppose we became a funk band really. We got really into Santana and that was a really good education because it taught us to play tight together and that’s how we learned to play high-tempo funk, with lots of stops and starts and “wawa” – everything had “wawa” in it.
How’s it been playing together for all this time?
Richard: It’s great, we’re all mates. We hang out outside what you would call “band time.” Our families know each other and kids play with each other – that makes it sound like bit of a commune but it’s just that easy. Thankfully we all get on and make each other laugh, which I think is the keystone to getting on really.
Craig: I think it’s as simple as that, really, because people ask us how can you still stay mates and get on for after all these years. I think we’re just lucky that we do and we’ve been through quite a bit – we’ve been dropped a few times and yeah basically we’re just lucky to get on so well.
Richard: We anticipate each other’s moods and if somebody’s down then you’ll sort of either take the piss or leave them…
You guys can read each other.
Richard: Yeah and if there’s anything personal going on, it’s amazing that people are so patient and there for you. I mean, we got each other’s backs.
Mark: I think because we’re aware of how lucky we are to be doing this for a living and the band is so precious to us that we’ll fight, and whatever problems arrive between the five of us, we make sure that we sort them out.
Going back to your influences, when did you start to realize that you had developed your own sound?
Richard: The first chapter I think is when we were listening to a lot of Talk Talk. I think that sort of freed us up in the way of tracks not having to be a certain way. We tried to write demo tunes and then hit up Talk Talk and explore this space in tunes.
Mark: We were getting gigs for this sort of funk music that people were dancing to but at the same time we were writing this other stuff, this more gentle stuff. Guy, coming from a big family, had a record collection passed down from his older sisters, so early Genesis, a lot of Yes and Supertramp and obviously Pink Floyd and all that. So we started writing this stuff and I think one day we decided, you know, let’s just go for it and just scrap these covers that we’re doing.
Craig: It’s nice to do gigs and see people dancing but I think we just had to be brave and start writing these chill songs and hope people listen and enjoy them, which is something we made a conscious decision to do and it suddenly changed. That’s when we changed our name as well to Elbow.
Richard: Yeah, we were called Soft before that.
Mark: We’ve never really been good with names. (laughs)
Richard: I think that’s one of the reasons for the longevity of the band. It’s because we are very different people, but there’s a few bands that we all converge on that we all love and that pushes us in a certain direction. We had recorded ourselves before, we’d gone to a couple of studios to do basic demos with whatever money we had, but this was the first time that we strung a 58 above the kick and Craig was getting into the production, sampling things with a 4-track. So that makes it a little bit more creative from the start.
Craig: And it was from the first gig as Elbow that we started to get noticed, it just literally, suddenly all started happening, which was a relief.
Do you remember where the first gig as Elbow was?
Mark: It was at the Road House, a little club in Manchester, where I remember the band apart from me worked at. I was drunk there.
Is it still there?
Mark: Yeah, yeah still there. Kate’s a good friend of ours, the lady who runs it, and when we got our first deal, we kind of left and then we got dropped and she took us back. We had a lot of support from a lot of people, we were very lucky. Our parents supported us in the early days, buying us recording equipment, the first little tape 4-track. They really, really believed right from the beginning, so you can imagine how proud all of our parents are now.
But you guys had already been playing music for a long time before that, so they knew you weren’t just messing around.
Mark: Yeah. We also had a piano in our house growing up and a Spanish guitar, so I was getting my finger around it and playing chords. Once you can play a few chords you start to get it and that was good in a way. As soon as I got an electric guitar I was like, “Ah, this is easy.”
What about your writing process? How does it work?
Mark: The bones of the songs are often written and then we go on to Guy or Craig would go on to Guy with the guitar and piano and that’s the beginning of the song, traditionally. We write and record alongside each other, really.
Craig: That’s probably the biggest difference between us and a lot of other bands, is that we, even though we do sit down and write the whole chord sequence, we just sort of build from a vibe or from the bottom up.
Was it different then with the new album as Guy spent a lot of time in New York?
Mark: A little bit different with the new album really, we intentionally changed the way we work. One of the things we did was instead of all having one day off during the week all on the same day, we took a different day off so there was only ever four band members in the studio which created a different dynamic. That definitely created songs that wouldn’t have happened at all with five of us in there because you were almost writing for the person that was missing and everyone else was like, “Yeah, he’s gonna love this.” It was a little bit scary when you were off, it was like, “what are they doing?” So that was really good and kept it new and fresh.
The other difference is the three tracks on the new album which were entirely written by individuals at home, people that have studios at home. “Real Life (Angel)” was Craig’s complete piece of music that he brought in and sort of gave to Guy. “Honey Sun” was one that I wrote at home based around an old drum machine that I searched out – JJ Cale used it on the album Naturally. The other song is “Colour Fields” that Pete wrote entirely, really on his iPad I think. That was a song that we tried to “bandalize” but we just kept coming back to this sort of stark digital sound. And then Guy wrote this song about hope for a young girl and encouraging her to get out of town and I think it’s one of the strongest on the album actually.
Do you guys often embrace these new ways of making music, like with iPads?
Richard: Yeah. Actually there’s the hunting of the sound.
Craig: We record digitally and I know a lot of guys are into “everything’s gotta be analogue,” but now it’s whatever works really. Just because it’s a drum machine that comes off an iPad does’t mean we need to go and find it in the real world somewhere. When it sounds good, it sounds good.
Mark: Like on “The Blanket of the Night,” the last song on the album, it’s a real contrast between digital, synthesized sounds and organic sounds, because the verse is a double bass, Mellotron and Spanish guitar and then suddenly this burst of synths come in and we wanted that contrast.
“Just because it’s a drum machine that comes off an iPad does’t mean we need to go and find it in the real world somewhere. When it sounds good, it sounds good.”
Have you guys also spent time in New York?
Richard: Just with touring really. I always wanted to go back but it’s hard to find a decent amount of time with the kids in school and stuff. We’ll head back there without the band at some point.
Craig: We’re always really excited when we know that we‘re going there – it’s an amazing place. I think we all share a love for it.
Richard: Although every single time I’ve been absolutely fucking blind drunk. (laughs)
Craig: Yeah, he knows the pavements of New York very, very well!
Mark: To be honest I prefer the countryside, I always find myself in Central Park when we go to New York.
Besides New York, was there anything else that inspired you throughout the creation of the album?
Mark: I suppose we’re all, apart from Craig, hitting 40. So I suppose middle age counts as a couple of themes on the record. We’re kind of settling into our shoes and where we live, and the fact that we’ve got a Number One record now means we’re still doing something that’s relevant and current. I suppose that means we’re still cool with the kids, as well as the old proggy guys that were around first.
Richard: If you’re looking at people in the front row and you’ll have like three or four generations of people that are all loving it.
Craig: The other kid might be a bit bored but at least the parents and the grandparents are enjoying it. (laughs)
With the success of the band and the latest album, you’ve played larger and larger venues. Do you adapt the live shows for these bigger venues?
Richard: A little bit but, you know, people want to see us play what we play.
Mark: We needed to work out a way of getting across our slow and more delicate numbers rather than just playing an uptempo set, because I think it’s probably the strongest part of what we do, slow-burning songs. The way we tried to do that was by trying to shrink these arenas and make them feel more intimate, and Guy’s very good at that, involving the crowd. We would build a walkway, not like a Bono walkway that goes above the crowd, but one that goes down into the crowd. So it’s about bringing people in, playing the arena shows and not being afraid to play these slower songs, and they work just as well as “One Day Like This.”
Craig: I mean there are some old-school fans who would possibly be disappointed that we don’t play more older songs. We do try and get them in but I think they don’t realize that like 90% of the audience probably doesn’t know them. It’s for the sake of the gig and the atmosphere that we can’t play a lot of stuff from the first album, although we do try and get them in now and again.