Photo by Paul Husband

Remaining successful in the music business for two decades is quite a huge thing to achieve and it might almost sound too ambitious for young bands these days. Still, it is possible and ELBOW are the living, recording and performing proof for that. The Mancunian band first started playing together in the early 90s and took the name ELBOW back in 1997. Now, 20 years later, their recently released seventh full-length Little Fictions topped the UK Charts, making them one of the country’s most established and successful forces when it comes to honest and high quality music. There are overnight successes and there’s bands like ELBOW who constantly worked on their career while sticking to their style. Even back in the days when people were buying (more) CD’s this didn’t guarantee you a secure lifestyle and these guys know a thing or two about it. It took them one decade to beak the mainstream with their critically acclaimed fourth LP The Seldom Seen Kid in 2008 and another one to establish themselves in the scene.

You can’t think about ELBOW without thinking about their hometown as well. Manchester made them, Manchester shaped them and although they’ve been to a lot of other places all over the world by now, the famous city in the North of England always draws them back. It’s the city that gave us such iconic British groups like THE SMITHS, JOY DIVISION, OASIS, NEW ORDER and THE STONE ROSES and it’s absolutely okay to list these guys right here as well. When I met leading man Guy Garvey and bassist Pete Turner, Guy just started a new phase in his life. Last summer he married actress Rachel Stirling and the two are expecting their first baby in March 2017. And although Garvey has been commuting between London and Manchester for a while now, he’s not willing to give up his Mancunian roots even if his wife is ‘a posh bird from Londonas he gently describes her.

‘I can never really leave the city and my wife realized that shortly after she met me. That’s one reason why we’re trying to buy a flat right there at the moment.’

The rest of gang is also still based in their hometown and that town is about to embrace its sons in a very gentle form next months when ELBOW will be playing four sold-out nights at the Apollo, their favourite venue in the city. ‘It means a lot to us,’ explains Pete. ‘We enjoyed getting to the level of being able to play arenas but this is something different. There’s something about old theatres we really prefer. Instead of  doing one big gig we decided to go for four smaller ones.’ According to Guy it’s Manchester’s favourite venue and the historically most important one. BOB DYLAN played there and so did THE BEATLES and the singer also recalls his first night ever at it:

‘The first gig I saw at the Apollo was THE STONE ROSES but it was shortly after ‘Reni’ (aka Alan John Wren, the band’s drummer) left the band I remember somebody waving a flag that said ‘Reni Lives’. Singer Ian Brown asked for it and waved it for the rest of the gig which was pretty cool. I really thought about that for a while recently as our drummer left.’

The departure of founding member Richard Jupp prior to the recording of Little Fictions indeed marked a crucial moment for the group. ‘It is the biggest thing that happened to us since we got our first deal,’ Guy tells me. The result is a more reduced sound on the new ELBOW album and the lack of their long time drummer resulted in a rediscovery of the band members’ love for looped beats and hip hop grooves, one that dominates most of the tunes on Little Fictions without forgetting about the band’s love for delicate and haunting melodies. ‘Whenever we set out to make a record we’re trying to do something different although it naturally often gravitates to similar patterns as you can imagine,’ explains Guy. He shrugs and smiles: ‘Well, that’s just who we are.’

The Mancunian audience and their subtle way of support

Playing in a relatively small venue like the Apollo felt right for the songs on the new album and it’s deeply connected with the spirit of the Mancunian audience as Guy points out:

‘At the right side of the stage there’s this beautiful ornament carving which has been broken for years and has never been repaired ever since. When I asked the Apollo’s Manager once when he’s going to fix it he just said: ‘Jimi Hendrix did that’ and I was like ‘Bullshit!’ But you see, that’s a very Manchester thing to do, talking shit in order to avoid doing things.’

For Garvey the audience of his hometown is the toughest in the world. ‘They are like: ‘Well, impress us’ as he points out with a smile. And although the city gave us some of the most impressive group’s in British history there’s a different self-understanding right here. ‘People look at you with a concerned look when you tell them you’re in a band,’ the singer tells me. In the end they will support you in some form but it might take them a while. You have to earn the respect and ELBOW learned it the hard way when they supported the MANIC STREET PREACHERS for two nights back in their very early days at the Apollo:

‘That was the worst reception we ever had and I remember the mood was really bad. You could have reformed THE BEATLES back then and nothing would have happened. They were booing, shouting all sorts of insults and stuff; it was appalling. It was so bad that we found it hilariously funny afterwards. Than the next day we had to do it all over again and I entered stage saying: ‘Hey, the Manics kindly invited us to perform so you have to stick with us for the next 25 minutes’ and it was alright. I remember asking who’d been there the other night and somebody shouted ‘Fuck off’ so that was the spirit.’

That partly also has to do with a different concert culture in the UK. ‘When you’re going to a gig you’re going to get hammered,’ Garvey explains in all seriousness, ‘and the band’s performance is just one part of the whole night.’ It’s tougher to get the crowd behind you. ‘It was slow and steady until get got to The Seldom Seen Kind and won the Mercury Prize and Brit Award later’, Pete explains. Guy furthermore maps out how their personal connections helped them in the late 90s:

‘The Mancunian crowd gets behind you in a subtle way. Pete got a job at Manchester Roadhouse, a music venue back then. Later on I got one there too and then we got the venue behind us, the local media, press and also the people. That community buzz really helped us. Playing the City Music Festival that Tony Wilson ran back then was another important step. Somebody quoted us as his favourites and that truly helped us getting our first record deal.’

Tony Wilson, the legendary TV presenter and owner of indie label Factory Records, is a key character in the city’s pop cultural history. He made JOY DIVISION and the HAPPY MONDAYS famous, founded the legendary Hacienda night club and constantly helped young bands from the city to get a bigger audience right until his death in 2007. The band’s long time friends DOVES already told me something similar two years ago and it’s nice to see that Wilson also had an effect on ELBOW in some small form. Former SMITHS guitarist JOHNNY MARR is another Manchester original that shaped the city, although not ELBOW specifically. ‘He’s always been very good to young bands,’ Guy states. ‘He didn’t have a specific connection to us but we love his tradition of giving guitars to young bands, so we did this a few times as well.’

Guy and Pete, shot by Schall und Schnabel for NBHAP

The DIY spirit never comes out of style and it’s what shaped most of the band’s coming from this city whether it’s old established legends like the BUZZCOCKS or new talents like all-female post-punk heroines PINS. And aside from that change remains an ongoing force in the continuity of every city, this one included. ‘The Manchester of THE SMITHS was very different from the Manchester we grew up in which is again very different from the city we it is right now,’ sums Guy up. ‘Back in their days it was really gloomy and dangerous, now it’s very much gentrified.’ And according to the singer this isn’t entirely a bad thing. ‘There’s a couple of buildings gone which I wish hadn’t but there’s on the other hand new ones at St. Peter’s Square which are beautiful.’

More characteristics and tips you need to know? Okay, here they come, directly out of an expert’s mouth:

6 Important Manchester Facts by Elbow’s Guy Garvey

1. Manchester is so much cleaner than London. The river’s are so clean that you actually got fish living in there. The other thing that’s great about it is its international student body and its university is what keeps the heart of the city pumping.

2. Piccadilly Record Shop at Oldham Street was the first shop to sell our records and it’s still the best one in the city. You will leave 40 pounds lighter, trust me.

3. The ‘Night And Day’ café at the other side of the street is a great place to crash. Pete and I camped their all night after we gave the first ELBOW records to Piccadilly

4. Manchester City is 30 percent less rainy than it was twenty years ago. I know that ’cause I once did a documentary called ‘The rainy city’. Manchester’s moist air is one reason why they had the cotton industry so it’s history of weather is directly linked to it being the birthplace of the industry.

5. Oldham Street is our spiritual home. Go to the very end of it, to The Koffee Pot, spelled with a ‘K’, that’s where you have your breakfast. It’s delicious, they play great music and my friend Chris owns it.

6. If you need a great bar head across town to the Temple Of Convenience, a converted Victorian toilet underground which is now a bar. This one is also the one I’m singing about in our single ‘Grounds For Divorce’ (‘There’s a hole in my neighbourhood down which of late I cannot help but fall…’)

Whether you’ll actually planning to visit the city or not, it’s cultural heritage remains alive and vital and it’s quite safe to say that ELBOW will continue to write an important chapter in the city’s history. Cheers to the next twenty years, at least.