In the years leading up to their 2001 debut Asleep At The Back, they couldn’t imagine releasing more than four, and were so certain of this that they almost called that first album Disc One Of Four.
“And here we are, releasing our sixth,” says frontman Guy Garvey with a shake of his head. “I suppose we could have called it Disc Six Of Four, but it doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
Here they are indeed, one of Britain’s best-loved bands; many things to many people.
Garvey, particularly, is adored as much for his personality as he is for his voice. Attend an Elbow gig and you’ll meet thousands of people who either want to buy him a drink or, shall we say, get better acquainted. Something about his rugged exterior, cuddly demeanour and poetic soul does the trick.
He is great company; a master of the anecdote, whether he’s telling a story about himself, Elbow or any manner of other topics he’s interested in. He veers from serious conversation about immigration and the rational thought he believes is missing from the dialogue on the subject in the UK (something he addresses on The Blanket Of Night, the final track on the new album) to chatting about watching Morecambe & Wise as a child. Conversation is full of warmth, peppered with wit and the odd expletive.
The band – Garvey, along with his old friends Richard Jupp, Pete Turner and brothers Craig and Mark Potter – are currently rehearsing for their forthcoming tour.
They practise at Blueprint Studios in Salford, where they’ve recorded all of their albums since their third, 2005’s Leaders Of The Free World.
Today Garvey says he’ll be working on his costume changes. “Those leotards are murder. Getting them on as well as off again. I go through three a night, easy,” he says, seemingly both horrified and intrigued by the idea of donning lycra in front of so many paying fans. Very likely, he’ll wear jeans, a shirt and suit jacket, as usual.
Prior to finishing the forthcoming album, the fivesome hadn’t had more than three weeks apart since forming in Bury about 23 years ago. The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, however, saw them start writing and recording and then take six months off.
Some travelled, others with new families concentrated on that. At the start of 2013, Garvey and his then girlfriend, journalist and author Emma Jane Unsworth, went to live in New York, while Garvey collaborated with The Avalanches and Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja, among others, on a stage musical of King Kong.
Unfortunately, later that year, not long after the musical opened and was lightly mauled by critics, Garvey and Unsworth broke up. He returned to Manchester, the band reconvened and got to work finishing what they’d started.
Unsurprisingly for a lyricist who writes with as much honesty as Garvey, the split is evident in virtually every song on the album, with each one they’d started rewritten or added to in some way.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you’re writing about, especially if you don’t know where you’re at with something personal,” he says. “I was at the end of a very important relationship with a very dear girl, and only when we decided we didn’t want to be together anymore did things become clear, as sad as that was.”
Garvey says he realised that the trip to the Big Apple was essentially the couple working out if they could save their relationship, which with hindsight explains the aforementioned The Blanket Of Night.
At face value, the song depicts a husband-and-wife from a war-torn country clambering into a boat and heading out to sea in search of a better life together, knowing full well the gamble might not pay off and they won’t survive the voyage. The subtext and where Garvey fits into that story probably doesn’t need explaining.
He offers these details voluntarily, despite it being the only time in the conversation where he seems unsure of himself. Still clearly a very sensitive subject, he wants to talk about it, but after a while suggests we move on. If something’s still so raw, why put it into a song he’s going to release to the public, possibly hear on the radio and sing night after night?
“I’d be more than happy lying to you, but you’d be able to tell,” he says. “In song too. People can tell when I’m faking it.”
He casts his mind back to the very first review he read of their debut album. A Guardian journalist noted his lyrical skill, but questioned whether the detail of one song, Red, was in fact genuine.
“That journalist was absolutely right, and as much as I still love it, I had exaggerated my feelings for the purpose of the song and thrown more paraffin on the fire than was necessary. I had a very real moment then where I realised not only were people were going to listen to the lyrics and draw conclusions about me, they were also going to know whether I was bluffing or not. And I haven’t done it since. I can’t.”
Of course, if he is suffering now, and has suffered in the past – Leaders Of The Free World featured songs about his break up with DJ Edith Bowman, 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid in parts detailed the death of a close friend – however unpleasant a reality it might be, it’s what sets the band apart from so many of their peers.
Many bands trade in generic emotion and stock phrases of heartbreak, very few offer the personal touch Elbow do. That’s why they connect, and why come April’s tour, there’ll be arenas full of people who believe Garvey’s singing directly to them.
It’s a topic he has thought about, but he can’t really offer any answers. His best bet is that the band make it look easy.
“It’s like when I see a good film, I think, ‘I could do that’, and of course I couldn’t, the director just made it look effortless. And people come to our gigs and think they could do it too. That’s brilliant. A big beery bloke will look at Elbow and see us as big, beery blokes, and think he could do it too.
“As for me having some ‘poet’s spirit’,” he adds, “the point is, everyone has a poetic side.
“Everyone has a keen turn of phrase and a kind word, if they look for it. It’s just about knowing how to find it when you need it.”
* Elbow play Birmingham’s LG Arena on April 5. For more details visit: www.lgarena.co.uk