"It's an album that’s nostalgic for the past, but looks at the world through my son’s eyes..." - Guy Garvey opens up about the unique way Elbow recorded new LP Flying Dream 1
When we come to remember the Covid-19 pandemic in years to come, it’ll be most likely with a shudder and a recollection of all the things it’s stopped us from doing. It stopped us from meeting up, enjoying Christmas together, shopping, drinking and so many, many other things.
Elbow, the heartswelling indie collective beloved by so many, will have all of those memories too, but also a rare addition, an experience they were only able to have because of the pandemic, and, in all likelihood, will never be able to repeat.
The making of their new album, Flying Dream 1, began in the four members’ respective home studios, but then, when it came to finishing the songs off and recording them, they decided to try something new. With theatres shuttered all over the UK, frontman Guy Garvey, keyboardist Craig Potter, guitarist Mark Potter and bassist Pete Turner took over the Theatre Royal in Brighton and recorded the album live, on the theatre’s unoccupied stage.
The album is produced by Craig Potter, with long term collaborator Alex Reeves on drums and percussion, while among the other collaborators are Sarah Field on clarinets and saxophones, backing vocalists Wilson Atie, Adeleye Omotayo, and Marit Røkeberg from London Contemporary Voices and old friend and long-time collaborator Jesca Hoop.
With the album arriving in stores today and available to purchase here in hmv's online store, we spoke to Garvey about how this unique project came into being...
Where did the idea to make a record like this come from? It’s something that you’d never have normally been able to do…
“We knew we were going to have to bubble to finish the record. We’d done as much as we could separately and we knew that we wanted the album to have a real coherence, to have a sound of its own. We’ve never done it this way round before, but we have talked about it.”
In what sense?
“When we’ve finished a record and we start rehearsing to play the songs live, we always feel like the songs gain something, a nuance they haven’t had before and they really benefit from the cohesion of playing them live. We wanted to make it part of it this time and we started discussing where to go. We’d all been discussing the merits of acoustic panelling in our various studios because we were worried that was the only way we were going to do it.”
So what changed?
“We got sick of being bullied by Covid. The whole thing was a headache for our management. They spent a fortnight getting everything Covid compliant and they came back with quite a set of strict rules for how we were going to work. But our Phil (Chadwick, Elbow manager), God bless him, he made it happen. It was throwing an anchor in the times and we knew that making a record like this would be the most joyful thing you could do.”
Did working in that manner mean you had to be super well-prepared?
“Everyone had to come absolutely ready. I had to have all my lyrics ready to go. We all need to be on our game, sharp and ready. But it made really joyful and let us dig into the character of the space, it’s become a massive part of the record. It gave us the coherence we wanted. Our albums have always been full of light and shade. Sonically, we love drama and we love diving about, showing off the music that’s inspired what we do. Having one sound for an album was something new for us.”
Are you good at working separately? At the stage in your lives you are, with family life to take account of, you must always have to work separately to a degree. Was this a new extreme?
“It was. The Covid situation made it almost impossible for us to even be working at the same time. We couldn’t just phone each other and say ‘Have a listen to this’. What happened for me was we were looking after my mother-in-law. The great Diana Rigg. She died in my house. That’s what we were focused on. The only time I had to listen to what the other guy were up to was when everybody else had gone to bed and we’d got through another day."
"For me, the record was a lifeline to normal life. It told me how the lads were doing. We ended up doing all the critiques of each other’s work and each other’s parts via text. That text thread is quite something, it’s a manual of how to make a record in lockdown. But the record was so important, it was forward motion in stopped time.”
And it’s different when you’re not allowed to see each other by law…
“There’s a real difference between doing it by choice, as we have been since I’ve been living in London, and not being able to do it. You drop little references to each other in your performances, in a really loving way, little musical motifs that only the four of us understand after being together for so long. It was a difficult working process.”
It’s a 10-track record, is that 10 down from a lot more or did you chip away at those 10?
“It was about 20, all told. There’s always one song that isn’t ready and there was one song that we recorded in Brighton that didn’t quite get there. In the end, we dropped it the day before mastering. It was a shame, but it upset the balance of the record. It’ll find the light of day one day.”
How was recording in an empty theatre? It looks wonderful in all the visuals, but did you ever look around and long for a dark studio?
“Not really. We had Danny Evans with us, he’s been our studio engineer and our live engineer for decades. It also meant we could throw a little bit of work to our crew. They came in and unpacked all the gear and set it up for us. We’re such spoilt b***ards. We just had to show up and perform.”
“We drink an awful lot of wine as we worked. We were staying in one of these stag party flats in Brighton. Everything was wipe clean, which is handy when four blokes are living together. But it gave us a lovely walk to work every morning and a proper curfew. We had to stop at 10 every night. Normally in the studio, the same thing happens, you go later and later at night and within four or five days you’re not seeing any daylight. Having to stop was really healthy, it meant we were fresh every day.”
Craig, your keyboard player, has produced the album once again. Did you ever consider getting an outside voice in? Someone to make sure you stayed on track?
“It just works like this. The only circumstances where we’d get someone else in is if Craig wanted us to. He’s such a gifted producer, we trust him so much. It’d be very difficult for someone to come in, I don’t know how we’d take ideas from somebody outside of the band. There’s an extra layer of pride to our records because we have made them ourselves.”
Is Craig the producer different to Craig, Elbow’s keyboard player?
“It’s an extension of who he is. It might be different if he were working for anybody but us. Part of a more conventional producer’s job is to take on notes from executives or A&R people and Craig doesn’t do that. We got lucky in our career, we did the first album with Steve Osborne, which made a blueprint for the second album which we made with Ben Hillier."
"Both Steve and Ben were very much about the art first and foremost. You read about producers trying to knock bands into commercial shape and that’s not something we’ve ever really fancied. Getting everyone together is hard enough, never mind getting to fit something more commercial.”
Some bands want a sound. That’s why you call in a Mark Ronson or a Nigel Godrich…
“The pop world is different. You get someone in because you want their sound. We knew what sound we wanted and we know how we wanted to get it. It was jazz aesthetics without the slick performance you get with jazz. It was more like making a record the way John Martyn does and the way Van Morrison came to. Songs that are full of sounds that breathe. We didn’t decide on the structure and length of songs until we were in there. We wanted to let them figure themselves out. It’s a record that we want to feel like you can take a warm bath in. A gentle, consolidatory listen.”
Why did you decide on that approach?
“A lot of it came down from the videos we made in lockdown. The songs from our back catalogue we brought to life in our bedrooms. We choose the gentler side of our stuff and that convinced us to make a whole album of that stuff. To be honest, those songs have always been our favourites.”
To be able to bubble up, to live together, to eat, sleep and breathe the record, must have been a joy. Did it take you back to your first years together as a band?
“It really did. We don’t need much encouragement to have a drink and we still find each other very funny. It was lovely. The thing you really love are the walk home and drinking after a day of recording and then two hours later still being up listening to other people’s music and making decisions about the record we were making. The creative process went on and on and I loved it.”
You’ve got some collaborators on the record. Sarah Field is on clarinets and saxophones, backing vocalists Wilson Atie, Adeleye Omotayo and Marit Røkeberg from London Contemporary Voices as well as Jesca Hoop, who you’ve worked with before. Why did you decide to get them involved?
“Jesca, we know really well. We worked with Marit Røkeberg on Little Fictions and she’s just an extraordinary singer, so we knew we wanted to get her involved, she’s just so versatile. Wilson and Adeleye were recommended by the guy who runs London Contemporary Voices. Both of those guys are really something else, just extraordinary singers."
"Ade was a backing singer and dancer with Amy Winehouse, he’s one of those old school types who can do it all. With Wilson, it was great because we saw him doing something with Kano at Glastonbury while we were working, I’d chosen the singers, the lads had let me. So we were watching and I got to say “See that guy there, he’s coming in tomorrow”. That was fun.”
You’re a tight band and very self-sufficient in how you work, does that give collaborations a special joy?
“It does. There’s also a real trust to it if you’re asking someone to improvise, as we did with Sarah Field. You have to give your song over. That was new for us, inviting someone to have a solo on our record and that was a really lovely thing. Craig came up with an amazing woodwind arrangement for her. Craig really plays it down, but he’s such a brilliant arranger, he’s so instinctive and precise. I really loved how he did it, that arrangement felt like it spoke directly to me, it’s so emotionally fluent.”
Did working in an empty theatre mean you could sit and listen from different vantage points?
“That was great. We all, at some point, tried to find somewhere to have a little nap. I found some lovely seat cushions in the royal box, which was quite good because you could stretch up a pair of headphones and drift off while you listened to what was going on. We’re men of a certain age, you have to embrace the nap.”
How were the staff who ran the theatre? Were they happy to have you there?
“They couldn’t have been more accommodating. Those places are held together with love and particularly then when you had such a long period of closure. It was the longest the theatre had been closed in its 200-year history. There was something wonderful about warming it up again and you could feel the atmosphere brighten.”
When did you decide that Flying Dream 1 was the right fit for the title?
“As soon as we had the song, Craig suggested it might be a good fit for the title. I was very happy about that. The way it normally works is we run out of time and have to hastily pick something for our shortlist. It ended up influencing a lot of the lyrics on the record, in the sense that it’s an album that’s nostalgic for the past, but looks at the world through my son’s eyes, as I do these days.”
“It takes me back to my own childhood, all of our childhoods really. We’re all from the same small town, there are loads of references to Bury and to Lancashire in there. It’s a record that will mean an awful lot to people who know those references. There are nods to us all in the artwork. When you pull out the vinyl too, there’s a very significant place for everyone who’s from Bury. It’s a document of its time, but a hopeful one, about how things were re-ordered. I haven’t spoken to anybody who didn’t re-order their lives during lockdown.”
In terms of touring, you’ve four shows that were moved from this year to next and that’s all that booked in currently, are you filling up 2022?
“We’re going to see the reaction to the record. We’re like to be able to justify a smaller tour in support of just this record, or, if we really do well, a residency in the Theatre Royal. All the small venues are booked up though, suddenly everyone’s touring cycles are in sync. I want to get out, I want to play more of the song from Giants Of All Sizes, it was going down so well. Festivals too. We’ll be there at some of them. I can’t say which. I can’t wait to wander through a backstage with a cardboard cup of something.”
And, in terms of what’s next, does that feel like a very special one-off and you’ll be back in a more conventional studio next time?
“I doubt we’ll go back to a residential studio ever again. This felt too special. Studios like that are great for artists trying to find their voice and it cannot be underestimated just how much more you get done in those environments than you do if you’re nine-to-fiving it. You need to experiment to live and breathe a record. We’re long in the tooth and we know how to record ourselves. We’re going to be looking for special places. I remember talking to Ian McAndrew, who manages the Arctic Monkeys, about what we were doing and he wrote to me a couple of days later and said ‘I’ve stolen your idea!’. So they’ve gone and done the same thing as us, just somewhere else!”