Interview: Mark Potter (Elbow)

It t’was the night before Wednesday and all through the night it rained cats and dogs, w’out relief in sight.  A fair winter’s chill had befallen July and n’er this even’ I remain dry.  So t’was whilst purchasing bread and milk in the shop that the phone did ring and it made me cause to stop.  On the line from Manchester, where it was a sunny, balmy day Elbow’s guitarist Mark Potter had just rushed in from a hard day’s fly fishing to call me up.  So whilst I ran for the car in the freezing rain, he’s reminding me of the band’s last trip to New Zealamd.  “It was brilliant. We rented a boat to go fishing – my idea. I convinced my skeptical lot that it would be fun.  We had a brilliant day out from the Auckland coast, catching Snapper and drinking beer.”

Speaking of which, the band, who’ve just released their ninth album “The Take Off and Landing Of Everything” have just become brewers. “Yep.  Somehow it got around that we like a drop and this little brewery, Marston’s (in Burton-upon-Trent) made us an offer.”  The result was a craft brew made like the spicy American steam beers (fermented at a higher temperature than the norm to release a fruitier aroma and sweeter finish) “but still retains the class of a traditional British real ale” claim the tasting notes.  The name ‘Charge’ is taken from one of the tracks on the new album.  “We went down to a whole afternoon’s tasting.  It was brilliant, learning how it’s made, tweaking the flavours.”  Alas, their final product, a summer release is unavailable this far south of the equator but perhaps there may be some on sale at the band’s next tour Down-under.  Elbow has already started touring, although local dates are still to be confirmed.  Their most recent performance will take some beating.  “We played at the Eden Sessions, Cornwall, which has a series of ‘biosphere’ stages.  These are great big domes with individual eco-systems.  One is Mediterranean, one’s tropical and so on.  The environment really suited our music.”  That music is the result of the slightest of transitions from the moody, contemplative brooding of their first big effort “A Cast Of Thousands” to their epic proportions in “The Seldom Seen Kid”, “build a rocket boys” and their latest “The Take Off and Landing of Everything”.  The new album brings on board yet more innovations and collaborations, including what lead singer Guy Garvey has dubbed “Manchester’s oldest band”: The Halle’ Orchestra and long time friends and movie makers the Soup Collective.  “They’ve been on board since they filmed us recording the (Seldom Seen Kid) sessions.  Their latest contribution  is the achingly beautiful video for Real Life (Angel) which juxtaposes singer Garvey’s contemplative lyrics with a short documentary about a woman who sets out to swim 200 lakes.  The video has a subtitles running under images of a swimmer who treks to remote Highland lakes to complete her quest.  The light in the films is particularly spectacular.  “Not as wonderful as New Zealand”, Potter notes “but pretty awesome.”

Once again “The Take off…” is a soaring collection, with critics noting the mellowing of anxieties and a maturing in the songs.  “Im reaching the age where decisions are made,” noted Garvey in Lunette/Flyboy Blue, recently,”on the life and the liver.”  Potter noted that some of these songs were not as collaborative as in the past.  “On the whole we tend to all write up the music together, with Guy adding his own lyrics from a (vast collection) of notebooks.  But this time with Flyboy Blue me and Pete (Turner, bass) were in the studio by ourselves, creating something to present to the others.  This was a riff we’d had since the early days and we wanted to use it.”  Some of the album was a skype interchange with Garvey spending half his time in Green point, Brooklyn and the remainder in Manchester.  Poignantly, he’s noted “There is plenty to be proud of in the UK but there’s also plenty to be ashamed and fearful of and coming home has at times been a bitter sweet experience.”  Distance amplified his experiences, as can be seen on the album’s closing track “The Blanket of the Night”, a love song of illegal immigrants trying to land on the shores of a better land.

Elbow Room

Published in the Groove Guide – March 2012

As the elders of the British pop scene, UK act Elbow score truck loads of Mercurys, regularly donate material to the Warchild foundation and jam with choirs and orchestras.  But really, they’re just a bunch of parents worried about the economy and whether their babies will sleep through the night.  When I call up keyboardist and producer Craig Potter, he’s just put his two down, and is still whispering over the phone, lest one should wake unexpectedly.  I ask how it feels to be a regular parent and a musician who tours the world.   “I s’pose it’s like a businessman who travels.  I’ve got two and one on the way, so the idea is quite normal to me.”

 

Lead singer Guy Garvey met Potter and his brother and guitarist Mark Potter at Stand College in 1990, at the age of the tender age of 16.  “Back then, we were called ‘Mr Soft’.  With a name like that it could have been a very short career!”  With drummer Richard Jupp and bassist Pete Turner also on board the band took on their local, The Corner Pin pub in Stubbins, Manchester.  “We were really young and naïve back then, no clue.  But even then I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life.”  By 1997, they’d changed name to ‘Elbow’, quoting Philip Marlowe from TV show ‘The Singing Detective’ (the word “elbow” is the most sensuous word in the English language, apparently).  The name change also brought about a maturity to their song writing and opportunities including a deal with Island Records.  Long story short, they were dropped, product and all when Universal bought out the label.  “You can imagine how heart breaking it was.  But it gave us strength and breath.”  To the label’s chagrin, they returned a few year’s later with Asleep in the Back, which scooped a Mercury Prize and set up their reputation for unique deep, moody Northern Soul.   In time, it also gave the band the guts to take control of their own work.  Potter now produces their work and has presided over their last three: Leaders of the Free World, The Seldom See Kid and Build a Rocket, Boys.  The last, Potter is particularly proud of.  “It’s Guy’s take on what it’s like growing up on the street.  I have kids of my own, now.  We just bought a place in a little cul-de-sac and it’s great to let the kids ride around.  There’s some space to do that.”  And indeed space what was needed in their latest release.  The new one contains the track, ‘Lippy Kids’, Garvey’s reply to the inner city kids at the end of the street.  With wisdom of a new parent, many years from his own child hood he bates the youngsters to give up their video games and get outside: build a rocket, boys – as he may have at that age. 

 

There was also plenty of space afforded at the band’s Manchester studio, ‘the elbow room’.  The aim was to create stripped back music, “which for us, given our symphonic inclinations, is a remarkable thing.”  Potter is modest about his producing reputation.  “I only think it’s fair to demand that every note is there for a reason.  We need to be able to play live what we do in the studio.”  That said they’ve done some wondrous gigs over the years like using the crowd from their Glastonbury appearance as extras on their second major release “Cast of Thousands”, and jamming with the BBC Concert Orchestra at Abbey Road (check out the Youtube clip).  “I think that was a career highlight, to bring together all that (the songs from ‘Rocket’) with only one day’s rehearsal we were dead nervous but you can see they all enjoyed it”. 

 

The upcoming tour extends beyond Australia to take in Auckland.  Despite living in Manchester all their lives, Potter is secretly looking forward to the trip.  “Here, it rains all the time.  That’s why there’s so many bands here.  We’re indoors a lot.  But I’m looking forward to some blue skies!” Let’s hope he hasn’t been checking our weather news lately!