Elbow: The last band standing

Elbow guitarist Mark Potter talks to Cormac Duffy about life on the road, growing up and making your band a democracy

Aside from their music, Elbow take pride in one thing; their long history together and the unity it grants them. Check the tag line they use on their website: ‘The longest surviving uncorrupt democracy in history.’ As guitarist Mark Potter says: “There’s nothing overnight about what we do.” That’s one way of understating it.

The full tale starts in Manchester in the early 90s when the band began playing together in their teens. Settling on the name Elbow some years later, they released several EPs late in the decade, but struggled to find a label to release a full-length album. When their debut album Asleep in the Back finally crawled into the public eye in 2001, it was met with rapturous critical acclaim proclaiming the band as saviours of British rock.

But for years, there was little progress. No magnum opus to cement their legacy, no big break into the mainstream. The band seemed to be stuck on a plateau. Then The Seldom Seen Kid came along, and with the help of its lead single, the gargantuan bruiser ‘Grounds for Divorce’, the floodgates didn’t so much open as were blown apart. Since then there have been platinum records, stadium tours and a Mercury Prize win. Still, to paraphrase Bill Bailey, if their rise to fame was meteoric, it was a meteor dragged by an arthritic donkey.

When O-two catches up with Potter on the eve of the tour-ending show at The O2, Dublin, we find a man in his element in more ways than one. Not only is his dressing room decked out with enough amplifiers, guitars and effects pedals to stock Walton’s for a month, but he is also experiencing the joys of an arena tour.

“I’m having the tour of my life if I’m honest with you. It’s been amazing.” To him, it’s the culmination of a dream. “I remember, the night before our first gig, me and Guy [Garvey] watched Queen live at Wembley and said: ‘That’ll be us in a year’. 20 years later, here we are, we’re finally doing it,” he laughs.

Has the jump from the smaller venues to the stadiums been jarring? “It’s obviously stepped up because we’re doing arenas now and the challenge was to put on an intimate show to 10,000 people,” he says. “From the feedback from friends, press and reviews, it’s absolutely what we’ve done. People have said they’ve felt like they were at a 1,000 capacity show.”

The response of the fans has left an indelible mark on Potter. He explains: “I’ve never heard that many people in a room so silent listening to some of the songs. I’m a bit blown away by it really.”

It’s not just a big night for Elbow but also for their support act Villagers, who are playing a homecoming gig, and one of their biggest ever shows. “They’re wonderful lads. [They] like a drink – our kind of guys. We’ve not had a proper full drinking session with them, so we plan on getting very drunk with those boys this evening.” Let’s hope poor Conor O’Brien can keep up.

Potter also tells us about his last experience in Dublin. “Last time we were here was doing The Late Late Show. The Commitments were on it. We got to know a few of them. Bronagh Gallagher is a good friend of ours now.” Did he encounter Oscar winner and Irish indie legend Glenn Hansard? “Is he the ginger haired one? He was there, we met him briefly, but he ended up going off somewhere else.” Seems Hansard has failed us as cultural ambassador. O-two is not impressed.

The tour is, of course, about more than living out dreams and drinking. Promoting the new album Build a Rocket Boys! (BRB!) is the main item on the agenda. O-two wonders if having to match the success of Seldom Seen Kid surely left them with difficult follow-up syndrome. “It doesn’t really work like that for us, because we never stop writing music.”

He points out that writing on tour gives the band a sense of continuity from album to album. “When we come into a new record we never start from scratch, we’ve already got a bunch of new songs there. So in a way our albums are just chapters of where we’re at in the songwriting at that time.”

The old ideal of an album as more than just a group of songs matters to Elbow. “Our albums are designed to be listened to as we put them together.” Clearly, the band want each record to be an experience. “Our records, we feel, are really taking the listener somewhere. When they finish listening to it, hopefully they feel someway different emotionally. We don’t know how different they will feel but we want to take them on a journey really.”

In a just world, BRB! would be the album to immortalise Elbow. All the band’s trademark touches are still there, amongst them the ambitious scale of songs like ‘The Birds’ and the polished professionalism of their production. But the changes in the band members’ lives have given them new stories to tell.

“We’re all getting older,” Potter says matter-of-factly. “We’ve all got families. Guy has moved back to where he grew up, where we all grew up.” Potter’s language says a lot. The band is a ‘we’, a united front, a team. Having shared a childhood, the album is like a scrapbook of their collective memories.

“A lot of the lyrical themes are about growing up, your early teens really, being a bit of a spare part. Too old for youth clubs, too young to go to the pub, so you’re just stuck on the street really, and we’ve all been there. So I suppose it’s looking back to that age, and being proud of it. And encouraging young people, especially on the song ‘Lippy Kids’, to ‘Go build a rocket boys!’ To do something great while you’ve got the world at your feet.”

Inspiration is definitely part of the album, but only as much as introspection. ‘Jesus is A Rochdale Girl’, the spiritual centrepiece of the album is a plaintive acoustic tribute to Guy Garvey’s first house and the memories it holds. “That was the first song to be finished on the writing and recording of this record. And it almost became the blueprint for it really.”

The lyrics are cryptic. Who is the Rochdale girl? Who is Garvey’s ‘Single heartache’? The only lyric Potter will explain is ‘Got a house that you can smoke in, so all my friends found me’. “He had the house we all went around to and got stoned in!” he admits, chuckling to himself. “We’re proud of that song, because we were there with him. So those lyrics are about what we were all doing really.”

Elbow’s democratic foundation is strong at every level, particularly in their lyrics. “It’s great because what Guy’s writing about, we were there. They’re not just his memories; we were a part of it too. That’s why it worked so well.” He invited the band to pass judgement on the lyrics and assist in the writing process.

At one point, he went as far as covering their studio’s wall with drafts of his lyrics and having them circle what they liked. “I don’t think a lot of lyricist frontmen would do that with their band. They’re often like: ‘These are my poems; these are my words, live with it’. I think it’s very good of Guy that he invites our constructive criticism in the way that he writes.”

O-two asks what it’s like working with a band you’ve spent such a large part of your life with. “We worked out the other day that we’ve been in this band longer than we’ve not been in this band now, which is quite a strange feeling.”

One would expect that inter-band relations might be strained by now. Will there ever be multiple tour buses to keep them separated? “There never will be. I don’t understand that. We’ve opened up for big bands and they just go off in different directions and don’t see each other until the next gig. I can’t imagine doing a show and not having a chat about it with your mates afterwards.”

The band seems to still have love being on the road, despite their age and newfound parental responsibilities. “The fun of touring is still there. The dads are the first on the tour bus with the bottle of wine in their hand.”

Potter compares touring to living a double life. “When you’re home you’re a father and a family man and so valuable and important.” The other life of touring serves as a way to get back to the lost youth they celebrate on BRB! “When you’re on the road you pretend to be 18 again, even if you’re not. And even if the hangovers last two or three days longer.”

Curiously, hangovers appear to constitute the secret ingredient of the band members’ shared endurance and their friendships. “We find each other very funny on not very much sleep with massive hangovers. I think if we didn’t it would have fallen apart a long time ago.”

It may a somewhat obvious inquiry, yet O-two can’t help but wonder where next for the band. “We’re still slowing building. We still want it bigger and better. As big as we are in the UK and Ireland in the rest of the world.”

It’s refreshing to know their ambition isn’t confined to the studio. “We’ve always said that if people heard our music, we’re sure they’d like it.” With the news that they are to support rock giants Kings of Leon at Slane all we can say about this simple hope is so far, so good.

Elbow will play at Slane on May 28th and their album, Build a Rocket Boys!, is out now.