ROCK AND REAL

Is it possible to be a rock star and a rounded human being? Guy Garvey, singer and lyricist with the award-winning band Elbow, is giving it a shot. He makes Tim de Lisle a bacon butty and opens up about the new album

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2014

"DO YOU MIND if I smoke?" The question comes as a surprise. For one thing, this is a rock star speaking; a taste for nicotine, or even something stronger, is part of the job description, so it is unduly polite of him to ask. For another thing, he is in his own house.

At times, the career of Guy Garvey looks like an experiment by a mischievous deity. How many rock-star attributes can a person be missing and still make it as a rock star? Garvey isn't skinny, or slinky, or snaky, or silly. He doesn't have a swagger, or trash hotel rooms, or wear sunglasses indoors. He doesn't collect classic cars or even have a driving licence. The labels that cling to him are affable, avuncular, down-to-earth. He lives in north Manchester, about two miles from where he grew up. His only apparent vice, apart from his roll-ups, is a fondness for a pint. He likes birdwatching, collects old radios and has a radio show himself, tucked away on BBC 6 Music, the station for the pop fan who is too mature for Radio 1 and not mature enough for Radio 2. "I'm Guy Garvey," the show always begins, "the lead singer of Elbow"—as if even his own listeners may be unsure who he is.

And yet he is a star, quite a big one. For five years now Elbow have been one of the more successful bands in Britain, the second superpower of pop. In 2008-09 they won both the Mercury Music Prize for album of the year and Best British Group at the more commercial Brit Awards, plus Best Contemporary Song and Best Song Musically and Lyrically (for different songs) at the Ivor Novello Awards. They are arena headliners in Holland and Belgium, objects of curiosity and acclaim in America, and festival mainstays across Europe. For the 2012 Olympics, they wrote the BBC theme tune and performed at the closing ceremony. At a time when album sales have been on the slide, Elbow have gone from a band that would sell 150,000 copies of an album if they were lucky to one that can sell a million.

They have something else, something beyond the reach of spreadsheets: their songs have a way of becoming part of your life. When the BBC invited listeners to vote for their favourite tunes from the national institution "Desert Island Discs" in 2011, the top 50 included only one piece from the past 30 years—"One Day Like This" by Elbow, who took their place next to Beethoven, Elgar, Dylan and the Beatles.

The music is a singular hybrid that gives the chroniclers on Wikipedia a hard time—is it alternative, progressive, indie or art-rock? Simple and subtle at the same time, rousing yet intricate, it often has three layers—an earthy rhythm that draws on folk or blues (bass and drums, maybe handclaps or cowbells), a tapestry of careful detail, tinged with classical (piano, organ, guitar, strings, horns), and a heart-warming, lung-busting chorus. It's the sort of sound the progressive rockers of the Seventies might have made if they'd kept their feet on the ground—and spent their formative years in northern public houses, rather than southern public schools.

Elbow are a team, five friends who have made music together for 23 years. But Garvey is their public face, and voice, their lyricist and storyteller. His words, sung in gentle, tobacco-stained tones, show a sharp eye, a dry wit ("I've been working on a cocktail/called Grounds for Divorce") and a big heart: they say the things that men tend to leave unsaid. "The Seldom Seen Kid", Elbow's Mercury winner and masterpiece, was dedicated to a friend of theirs, Bryan Glancy, a Manchester musician who had died suddenly. "Never very good at goodbyes," Garvey sang at the end, "so, gentle shoulder charge, love you mate." Many a lyricist might have come up with the first of those sentiments, or the last, but it's hard to think of another one on earth who would have written "gentle shoulder charge".

BEFORE MEETING GARVEY, I listen to his radio show, "Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour", which actually runs for two hours, every Sunday. It's homemade and homespun: "my one true love has just brought me a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea". The other night, he says, they got drunk and agreed that it would be a good idea to have a map of the world on their wall, which his one true love and a friend are now putting up. "I have to confess," he adds, "I'm having second thoughts about the map." You can't quite tell if it's all true or not.

The show has two striking features. First, Garvey talks lucidly about the music, which often, even on a music station, ends up as the elephant in the studio. As Tom Stoppard said recently of Kenneth Tynan, he is both a star and a fan. He asks listeners for recommendations, not requests. "Sad disco," he will say, "it's what connects Japan to Soft Cell to Depeche Mode to OMD". (He never plays an Elbow record, partly because of BBC rules on impartiality, and "partly, you know, humility".) Secondly, he is generous to other acts. Teeing up a song, he'll say "I love this," pronouncing "love" the way he does when he sings—not lurve, or lahv, or luvv, but luhv, short and to the point. Singers he knows will be either "a lovely man" or "a goddess". In a BBC accent, this could become cloying; in Garvey's no-nonsense northern tones, it's endearing. "Slickness isn't an issue," he tells me later. "I only have the show because of my main job, writing and singing for the band."

His generosity gets reflected back at him. As a singer he is often likened to Peter Gabriel, who recorded a love song by Elbow, "Mirrorball", for his album "Scratch My Back" (they replied with one of his, "Mercy Street"). "He's a wonderful musician and a wonderful man," Gabriel says. "There's an unpretentiousness about him, a natural warmth. And he can move people effortlessly with his singing."

How did Garvey feel when he heard Gabriel sing his song? "Oh God, cried my eyes out. He's like my uncle, his voice has always been there. I've no doubt some of my phrasing comes from singing along with him as a kid."

"He told me it made him cry," Gabriel goes on, "which was lovely, because I think it was an important romantic song for him, about connecting with his missus, and I did try to put my heart into it. I've seen him on and off stage and he has a natural regard for people, a courtesy. They can relate to him, they sense that he has a bigger agenda than just himself. A lot of us in the wonderful world of entertainment are narcissistic and needy, and he seems to have less of that." 

Emily Eavis, who runs the Glastonbury festival with her father Michael, has known Garvey for ten years. She calls him "a warm, funny man, a proper gent with a cheeky glint". She too mentions his kindness: "When we were getting a kicking in the press for booking Jay Z and generally losing the plot, Guy was one of the people who stood up and said 'hang on a minute, the Eavises know what they're doing'. It was a difficult time for us, so we'll never forget that."

MOST UNUSUALLY, GARVEY does interviews at home, though he is orthodox enough to want Elbow's long-serving publicist, Lewis Jamieson, within shouting distance. One February morning, Jamieson and I take a train from London to Manchester, followed by a quick cab to Prestwich, just short of Bury, the old mill town where Garvey grew up. 

Garvey's house is semi-detached, red-brick, ivy-clad, hefty but no bigger than its neighbours. He opens the door, looking just as he does on stage—bearded, bear-like, friendly—but wearing glasses, a tartan shirt and jeans with turn-ups. He hugs Jamieson ("how are you, man?") and pumps my hand. We go into the front room, where one wall is covered by a map of the world. A woman puts her head round the door, strawberry-blonde and smiley. "I'm Emma." Emma Jane Unsworth, I presume: novelist and Garvey's long-term girlfriend. A cat glides past her. "And this is Jocelyn."

He steers us into the kitchen, which is dominated by a pine table, covered in stuff. There's a laptop, sporting an Elbow backstage sticker from the Reading festival; a copy of the Guardian books section; a pile of CDs waiting for an autograph; an Elbow mug, echoing the design of an old Penguin book; a birthday present, unopened. "That's early, isn't it?" Jamieson says. Yes, Garvey says, abashed—it's from his mum.

"Tea?" he asks us. "Bacon butty?"

He grills the bacon, studiously. "White or wholemeal?"

We both say wholemeal; after a while, he puts two slices of white in the toaster. "Sauce—red or brown?"

We both say neither, thanks. "No sauce!" He sounds impressed, with a hint of irony. "Let the bacon breathe!"

He hands the butties round. "Where shall we go?" Where he does the radio show? "Right, the writing room."

The stairs are lined with framed photos of his family, and the band, and the 6 Music DJs—his other families. Higher up is a row of painted discs, the winners' medals of the musical world: gold for Elbow's first three albums, platinum for the past two. We reach a small attic room, recently converted, all skylights and floorboards. There's a battered piano, a crisp synthesiser, a guitar and a heavy desk, where Garvey sits, nursing his tea in the Elbow mug. I'm on a sofa, which is big and baggy, evidently an old friend. On the desk is an Apple Mac. The screensaver is the same picture of the DJs, and he starts pointing out the ones who have had a hand in his life.

"Our first live session was for Gideon [Coe]. I queued up to meet Craig [Charles] when I was a kid. Lammo [Steve Lamacq] did us a session on Radio 1 when we were coming up. I made coffee for Cerys [Matthews] in the Roadhouse in Manchester when she was in Catatonia. Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley, when they were Mark and Lard, made 'Newborn' single of the week, when we really needed it. Andrew Collins interviewed us, the day 6 started."

Also there is Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, possibly the only band ever to take longer than Elbow to reach the top. When Elbow played their first Leeds festival, Garvey's then girlfriend, Rachel, was doing a thesis on outsider art, which Cocker knew a lot about. "He gave Rach three hours on the phone." Years later, when 6 Music was about to be sacrificed to reduce costs, the two men lobbied the BBC Trust to save it, and, along with public protests, won the day. 

Garvey is still pointing at the picture. "There's Tom Ravenscroft. Have you heard his broadcasts? Awesome. His dad gave us our first-ever play on national radio: 'John Peel's Festive Fifty', 1998. I remember exactly what he said. 'That was Elbow, from Manchester, with a song called "Powder Blue", and in a year or two I'll be eligible to wear powder-blue slacks.'" He bursts out laughing.

It sounds as if success came easily to Elbow. But for every leg-up there was a matching cock-up. As they finished their first album, their record company, Island, was taken over by Universal, which promptly dropped them. They remade the album, found refuge at V2 Records, and reached the Mercury shortlist, only for the ceremony to take place on September 11th 2001, when the whole world was watching the news.

Two albums later, V2 crashed to the ground, so Elbow had to find a third home in what was left of the music business—at Fiction, part of Universal, the giant that had tried to throttle them at birth. In 2009, when they landed a slot on "Late Show with David Letterman" in America, the programme over-ran and they never appeared. Their story is an Aesop's fable, with Garvey as the tortoise who inches past the hare. No wonder he remembers the people who have helped him on his way.

Above Garvey's screensaver: The shot of the 6 Music DJs that he talks about on this page. He is second from left, back row; Jarvis Cocker is fifth from right

GARVEY WILL BE 40 in March. He was born in Bury in 1974 to a Catholic couple: his mum was a counsellor, dad a proof-reader and trade unionist. Both still alive, they crop up in their son's conversation, eliciting snorts of amusement; it was his dad who pointed him to the phrase "The Seldom Seen Kid", quoting Damon Runyon. Guy was their sixth child, but the first boy, so perhaps destined to be both a team player and a one-off. The seventh and last child, Marcus, is an entertainer too, an actor last seen in the ITV whodunnit "Broadchurch", playing an ineffectual police liaison officer with a weakness for toast.

When Guy was 12, his parents split up. "I lost interest in school. Probably used it as an excuse." One day last January, the memories prompted a tweet to his 92,000 followers. "Winter mornings remind me of being at school," he wrote. "Best years of your life my arse. Hang in there kids."

He never sounds less than fond of his family, but it's clear that things were not great at home either. "My mum kicked me out when I was 17, maybe because I resembled my father in many ways, I look a lot like him. She found out I'd been lying to her about something, she reacted disproportionately, I think she was expecting me to come back and I didn't, I was too stubborn." He had wanted to leave school at 16, but his eldest sister, so much older that she is also his godmother, pushed him into sixth-form college. And that shaped the course of his life, because he made friends with Mark Potter, who was in a band with Richard Jupp and Pete Turner. Garvey first sang with them in public in 1990, at a pub in Bury where they were not strictly old enough to drink, and he is still singing with them today—Jupp is Elbow's drummer, Turner the bassist, Potter the guitarist. When Potter's brother Craig joined on keyboards, the line-up was set in stone. Instead of changing personnel, they changed their name—from Mr Soft, to Soft, to Elbow. It seems a little bony for Garvey, but they liked it because Dennis Potter (no relation) had written in "The Singing Detective" that it was the most sensuous word in the English language. They also changed their sound, arriving at their signature blend only after years of trying to write music for the charts. Or, as Garvey now calls it, "shit white funk".

The other four band members had all been at the same primary school. Not many people of 40 are still working with one schoolfriend, let alone several, so how did these five boys find so much staying power? First, they were thrown together by something that didn't happen to them. "Our other friends went to university." Garvey says. "It was quite a heartbreak, not to be underestimated. There were 16, 17 of us, two-thirds of them disappeared in one weekend, and us five were left."

Second, they faced hostility. "Something that happens a lot to us now is that you meet a young band who are just emerging into the spotlight, and they are rude and superior and piss off everybody they come across. And then you meet them two years later and they're really apologetic and lovely. It's happened a few times—I won't name names, it's not gentlemanly." And he can see why it happens. "To form a band in the first place, you have to repel all boarders. It is you against the world. People take the piss: 'Are you famous yet?' One bloke would say, every time he saw me, 'When are we going to see you on "Top of the Pops", dickhead?'" Eventually, after 15 years together, Elbow did get on "Top of the Pops", not long before it went off air. Garvey made sure he bumped into his tormentor. "When are we going to see you on 'Top of the Pops', dickhead?"—"Thursday."

Third, there is the prime glue of male friendship: humour. Garvey portrays this in a roundabout way. "There's nothing better than when all the band are laughing together. It happens on a daily basis, but it's not always the mood. We've got an awful lot of life going on outside the room, with our kids or partners or ex-partners. You have to remember that it's not just your job, it's your refuge and it's your art and it's your hobby, and it's your mates. And because of that, regardless of where we're all at on any given day, there will be a laugh."

Fourth, along with fraternity, Elbow believe in equality. "All the income is split five ways. I've never known a band split, other than for money." So will the five of them stay the whole course? "I hope so. It's the one thing that scares me."

It must have lasted longer than any of their romantic relationships. "Yeah. And you know, it's something you have to work at from time to time. But it is only from time to time. I'm the luckiest man in the world that I met four beautiful blokes."

FOR YEARS, GARVEY wasn't the luckiest man in Bury, let alone the world. At 17, he was on the brink of being homeless. He was reminded of this recently when Rabbi Lionel Blue was on "Thought for the Day" on Radio 4, talking about guardian angels. "I liked this idea, I was pondering who my angels were. I'd been couch-surfing, spent a couple of weeks at all the band members' homes, and I could feel people getting impatient with me. One night, at the pub, I didn't know where I was going to sleep. I'd already had a couple of nights rough, which was pretty frightening. We were the noisy kids in the pub, the older blokes were always scowling at us. One of them, Alan, bless him, had observed me coming in with my kitbag night after night. And he said, like he was resigned to it, really pissed off, 'I've got a room, 17 quid a week, you're not having your fookin' mates round, do you want it?'—[gormless teenage mumble] 'Yeah, that'd be great.' And that's where I started writing in earnest."

He sold double-glazing, door to door ("better money than I'm on now"), and spent a year working at a golf club: "cleaning toilets, for awful people, but I had my Walkman. I can do anything if I can listen to my music". A few years later, he got a Christmas job in Andy's Records in Bolton. "I was really chuffed I'd got it." At first he enjoyed it, working in the folk and classical department and "helping old people find a song". But he couldn't play the records he liked, because the shop's policy was to play the biggest sellers on repeat. "I got a bit morose. Then one of the girls on the permanent staff started picking on me, and then all the staff joined in. I was being given shitter and shitter jobs to do, and there was sniggering around me. I had pretty wacky hair at the time, so I don't think that helped. I was bullied, proper bullied. 

"On Christmas Eve, the boss gave me a can of freezer spray and a hard plastic squeegee, and he told me to get the chewing gum out the carpet at the front of the shop. It was a busy, big shop, so that when the doors opened and the Christmas shoppers rushed in, they were falling over me—he did it deliberately, to humiliate me. I remember losing the plot on my knees in the front of the shop, and just weeping openly into the fuckin' carpet." He laughs, mirthlessly. "The band was going nowhere, I'd reached saturation point with worry. I thought, 'you’ve got to pull yourself together'. I remember thinking, 'you’ll remember this as the worst it got, file it under W for worst.' Lots of awful things have happened since, but in terms of feeling you're in freefall, that was the worst it got. 

"I made up my mind then that I loved making music with the boys more than I loved the idea of succeeding, in inverted commas. If I spent my life making music with whoever would make it with me, and living modestly, that would be fine. And that signalled a sea change in the way we wrote, as well."

Looking back, is he glad they made it big so slowly?

"You can't help but think, if the first album had come out when it was supposed to, how much bigger would the band be, things like that. But then I can't regret the way it's gone." Later, he adds: "I half-own this lovely big house. I never thought I'd live in a place like this, and if I'm lucky, in the next ten years I'll pay the other half off."

 Above Elbow winning the Mercury Music Prize, 2008. Garvey called it "the best thing that's ever happened to us". L-R Pete Turner, Mark Potter, Garvey, Richard Jupp, Craig Potter

ELBOW'S STAYING POWER extends to the broader team every band relies on, the fixers and helpers, also known as the roadies and toadies. Phil the manager has been with them for 20 years. Lewis the publicist has been wrangling the press since the first album. Athena, Elbow's production assistant, has been shoving them onto the tour bus for ten years, taking time off from her job as an events manager for Manchester City Council (she hands round earplugs, so they can't hear each other snore). Jeff, their agent, has been there all along. "The fact that people stay with them is really impressive," says Alex Poots, artistic director of the Manchester International Festival, who got Elbow to perform with the Hallé Orchestra in 2009. "The other person I know who's like that is Ken Branagh, and it's always a sign of a really good artist. If they keep losing people, it's often because they can't control their ego."

Jeff the agent said it would take them four albums to break through, and so it proved. "The Seldom Seen Kid" lifted them into the big league. In October 2008 I saw them play the Portsmouth Guildhall; by March 2009, it was Wembley Arena, five times the size. They were left with a novel problem: how to keep this up. "You do feel the pressure," Garvey says, "and we almost turned our backs on it. We thought, 'could there be a better time to do a record for the fans and us?'" The alternative would have been to go for broke. "To do a stadium-rocking album. I don't blame bands who do that—Foals have just done it—as long as you don't compromise yourselves too much. But you can hear it when a band turns the money tap on." 

In 2011 Elbow released "Build a Rocket Boys!", an album of ruminative, only fitfully uplifting songs that drew on Garvey's childhood ("lippy kids on the corner again", the first single went; it is their biggest hit in Belgium). He had to hark back, he told Q magazine, because he was now "too happy". 

"We did have a pop at an anthem actually. Had all the right ingredients." He won't name it, but it sounds like "Open Arms" ("we've got open arms/for broken hearts"), an un-abashed lung-buster. "And it didn't work really, because people aren't daft." The album still sold 410,000 copies in Britain—enough to keep Elbow in the arenas, not enough to fan the expectations further. Now, under less pressure, they are putting the finishing touches to the next one. 

"Would you like to hear something?" 

The question is as rare as the one about smoking. The music business, paranoid about piracy, guards unreleased records like the crown jewels; critics have become wearily used to having to sign legal documents just for the right to sit in a sterile record-company office and listen to an album once. But here is Garvey, cuing up an unfinished song on his Mac. "At the moment it's called 'New York Morning', but we'll think of something better." The words are about New York, "a straight diary entry" from a recent trip with Emma ("Oh my God, New Yorkers talk"), but drawing back to bigger themes ("everybody owns the great ideas"). The music is typical Elbow, ebbing and flowing from a tentative verse to a surging chorus. Garvey himself is listening hard. His eyes have an air of the proud parent, but his ears are those of the music teacher; it needs proper brass, he feels, "and some of the words need to be more musical, more singable".

Eventually I say thanks, let's leave it there (another rarity: a publicist who doesn't pull the plug). "Can I play you another tune before you go?" Garvey says. "The sound of this one is more representative of the album." It's a love song called "This Blue World". It starts small, with a folky organ (a nod to Canteloube, "the Auvergne, which I love"), then gets big and romantic, with words that allude to love past as well as present. A thousand great songs are bittersweet; this one feels both sad and uplifting. "It's almost saying, everything from the beginning of time was leading up to the day we met. So that's very romantic, but something I'm fond of doing, when I'm offering a huge romantic gesture, is to point out the realities as well. But it can't be too sad, or it'll kill the front half."

Above Wembley, 2009: their first arena show. As Elbow have moved into bigger halls, Garvey has used tricks to maintain the warmth, including a shout-out for the person in the worst seat in the house

EIGHT MONTHS LATER, in October, Lewis Jamieson and I knock on Garvey's door again. He unfurls another hug for Lewis, and one for me too ("How are you, man?"). He's in his tartan shirt and the same jeans. But there's no bacon butty this time, just mugs of tea.

The kitchen is tidier, the big table facing the other way. "There've been a few changes actually." His voice softens. "Me and my partner, we split up in the summer."

"Oh, I'm sorry."

"Thank you, but it had been coming. We both knew."

"How long were you together?"

"Eight years living together, and before that two years, so ten years, I suppose." His tone gets brisker. "Where shall we go? Let's go next door, in the silly room."

I look blank, so he explains. "Used to be Emma's study. I had a friend round the other night, we sat in there, talked shite for hours and came up with the name. Otherwise it would haunt me for years, this room." We settle in a pair of upright armchairs, watched by a wall of empty bookshelves.

Breaking up, while hard to do, does tend to be grist to a songwriter's mill. Garvey hasn't turned this new record into a break-up album, but he has revisited the words. "I went back and found that a lot of the lyrics were well-crafted and I was proud of them, but some of them were missing guts and some were missing teeth. I've had the opportunity to change that and also to acknowledge what I was actually writing about at the time. So 'This Blue World', which was about this mythical mix of ex-girlfriends, it's really about her, it's this prophetic thing. I added some lyrics at the end, about imagining her going on and having a family without me, which is tough to swallow." 

He plays it to me again. "I loved the song, but it didn't have its point, I didn't know its point, until...recent events."

The other four members of Elbow all have children now. "I'm like their uncle." A few days later, Garvey posts a picture of himself on Twitter holding his baby godson, Ted Turner, son of Pete. "I'm so proud," he writes, "I could pop."

He plays me three more songs. There's one called "The Blanket of Night", which is about refugees and the main parties' attitude to them ("something we all feel quite strongly about in the band. I mean, who isn't descended from immigrants?"). There's "My Sad Captains", about losing a group of drinking friends: the title, suggested by Emma, is nicked from "Antony & Cleopatra" ("the only middle-aged love story in Shakespeare"). He says he wouldn't have had the confidence to draw on Shakespeare when he started writing songs, just as, on the first album, he didn't have the confidence to sing in his own accent. And there's "New York Morning", which is lined up as the first single, and still hasn't changed its name. "It was called 'The City' for a while, but then we realised the football implications of that, in this town."

Elbow have announced an Easter tour with dates at the O2 in London (capacity 20,000) and the Manchester Arena (23,000); not many acts can do that before releasing new music. These vast halls are the enemies of intimacy, so Garvey uses certain tricks. He gets the crowd to sing a song if they want an encore, from "I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside" in Portsmouth (which he has kept on tape, "for my retirement") to "Killing Me Softly" in New York ("I shouted 'harmonise', and they broke into brilliant harmonies"). He has an extension to the stage, "my vanity thrust", but it's not as vain as some: it goes into the audience, not over their heads. And he sends Athena the PA to find out the name of the person in the worst seat in the house, who then gets a shout-out from him. 

Successful bands surf a wave, and there are two broader currents carrying Elbow along. One is a hunger for live music, for the big communal experience. They have played Glastonbury three times, rising to second on the bill on the Saturday night in 2011, and they may well be back in 2014. When they're not playing there, Garvey goes anyway, as a fan. "He's exactly the same as he is on stage," Emily Eavis says. "He knows how to have a good time." She feels the crowd feed off the sense that he is one of them. "The last time Elbow played was on the Pyramid stage, and it was a really special moment. Guy had clearly been getting fully stuck into the festival and the crowd approved. I think he had mud not just on his wellies but all over his suit too. He's not at all arrogant or showy, he's totally down-to-earth, which is odd for a lead singer, but get him on a big stage and he'll have 100,000 people singing along and smiling their heads off. The band's music is really gentle most of the time, not bombastic at all, but he has a lot of presence and somehow communicates to huge audiences. People who love music are often quite tribal, but Elbow are a band who bypass that. The public have good antennae for bullshit and there isn't any with Elbow."

The other wave is identified by Alex Poots, who talks about generosity, as Gabriel and Eavis have, but makes a wider point. "He gives a lot, and he gets a lot by giving a lot: the most generous people are often the happiest. One thing that's come out of the great crash we've all lived through is a feeling that you need to be giving, not just rapacious. The generosity that Guy's had in his writing for 20 years, I wouldn't be surprised if that doesn't seem more relevant to us now."

Elbow's relevance shows up in a vivid way: their greatest hit, "One Day Like This", has become a wedding song, much as "My Way" is ubiquitous at funerals. Garvey knows this because people come up to him "about three times a week" to tell him they had it at their wedding. "And whenever we have string players in, they'll say, 'we play at weddings and we have to play that one'." 

"He has this ability to express quite profound things," Poots says, "in very open language that people can relate to." The line "one day like this a year'd see me right" is a case in point. It had been in Garvey's diary since his teens. "We put the chords behind it and realised it was going to be the hook of all hooks. I was like, 'what do we think?'" So there was some queasiness? "There was. It was, 'it's kind of similar to "Hey Jude", isn’t it?' I was like, 'yeah, and it's also similar to "Loaded" by Primal Scream, and we like both those songs, don't we? So isn't it just generous to do that, isn't it a satisfying thing for the listener?' It wasn't a case of 'let's do it', it was 'fuck it, let's do it this once'. And my God, how it changed our fortunes."

It reminds him of another diary entry. "I remember waking up one day and thinking how much I hate Frank Sinatra. My diary entry was 'write something to replace "My Way"'. It's such a horrible sentiment, isn't it? 'At the end of the day, I steamrollered over everybody else, and I'm proud of it.' It's the exact opposite of what we stand for as a band.

"A really horrendous phrase that you hear a lot is 'you're not responsible for their happiness'. You know, when you're talking about how you relate to other important individuals in your life. Course you are! It's the best that people can be, to look after one another. It's the best you can do with your time. Get more than three people in a room and they'll create something more than the sum of the parts, whether it's the moon landings or the Manchester premature-baby unit. That's how you progress as a species."

Above All mouth and some trousers: Garvey, spattered with mud, on stage at Glastonbury 2011 with Mark Potter. Elbow have played there three times and may be back in 2014

Elbow's sixth album Fiction, March 10th. British tour April 5th-16th

Tim de Lisle is editor of Intelligent Life

Portrait Sam Christmas

Photograph of 6 Music DJs Jason Joyce

Other images © Getty