Elbow: Transatlantic and Caffeinated

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We’ve all seen him—the scruffy, latte-slurping fellow at the local café, sequestered at a corner table every morning, methodically tickety-tacking away at his laptop, working on what he believes to be his game-changing magnum opus. And we all secretly wonder, is his writing any good? Or is he merely the small prey animal in the forest, puffing up its fur to appear larger to predators? Or is the computer even switched on in the first place? Seriously—is anything actually getting accomplished here at all?

Guy Garvey guffaws at this universal coffeehouse image. And yes, he sighs, he was that man—for a good portion last year, in fact. And not in his native English metropolis of Manchester, but in Green Point, a sleepy neighborhood in Brooklyn, where he conceived most of the lyrics and melodies for The Take Off and Landing of Everything, the sweeping new sixth effort from his prog-rock outfit Elbow. Subletting a Stateside apartment for several lengthy visits, the whiskey-voiced singer became a regular at local eateries like Mrs. Kim’s and The Brooklyn Label, where he spent hours each day, his nose buried in a MacBook Air. He had his favorite secluded corners at both diners—favorite waitresses, too. “And depending on how the writing was going, they’d steadily bring me different teas,” he recalls. “Or—if it was going really well—a margarita at 11 a.m. would be the ticket.”

Garvey fell in love with the Big Apple roughly 12 years ago, when he and Elbow first started hitting the town to support their Mercury-Prize-nominated, Genesis-sleek 2001 debut, Asleep in the Back. “So it’s been a gradual thing,” he says. “And I’ve always thought that if I had some time free from working with the band that I’d come over to New York, and over the past couple of years, I’ve just been spending more and more time there.” An added bonus: the anonymity involved. “I’m a fresh face in Green Point, but I’m old hat in Manchester, an old boot!” he says, laughing.

One gorgeous five-minute shuffler, “New York Morning,” was actually penned at Manhattan’s Moonstruck Diner, as the sun was rising over the city. “I had the music on my headphones—the boys and I had already put the music together, but we didn’t know what the song was going to be about,” he says. “So it was 6 a.m. when I scribbled down those lines, and it’s pretty much a verbatim diary entry. I never really went back and edited it.” The cut’s chorus, wafting across rattlesnake percussion, was culled from the initial verses: “Oh my God, New York, you talk/ Somewhere in all that talk is all the answers/ Everybody owns the great ideas/ And it feels like there’s a big one around the corner.” “And that’s just how it was coming out,” he adds. “I was excited. I was excited, and you can hear it, can’t you?”

In Elbow’s early days, Garvey had been a note-scribbling regular at Manchester’s tiny Night and Day Café, which gave the group its start. “I’d sit in the corner of that place with my book and a Bob Dylan cap, trying to look like a songwriter,” he recalls. “So this is all just a natural progression, really. And I went digital some years ago because, around our second album [2003’s Cast of Thousands] I lost one of my notebooks. But going digital helps me, as well, because I can blow the lyrics up big on the screen when it’s time to sing ‘em into the microphone, and also, I don’t have to write them all out for somebody when I’ve finished the album—I just cut and paste ‘em. And when I walk into my studio or my house, my laptop automatically backs up, so it’s impossible for me to lose work anymore.”

This rambler’s urge to get away dovetailed perfectly with Elbow’s approach to Take Off His 10-year relationship with girlfriend Emma ended amicably in 2013, leaving him free to travel. Meanwhile, the other band members had started crafting material by themselves; the skeletal ballad “Honey Sun” was initiated at home by guitarist Mark Potter; the ethereal, psalm-like “Real World (Angel)” was Potter’s keyboardist brother Craig’s pet project; and the bass-driven, New Order-thumping “Colour Fields” was jolted to life by apps on bassist Pete Turner’s phone. They also experimented throughout with brass and the Halle Orchestra, launching the sessions at their own Blueprint Studios in Salford, then wrapping—as they’d done before—at Peter Gabriel’s sprawling Real World compound.

It was a unique arrangement. “When the lads work like that, when they present me with finished pieces of music, I can go away and write to them,” Garvey says. “So being on a plane, stuck for something to do, I can work on our album. And while I was out in Brooklyn, they sent me regular updates of what they were doing.” He pauses, sighs wistfully. “And there’s no better feeling than walking down a busy New York street with your headphones on, listening to an instrumental that you get to put the words, the sentiment and the melody to. And knowing that you can write what you want—it’s just such a privilege. So I spent a lot of time striding around Brooklyn and Manhattan, doing exactly that.”

There’s something to be said for experience. After Elbow added its “One Day Like This” to the Beijing Olympics, it was invited by the BBC to compose a theme for the 2012 Summer Olympics; the six-minute “First Steps” featured the BBC Philarmonic Orchestra and the NovaVox Gospel Choir, with most of the single’s download-sales profits going directly to various charities. And having just turned 40, Garvey was lyrically preoccupied with mortality for much of “Take Off,” as in the vintage-R&B-undulating “Charge” (told from the perspective of an angry drunken codger, just trying to attract fellow drinkers’ attention) or the gorgeous, trumpet-pierced march “My Sad Captains,” in which he looks around at himself and his aging pub mates and somberly observes “We’re plummeting like crippled crows.”

Ergo, Garvey explains, the album is “celebrating and mourning the loss of certain things. You’ve got a song like ‘Charge,’ and it’s like ‘Fuck you! I’ve designed everything you’ve ever done—you didn’t invent anything, kid!’ And then toward the end of the record, ‘My Sad Captains’ is mourning the 15-strong, three-day bender, which was very much my life around ‘Asleep in the Back.’ But then you get on to other things—nowadays, I do love the very simple company of two or three close friends, and a really good laugh. That was another great thing about coming over to Brooklyn—I can hang out with a handful of good mates when I’m over there and we can have a proper laugh, a proper charge. And I’m into that—small groups of really excellent friends.”

Despite his “old boot” analogy, in Britain Garvey is something of a fixture. He has his own Sunday radio show, Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour, which he’s often recorded in Brooklyn, and he was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from Manchester Metropolitan University (“They made me dress up like Henry VII and parade around in front of the students—I don’t know what they were thinking!” he jokes). He and the group have also launched their second in a series of Elbow beers, the first being Build A Rocket, Boys!, after their last 2011 release, the new one dubbed Charge, after the Take Off track. Bearing in mind, however, the old bar-closing announcement of “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here,” is Garvey ever nudged along by his diner servers with a friendly “Hey, buddy—you gonna order somethin’ or what?” He guffaws again. “Oh, no, I’m way too charming! Absolutely charming!” he reckons. “Plus, I tip really well, and nobody in Brooklyn knows what I do for a living, or if they do, they keep it to themselves. So I don’t get bothered at all!

“And that’s one of the reasons I love it, honestly. Because I don’t feel self-conscious about people-watching, which is something I always used to do. That’s just part of how I’ve written for years.”