Elbow: ‘Can This Job Get Any Better?’

The guitarist of Manchester’s biggest band forgoes sleep to chat with Mary Chang.



Considering they sell out UK arenas at a drop of a hat, Elbow’s comparatively lesser stature on the American music scene seems ridiculous. It’s not that they can’t pack venues: the Washington, DC and Boston shows on their two-week North American tour sold out, a sign that the band from Manchester clearly have pockets of devotees on this side of the pond. It’s a bit of good luck that the Thursday afternoon I am due to chat with guitarist Mark Potter, the sky is grey and looks threatening, yet somehow it’s not raining buckets as is in the forecast for the next day, when Elbow is scheduled to perform at an outdoor festival in Philadelphia.

As I’m always down the front for gigs, being escorted through corridors and unfamiliar upper areas of Washington’s 9:30 Club feels a bit surreal. But soon Mark and I are sat in a cozy little room. He lets me in on a secret: everyone else in the band is curled up somewhere else in the venue, trying to catch up on sleep. You see, playing for a late night telly programme like Jimmy Fallon in New York City, as prestigious, glamorous, and important that is, translates to little sleep, a very precious commodity to touring musicians. So I’m very honoured that Mark is upright and has a moment to spare.

We first talk about the differences between a sold out show in America versus one in the UK. As for the tickets to the American shows going quickly, he explains that as with everything in Elbow, it’s a slow build: ‘We take our time in everything really, and it was the same over in the UK. We’ve been doing this for 20 years now. And we’ve always been ambitious, to get our music to more people, but never at the expense of the music. We’ve never sat down and tried to write something commercial to gain a bigger audience. So every time we play in the U.S… we’ve played this venue quite a few times already, but some of the venues are stepping up [in size]. Like the Greek [Theatre] in Los Angeles. So it’s really nice to come this far away and have a sold out show, it’s brilliant.’

I ask him about the sold out MEN Arena gig they played in March, which sounded like an incredible validation by their hometown on how far they’d come as a band. ‘The whole [UK] arena tour was something we always wanted to do, something we always wanted to head towards. And to have that kind of reception in your hometown, it felt like we were returning heroes. It was really lovely. My family came over from America, my wife’s family is from Boston, and they’re actually here tonight. But they’re always nerve-wracking, playing in your hometown, because you know all your mates will be there, watching you! The phone never stops ringing for guest list requests,’ he laughs. ‘It was a stressful day, but no, it was amazing. It’s such a great arena, the MEN.’

Further, he goes on to point out ‘with that arena tour, what we had planned to do was make them feel smaller than they were, these shows, making them feel as intimate as possible, even though we were playing to, like, 15,000 people. We did that in a few different ways: one of the ways, we had a walkway in the crowd’ – a walkway that he’s quick to point out that was not above the crowd ‘kinda like U2-styley.’ This was so ‘Guy [Garvey] came out and down maybe two feet, so to people in the seats, it looked like he was walking through the crowd, out to a riser in the middle of the arena. We also had a huge chandelier over the stage, and just the way it was lit, and we put red velvet in front of the seats, so it had a real theatrical vibe to it, even though it was in an arena.’ He seems pleased with the media’s take on their efforts: ‘the reviews said they’d never been to a show in a venue that big that felt so intimate.’ With respect to fans that had been with them from the start, he notes: ‘I know some of the fans, perhaps the ones that had been with us from the beginning, from ‘Asleep in the Back’, weren’t really happy that we’d moved up to this next level because they were worried they’d miss the intimacy of the smaller shows. So hopefully we put their fears to rest. And I’ve looked at some of the fan pages, they seem pretty happy about it.’

Next he tells me what it was like for them to tour America. ‘You never know what you’re going to get in the U.S.,’ he says, ‘every city is so different and often so far apart. It’s like it’s almost like playing to different countries. I really like that part of it. What’s great for us being over here is, it still seems very fresh. It’s nice to still be winning people over.’ When I ask Mark what he likes most about America, he goes straight to the food: ‘your Buffalo wings. [It’s] the first thing I track down when I’m here, and our bass player [Pete Turner] always gets a hot dog.’ He does however admit enjoying the surroundings, saying, ‘it’s a beautiful country. On this tour, we’re doing a few of the journeys by train, we haven’t gone on any of them yet. So it’ll be nice to see the country like that. Often we’re on an aeroplane or asleep on a tour bus. I suppose the only downside to being this far away from home is missing the family.’ He says with a wide grin on his face, ‘there’s nothing I could grumble about in this job, really. I’ve got the best job in the world! I’m certainly not going to complain about it!’

Since it’s not every day that a rock band gets a tipple named in their honour, the next topic on my list is the ale Robinsons of Stockport are currently in the process of brewing for their local musical heroes. ‘The brewery approached us, it’s a local family-run place in Manchester. Somebody told them we liked drinking beer,’ he laughs. ‘I think there are a couple of [Elbow] fans in the family business, they approached us and asked, ‘fancy coming for a tour of the brewery?’ They were launching a new beer and they wanted some opinions on it, really. So initially it wasn’t going to be ‘Build A Rocket, Boys!’, they were just launching a new type of ale, and then it just evolved, really. Then they asked us, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we actually called it ‘Build A Rocket, Boys!’?’

Mark divulges that the album title was not the original name proffered by Robinsons: ‘it was going to be called ‘Rocket Fuel’ at one point, which sounded quite good. We tasted all the beers when we met them and got quite drunk at the brewery. So we made a decision on how it was going to taste. ‘A little like this one, a little like this one, but a bit stronger’. I’ve actually not tasted the finish product yet but I’m looking forward to it.’ He sounds chuffed that the promotional side of things have taken off nicely, with the beer planned to appear in many pubs across England, in bottled form in British supermarkets and if we Yanks are lucky, some of it will be exported to America. The beer is expected to make its English premiere at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival next month, where Mark says the band will be in attendance, actually pulling the first couple of pints. ‘Can this job get any better?’ he asks with a smile. ‘It’ll lead people to the album as well!’

Besides the beer, Elbow had the distinction of being in the small group of artists who have been nominated for the Mercury Prize more than once. Seeing that the five of them have partied at Grovesnor Hotel, I had to ask what goes on behind the scenes. ‘It’s pretty messy. Performing is quite nerve-wracking, because you’re in a room full of your peers, your fellow musicians. It’s a little scary. What’s great about it is there is only one prize and no-one genuinely knows who’s going to win, so it really is quite exciting before they announce the award [winner]. You do a hell of a lot of press, and the red carpet side of it, it’s something I don’t think I’ll ever get used to. I find it quite strange, I’m not entirely comfortable with that side of the job, with cameras in your face.’ Of all the performances, he was most impressed with Ghostpoet’s, which he thought ‘amazing.’

Manchester looms large in my musical upbringing, so having the opportunity to speak with the guitarist of such an influential band that means so much to so many people is a great honour. Yet when I speak of Elbow being one of, if not the biggest band in Manchester, he is uncomfortable with the title. I ask if their position is a help or a hindrance, personally or professionally. ‘We’re very proud to be from Manchester. I think one of the reasons why there are so many good bands from Manchester is because the weather is so bad. When you’re growing up and it’s raining all the time, what can you do? You sit in your bedroom and pick up a guitar… and Manchester’s great, there’s a real community of people who work together, help each other out. Doves took us to the States for the first time, they kindly took us over and got us started over here. And not just musicians, there’s writers and actors and artists, and it’s all based around bars.’

He goes on to describe a defining moment in their career: ‘When we got back to Manchester after we’d won the Mercury Prize for ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’, it was a real heroes’ welcome. It was like the city had won the award. We came into our local bar and literally, everyone was on their feet, clapping. We had some of our friends there but people who didn’t even know us… there’s a real warmth there.’

Whether it be the 9:30 Club in DC, the MEN Arena or someplace in between, Elbow has the ability to bring that warmth wherever they go. They are kings of not just the Manchester music scene, but of wherever on this earth they bring their incredible music. Long may they reign.