“YOUR FORTUNE is mine for the telling and yours for the hearing.” Outside the East Village’s Gem Spa – favoured corner store of Allen Ginsberg, immortalised on the back cover of the New York Dolls’ 1973 debut and, briefly, in the video of Elbow’s New York Morning – animatronic fortune teller Zoltar implores the Mancunians being photographed in front of him to feed two $1 bills into his machine. The five members of Elbow, however, are momentarily oblivious to his exhortations. Frontman Guy Garvey has just been informed by the band’s manager that Alison Moyet has selected one of their songs for her imminent appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs.
“I always had a thing about her as a kid, so that’s slightly blown my mind,” he confides to anyone within earshot. “And do you know what’s really lovely? She hasn’t gone for anything obvious. She’s chosen my favourite song by the band.”
Guitarist Mark Potter gazes across quizzically at his singer. “Do you not know what my favourite Elbow song is?” asks Garvey. Potter shrugs apologetically. His younger brother Craig – who, in 1989, only joined the newly-formed band on keyboards because their mum insisted on it – guesses Lippy Kids from 2011’s Build A Rocket Boys! It’s good but it’s not right. Finally, bassist Pete Turner – habitually referred to by Garvey as “the coolest member of Elbow” – pipes up with the correct answer. It’s Great Expectations, the gauzy wedding-day devotional from 2005’s Leaders Of The Free World.
“Yes! That’s my favourite Elbow track! Did nobody know that?”
All of which is very well, but Zoltar is showing signs of impatience. “Come let Zoltar tell you all,” he exhorts one more time. Drummer Richard Jupp crosses his palm with two dollars and receives a printed card in return: “Swift speedy time will bring new and interesting pleasures this month, feathered with flying hours.” Zoltar may be onto something. A coast-to-coast tour in support of their sixth album The Take-Off And Landing Of Everything ensures no shortage of flying hours in the next month – whilst the possibly risky undertaking of selling a song about New York to a city that will let you know if you got it wrong has yet to reap measurable results. Tomorrow, Elbow will perform New York Morning on the prestigious Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon before scooting downtown to play the prestigious Webster Hall. If Garvey has a flickering anxiety about all this, it’s articulated by the first question that was levelled his way earlier today by one New York DJ: “You must be worried that New Yorkers will think, ‘Who the hell is this guy trying to write my city in a song?’”
BACK AMID the low-lit, townhouse ambience of the group’s hotel, the singer changes his order – “You’ve gone for the burger – that means I can have a burger too” – and elaborates on the song he wrote in January 2013 shortly after he and his fiancée, novelist Emma Unsworth ran away to New York. Unable to sleep as she lay next to him, he took his notebook to the Moonstruck diner, near Bowery, and everything spilled out: “Every painted line and battered, laddered building in this town/Sings a life of proud endeavour and the best that man can be.” So, two months ago, back at home in Prestwich, when Garvey opened his post and found a letter from Yoko Ono thanking him for the line, “It’s the modern Rome/Where folk are nice to Yoko”, that felt good. And this morning, when the aforementioned DJ continued, “What I get is a British man’s perspective on the city I love,” Garvey was even more relieved. “For me, that was perfect. I wanted to sound out of my depth in that song, completely tiny.”
At six feet and three inches, Elbow’s 40-year-old frontman doesn’t often experience feelings of tininess, but it’s the one thing New York can be relied upon to do. Back in 2002, a year after the release of their enveloping, febrile debut Asleep In The Back, Elbow came here for the first time. “We got here on my 28th birthday. So here’s what happened. It’s 6am in Chinatown and I’m jetlagged to fuck. Me and Pete [Turner] are sharing a room. I go outside, look at the buildings and my head’s mashed with how impressive it is. Even the fire escapes look amazing. So I hail my first cab, get in and I say, “$15 that way please.” I don’t remember where he dropped me off but as I get out, the first thing I see is a drunk Willem Dafoe in a leather jacket, careering down the pavement with a big grin on his face, and he sees me and he’s like, ‘Heeyyy! How’re you doing?’ Then he’s like [points at MOJO with both thumbs up and forefingers pointing].”
“So, my mind’s blown already. Then I start walking back and there’s a coffee shop, so I’m thinking, I’d better go in and write some of this down. As I sit there by the window, a truck pulls up opposite, like a flat-back little truck, and it’s a scab hunter, a one-man portable picket line. And I’m watching in astonishment as this guy inflates a 30ft rat outside a bank that sacked a woman for being pregnant. Then he gets out a megaphone and starts explaining why he’s there. So I went across the road and asked him if I could buy him a coffee and find out a little more about this situation, and he came back to the cafe with me. So I had my first friend. Straight away, I sort of had confirmed what I suspected after I’d read Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. You could live here your whole life and never really know the place.”
With such an introduction to the city, it was only natural that Garvey – himself one of seven children born to a trade unionist father – would want his partner to experience some of what he had experienced. But last year, as the first rays of spring glimmered through the surrounding skyline, Garvey and Unsworth came to the realisation that far-flung adventures in strange new places were not the main event, but a breathtaking distraction from what was really happening. Their love affair was coming to an end. The first words he wrote for The Take-Off And Landing Of Everything had been outward-facing: barroom character studies (Fly Boy Blue/Lunette; Charge); harrowing paeans to refugees in search of a better life (The Blanket Of Night) and, of course, New York Morning itself. Gradually, the tar of separation percolated into the remaining songs. Back in Manchester for the summer, sessions for the album gathered apace and Garvey finally siphoned his grief into the songs: “She and I won’t find another me and her,” he sings on Honey Sun – whilst the hangar-rattling Krautrock of the album’s title track vigorously contends that the ends of relationships should be as beautiful as their beginnings. “Was ours?” Garvey scratches his beard thoughtfully. “Well, you do feel a sense of loss and guilt. Nobody did anything wrong, and it was the right time for it to end – but that’s unusual to feel over a split. We’d both been trying to hold it together for a long time, out of respect and love for one another.”
It wasn’t the first time Garvey found himself surveying the rubble of a once-intoxicating affair and wondering when he might start to feel better. Much of Leaders Of The Free World dealt with the fallout from his break-up with radio DJ Edith Bowman. In 2005, though, when that album was released, national treasure status had yet to find Elbow’s ursine frontman. Fiction Records had yet to rescue Elbow from their V2 deal with less than £50 in the band account remaining. The head of their new label, Jim Chancellor, had yet to suggest that their first album for Fiction – the Mercury Music Prize-winning The Seldom Seen Kid – could do with just one more song that might get them played on the radio. Which means at that point One Day Like This – subsequently the go-to song of every TV producer putting together a victory montage in the 2012 Olympics – had yet to be written. Ten years ago, Guy Garvey could be miserable wherever he wanted and be left to his own devices. But last year he realised that was no longer possible. He couldn’t face Christmas at home and alighted on the Brooklyn suburb of Greenpoint, renting an apartment in a block of New Yorkers with little or no idea of who he was.
One wonders whether or not these extended periods in New York were an act of creative self-preservation. Garvey, the tamest of animals, seems unable to resist an open door, especially if the sound of chattering strangers can be heard on the other side. “Reaching 40 is a relief,” he says, “because there’s so much you can let go of. You see yourself through other people’s eyes. And in Greenpoint, I’m just this 40-year-old man in a yellow raincoat, sitting in cafés, observing, just like I was once able to do at the Night & Day café, back in Oldham Street, watching romances blossom on a daily basis. But for the first time, I’m watching that from the point of view of somebody who’s an old man.”
It’s a shift you can hear on Charge – whose protagonist barfly gradually descends into a haze of drunken indignation as he realises that the young revellers around him have neither the time or inclination to notice him and wonder what wisdom he may have to bestow: “And glory be, these fuckers are ignoring me/I’m from another century.”
One wonders whether or not these extended periods in New York were an act of creative self-preservation. Garvey, the tamest of animals, seems unable to resist an open door, especially if, on the other side, the sound of chattering strangers can be heard. “Reaching 40 is a relief,” he says, “because there’s so much you can let go of. You see yourself through other people’s eyes. And in Greenpoint, I’m just this 40 year-old man in a yellow raincoat, sitting in cafés, observing, just like I was once able to do at the Night & Day café, back in Oldham Street, watching romances blossom on a daily basis. But for the first time, I’m watching that from the point of view of somebody who’s an old man.” It’s a shift you can hear on Charge – whose protagonist barfly gradually descends into a haze of drunken indignation as he realises that the thrusting hipsters surrounding him have neither the time or inclination to notice him and wonder what wisdoms he may have to bestow upon their world: “And glory be, these fuckers are ignoring me/I’m from another century.”
Spend an afternoon wandering around Greenpoint and you realise why Garvey was so taken with the place. So thoroughly has this ostensibly unremarkable Brooklyn suburb been repopulated with thriftstore indie hipsters, you won’t just find them the new Rough Trade store or Nick Drake-referencing diner Five Leaves. They’re everywhere. Your pizza slice will probably be served to you by a bored Riot Grrrl; your dry-cleaning taken care of by someone wearing a home-made Linda Perhacs t-shirt. Walking through a 3ft snowfall to the Nighthawk cinema – “They serve you food and drinks while you’re watching the film Pete! You’ve got to go!” – it was here that Garvey saw Inside Llewyn Davies and found himself laughing at just how many musicians it reminded him of, “myself included. That’s just how it is. His headstrong arrogance got him beaten up, but headstrong arrogance is also the only thing that keeps you going. And even then, it might still not be enough.”
If Garvey also came here hoping to amass character studies for future Elbow songs, he wasn’t disappointed. Having lost some weight in the preceding weeks, the first thing he did was to go looking for new clothes. He tells a story about a trouser-buying encounter with a shop assistant – “I want you to picture Steve Buscemi with a handlebar moustache and bobbed hair, with a woollen hat and painfully tight trousers” – who turned out to be the son of Gerard Kenny, the American singer-songwriter who wrote New York New York (not the Sinatra version; the other one) and Dennis Waterman’s I Could Be So Good For You. I asked him what might be a good place to see a band and he says, ‘I don’t watch live music.’ I was like, ‘Oh right. Any particular reason?’ And he went, ‘Er, because I have a lot of friends who are successful musicians, and I’m better – and I’m working here instead of having success, so it makes me angry.’ And you know what? It gets worse. Because then he starts telling me about this musical his dad wrote – a 15 year project on the life of Alan Jay Lerner [celebrated American librettist], but Lerner died before the project finished and his family vetoed the project. So right there, you’ve got two generations of thwarted, angry musicians. Incredible!”
EVERYTHING about appearing on The Tonight Show is designed to make the English ingénue feel nervous: the uptown location (five floors up in The Rockefeller Centre); the airport-tight security; countless people running up and down corridors with headsets and clipboards; the sight of Drew Barrymore outside her dressing room, shooting the breeze with Roots drummer and Tonight Show bandleader Questlove. And yet, sat at a coffee table bearing a tray of bacon and egg muffins, Elbow seem relaxed. This is a band that, seemingly, doesn’t do early nights. Yesterday evening and some of this morning was spent in Greenwich Avenue’s Fiddlesticks bar putting the world to rights over beer, cocktails, chicken wings and nachos. Among the subjects discussed was the running order of their Glastonbury set this month. Have they earned the right to end with anything other than One Day Like This? Until recently, this wasn’t an issue, but the planned finale – “a really heavy Deep Purple-style version of Destiny’s Child’s Independent Woman” – has been scuppered by the sudden non-availability of Benedict Cumberbatch. Garvey explains, “You know in the middle of the song, there’s that list of everything that Beyoncé bought and owned? We were going to have him ranting it in a kind of King Lear fashion.”
Perhaps when you’ve been together this long – 13 years since that first album, and another 12 before that – the setbacks surmounted along the way instil a sense of invincibility that not even the prospect of performing to 3.6 million Americans can undermine. Or, suggests Craig Potter, “it might just be that the rest of us are miming to the backing track, while it’s actually Guy who has to sing it.”
Pete Turner believes that “other bands always seem more invincible to you than your own. That’s why we’re all a little bit in awe of Arctic Monkeys. Because they were cool as fuck from day one. And they’ve never seemed desperate to hold onto what they’ve got.” “It’s true,” says Garvey. “When you walk through a hotel lobby with Alex [Turner], it’s incredible. It’s like you’re not there. He leaves a trail of devastated beautiful women behind him wherever he goes. And it’s all ages. My therapist leaned over to me and said, ‘Me and my 14-year-old daughter have bonded over our mutual appreciation of that boy!’ And I’m like, That is NOT appropriate for this session!”
For all of that, there is one good thing about having toiled away in what Garvey calls “a shit funk band” for 10 years before securing a deal. Nothing bonds you like adversity. “It’s true,” says Jupp. “It’s the best support system in the world.” With the exception of Garvey, all of Elbow have children. “My son was three weeks old when we first toured America. I was in bits, but you know these opportunities will never come around again.”
“It’s family,” says Garvey. “We’ve grown up together and it hurts to see your best mates going through dark times. I know it sounds cheesy, but we carry each other. You can’t not do after all this time.”
Garvey’s favourite Elbow song notwithstanding, it seems there’s nothing left that the five members of the group don’t know about each other. “I’ve known Pete and Jupp since we were four,” says Mark Potter, “We were coming up with band names and logos before we decided what instruments we were going to play. Jupp’s kit wasn’t even a kit – half of it was stolen from the chemistry lab – with clamps and things holding his cymbals. But we all loved U2, didn’t we? The first gig we did at school, we played Where The Streets Have No Name and Queen’s Now I’m Here.”
“Queen are our default in some ways,” says Turner, “If I go to bed early, Pott will put on You’re My Best Friend and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ll stay up for a little bit...”
“That’s the thing,” interjects the guitarist, “I know every song that will make whoever’s going to bed do a complete U-turn and come back to the back of the bus. Craig’s is also Queen: Somebody To Love. With Jupp, it’s anything by AC/DC. With me it’s J.J. Cale’s Call Me The Breeze. And with Guy, it’s Louis Prima’s Just A Gigolo – although we also love David Lee Roth’s version. When I was deejaying at Jupp’s wedding, I saw Guy sort of staggering, about to leave, and I said to my mate, ‘Watch this. Guy think’s he’s leaving.’ I put on Just A Gigolo and he was dancing before he even reached the dancefloor.”
For the first time, however, the very success predicated by Elbow’s friendship is giving them the freedom to pursue avenues outside of the band. Manager Phil Chadwick says that since the Olympics, the offers have been constant. “You don’t even show them 80 per cent of them, they’re that ridiculous. We were offered a Weetabix ad and they wanted them on top of a hill with the sun coming up behind them playing One Day Like This. Can you imagine?”
But without children to factor into his daily life, Guy Garvey is best placed to take advantage of the new opportunities and unexpected friendships afforded to him: opportunities that, in the past three years, have ranged from his own BBC 6 Music show to reading the CBeebies bedtime story. Earlier this year, Garvey dated someone who, at 28, was 12 years his junior – which, he notes, “meant that I had to spend quite a lot of time explaining the concept of The Krankies to her.” This summer, he is set to commence his maiden musical side project, Herding Cats – “my attempt to make music in the way that Mike Leigh makes films. I’m just going to invite a bunch of musicians into the studio and we’ll see what happens.” Recently, Alan Bennett sent him a copy of his 2011 book Smut, with a dedication on the inside cover: “Dear Guy, I boast about knowing you.” Their friendship began after Garvey commissioned his friend and artist Mark Kennedy to create a mural for his Manchester flat. “Mark spoke to some mutual friends of ours, and the word got back that I was a huge Alan Bennett fan – so he set about creating this stern portrait of him using broken pieces of commemorative royal crockery. He even found a plate with ‘Elbow’ written on it. “So I hanged it outside of the apartment and I’m stood outside admiring it one day, then I hear a voice across the canal, from another flat going, ‘Excuse me! The painting. It’s staring into the apartment and I find it intrusive.’ My first reaction is to think I’ve done something wrong, and I’m hurt and upset. I walk in and then after ten minutes, the anger takes hold, so then I come out and she’s still there so I call out, ‘EXCUSE ME! You’re a fucking twat and if I hear from you again, I’m going to strobe light it at night.’ So anyway, a while later, Melvyn Bragg is doing us for the South Bank Show. My friend Ershad is there and knowing that Melvyn is mates with Alan, he tells him about the mural. Next thing I know, I get a postcard from Alan saying, ‘It’s nice to be irking someone across the canal. I saw your South Bank Show. It must be gratifying having your words sung back at you by so many people. Morrissey was a fan of mine, but all he was interested in was my friendship with Little Jimmy Clitheroe.’”
THE LAST TIME Elbow were lined up to deliver a “breakthrough” TV appearance in New York was five years ago. Having been promised a David Letterman show, they arranged an entire tour around the show. Much like today, a day was spent in an American TV studio, running through Grounds For Divorce. When the time came, Letterman overran an interview with his friend, comedian Tom Dreesen. As the credits began to roll, it dawned upon the band that their appearance wasn’t going to happen. “We were livid,” recalls Garvey. “No apologies. Nothing. We were ushered out of the studio.”
A world away from Letterman’s imperious indifference to schedules, however, Fallon is clearly fond of the band, singing a burst of Lippy Kids before introducing them. In the soft golden light of a New York studio, Garvey closes his eyes and surrenders his inhibitions to the city surrounding him. Three metres away, Questlove nods approvingly and when the song finishes, Fallon and actor Giovanni Ribisi (Avatar; Ted) leap off their seats and effervesce around Garvey.
But it will be another four hours before the emotional mercury truly starts to rise. One by one, Elbow file on-stage at Webster Hall, and Garvey knows exactly what he wants to say to the throng. My Sad Captains and Charge are already established in the upper echelon of fan favourites, but without a note of the song being played, New York Morning gets the loudest cheer when Garvey announces: “I’ve been waiting for over a year to play this song in your beautiful city.”
Above to his right, leaning forward against the venue’s balcony, are Dennis and Lois – the legendary New York superfans whose patronage of music in their hometown has endeared them to generations of bands, including the Ramones, the Mekons, Happy Mondays (who even named a song after them) and, of course, Elbow, whose New York Morning video doubles as a documentary about the couple. Now in their sixties, the pair have only ever spent one night apart in over four decades. Multiple Sclerosis has left Lois confined to a wheelchair, but their love affair with music and each other seems to defy conventional wisdom about the place of romance and idealism in long-term relationships.
As Garvey hands One Day Like This to the crowd, he gazes up and sees that Lois has pulled herself up from her wheelchair and is singing his song back at him.
“You ripped my heart out tonight,” she’ll tell him later in the band’s dressing room. “And mine too, when you stood up,” beams Guy Garvey, pressing her hand into his. Outside the calls for an encore have barely dissipated, New York is claiming Elbow for itself and there are some outcomes that even the great Zoltar would have been hard pushed to predict.