Elbow room: Quintet happy to go its own way


April 14, 2006


They've been called "Radiohead lite," "progressive rock without the solos" and "a better Coldplay than Coldplay." None of these descriptions really does Elbow justice, and after 14 years as a band and their third strong album, "Leaders of the Free World," the Manchester quintet deserves to be hailed for its own merits.

Vocalist Guy Garvey was 16 when the power of music first hooked him. "I heard Love's 'Forever Changes' and it was just, 'Christ, you can do absolutely anything you want, and not only that, but it doesn't have to make sense,'" he recalls. "I think psychedelia is one of those areas of music where you grow something, see where it goes and you're just flexing your imagination. A record can be completely different every time you listen to it, if it's free and open enough. It's about not worrying or getting boxed in -- if you start applying formulas to music, then it becomes a business and that's no fun. You don't find out anything about yourself."

Garvey formed Elbow in college in the early '90s, recruiting drummer Richard Jupp, bassist Peter Turner, organist Craig Potter and his brother Mark on guitar. The group spent 1998 and 1999 writing its first album, "Asleep in the Back," a concept effort inspired by the coming millennium, which Garvey compares to "The Sophtware Slump" by the American band Grandaddy.

"We knew the millennium hysteria that was building was going to amount to f--- all. I've got government literature that was distributed about the millennium bug, cash machines and computers were all going to shut down, people were waiting for the apocalypse, and then nothing happened. Everyone was expecting something positive or negative, and we just thought the feeling of disappointment was going to be enormous, so we wrote about that."

Unfortunately, a series of problems with Island and then EMI Records delayed the album's release in England until 2001. It was nominated for the U.K.'s prestigious Mercury Prize, but it didn't appear in the States until 2002. It garnered little attention here, and the 2004 follow-up "Cast of Thousands" didn't fare much better. But the band isn't complaining about its status as one of the best British bands that few Americans have ever heard.

"It's worked out beautifully," Garvey says. "We flew in under the radar in every country. There was no hype, no massive upheaval or huge lifestyle change. There was just a slow, growing appreciation for our music, which is perfect. If our [first] album had taken off then, who knows where we'd be now?

"We've had the opportunity to form lives alongside our careers. We concentrate on the albums and take our time touring them. Enough people like it for us to have a good living without it being stupid. Coldplay released their album just after we were supposed to release our first one, and it went supernova for them. They're nice guys, but Chris [Martin] is just such fodder to people: Photographs of him and his wife are worth 10,000 pounds in this country! It's ridiculous. It's like he's been cut off from everything that inspired that first record, and he's expected to be the same normal bloke while being a Hollywood celebrity.

"We've had none of that," Garvey concludes. "I can still walk into my corner shop and nobody knows who I am, then I can walk into a venue in South Bend, Ind. and there are 200 people who know who I am! It's beautiful, and it means that I'll be able to have kids and a family but also carry on doing what we enjoy."

Indeed, the band's enthusiasm is palpable throughout the new album, which adds a harder edge to the guitars while retaining the dreamy soundscapes of earlier efforts. The group took its time making "Leaders of the Free World," recording in Manchester.

"It was like, 'Let's make this at home so we can go and have dinner with our families and see the people we love everyday; let's make it regular hours and not eat, sleep and live in the studio like we have done in the past.' The other factor I discovered was that just to walk to work everyday inspired me. The song 'Station Approach' encapsulates the feeling of knowing that we're going to be at home for a whole year, and it's no accident that the Potter brothers had children within four weeks of each other."

But the album also finds the band looking further abroad, especially on the title track, a searing critique of the Bush administration.

"We don't want people to think that they're going to get a bunch of guys on a soapbox ranting, but we thought it was important enough to make a statement with the album title. "'Leader of the Free World' is a title that George Bush has when he enters a room, but it's absolutely ridiculous. Leader? Jesus Christ! Tyrant, bully -- whatever you want -- but not leader. The song is basically about the frustrations of trying to live your life by the rules you've been brought up to value -- do your thing without treading on anybody -- then one guy gets to tread on everybody and divide communities throughout the world, and nobody can do anything about it because he's the most powerful man in history. It will not become apparent what a dark period in history we are in until afterwards, but the world is in a f-----g winter."


In an effort to keep up with the onslaught of worthy Do-It-Yourself releases from local bands, I'm going to try to include more regular reviews beyond my quarterly (or thereabouts) Local Band Roundups.

This week: the hard-hitting, self-titled debut from a quartet called Viceroy.

Named for a Venetian Gothic jazz-era hotel in Uptown, Viceroy is comprised of four veteran scenesters, including guitarist Nick Miller, who holds an enviable day job as a talent buyer with Jam Productions. Miller knows plenty about the life of underground musicians, and during its best moments, Viceroy's hard-rocking 10-song album is about nothing more than the joys and aspirations of the gigging local band. Witness "Rock N Roll Poster," which finds guitarist-vocalist Derek Ault paying tribute to the dreams portrayed in the same over a crunching backdrop somewhere between stoner rock and the more no-frills end of '80s metal. (Think Queens of the Stone Age meet Guns 'N Roses.)

"Rock 'n' roll poster / It was a promise hangin' on the wall... Let's get it started!" Ault howls, and any band that's ever covered Lakeview and Bucktown with a stack of fliers and a bucket of wall-paper paste can surely relate. The band's Web site, www.viceroyrocks.com, is a work in progress, but it will presumably host more info about upcoming shows and how to buy the band's disc soon, and Viceroy is a group to watch.