Photo: EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND – SEPTEMBER 08: Guy Garvey of Elbow performs on stage at Usher Hall on September 08, 2021 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns)
The morning I sat down over Zoom with Elbow frontman Guy Garvey I had been listening to the British band’s wonderful new album, Flying Dream 1, the middle of the night before.
When I casually mention that to Garvey just to start the conversation I had no idea how much of a factor the wee small hours of the morning played in the making of the collection. Calling it a “late night record in the making,” Garvey explained there were several new, for Elbow, components in making Flying Dream 1.
I spoke with him about making the record in a 200-year-old theater, his favorite three AM albums, why he believes in albums, paying tribute to long lost friends on this album and much more.
Steve Baltin: I was sitting up listening to the album at three in the morning. This is a remarkable three in the morning album. Let’s start with that for fun. What are your one or two or three favorite three in the morning albums?
Guy Garvey: The one that pops into my mind immediately was the soundtrack from Paris, Texas, the Ry Cooder soundtrack. Yeah, the whole thing’s based on, “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground,” by Blind Willie Johnson. I used to listen to it in a house I had in North Manchester which was next to a train line, so the occasional train thundering by sort of added to the ambiance and made me think I was in a more exotic setting.
Baltin: Do you ever three AM test your albums?
Garvey: I suppose so. A lot of this was written late at night because we were writing separately, firing the songs to each other down the line. And because we have such vastly different schedules during the whole lockdown thing. It was, quite often, when everybody was in bed was the first time I got a chance to listen to that day’s development. So it was quite a late night record in the making. And, of course, the theater, we recorded the whole thing in the theater, it can be any time of day or night and you wouldn’t know about it in the theater.
Baltin: Was this the first time that you guys have done a record like this where you didn’t all write it together?
Garvey: No, I’ve lived in London for six years. The rest of the boys are still up north in Manchester. And before I lived in London, when we were making the take-off and landing of everything for quite a lot of that record, I was living in New York. So we’re quite used to some elements of the long distance writing.
We’re normally in the studio at the same time so we get in touch several times a day, and there’s the software available where I can hear things that they’re working on real time. But this was quite different because everybody had such different schedules, and also something to do with not being able to see the boys even if I wanted to made it feel a lot longer a distance than normal.
Baltin: How did you find that it affected you differently, or did it surprise you working in this way? Like you said, they would be in bed and you would be listening to it at one, two in the morning, so you actually had time to sit and listen to it and reflect on it for a second.
Garvey: Yeah. The biggest thing was because of the uncertainty of the times for everybody, and because we weren’t necessarily chatting, it was all done on one long text thread. All the sort of to and fro and the artistic comments on each other’s work. The sound of the music and how people had chosen to write and what sounds they’d chosen or tempos or whatever told me how they were feeling.
Because I know them so well after 30 years that I’d hear, for instance, Craig [Potter’s] beautiful woodwind arrangement on what became “The Seldom Seen Kid.” Something in that woodwind arrangement, the sort of adding another clarinet and another clarinet and dipping in and out of dissonance as it went down the scale, and then there seemed to be all the moments of hope and uncertainty, and then I guess the sort of warmth of being surrounded by family, you can hear it all in that arrangement.
And it let me know that Craig was okay, while worried, while comfortable. And then I heard the music that became the song “Calm and Happy,” which Pete [Turner] started that one, and I thought, “Okay, Pete’s worried.”
And then I heard Mark [Potter’s] sort of wistful stop, start Mellotron on what became “After the Eclipse,” and I thought, “Mark’s worried too but he’s okay.” He’s a man of the land and he lives in the hills and he’s getting out and seeing these trees and these rivers and he’s okay. So it was like that. We were all going through such different things as well.
Baltin: So when you guys did actually get together and talk, or when you would reflect on this stuff, how accurate were your interpretations of their music?
Garvey: Pretty accurate. And it was funny, everything that everyone was going through at that time, it definitely had an impact on what we decided to make. We did a bunch of lock down videos called “The Elbow Rooms,” and we had the fans request songs, and even though we were separate, we made them in our rooms and Craig mixed them together.
And all the fans were requesting all the more wistful, gentle side of our music, all the romantic and nostalgic side of our stuff. And after we’d done nine of those, we decided to write the times and put this thing together. And when it came to decide how to finish the record, how to bring it together, we decided to do it in a 200-year-old theater that hadn’t seen people in a couple of years.
And something about the empty auditorium and this beautiful old theater that had been begging an audience, there was something really perfect about it, and it threw an anchoring the times for us. While not making a record about the situation, we were definitely writing more nostalgically and more wistfully, and I think there’s a sense of bewilderment that went through the album, which I think everybody felt when we didn’t know what was happening.
Baltin: Are there things that you look at back now and surprise you in the record when you hear it?
Garvey: Yeah, we’re usually very experimental with our sounds, and I suppose we borrowed a jazz aesthetic for this record without playing jazz music at all, and without having those performances.
We borrowed this jazz aesthetic and all the songs have space in them. Once we got together, we did an awful lot of switching things off. We did an awful lot of letting the space, filling the gaps and letting the notes meeting in mid-air do the work for us rather than adding layers of sound. And the character of the room is a really important one. It doesn’t have the highs and lows and the drama as a normal Elbow record. It’s very much a gentle one vibe record, I think.
Baltin: This is a record that reflects where it was recorded and what was happening in the world. But when you go back and listen to songs like “Come On, Blue,” they have to be relevant to things that could have happened in 1978 or in 2051.
Garvey: Yeah, sure. You pick that song, and that’s a song actually that lyrically is written for the future. The sentiment of the chorus, “Come on, Blue as if that moon’s not there for you,” I’m singing to my son should he ever be sad when I’m gone. Not necessarily because I’m gone, but if he should ever be sad or wound up or lonely.
I wrote that song specifically for him to remember that I’m with him even if I’m not with him. There’s an awful lot of that actually. Similarly, in the song “The Seldom Seen Kid,” I’m imagining my friend Bryan Glancy, who died in 2007 and who we dedicated and wrote most of our biggest record, The Seldom Seen Kid, to.
I sat in my house looking at the pictures around the walls, and it hit me like a thunderbolt how amazing it would have been if Bryan had met my wife, Rachel, because they would have exploded in each other’s company. He would have dug her so much, and vice versa. In fact, she might not be my wife, had he met her first.
And then I imagined them dancing together. And when I sent the lyric back to the guys, because, of course, they all knew and loved Bryan, it prompted this beautiful passage of music from them. And they were imagining Bryan and Rachel dancing together and how that would work, how that would look. So, in a way, that was prompted in part because I had a dream about Bryan not long before I wrote that song.
And despite him dying 12, 13 years ago, whatever it is, in this dream, we had a fairly uneventful night in a bar that we used to spend time in Manchester called The Roadhouse. It was me, Bryan and a couple of mates of ours, and it was a good laugh, but it was a pretty uneventful, normal night.
But when I woke up, I had this sense of having had a night out with Bryan. And I remember writing down a diary entry, and it struck me that whether that was a visit from beyond or whether it was from within, it freshened his essence in my heart and in my mind. And so I had a night out with Bryan. And in that regard, he’s not gone anywhere. And that fed both of those songs.
Baltin: Where did the photo on the cover come from?
Garvey: The front sleeve is a photograph of Mark and Craig, the brothers in the band, with boxing gloves on when they were six and eight years old, respectively. And the houses you can see in the background are the kind of new build, typically provincial houses that we grew up in in Barry.
Childhood is a big theme of the record, I suppose as well, because we were with our families 24/7. I kind of look at the world through my son’s eyes when I’m with him anyway. I remember random household objects having extraordinary fields that meant a lot more to me than they would as an adult.
My son started talking about aliens. He’s only four, but he started talking about aliens. “Do I think aliens exist?” And I’m trying to answer him honestly while not frightening him. And I was like, “I’m sure they do exist, but I doubt we’ll ever meet one.” And he said, “Why?” I said, “Because the universe is so unimaginably big that it would be really incredible if we met one.” And he said, “I think there’s one under the table if you look closely.” And I looked, and it was the shadow of a chair making a face.
Baltin: Do you believe in aliens?
Garvey: Well, again, coming from a sense of wonder but scientific mind. Yes, of course, we can’t be the only things that exist in the universe. It’s too vast, too infinite. I believe this is all one huge accident, which in itself makes it more miraculous than if it was designed. And I believe that we can’t be the only accident in all that time and all that space. So yes, I believe in aliens. If I’ve ever met one it was definitely in California, probably at the Coachella Festival.
Baltin: Is there one artist you’ve met that you would say is closest to an alien? Someone who just seemed transcendent of this world.
Garvey: I think Sam Herring actually from Future Islands. I got tequila-ed up with Sam when that first record came out. There’s something about his delivery, about the melodies and the words he chooses, and where he puts his energy in songs.
He’s a true artist all the way to the middle. When I hear Sam it’s difficult to put into words. Everything he touches becomes a proper song immediately. It’s like he’s got the Bowie touch as far as I can say. I don’t think we’ve seen his greatest work yet, but he is certainly other worldly.