The Back Page: Thinking Outside The Box Store

back-page71510So you’re leafing through the ads in the Sunday paper and what to your wondering eyes should appear but the new Cat Power CD for $7.99. At Best Buy. This, you figure, is a great thing. Cheaper than iTunes, way cheaper than the $12.99 they’ll probably be charging at the local record store. And look: You can pick up Broken Social Scene, the Arcade Fire and a couple other titles at the same ridiculous price. It’s almost free, and therein, gentle indie rockers, lies the problem.

A quick confession: I have been guilty of buying music and DVDs, as well as appliances and such like, at Best Buy. Oh, I resisted at first. When they built the monstrous new store up the highway from my house, I avoided it entirely for a few years. Better to spend money with local businesspeople, I figured. Better to support the stores and shops run by entrepreneurs with an investment in our community. I wore down.

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Elbow: You Can’t Go Home Again


The members of Elbow may have impressed the world with their prog-bent pop, but back home in Manchester, the conquering heroes have so much to answer for. By Tom Lanham

There are people whose mere presence can fill a room. All they have to do is stroll into some soiree, and every other attendee instantly shrivels up in shameful comparison. There are those kinds of folks, and then there’s Guy Garvey. A mighty 6-foot-plus Mancunian who’s physically and figuratively imposing, Garvey commands a crowd no matter where he goes, no matter what he happens to be doing. He may not dress the part—always appearing in rumpled dress shirts, loosened neckties and beat-up old dinner jackets, three days’ worth of stubble customarily clouding his face—but this husky singer for prog-rock revivalists Elbow just can’t help winding up the center of attention.

Which is why it’s so unusual on this nippy New York afternoon to witness the big guy slumped over like a boiled shrimp, hobbling along with the help of a grandfatherly walking stick. As he makes his way from the Hiro Ballroom—where Elbow will be playing in a few hours—to a nearby sidewalk café, even the elderly step aside to let him lurch past. “Hey, wait up!” he pleads in a mastiff-booming bark as Elbow’s wiry, dreadlocked bassist Pete Turner quickly outdistances him.

But Garvey has a good reason for why he’s limping. He lowers his hulking frame into a tiny wicker chair, raises his injured left leg onto an adjacent seat and winces in pain before beginning his tale.

“I am a volunteer fireman, you know,” he shrugs. “And this old lady needed rescuing. She was twice my weight, and down I went.” He pauses. “No, no. The true story is really boring. I was crossing a road and they had these dots on it, like floor braille for blind people. My right foot slipped on the braille thing, my left ankle took the brunt, then down I went.”

As rickety as he appears post-trauma, Garvey still manages to turn heads. “There was this gorgeous waitress in the restaurant the other night, and everybody was looking at her, but she fancied me. I’m sure it was my injured-serviceman look.”

“It was the stick,” sighs Turner, rolling his eyes. “The stick definitely did it.”

No sooner had Garvey suffered his spill than he was surrounded by lawyers. “The amount of people who told me that I should sue somebody over ridiculous,” he snarls. “Sue who? Sue the blind for having braille dots on the edge of the crosswalk? I was being contacted by Lionel Hutz from The Simpsons. And it’s just that litigious culture of today; everybody claims some sort of injury and nobody takes the responsibility. Everybody, whatever they do, whatever part of the world they live in, has a responsibility to stick their hand up and say, ‘That’s bullshit,’ one way or the other.”

Garvey’s sentiment is echoed on the title track of Elbow’s third album, Leaders Of The Free World (V2). Until now, the band has carefully sidestepped politics in its ethereal, vintage-Genesis-echoed music. “Leaders Of The Free World” is an accessible, jangle-chorded shuffler with a chorus that clearly calls out the machinations of Bush and Blair: “Leaders of the free world are just little boys throwing stones/And it’s easy to ignore ’til they’re knocking on the door of your homes.”

“Now, of course, the watchwords are ‘terror’ and ‘evil,’” muses Garvey, sipping the first of several shots of whiskey. “Which give my words to ‘Leaders’ a terrible new poignancy. We’ve got a prime minister in England who has regular meetings or phone calls with Rupert Murdoch or whoever’s running the media. And you’ve got a president who was mis-elected, thanks to his connections with the media. The media aren’t just the eyes and the ears of the people; they’re the voice of the people, as well. So I think there should be some sort of Hippocratic oath for journalists; they have the greatest responsibility ever now. What scares me the most these days is apathy. It’s like everybody is the mayor in Jaws: ‘Nothing to fear here. Nothing going on. It’s never gonna affect us! Don’t worry!’”

The 31-year-old Garvey groans and adjusts his foot on the chair, recalling that he and his bandmates spent the previous night in The Back Room, a bar co-owned by Tim Robbins. Garvey later discovered the actor was there when they were.

“I didn’t even know,” he says. “If I could shake one hand, it would be his. I was dancing on my fucking cane last night, though, which is why my ankle still hurts today. But if a lady wants a twirl, what can you do?”

With Garvey’s rhetorical question hanging in the air, it’s a fine time for an Elbow flashback. Cut to late August 2001, in another hip little café: the Night & Day in downtown Manchester. The quintet, which hails from nearby Bury, has pretty much claimed the place as its own; Elbow stickers are plastered everywhere, underscoring the fact that the band has risen to prominence within these walls, gradually building a huge local audience from its dinky, kitchen-sized stage. The waitresses all wave hello to Garvey and Turner as they shamble in one early evening and sit down with me for their first American interview. Over Budweisers, the duo relates the story of Asleep In The Back, the dreamy debut album that will earn Elbow a Mercury Prize nomination later in the year.

One of seven children, Garvey studied art, drama and physics before getting kicked out of college and his parents’ home. He found steady employment at the Roadhouse, a Manchester venue that also hired Turner as well as future Elbow drummer Richard Jupp and keyboardist Craig Potter. Garvey coordinated security, looked after visiting artists and collected the money at the door each night.

Studying so many bands up close proved good practice. Elbow soon won an unsigned-band competition, found national airplay through the support of BBC DJ John Peel and, in 1998, inked a big-time deal with Island Records. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be: Island dropped the earnest group shortly thereafter and held on to its finished album masters. Garvey and crew had to start from scratch via local indie label UglyMan, which issued two EPs and built up a V2-enticing buzz. Asleep In The Back was like nothing in Britain at the time; the ornate keyboard/guitar interplay of the Potter siblings (Craig and guitarist Mark) hearkened back to early Genesis masterworks. For his part, Garvey sang in a wheezy, pneumatic drone that recalled Peter Gabriel circa Foxtrot and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.

But a strange thing happens at the Night & Day this August evening. A struggling young Mancunian combo takes the stage and purposely begins a squealing, interview-halting soundcheck an hour too early. Its members seem to sneer with bratty pride as Garvey and Turner rise and head downstairs, where we finish the chat in the club’s spooky basement offices. No more than 10 minutes later, the lights suddenly flicker off, leaving the three of us to feel our way along a cobwebbed, pitch-black corridor to the cellar door. Upstairs, everyone feigns innocence. Nobody knows who switched off the power or why. Garvey could throw his considerable weight around, demanding an answer. Instead, he just shrugs, says hello to the shocked young outfit and orders another beer. Garvey sweeps this petty jealousy under the carpet. After all, the lyrics of Asleep concern themselves with everyday tales of drinking (“Don’t Mix Your Drinks”) and dating (“Bitten By The Tail-Fly”).

“We’ve been accused of not really understanding the people we’re writing about,” he rationalizes. “In terms of the sort of meatheads you come across in Bury and Manchester. But we actually understand exactly why these people go off, why they get into football hooliganism. Thatcher killed any sense of community, divided and conquered using the police force as her army. So these guys today have gotta find their own community, and they’ll find football or whatever they can. And if they can’t be proud of who they are, then they’ll be proud of who they aren’t.”

Back in New York, Garvey is recalling another troubled tale involving fame, friends and his hometown. Returning to Manchester for Christmas after a whirlwind world tour in 2001, Garvey was at a pub when he saw one of his old mates: Lee, the singer in his first band, Synoptic Reverb.

“He was as drunk as a skunk,” says Garvey, who played drums in Synoptic Reverb. “I’m like, ‘Fuckin’ hell, Lee! How ya doing?’ And he said, ‘Slumming it a bit, aren’t ya, rock star? What the fuck are you doing back here? You’ve forgotten where you’re from, you fucking cunt! You’ve forgotten your roots!’ So hearing this, I was devastated. And I went to the other side of the room and thought, ‘How can I let this guy know that nothing’s changed? That I’ve just had some good luck and nothing’s changed me?’”

Garvey hit upon an ice-melting idea. “I remembered every word of the first song the guy ever wrote,” he says. “And I went back across the room and sat down in front of him and started singing it. Initially, he looked a little confused. Then his jaw dropped because he remembered he’d written it. And I made it all the way through the song, singing it to him.”

Instead of heartwarming hugs all around, Garvey got shut out: “He went, ‘You’re living in the past, you. You fucking cunt!’ So you just can’t win.”

On some level, Leaders Of The Free World concerns itself with international affairs. It even bears the logo imprint of MAG (Mines Advisory Group), the anti-landmine charity once touted by Princess Diana that’s now become Elbow’s chief humanitarian cause. However, Garvey says Leaders Of The Free World is really about Manchester. Elbow has seen the world, but now the band is just happy to be back home. Garvey sings its praises over tambourine and soft, feathery keyboards on the opening “Station Approach.” As his train pulls into Manchester, he exhales verses such as “Coming home, I feel like I designed these buildings I walk by” and a modal, repetitive chorus of “I need to be in the town where they know what I’m like and don’t mind.” Over the jittery, jarring arrangement of “Picky Bugger,” Garvey continues his Mancunian missive, noting with pub-crawling pride that he’s been “drinking in order to feel.” Which leads straight into the lost-weekend scenario of “Forget Myself,” a melodic processional that finds him addressing his hometown directly: “I’ll forget myself if the city will forgive me.”

If it seems like Garvey has returned home to lick his wounds, well, he has. Raised with five older sisters who bombarded him with their record collections of—you guessed it—Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, he grew up sensitive to thoughtful, intelligent music. He’s sensitive to the world around him, as well. So when he entered into a tabloid-trumpeted relationship with British radio DJ Edith Bowman in 2004, Garvey had nothing but great expectations.

“It lasted just short of a year,” he recalls, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “And it wasn’t a very high-profile romance until the very end, when she got very busy with her job and became a household name, almost overnight. Which was weird. She can handle that; I can’t.”

Garvey holds no grudges. “She and I are still very good friends,” he says. “I spoke to her yesterday, in fact. So yeah, we tried something, we both wanted it to happen. It became more troublesome than it was pleasurable, so we retired to a safe distance. And it was sad that it didn’t work, but I don’t regret it because I’ve made a lifelong friend out of it.”

And there’s a lesson there for the average single male, Garvey insists. “The modern relationship isn’t based on conquest and acquisition of a woman,” he says. “That just doesn’t happen anymore. But I know a lot of people who still think like that, and they can’t bear the idea of being friends with an ex because there’s been some rejection involved.”

Suddenly, Garvey realizes he may be criticizing some of his local Manchester lads, and he grinds that grouse train to a halt. “I once sat in judgment of these kids who come into the town center and kick off with a pint or a fight,” he cedes. “I sat there loathing ’em and judging ’em, and then I understood the pressures in their lives, the unhappiness. You just start to realize the kind of pressure that people are under every single day.”

There was a time when folks might’ve justifiably compared Elbow to the similarly adventurous Radiohead. Elbow has moved away from that now. The band had employed producer Ben Hillier (the textural-minded svengali who took Blur to Marrakesh to record 2002’s Think Tank) on both its debut and 2004’s Cast Of Thousands. But for Leaders Of The Free World, Elbow decided to work alone at Manchester’s Blueprint Studios.

“It was this big, massive room, and we just filled it full of gear,” says Turner. “Craig was on eBay buying all these weird instruments that were sent over from India. And I’ll tell you the best part: You know the beginning of ‘Mexican Standoff’? There was a mountain bike in the studio, and I don’t know how it happened, but we turned the mountain bike upside-down and fastened plectrums onto the wheel, the actual tire. Mark had this old, knackered Spanish guitar, and he held a chord on it while Guy was turning the wheel. Jupp’s little boy Dylan was there, giggling, so that’s what you’re hearing on that song. It was silly, pointless and stupid, but it was kinda the way we were in the studio.”

Elbow is also coming to terms with prog, which Turner asserts is no longer a dirty word. “I know that sometimes it’s really pompous and over-the-top,” he says. “But I know exactly where we were coming from when we were writing Asleep In The Back, and we were listening to Genesis’ Trick Of The Tail and Foxtrot.”

“Prog is a positive thing,” says Garvey. “It’s not about sex or style. It’s about experimenting with music, about loving the job and having a laugh, about putting your work out there with a hell of a lot of effort involved, with no contempt whatsoever for your audience.”

Garvey still recalls the night when Peter Gabriel walked in on Elbow during an after-session dinner at his Real World Studios. “I had a spoon on my nose,” cackles Garvey. “A spoon literally balanced on my nose.” A minor Garvey/Turner argument ensues over the inherent worth of Phil Collins, who assumed vocal duties for Genesis after Gabriel’s 1975 departure. Despite his own percussionist past with Synoptic Reverb, Garvey growls, “You cannot trust a drummer who becomes a singer. Especially one who finishes his marriage by fax.”

Later this evening in New York City, Garvey balances much more than utensils: his own burly body, teetering to and fro on a barstool onstage at the Hiro Ballroom. Again, the cane comes in handy; he uses it to stomp time to the Jupp/Turner beat, to emphasize certain lyrics with extended gesticulations and to point to various audience members during an impromptu Q&A session that occurs when an amp goes momentarily haywire. After the show, Elbow engages in a night of nonstop drinking, then takes a quick album-promoting detour to Canada, but Garvey has his heart set on returning to Britain.

“The greatest thing about this past year was being at home, so you can sleep in your own bed, see your partners and friends,” he says. “For me, Leaders was released when I went into The Temple—an underground bar where I go every day for a liquid lunch—and heard it on the jukebox. When your album’s on the jukebox in your local bar, the album is out; that’s just the way it goes. But because the owners are friends of mine, whenever an Elbow song comes on the jukebox in that bar, they have a reject button behind the bar they hit so I don’t have to sit through it.”

Turner is aghast. “But I like that, though!” he barks. “I like hearing our stuff in places! Because I’m just quietly proud inside. Proud and very happy.”

José González: Brighter Later

jose-gonzalez350bA superstar at home in Sweden but still largely unknown outside of Europe, Argentine-born folk singer José González—like his Norwegian counterparts Kings Of Convenience—has ushered in another banner season for the quiet-is-the-new-loud crowd. He’s landed a song in an OC episode, provided the soundtrack to a Sony commercial and signed to Mute Records.

The first few years of González’s life were spent in a town called Mendoza, located in the foothills of the Andes mountains near the Chilean border. His father, a singer, filled their home with all kinds of music, but he was eventually forced into exile when a military junta seized power in 1976.

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Grandaddy: All That You Can’t Leave Behind

jason-crouchingcrop23After a brilliant career tending to the sci-fi pop landscape, Jason Lytle is retiring Grandaddy. A story of suburban living, skateboarding, rehabilitation and a rearview mirror. By Jonathan Valania

“The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding  death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death.” —Socrates

“Fear not death, for the sooner we die the longer we shall be immortal.”
—Benjamin Franklin

When the end came, it was not nasty, brutish or short. Death was not proud, nor was it soft or painless, truly shocking or terribly sad. It was just the end. There would be no tears, flowers or services for the dearly departed. No deliverance from the valley of the shadow. No ashes to ashes or funk to funky. No half-mast flags or “Taps” played on warbly boomboxes in beer-stained VFW halls. There would be no raging against the dying of the light. When the lonesome crowded death of Grandaddy came—after 14 years, five albums, four EPs, countless tours and enough critics’ hot air to float a fleet of zeppelins—there was only a simple declaration: uncle.

“We’re just not going to get to that next level,” says Jason Lytle, Grandaddy’s singer/songwriter/leader. “We could get up on that big rock ’n’ roll conveyor belt one more time, but I know how it’s going to end. I’m doing everybody a favor and ducking out gracefully.”

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Whysall Lane: Return Address

wysallane330Richard Baluyut and Adam Pfahler would writhe to hear it, but they define been-there-done-that indie-hipster tough. Hunkered down at a professional poker table in the dry-walled basement of San Francisco video store Lost Weekend, they sprinkle their conversation with references to gambling, pornos and baseball games. The shop employs Whysall Lane singer/guitarist Baluyut (who still performs occasionally with his old band, Versus) and is co-owned by drummer Pfahler (a veteran of the late, lamented Jawbreaker), who restlessly shuffles a deck of cards and sorts band buttons like poker chips.

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Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan: The Odd Couple


n the surface, it appears to be a match made in hell: Ex-Screaming Tree and tattooed tough guy Mark Lanegan teaming up with ex-Belle & Sebastian chanteuse and Audrey Hepburn-delicate Isobel Campbell for an album of duets. It’s a concept one British writer described as “taking a wire brush to a kitten,” chortles Lanegan. Or, perhaps, a real beauty-and-the-beast alliance?

“Yeah,” he sighs. “That, too.”

Campbell, who penned all the folk-traditional tracks on Ballad Of The Broken Seas (V2) save “Revolver” (written by Lanegan) and “Ramblin’ Man” (a shuffling cover of the Hank Williams classic), views the arrangement quite differently.

“I can see why people would be like, ‘What a crazy duo,’” she confesses in a chirrupy Glaswe-gian burr. “But that’s all kind of superficial. From my point of view, it just seemed perfectly natural. We just met, had an appreciation for each other and got on with it.”

With Campbell residing in Scotland and the Seattle-bred Lanegan living in Los Angeles, such a transatlantic partnership seemed unlikely to succeed. According to Campbell, it all started a couple years back, when she was harmonizing in a local studio with her friend, former Vaselines/ Eugenius frontman Eugene Kelly. The cut proved difficult; the pair just couldn’t seem to nail it. Suddenly, she understood what the song was missing: a booming bass voice to offset her seraphic trill. An old beau played her a few Screaming Trees records, and Campbell decided to mail Lanegan her music.

“Sometimes you send things to people and just never hear back from them,” she says.

So Campbell was stunned when, late one night, the phone rang in her newly rented flat. “I was just sitting in a room with no furniture,” she says. “And it’s Mark on the line, going, ‘Yeah, I’ve written this thing for your song,’ and then he sang it down the phone. So that was my first introduction to him. Really surreal.”

The resulting track (“Why Does My Head Hurt So?”) was included on Campbell’s 2004 Time Is Just The Same EP. By the time the two musicians crossed paths in Glasgow a few months later, Campbell had already penned another dirge with Lanegan in mind. A full-length project wasn’t far behind, and the two polished off Ballad Of The Broken Seas through a steady stream of e-mails and FedEx packages.

It was a cakewalk for Lanegan to tackle a murmured take on Hank Williams. (Campbell whispers daintily in the background, to the sound of whip-cracking Cramps-ish guitar.) “When I heard the darkness in Isobel’s material, I was drawn to that aspect of it, for sure,” he says. “But there were also some really, well, I won’t say happy songs, but more kinder, gentler tunes that were a real stretch for me, like ‘(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?’ And that drew me to it as well, because it gave me an opportunity to do something I hadn’t done before and hopefully grow as a result.”

Campbell, meanwhile, was eager to explore historic English/Scottish folk. In retrospect, she’s still amazed at how traditional Broken sounds.

“I didn’t know that much about folk before this,” says Campbell. “I mean, I’ve always been a huge Dylan fan, but it wasn’t until after I finished the album that I got really into a lot of the old songs, and then I was like, ‘My God! Dylan just totally stole that!’ I love all the old Appalachian murder ballads, as well; they’re really dark, but they make it so romantic, with people being haunted by their dead husbands or whatever. It’s fantastical, really psychological, and that just gets me so excited. Because life can be really strange, as well. Bad things happen, good things happen—life can be really weird. An imaginative person like myself can just fantasize on it forever.”

Ultimately, Broken proved a welcome diversion for both parties. Campbell will return to her next solo set, Lanegan to his new solo album as well as the Gutter Twins (his side outfit with Greg Dulli). What have the two learned about each other that they didn’t know before?

“Isobel is not so timid,” says Lanegan. “She’s pretty brassy, truth be told.”

For her part, Campbell giggles like a giddy schoolgirl: “I think Mark is a bit of a beauty himself. He has a secret beauty all his own. And besides, chicks always fall for the dangerous dudes. Like Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf. It’s good to be good, but sometimes an edge is quite all right. And I’m not saying Mark is the wolf. He’s more like an old lion.”

—Tom Lanham

Sparks: Please Explain

sparks350It’s been reported you spent 18 months working on your new album, Hello Young Lovers (In The Red). Yet the opening track quite clearly and quite often proclaims that “All I do now is dick around.” What are we supposed to believe?

Sparks’ Russell Mael replies: It’s all hard work. Humorous elements in our music are sometimes mistaken for frivolity or novelty. For every song like “Dick Around,” there are several months of agonizing work, trial and error and experimentation to be able to do something musical that isn’t based on tried-and-true conventions of pop music that have been around for 50 years. We take the craft of making our type of music very seriously. In order to have 20 albums and still be able to do music we feel pushes the boundaries within pop is a task that few in our position seem willing to adopt. We approach every new album with the idea that it might be the first album a listener may hear from us and it has to stand on its own without reference to past music we’ve done. In that sense, Hello Young Lovers is our debut.

Gravenhurst: Out Of The Ashes

gravenhurst355Nick Talbot’s punk moment had nothing to do with a teenage riot, a Clash double album or a mosh-pit injury. Talbot, the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist behind Gravenhurst, had his musical epiphany while listening to the pastoral psychedelic hum of Bristol, England’s Flying Saucer Attack and Movietone.

“It was the first time I heard really lo-fi, four-track music pressed onto vinyl,” he says. “Before then, I’d been listening to Stereolab and My Bloody Valentine, bands that spent a lot of money on recording. It’s very liberating to hear a good album recorded for nothing in a bedroom.”

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Shelley Short: Working Title

shelly_short350bOne thing you can say about Shelley Short: The girl’s got a thing for titles. Where, for example, did her career begin?

“The Second Annual Holiday Hot Dog Rodeo,” she says in the same little-girl voice in which she sings. “It was just a bunch of singer/songwriters; they each played three songs. I didn’t have any songs, so I wrote two.”

Short, a Chicago resident whose third full-length has just been released by Hush Records, admits she spent weeks trying to find a suitably stirring moniker for it.

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