It was around 5 p.m. U.K. time when Elbow frontman Guy Garvey was pouring himself a drink. He was about to head out for some dinner with his girlfriend and friends, and he seemed much more relaxed than excitable when we talked. It was easy going stuff for a man whose band would be co-headlining one of England’s biggest festivals -- Glastonbury next week, warming up for Coldplay.
I interviewed Garvey at New York’s Hiro Ballroom back in 2005, three years before the rock troupe would earn the Mercury Prize for “The Seldom Seen Kid.” Garvey remembers the giant dragon that graces that medium-sized room. I remember the sheer number of Scotches he drank just to “get my arse on stage.”
For the 15+ years that the band has been around, Garvey has obviously found his place, with his nerves and excellent records, the latest being “build a rocket boys!” out earlier this year. Below, frontman Garvey answered questions via phone and email, on stage fright, record labels and whisky. The interview comes on the heels of the band announcing their next U.S tour, which kicks off with their stop at Austin City Limits on Sept. 18 in the Texas capital (all dates below the Q&A).
You have more than a dozen festival dates lined up this summer including ACL and Glastonbury. But you’re hitting up mostly ballroom and hall venues for your U.S. tour. Do you find playing fests easier?
I do, festivals you’re not face to face with the crowd, and it’s a set thing, like the length of the set. You roll in, do your thing and get off the stage and have a sit. They’re a lot more fun.
Our crew would probably say the exact opposite. They have, like, 20 minutes to set up.
You played London’s famed St. Paul’s Cathedral, in the crypt. It’s an odd choice of venue, but that must’ve been pretty cool. Did you have to reel in the act all, behave any differently that you normally do on stage?
Obviously we were respectful, and addressed the thing very proper. That place was designed for a gig…. It means an awful lot for us to have played there. I don’t think our music…. I don’t see how people could find it offenseive in any way, though. Of course we watched our language but it’s not like we’ll say anything deliberately offensive.
For this upcoming U.S. tour, do you have any say in who opens for you? Do you have any faves?
When you say you’re going to do a tour, everybody’s agents suddenly makes everybody available at all times. They all talk and then we all select from hundreds of bands. It’s not like I can bring up a band and be like, “Them.” We have gone out with this Irish band called Villagers, we love them. With Jesca Hoop, we made a good friendship on the road. The Acorn
from Canada, they’re lovely people. Those were very special. Nothing beats hearing great music before you go on.
Some industry watchers in the U.S. think that the key to making British bands big in the U.S. -- particularly in rock -- is having the right label. Do you feel like you'd have more commercial success here in the U.S. if you had a different label? What are your feelings about achieving commercial success in the U.S.?
The Record Label is of course an essential part of success and can mean the difference between a thousand and a million record sales, but so too are Live Production, good Management, strong Publishing and a canny Agent, not to mention a great Lawyer. Without all of these things Elbow wouldn’t be enjoying the success they are in the U.K. Commercial success traditionally in the US has meant living there for a while. The band has young families so the traditional route isn’t a option. Perhaps we need our music to be attached to something popular.
In your interview with the Independent, it sounds like you still struggle with stage fright, or nerves. Does this get any easier with age? Do the topics you sing about on this new album -- especially those dealing with your age -- make it any easier?
I’ve never been afraid of how old I am. My life has improved as I’ve got older. Yes, I still get nervous, just only the last two minutes before going on stage as opposed to the two weeks leading up to the performance.
Do you have material you've written on your own that you think you may do something with outside of Elbow right now, like a solo project or side band?
I’m currently collaborating with Jimmy Goodwin from Doves and I’m in the middle of my second collaboration with Massive Attack. I love collaboration, you always learn something new when you’re creative with somebody. It’s really healthy for the band.
I’m not sure why but over the last few years I’ve fallen further in love with the female singing voice. Maybe it’s because I don’t have one, but I’m also writing 10 songs about women I know family friends et cetera, for contemporary female singers to sing.
I completely love voices like Jolie Holland, Joan Wasser, Alela Diane and Jesca Hoop. It would be such an honor if I could get any of them to sing something I’ve written.
You earned the Mercury Prize a couple years back. Do you have any professional goals, like awards you'd like to get? When will you know your wildest dreams have been achieved?
My dreams are being achieved on a daily basis, I'm having the most extraordinary life. It would perhaps be cool to say that awards don’t matter, but they f*cking do. The day after the Mercury Awards the members of Elbow all turned off the portion of their brain for a day that had been dedicated to looking for ideas for songs since they were 16. We’ve literally had one day off in 20 years. And it wouldn’t have happened without the Mercury.
What is your favorite scotch or whiskey/whisky?
Very fond of the Highland Park 12. It’s not an over complicated whisky and you can find it pretty much anywhere in the U.K. now. (nudge nudge send us a case lads).
Here are Elbow’s U.S. tour dates:
09/18/11 - Austin City Limits, Zilker Park - Austin, TX
09/20/11 - Center Stage - Atlanta, GA
09/22/11 - 9:30 Club - Washington, DC
09/23/11 - FDR Park - Philadelphia, PA
09/25/11 - Terminal 5 - New York , NY
09/26/11 - Paradise Rock Club - Boston, MA -
09/28/11 - Sound Academy - Toronto, ON
10/01/11 - The Greek Theater - Los Angeles, CA