Elbow: Rocket Men

Before <b>Elbow</b> debut the sequel to their 2008 Mercury winner in Glasgow this month, <b>Richard Jupp</b> explains their mandate: to build a rocket. Nae pressure, boys...

Feature by Jonathan Butcher | 03 Mar 2011
  • Elbow

Elbow's new album consists of haunting songs that swirl gently around Guy Garvey's soulful lyrics, subtly evocative and marking an equally delicate change of pace for the band. After the Mercury-scooping success of 2008's The Seldom Seen Kid, the Mancunian outfit were seen by many to have finally stepped past niche critical acclaim and into true commercial success.

Richard Jupp suggests that the group's new release, Build A Rocket Boys!, sees a more focused Elbow, in which strings and multiple layers make way for a sparseness that harks back to their formative years.

"To me it's a bit more self-assured, and it's easier to digest,” he elaborates. “It's a lot more intimate in the quieter sections, but more brash and chaotic in the big sections. It has a lot in common with [first album] Asleep In The Back, which took us ten years to write. We didn't have a record deal back then and we had all that time to hone our skills, get our shit together and record. Now, not to be complacent or anything, we feel slightly less pressure due to the success of the last album."

This is not to say that Jupp feels the quintet have any chance of treading water – far from it. Instead he acknowledges that, although in 2011 they are still doing what they have always done, Elbow’s admirable latter-day accomplishment have given them a refreshing confidence boost.

"We've come off an amazing high from Seldom, and have really enjoyed the process of making this album, sorting the wheat from the chaff. There's less strings, and less noodling, and it's just a little more concentrated. People can obviously compare it with songs from Asleep, but I don't think we can stagnate because it's still enjoyable when we get together, and that's the crux of it. We have a laugh and enjoy it."

It’s appropriate that Build A Rocket Boys! recalls Elbow's roots, with its stripped-down compositions and Garvey's eloquent lyricism, exploring friendship and what it is to come of age. The Birds, with its startling reprise, is a tale of lost love and last kisses – whereas the first taste of the album to reach public consumption, Lippy Kids, is a plea for the young to live their formative years wisely, while Dear Friends a deeply affectionate dedication to companions past and present.

"It's a very positive record,” beams Jupp. “Hopefully people will get that and love it. For me, it's an album about reminiscing, and about growing up. Saying that, it sounds like we're having a mid-life crisis, but we're not. We've been doing this for nigh-on 20 years now. Somebody asked me my age the other day and I said I was 27, but, of course, I'm 37. I said it in all seriousness, and then I was like, ‘fuck man, where have those ten years gone?’”

Jupp describes the songwriting process as being "every man for himself," explaining that the only consistent role is Garvey as lyricist. Throughout the band's considerable history this flexibility has helped them remain strong; exploring every conceivable dynamic in the collective’s working relationship. "Writing the music is pretty much a free-for-all,” he elaborates. “There's no set way of sitting down and writing. We are all so different as individuals – God, that sounds horribly clichéd – but we're all gunning for each other, supporting each other. I mean, we argue, we fuck about, and we piss each other off, to be sure. But we've been doing this longer than we haven't, if that makes sense. And something is working."

Elbow played some of their largest shows in 2009, from high profile slots across the festival circuit to filling Wembley and Manchester's largest indoor venues. To what degree has their newfound status as an arena act influenced the way they present themselves now?

"It wasn't a conscious stance at all,” insists Jupp. “Playing Wembley and the MEN was a bit of a gamble and, thankfully, they paid off. We want to make a statement with this record to say ‘yes, we can fill arenas,’ but that wasn't in mind when we wrote the record. I don't think you could do that unless you were pretty calculating about it all."

As the album release date looms, so does the opening of Elbow’s tour at Glasgow SECC, and to reflect such a personal record the band hope to perform a series of equally personal live shows. There are plans to border the stage with red velvet drapes and to erect a runway and smaller platform for Guy, says Jupp, "so that even people in the shit seats at the back, at the top, feel like they're in the front row."

Although they look forward to the tour as their attentions return to the road, the days of debauchery and constant heavy drinking have passed for Elbow. "Touring feels like jetlag to me,” Jupp offers. “The other guys have all got families and their own routines, and when we're recording we certainly get into a routine every day, so when we start touring our bodies get a bit all-over-the-place. It's frightening to look back at our older tours that were just about partying, when we were thinking ‘Christ, this is the most amazing thing in the world!’ It's still amazing but it's slowed down a hell of a lot. I'm sure there are going to be some good nights up ahead though."

Aside from their more recent aspirations for a more serene touring environment, much of Elbow's mechanics and influences remain the same as ever. Jupp is clear that their musical muses have always encouraged the band to aim for something higher, and continue to fuel their hunger for progression. "Our love for bands like Genesis and especially Radiohead will be there for eternity. In the studio, if we get stuck for a sound or just have five minutes off, we might spin a couple of their tunes, and we still bang on about these two bands. We want to be as good as those guys, you know, even half as good, and for people maybe 10, 20 years down the line to say that the fifth album from Elbow was amazing. We'd like to think that our music will stand the test of time."

Build A Rocket Boys! is released on 7 Mar via Fiction/Polydor

Elbow play SECC, Glasgow on 15 Mar