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January 20, 2006
Guy Garvey tends to keep his friends close and his bar tab even closer. "I live in a city where I can hear the doors of my favorite pub open from my home," said the lead singer and lyricist for veteran Brit-pop giants Elbow. That city is Manchester, England, the place Elbow calls home. When talking about it, the genial Garvey lights up. As he says, "It's my kind of town."

Which begs the question: why did it take so long for Elbow, a band that's been around since the early 1990s, to record an album there? Garvey's not exactly sure. But he knows why they did it for the effervescent Leaders Of The Free World, Elbow's intensely personal and intensely political third full-length. "Three of the boys have babies," said Garvey. "Mark (Potter), Craig (Potter) and Richard (Jupp), and their partners, were all eager to be at home, to be with the little ones. We've been together for almost 15 years, so it's important for us to have a life outside the band."

Elbow began work on the album using a porta-studio. They made the decision in June of last year to record in Manchester. In searching for a studio, they came across the Big Room, as it's known, at Blueprint Studios. "It's right on the edge of Manchester," said Garvey. "You can go home for lunch or go to the pub for a couple of cheeky pints." Not only was the location perfect, but also the size of the place matched the band's ambition for the project. "It's a huge space," said Garvey. "We had 10 or 11 people in there at all times, and there were cameras covering it to document the recording."

An epic, dramatic recording, like all of Elbow's albums, Leaders Of The Free World is aglow with the soft candlelight of lovely ballads like "An Imagined Affair," "The Everthere," "My Very Best" and "Great Expectations." Yet there are moments when it explodes with the radiant pop energy, like in "Station Approach" and "Forget Myself," a track Garvey describes as "A celebration of Manchester nightlife." He continues, "It's about being out on the town and reveling in the atmosphere, and the power of possibly being able to meet the woman of your dreams. I enjoy the throng." It's sort of an antidote for the poisonous lyrics of "Bitten By The Tailfly," a song off Elbow's debut, "Asleep In The Back" that Garvey describes as "A dark one, that - very tribal, very angry. That's about the sleazy underbelly of Manchester nightlife, so you've got the good and the bad now."

These days, Garvey is concerned about the dark side of international politics, hence the edgy title track. A bitter broadside against the Bush Administration's policies in Iraq, the song is also meant as a rallying cry for peace activists. "I'm not that political now, but I really used to follow politics like most people follow football," said Garvey. "I used to try to predict what would happen and try to follow the characters. But now I'm as terrified as anybody. The whole world is on high alert. But I think it's everybody's responsibility to raise their hand and say how they feel. I genuinely think the Bush Administration is made up of people who are only out for their self-interests." As for British leader and Bush crony Tony Blair, Garvey thinks Blair had good intentions initially but over time, he's succumbed to the corruption that comes with power. "I think he overestimated his power as a diplomat," said Garvey. "I think he thought he could change things, but that ambition to become the leader of a country doesn't just dry up and go away once you get there. I think once he got in the golf club, he enjoyed wielding that power." Garvey doesn't have a whole lot of respect or hope for any of them now, as lyrics like, "The Leaders Of The Free World are just little boys throwing stones/And it's easy to ignore till they're knocking on the door of your homes" suggest.

As for his band mates, Garvey only speaks of them in reverential tones. He jokingly calls the band "the longest-serving non-corrupt democracy in the world." Speaking about their musical abilities, Garvey said, "I love 'em. I know them better than my own brother, and there isn't one of them that I don't think is the level-best at what they do." That mutual respect they have for each other helped make the recording process for Leaders Of The Free World easy - a welcome change from the tense atmosphere surrounding sessions for the problematic second album, Cast Of Thousands. Garvey is pissed that Elbow fell victim to the dreaded "second album" syndrome. "The thing that annoyed me is that we went along with the cliché."

Notorious for taking forever in the studio, Elbow took a bit of a different approach this time. They produced Leaders Of The Free World themselves. "We wanted to see how far we could take ourselves," said Garvey. "We didn't have an awful experience with any producers before. It's just that we wanted to see what would happen when we had total control." Predictably, Elbow labored over every detail. All the elements that make up Elbow's multi-layered, star-crossed sound are here, from the lovely piano bits to golden acoustic guitar strum to touches of banjo and swaths of ethereal organ. "We throw in everything but the kitchen sink and then step back and reduce it to bare bones to create space," said Garvey. In addition, there's frenzied periods of clattering percussion on songs like "Forget Myself" that heighten the nervous feel of the record. "It takes us an age," said Garvey. "A lot depends on the urgency of the music, but music … she's a fickle bitch."

On Garvey's end, he gets bogged down with the words, constantly paring and refining the lyrics. "With the vocals and the narrative, I'm revising the lyrics right up to the end," said Garvey. "I want to fit specific meaning into as few words as possible. I try every line on the band beforehand. They're the harshest critics." It makes for an agonizingly slow process, but it gets results. In "An Imagined Affair," with its lush, slow-moving river of instrumentation, Garvey imagines a tryst with a woman who, in real life, he doesn't love. Playing the part of the drunken poet he plays so well, Garvey sings, "I drink until the doorman is a Christmas tree/and my speech is a slow leak." Where does he get this stuff? "I remember I was in a pub and getting pretty soused, and I started looking at this big, bald bouncer who had lights on his jacket and I started thinking, 'He looks like a Christmas tree.'" Garvey keeps such scraps of observations in his journals, never knowing when he might use them. "I write constantly," he says. "Going all the way back to when I was 14, I've been using journals." He admits his writing has a seasonal feel. "I remember one fall I was writing about the season and I was writing about trench coats and kicking up leaves, all these clichéd things, and I thought, 'This sounds familiar,' so I went back and I had written basically the same thing the year before."

That's not so uncommon. Garvey believes writers repeat themselves all the time. "I think songwriters, the great ones, write the same songs over and over again, just with a different perspective," said Garvey. For Garvey, it's absolutely essential to write honestly, to reveal a part of himself in every song. "I like to think there's something of myself in everything I do," said Garvey. "In the music I like, there has to be honesty. I don't believe Robbie Williams has ever had his heartbroken, or at least if he has, he's never been able to put it into song convincingly."

Garvey can be honest to a fault. The backdrop to Leaders Of The Free World is a doomed romance and Garvey unloads on the record. "It wasn't where I was planning on going with this record, but I had another failed relationship and when I wrote about that, I wanted a lot of detail in it," he said. "Whether it's in cinema and books, you read about a relationship and it goes something like, 'We're together now, and now we're not.' I wanted to get both sides of the story. I'm glad I met her. I'm not the kind of guy who walks away and leaves it at that. We're still good friends."

For now, Garvey's only love is the city of Manchester... well, that and his band and his family, of course. Soon, Leaders Of The Free World will be released to the public. The date's been pushed back a number of times. It's looking now like it'll be late February or early March, thanks to some "bizarre financial dealings," said Garvey. "I never know what's going on with the paymaster." As long as he has a few bucks to buy a round for his friends, he'll be just fine.

SEE ALSO: www.elbow.co.uk

--
Peter Lindblad
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he'll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.

See other articles by Peter Lindblad.

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