I edited Clash Magazine’s Festival Guide earlier this year (2011), and interviewed a number of artists for it.
The Headliners – Elbow
Festival fans of England rejoice, for Elbow are back to take control of our stages and singing voices once more. From gathering a rag tag choir to record the immortal line “We still believe in love so fuck you” for ‘Grace Under Pressure’ at Glastonbury in 2002, to closing Bestival in 2009 with an emotional, nuanced and inspiring set, this is a band who know how to top a weekend full of fantastic memories with some aural fairy dust.
With Build a Rocket Boys! having been released to universal acclaim, their fifth studio album and follow-up to the double platinum selling The Seldom Seen Kid has cemented their reputation as one of the biggest bands in Britain.
It’s been hard these last few months not to walk past a newsstand without being confronted by the familiar bearded faces of the band, or to turn on the radio and not be greeted by the strains of ‘Lippy Kids’. And rightly so.
This is a band that celebrates their provenance and the minutiae of life. It’s fitting, therefore, that they’ve seeped into the nation’s psyche and risen to the top of England’s festival bills.
An Elbow festival performance is guaranteed to be a special affair, full of camaraderie, brilliant music, and five unassuming men who still can’t quite believe what they’re doing.
Clash caught up with front man Guy Garvey while he was in New York, still spaced from jetlag but affable as ever, to talk yoda outfits and gurning cellists.
Clash: First off, how pleased are you with ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ reception?
Guy: Over the moon, no rocket pun intended. We’re really pleased; it’s been great. We’ve got strong affection for all our records, but particularly this one. It’s like having your child accepted at school.
Clash: Are you looking forward to entering this festival season with the new album out and the recent arena tour under your belt?
Guy: We can’t wait. Playing festivals is a completely different discipline. Doing your own shows, you feel like you’re hosting your own dinner parties – you feel responsible for everybody’s evening. Whereas at festivals, you show up and do your turn, and it’s just loads of fun.
Clash: I’ve seen you play a number of times, but one time that specifically stands out in my memory is you headlining Bestival, two years ago.
Guy: Ah that was just brilliant, with everyone dressed up in the space theme. I’ve never seen so many loonies in my life, and I loved it. Our crew were dressed as the Star Wars cast. Karen, who’s our PA, she’s like the band’s mum, she came on dressed as Yoda and I nearly lost my lunch!
Clash: Your music’s always had a beautiful orchestral feel to it. But it also seems to have become increasingly almost widescreen over the last couple of albums, especially with the presence of the choir on Rocket. Do you ever write songs with the thought of playing big gigs or festivals in your mind?
Guy: We are first and foremost an album band, but it’s impossible not to get excited about the fact that you’re going to be playing to big crowds of people. And since there were thousands who turned up when we recorded ‘Grace Under Pressure’ at Glastonbury and actually made them a part of the record, we’ve always loved the unity of singing. So we always include, or have done over the last two records, something big that people can really get their teeth into. And of course we’re considering these big festivals and the arenas when we write these songs.
Clash: Is that part of the reason why you get the choirs involved – to almost beef the voices up and potentially encourage people to sing along live?
Guy: Yeah, we do take our music very seriously, but we see playing live as a chance to have a party. It’s really important to us that people come and see us knowing that they’re going to come and sing along. There’s just no better feeling than singing along with your friends, and when that’s 20 to 30,000 friends, that’s just such a cool thing.
I’ll be totally honest – early on in our recording career we were a little bashful about playing unapologetically big anthems. Like, can we do this? Is this cool? Is everybody going to slam us for this?
Seeing the happiness that it brings, especially among a festival crowd who are off their heads and having the time of their lives, it’s just wonderful, nothing to be ashamed of.
Clash: Have you got anything special planned for your performances this year?
Guy: We’ve got a few ideas, but I can’t actually drop a hint because nothing’s confirmed. But we’ll be doing something special.
Clash: So would you say Elbow are now one of the masters at playing the festivals with all your experience under your belt?
Guy: It’s not something you could ever get used to, so I couldn’t claim mastership. It’s still absolutely bewildering to us that people come along and want to listen.
We will be racked with terror until we’ve heard the first cheer, and then suddenly you realise that you can’t do anything wrong here, all you can do is play your songs to the best of your abilities and let people get right into it. And some of the sights in the crowd at a festival, it’s just things you know you’ll never see again, awesome stuff.
Clash: Like what?
Guy: I remember one year there was this chap who’d come to some arrangements with friends, he’d managed to get hold of a three piece suit and a deerstalker hat, and was elevated at least seven feet above the crowd, where he was very causally smoking a pipe.
I have no idea how they did it, he looked so completely out of place hovering above a festival crowd of people going off their heads. He’d obviously done that just to make the people onstage laugh, and it worked a treat.
I also love the mascots people shove on a stick so they can let their friends know where they are. One year we saw a guy with a badger on the top of a very long stick. In a sort of sickly sweet way, ‘Badger’ is a pet name for my sweetheart Emma, and so we went over to this chap and went, ‘What’s he doing up there?’ and the guy just very soberly replied, ‘Well, he needs to be able to see.’
Clash: Have you ever felt completely overwhelmed at a festival?
Guy: The end of our set at Glastonbury two years ago really stands out. At the last hour, I suddenly said, ‘Let’s see how many string players we can collect from across the festival’.
We closed with ‘One Day Like This’, and we’d managed to get about 15 of them from across the site. There was a girl on the cello who was absolutely off her tits, she was flying. She wasn’t even doing a resemblance of a mime that she was playing and her eyes were rolling in the back of her head. She was spannered!
That sort of zoo element and the goodwill of the crowd and the sun coming out, all the shit you can’t plan, was just hysterically funny. That’s the stuff you never forget. In fact, in our room where we make our records in Salford, we’ve got a big print of the crowd in Glastonbury up.
Clash: What makes a winning weekend in your eyes?
Guy: I can’t help but think that the best festivals are the ones generous in sprit, the ones that aren’t about just taking people’s money and shoving them in a pen where everything costs millions of quid.
The best ones let you know that the organisers have thought about you before you’ve heard a note. The best festivals are the ones where they consider everybody’s feelings at every point. Generosity in spirit, it reaffirms your beliefs in human nature when you need it.
Elbow are playing Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds this summer