Up until pretty recently, Guy Garvey says, he couldn’t have sat very comfortably in a place like this. We are in Roka in Charlotte Street in London’s West End, flagship of the discreetly expensive chain of Japanese restaurants, where attentive staff bring artful platters of exquisitely sliced fish and explain precisely in which order you might best consume them. “Before I met my wife I had a difficult relationship with restaurants,” Garvey says. “I never was that happy being waited on – I’d always be apologising and all ‘if it’s not too much trouble’. When we were first going out, Rachel said, ‘Do you like sushi?’ I said, ‘No not really.’ And she said, ‘Have you ever had sushi?’ I said, ‘No not really.’ She took me to this fabulous sushi place and she is great at just being natural in these places and I was immediately a convert.”
This newfound ease does not extend quite to ordering; we both, diehard provincials, are a bit flummoxed by the menu, so ask for recommendations and a procession of delicate sharing plates starts to arrive, fabulous morsels of yellow-tail tartare and crab gyoza and tiger prawn tempura, which, big-shouldered blokes, we carefully manipulate with chopsticks. Garvey and his band Elbow are in some eyes a byword for northern integrity and soul. He met his bandmates at school in Bury, Greater Manchester and they have, with one exception, stayed together for 30 years and nine albums. Their first gig was at the Corner Pin pub in Ramsbottom in 1990; they now fill arenas, but Garvey has long been wary of stardom.
“I’ve never been a sort of ‘repel all boarders’ Mancunian,” he says. “But I used to really enjoy having a jibe about London. Not just London, south Manchester. I used to tell a story about slipping on an avocado skin in Chorlton. And then five years ago I fell for a Londoner and moved here. And it took me a while to realise what my problem used to be. I was a bit frightened of the scale of it. It just takes you a while to find your feet. I live in Norwood, just down the road from Brixton, and I love it.”
The Londoner Garvey fell for was the actor Rachael Stirling, star of Tipping the Velvet. They have a son Jack, who is four. Lockdown has been an intensely emotional time for the family. Stirling is the daughter of Diana Rigg. On the day after the original shutdown – Stirling had just opened in a play at the Lyric, Elbow had been set to embark on a world tour – they discovered Rigg had terminal cancer, and she moved in with them. Stirling nursed her mother at home until her death in September 2020.
“Diana was so incredibly brave – and cool about it,” Garvey says. “There were offers of treatment, but she was like, no, no, I’ve had enough. She was a hoot. She read to our son Jack for as long as she could in the evenings. She had lots of visitors and we had codes worked out for when to get rid of them. There were Camparis at three o’clock every day. By the end, her and Rach were practically thinking with the same mind.”
Garvey found himself quite often awake in the night, writing bits of songs in the dark. The result is perhaps Elbow’s most mellow and heartfelt album, Flying Dream 1, which includes a lot of the raw emotion of that period. One love song, What Am I Without You, sounds like a father to son lyric, but was written with Stirling in mind. “It’s about watching this miracle of her care for Diana, watching her walk on the water and reminding her to eat and to sleep.”
During the same period Elbow started to perform a series of Friday evening online sessions from their respective homes. Fans would request favourite songs – Magnificent, Mirrorball, Lippy Kids – and they’d do one a week. “On the first one my head was absolutely in the stars,” Garvey says. “I didn’t make the bed in the background and I was wearing my dressing gown. A friend sent me a message: ‘Great song, put some fucking clothes on.’” After that he wore Hawaiian shirts.
They recorded the album in Brighton’s Theatre Royal, which by then had been shut down for longer than at any time in its 200-year history. Garvey suggests he wanted a place that echoed with lost laughter. “It’s a populist kind of theatre, you know, it smells of Gary Wilmot and Shane Richie. It was sad to see it dark.” The sudden, strange quiet seems preserved on the album, which finds Garvey in introspective moods (at a distance from the stadium-rocking joys of One Day Like This). Some of the songs take him back to his childhood growing up with five older sisters and a younger brother.
Their dad worked as a proofreader at the Daily Mirror in Manchester – when we meet at Roka, Garvey has just come from a short interview with that paper, reminiscing about his old man, after a journalist spotted his lyric in the title track: “Dad’s across town tonight fixing the Mirror / Shaking his head at a richer man’s grammar”. “I like that idea that people don’t really die until the last time someone remembers them. My dad died not long after Jack was born; he’d have loved seeing himself in the Mirror.”
Even as a teenager, Garvey says he was writing bits of poetry and lyrics, thinking of how they would age. “I think I realised very quickly that the further away in time you get from a diary entry or a note on a page makes it really emotionally interesting in ways that you can’t quite fathom.”
We talk a little about the ways in which music is often all about nostalgia for a certain time and place. Garvey mentions that he was invited along to the premiere of Get Back, Peter Jackson’s film of unseen Beatles footage. Garvey was sitting two rows behind Paul McCartney and could see his face as he was watching himself “back there in the room again with his mates, just drinking it all in”.
He doesn’t know McCartney, but he got an email off him once. “He said he was dropping off his grandkids at school, but he’d stayed in the car to listen to who a song on the radio was by, and it was our song Magnificent, so he sent us a note. I was like: ‘Our work here is done.’ If I’m having a dark tea time of the soul, I just remember that.”
We realise the waiters are going to keep bringing plates until we tell them to stop. We call a halt at some plump scallops and sit into the late afternoon sipping beers. As anyone who has listened to his songs might imagine, Garvey is a warm and honest presence, quick to find a joke, curious, self-effacing. He talks frankly of depressive periods when Elbow became a Mercury award-winning success, and he was drinking a bottle of scotch just to get on stage. He had therapy which helped unearth some demons of doubt (“I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t benefit from that kind of digging,” he says of analysis) but growing up, growing older with the band also helped.
I wonder if, 30 years on, they still have those moments of collective excitement, as depicted in the Beatles film, where the disparate individuals, hearing a melody, come together?
“We don’t often write together like that these days,” Garvey says, “but certainly sometimes in the studio someone will try something and everyone picks it up.” He has learned over the years that inspiration might come at any time, but when it does, you have to be able to catch it. He had a moment like that a couple of days after Diana Rigg died. “If I find myself excited about an idea I immediately switch my phone off and don’t pause for anything until I’m at the piano. I just had this melody and those words ‘is it a bird, is it a plane?’ and I was thinking there weren’t many planes in the sky just then, and I realised I was singing about Diana, ‘or is it a beautiful jettisoned warrior’s soul?’.”
What good songs can capture, Garvey suggests, is that “nobody feels one thing at one time. I was missing Diana and heartbroken for Rachael and Jack, but there was also this huge feeling of elation that I’d helped Rachael give her mother an amazing death. I think you can hear it all in that one loop.” Walking home, I listen to the track again and Garvey is not wrong, it’s all there, just as he hoped.
Flying Dream 1 is out now on Polydor. For UK live dates visit elbow.co.uk