Birdseed, bitter and not knowing who Beyoncé is… just three factors that make Guy Garvey the archbishop of anti-cool. Sam Rowe jumps in the supermarket-sized Jacuzzi with him (OK…)
Traditionally, rock stars don’t brag about their birdseed. Flash cars? Sure. Private jets? Certainly. Notches on the bedpost? Try to stop them. Birdseed? Not so much. But then Guy Garvey’s not quite your average rock star.
Greeting me with a handshake and a hearty grin, sockless in his Greater Manchester home, Elbow’s professionally avuncular frontman promises to make me a cup of tea, just as soon as he’s finished getting dressed.
Step inside and, unsurprisingly, you won’t see a 12ft mosaic of Garvey’s face or an infinity pool in the garden. Instead, there’s a panorama of Fifties radios and vinyl, books on birdwatching and a bespoke, framed painting of a ship. The artist? Guy’s mum.
It’s this self-effacing nature and salt-of-the-earth disposition that’s seen Garvey elevated from modern-day working-class hero to a bona fide national treasure. Admittedly, the Mercury Prize-winning music and tasty home-brewed beer comes in handy, too.
Back from his boudoir with fresh socks on and a brew in hand, Elbow’s bearded statesman reclines in an armchair, ready to hold forth on everything from the unexpected charms of Justin Bieber to smuggling booze into the Olympic stadium.
You recently returned from your sometime home of New York. Could you ever see yourself living there permanently?
Brooklyn isn’t really a second home – though I do feel very at home there, Manchester has always had my heart. It was interesting writing a love song to a different city, though [recent single New York Morning]. I might do a bit more of that. Istanbul next, I think.
What do you like about New York?
If you spend enough time in Manhattan, you stop concentrating on its grandeur and realise how fragile it is. How it’s held together with sticky tape and string, and the goodwill of normal, working-class people. There isn’t anyone who wouldn’t help you.
Did you pick up any American habits, like a faddy health kick or a love of baseball?
Nothing like that. For ease, I use the odd Americanism. I might say cellphone or sidewalk, but only when I’m there. I won’t pronounce butter the way they do – I’d rather mime the process of extracting it from a cow. It took me so long to sing in my own accent, I’m not giving it up now.
Back home, you’re arguably Bury’s proudest export. After you there’s black pudding and… Helen Flanagan.
And the torpedo. The policeman. The spinning jenny. I could go on. Although I’m afraid Helen Flanagan could stand up in my soup and I wouldn’t know who you were talking about. What’s a Helen Flanagan?
Never mind. You were awarded the freedom of Bury a few years ago. Any interesting perks?
No official special dispensation, although I had a problem with one of my bin men – that got sorted quickly. It was just a nice acknowledgement. You get a medal from the Queen’s jeweller.
The new Elbow record comes after a conscious break. Did you consider a solo venture?
I was involved with writing some lyrics for King Kong the musical. I had no idea what I was doing, but it was good fun. It’s on in Melbourne, but it’s coming to Broadway. The gorilla is amazing, like Walking With Dinosaurs – puppetry on a massive scale.
How did you cope with life away from the band?
Ah, the joy of group Skype. The maximum you can have is five, so it works brilliantly. I’ll have the other four on my laptop screen looking like the villains in Superman II, and whoever’s talking comes up large in the middle and the others go into the background. So you know you’re the one making a point a bit more than you would normally.
Was it purely social, or did you discuss band matters?
We kept writing. Wherever I am, I scribble every day. If I have a day off writing I really notice it, like if I decide to switch that part of my head off. But that’s the thing that’d get in the way of any solo projects – if any of us wrote anything we were proud of, the first thing you’d want is affirmation from someone you trust. So you end up showing the lads and suddenly it’s property of Elbow Inc.
It’s six years since One Day Like This was released, popping up in every film and TV montage since. Are you sick of it?
There was a period of time when it was just crazy, it became the national anthem for a bit. It reminded me of the statistic that you’re never more than 3ft from a rat in London – every time you turned your TV on, you couldn’t move for it. Rehearsing it isn’t as much fun as it used to be – there’s no way we’re forgetting that song – but live, you see the audience’s reaction. It’s impossible not to be swept away on the tide of goodwill that is that monstrous tune.
Away from the band, I take it you’re a keen birdwatcher?
I love my garden birds, but I’m not very intrepid. I think proper birders would insist I was a robin stroker. I just look after the ones that frequent Prestwich [in Bury].
You have plenty of birdfeeders in the garden, do you get many regulars?
I do, I’ve got a successful avian restaurant out there. I filled them this morning, and yesterday morning. My seed mix brings all the birds to the yard.
By the time this comes out you’ll have turned 40. How does it feel to be middle-aged?
I’m quite astonished that I’m 40, but only as I’ve been in the post-pubescent bubble that being in a band affords you for 23 years. It’s great, I like being a grown-up, generally. I still have trouble going to bed, because no one tells me when to go.
Do you no longer feel the pressure of having to be a ‘cool’ frontman?
Er, no. Elbow have never sold a record based on my Axl Rose-style dancing. I stomp about. Someone tweeted recently: “Garvey looks like he won his suit in a fight.” I liked that. I haven’t been pushing the p*ssed-uncle-at-a-wedding look, but it catches up with me at some point on every tour. I tried to be cool, for years, but it’s f*cking exhausting.
Do you sympathise with younger bands, with image being such a fundamental part of modern music?
Well, with some people it’s effortless anyway. I’m mates with Arctic Monkeys, and if you walk through a hotel with Alex [Turner] you feel like Richie Cunningham with the Fonz. Women of all ages, when they’re within 3ft of him, are mush.
What did you think of his now-infamous Brits speech?
I agree with him, yeah. He’s carrying the torch, ain’t he?
It reminded me of something you said a few years ago, in ShortList actually, about how manufactured pop is a ‘quick fix’…
Boybands, like One Direction, are for 13-year-old girls. They’re somewhere safe to put emerging feelings and sexuality. It’s fine, I actually think it’s quite healthy. I even met Harry Styles, he’s quite a nice chap. But it’s not what Alex and the boys are doing. They are old school mates living the dream, they’ve worked very hard for many years and their stuff smashes all conventions that manufactured pop would have you believe.
On the subject of pop, what do you make of Justin Bieber?
Weirdly enough, I saw a mugshot of him on the front of a tabloid recently and my first thought was, “She’s quite hot.” I’ve always been a fan of a boyish girl, a handsome woman, and I thought, “She’s quite nice, who’s that?” I opened up the paper and it was Justin. So I suppose you could say I’m a fan.
I have no idea whether you’re joking, but that’s brilliant.
There are gaping holes in my pop culture knowledge, it’s ridiculous. At Glastonbury 2011, I was talking to Jay-Z and Beyoncé for half an hour before I knew who they were. Everyone knows what Beyoncé looks like, but I thought [in real life] she’d be 7ft tall, statuesque like Tina Tuner. Now I’m even doubting that Tina’s 7ft tall. I just remember thinking, “God, these two are good looking.”
You’ve released special Elbow ales for your last two albums. What’s your favourite beer?
Apart from our own ones? I always drink Guinness, because it’s consistent. A good pint of Guinness is a joy forever. What have I enjoyed recently? I really enjoy Brooklyn Lager, I like some of the strong Belgian lagers, the Duvels and stuff like that. I like anything that’s full-bodied and flavoursome.
Any more branded products in the offing?
We’ve been working on a Bloody Mary mix. This country needs a decent Bloody Mary mix, so maybe that will be the next one.
Is it called Grounds For Divorce, by any chance?
Nah, there have been several cocktails called Grounds For Divorce now. Different people have adopted it, which is very flattering. Nearly always whisky-based – that’s my poison.
Snoop Dogg recently sold his soul to Money Supermarket – are there any brands you’d align yourselves with?
I’m not saying we’d never do it, we’ve just never been tempted enough. Hovis offered us a load of money for a tune once. We had to ponder it. Peter Jobson, the bass player from I Am Kloot and my very good friend, said, “What’s going on? F*cking good northern brand, what’s the matter with you?” I said I wasn’t comfortable with it, it’s a big song and it means a lot to people. And he said, “For as long as I can remember it’s been Dvorak’s 9th Symphony on those Hovis adverts, and no one’s calling him a c*nt!”
You did, however, pen the BBC’s London 2012 Olympics tune and performed at the closing ceremony. A career highlight?
Oh yeah, it was great. The whole process was brilliant. We were the party bus. We were told by producers that it was a dry backstage until after the performances. Not in this life! So we used Madness’s flight cases to smuggle in several cases of Guinness, whisky, vodka – booze galore. Everyone involved in the ceremony – supermodels, rock stars, actors – were knocking on our door, saying, “Is this where the booze is?”
Who stopped by?
Well, we got hammered with Timothy Spall. Who else? Brian May, a couple of members of Genesis, Roger Daltrey, Kate Moss – they were all knocking on our door.
Elbow’s new album The Take Off And Landing Of Everything is out now