Rockin' the joint
It wasn't Elbow's biggest audience, but the burial crypt at London's St Paul's Cathedral provided the setting for one of the Mercury Prize-winning band's most memorable gigs. 'It was amazing,' recalls Elbow's drummer Richard Jupp over the phone from his Manchester home days before the band play a rollicking set at Glastonbury ('not just the highlight of this year's festival so far but one of the all-time greats', according to The Guardian).
St Paul's in May was one of the band's first gigs in support of Build a Rocket Boys!, their new album. 'There were only a couple of hundred people there, and it was such an austere environment,' says Jupp. 'We were trying to be very respectful of everything, and to be honest it went down really well.'
For Elbow, who in 2008 shot to international prominence after a surprise but universally applauded victory at Britain's pre-eminent pop music awards, the gig was the latest in a series of remarkable live performances, which in the past couple of years included concerts at Wembley Arena, Manchester's Bridgewater Hall, and numerous top billings at festivals in Europe. Ever the musical innovators, they've also made a habit of playing with orchestras and choirs, including a notable outing with the Halle Youth Choir. But St Paul's, in the midst of the bones of Lord Nelson, the first duke of Wellington, and Sir Christopher Wren, was special.
'That was one of the more nervous performances, just because of the surroundings, really,' says Jupp. The band, known for its cheerful imbibing, even refrained from drinking on stage - though Jupp confesses to a couple of pre-set whiskeys, just to calm the nerves.
St Paul's Cathedral seems an appropriate venue for Elbow, who over two decades and five albums have been producing reverent pop and rock that has slowly built a hugely dedicated - almost religious - following. Since forming under the name Mr Soft as teenagers in 1990, Jupp, singer Guy Garvey, bassist Pete Turner, brothers Mark (guitar) and Craig Potter (keyboards) have weathered the worst the music industry could wreak. Having initially been signed to Island Records and then dropped when the label was bought by Universal, the band signed to V2. With V2, they released three critically acclaimed albums - including gold-selling Asleep in the Back (2001) and Cast of Thousands (2003) - but were dropped again after 2005's Leaders of the Free World produced only lukewarm commercial success.
Throughout those trials, however, Elbow drew praise for their music, with Garvey's smokey tenor wrapping itself around lyrics both plaintive and uplifting, backed by a band that know the power of restraint and just the right moment to burst into climactic euphoria. This complexity is beautifully captured in the song Grace Under Pressure, from Cast of Thousands. The number is a 'classic Elbow builder', as Jupp describes it, five minutes of perfect rock in which gentle guitar strums and Garvey's sotto voce give way to firecracker drumming, the sweet harmonisations of a choir, and, ultimately, the voices of thousands of Glastonbury fans, all singing: 'We still believe in love, so f*** you'.
That is Elbow. Earnest, but not supercilious. Weighty, but eminently listenable. Five middle-aged family men without the latest haircuts who can take a tune and turn it into a revelation.
Still, it wasn't until 2008 when the band were picked up by Fiction and released Seldom Seen Kid that Elbow truly broke into the mainstream. Backed by the hit singles One Day Like This and Grounds for Divorce, they won the Mercury Prize, beating out Radiohead, British Sea Power, Laura Marling and Burial. Garvey took the stage that night and said 'it's the best thing that's ever happened to us'.
Jupp says the win changed life 'out of all recognition' for the band. Until that point, Elbow were doing 'fairly well', but they had to rely on heavy touring to supplement the modest income they earned from record sales. All of a sudden, however, their name was known all around the country. Seldom Seen Kid, entirely self-produced, mixed and recorded, would go on to sell more than 300,000 copies.
'It just meant that a band like ourselves who are not very poppy, not very in the public eye - you know, we don't do singles, kind of thing - were [now] in the public eye, people knew who we were,' says Jupp. 'A lot of people had nothing but nice things to say about the fact that we won it. There was no animosity from anybody. After that, it just got really silly.'
They went on to win the award for best British group at the 2009 Brit Awards, as well as two Ivor Novello awards, for best song (One Day Like This) and best contemporary song (Grounds for Divorce). They got the big arena gigs. This year, they're second billing on most of the European festivals, behind Coldplay. They are, unofficially, Britain's most-loved band.
Despite the flood of accolades and new-found stardom, the band are holding fast to their musical values and the credibility they've spent 20 years accumulating. As Build a Rocket Boys!, with its five-to-eight-minute slow-burners, proves, they certainly aren't in a hurry to sell out.
'It's one of those things we're blessed with,' says Jupp. 'I think a lot of people anticipated six versions of Grounds for Divorce and six versions of One Day Like This, and we've gladly disappointed those people. We've been at it for 20 years; we've got families, wives, sons, daughters - they've stood by us for so many years. But we still couldn't go down that route.'
The prevailing sentiment in the band was: 'It's worked so far, so let's not blow it'.
Besides, says Jupp, if Elbow did go for the quick hits, 'we'd have to play the f***ing things for two years'. That would be unconscionable.
Jupp still can't quite fathom just how far they have come. He recalls opening for U2 at Wembley in 2009, where he and guitarist Mark Potter - both lifelong U2 fans to the point of obsession - ended up 's***faced', hugging and crying when the Irish rockers came on stage. 'That was the one thing where you sort of realise, 'Jesus Christ, what are we doing?',' he says.
'It's a bit strange, and you can't really believe it. I don't think you're meant to believe it, really. You can't wrap your head around it. We're just a bunch of five normal, dodgy blokes from Manchester, it's a bit crazy. But, by crikey, we're thankful for where we are.'
In the meantime, Jupp says the band are 'over the moon' for the opportunity to play Hong Kong. 'The basic fact that we're in Hong Kong is going to blow our minds and the gig's just going to be intimate and great and a bit sweaty.'
The guys have made the first tentative steps towards a new album, and they're constantly writing while on the road. Prospective tunes get hummed into cell phones, basic grooves get laid down on to edit roll, and song snippets get recorded during sound-checks. 'There's no point resting on your laurels and thinking you're brilliant, because, you know, it's a very small window and we're in it for the long game,' Jupp says. 'So, it's like, 'Let's just carry on and do what we love doing', which is exactly what we are doing.'
He immediately catches himself. 'Ah, that sounded horrible! Sorry. Please don't quote me on that.'
It sounds just fine to us.
Elbow, July 22, 8pm, Rotunda 2, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$480 (advance), HK$520 (door) HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3128 8288