Many artists land record deals only after modifying their sound to conform to what's selling. Elbow did things the other way around.
The Manchester, England, outfit, which changed its name from Soft to Elbow in 1995, started out playing watered-down white-boy funk in 1991. Convinced they had to sound like Red Hot Chili Peppers to make a mark, they demoed song after song of syncopated beats, slap bass and wah-wah guitar.
"The idea was to get signed for uptempo pop crap and then do what you really want once you're there," singer Guy Garvey said. "We learned afterwards that it's an impractical way to do things. So we finally said, 'Look, we're never going to get a record deal. Let's put something out ourselves. Let's put out the music that we want to hear.' "
So Elbow Garvey, guitarist Mark Potter, drummer Richard Jupp, organist Craig Potter and bassist Pete Turner began to write songs that fused their passion for ethereal pop, prog rock and singer/songwriter music. The tunes were more heartfelt and evocative, coalescing in the same hazy realm that would later suit fellow Brits like Coldplay, Doves and Starsailor.
Elbow's debut album, Asleep in the Back, nominated for England's esteemed Mercury Music Prize last year, is indulgent and impassioned, sounding like a cross between Radiohead, Pink Floyd and Catherine Wheel. Whether exploring gravity-free realms on "Any Day Now," drifting melancholically on "Coming Second" or shattering the silence with cleaving swaths of distorted guitar on "Bitten by the Tailfly," Elbow are captivating and dramatic, maintaining a level of tension that provides a balance between beauty and sadness.
"I think a lot of our songs recognize darkness in our lives, but offer hope," Garvey said from his Manchester home. "I think our music can be therapeutic for people. If you're at the bottom end of your mood scale, you don't want to listen to Julie Andrews telling you how to cheer up. You want to know that somebody else has felt that way and it's OK to feel that way. We really get a kick out of it when people say they've used our records to make themselves feel better. That's the biggest buzz I can get."
Much of the Elbow's emotional turbulence stems from the turbulent trail the band drove en route to Asleep in the Back. By the time Elbow abandoned their rock-out roots and began to rock in, most of their friends and family were urging them to find other careers. There was even a point when they couldn't cajole five people to come to a gig, Garvey said. On top of that, during the process of writing their debut album, the singer's girlfriend of six years dumped him because she felt he was more committed to the band than to her. Soon after, Turner's father almost died of meningitis.
"The doctor said he wouldn't make the weekend, and I was watching Pete and his family fall to pieces," Garvey recalled. "All of that stuff found its way onto the record somehow."
Although Asleep in the Back isn't a concept record, Elbow have structured it with three thematic sections that reflect different phases of the band's existence. The first five songs are about the group's aching desire to escape their humdrum hometown. Then with the first single, "Newborn," Garvey starts to work through his crumbled romance.
"It's a love song about growing old and dying with somebody," he said. "But for every romantic sentiment in the song, I've tried to offer a gritty, realistic view of what it must be like to live with someone for that long. The first line is, 'I'll be the corpse in your bathtub,' so the imagery is quite dark."
The last chapter of the album addresses the band's growth from homebodies to internationally recognized musicians. (Elbow will begin a monthlong tour with Pete Yorn on April 4 in San Diego.)
"It finishes with a very positive note about returning home from time to time," Garvey explained. "So, while 'Any Day Now' is about getting away, 'Scattered Black and Whites' is about remembering what's great about being home. It comes full circle, but that journey is the important thing."
The rocky journey didn't end when the songs were written. After completing the tunes in a remote chateau in Lamont, France, the band returned home to find that its relationship with Island had been severed when Universal bought the label. As a consolation prize, the company allowed Elbow to keep the master tapes. But after the group self-released two successful EPs that received critical acclaim and radio play, Universal reneged on the offer and told Elbow they couldn't release any of the songs they had recorded.
"We couldn't believe it," Garvey said. "Not only did they refuse to release our record, but they had to make sure that no one else could pick us up. So we called their bluff and made the entire album again from scratch."
Impressed by the second version of the album, EMI expressed interest, but withdrew their offer before Elbow could sign the contract. So the band put out another self-released EP before V2 finally stepped up to the plate and signed the group.
"We've been through a lot to get where we are today, but it's all paid off in the music" Garvey said. "There's no way we'll ever do another album as good as this one. The next one will probably be a lot lighter because life is not half as difficult as it used to be."