From Manchester to Manhattan:
An Interview with Craig Potter + Richard Jupp of Elbow
Words and Photo by Ken Grand-Pierre
Not many bands can express themselves in an honest fashion that can come across as both beautiful and sincere. Luckily for us music lovers, this is exactly what Manchester based Elbow do best. The band returned to the states for a sold-out tour to showcase their new album, The Take Off And Landing Of Everything. Prior to taking to the stage for a sold out crowd at Webster Hall we got to sit down with keyboardist/producer Craig Potter and drummer Richard Jupp about how Take Off was made, and how it fits in with past Elbow releases.
How has the new album changed the live show, and were you guys conscious of that while recording?
Craig: The last couple of albums shifted the live sound a lot; especially because we usually don’t record the albums live. We tend to record separately and intertwine everything within layers of sounds so it’s often a chall…actually it’s not really a challenge anymore, we’ve been doing it for so long that with this album is was very simple translating the songs into a live setting, more so than we expected it to be. The songs worked straight away when we started to rehearse them live didn’t they?
Richard: Absolutely. I think an aspect I love about the new songs as well is that they have a bit of the band members infused in them as well. For example, my favorite song on the album is ‘Real Life’, was written by Craig while ‘Color Fields’ was written by Pete, and ‘Honey Sun’ by Mark. There’s all these separate elements to how those songs were written, but in the end it all came easier for us to approach the songs that way. It’s enjoyable to bring these songs to life the way we have.
I know that Guy wrote a lot in New York so you guys made the majority of this album while being apart from one another. What’s impressive is how full the album sounds even with that that aspect of the album being prominent. Did Guy being in New York effect how the album was created?
Craig: Yeah, it’s the first time we’ve done that properly. Originally we were going to take a year off, but that ended up being short breaks in random bursts of months at a time instead. One of those bursts was when Guy was over here. We’d talk over Skype and send things back and forth to each other. Most bands would dread that but it felt refreshing working in that way.
Richard: Pete traveled a bit as well, he traveled around Thailand for three months with his family, and it just happened that we’re always writing so there’s always little bits scattered about.
Craig, I’ve noticed that you’ve produced all of the bands albums past Leaders of the Free World. Was it a no-brainer to produce this one or was there ever the idea to bring someone else in?
Craig: It didn’t differ that much apart from one major difference, which was having an engineer in the studio. His name is Danny Evans and he’s our sound guy for the live shows as well. Ever since Seldom Seen Kid we’ve engineered ourselves, which was nice, but it felt even nicer having an engineer there to help me step back and immerse myself within the music more. At first it was very important to have it be just the five of us in the studio but honestly for me it feels nice having to not be completely tied to a computer.
Did he provide a lot of input during the recording process?
Craig: Yeah he did actually. He had a lot of ideas that popped up. The main aspect of it was to help us not be strictly hands-on with the production aspect of it all.
Richard: Yeah it was quite nice seeing more than the back of Craig’s head for once (laughs).
How has producing these albums changed how you view music as both a listener and musician?
Richard: I don’t know, I think you can see it many different ways. I think it makes the most sense for us since we don’t tend to write our songs in blocks the way most bands do. I think the only main difference between having an outside producer is…well say that I was to make a drum beat on this table and if the drum beat sounded good we could put it on a record. If we had an outside producer we’d probably lose that bit, and with it the intimacy to our music. That aspect of trust is major when you hire a producer and it’s been difficult for us to do that because, you basically trust an outsider with your baby.
Well to me that is a very understandable thing because you work with an album for so long it feels like your baby and then upon release it’s like you have to set it out into the world.
Craig: Yeah, we’ve worked with producers for the first three albums and we lucked out because nobody tried to force us to do things we didn’t want to do. I was always interested in the producing aspect, even during the first album where we as a band co-produced a lot of it, so for me it felt like a very natural progression stepping up to the producer’s chair. The biggest thing was dealing with the pace in which we’d write ideas down and record them; it’d be very quick at first.
So Richard, what were some drums you got to try when making this album and some recording techniques that were new to you?
Richard: I started playing on a more vintage kit for this record. I bought a 74-76 primer of my drum tech, Will Chapel. It’s a beautiful old kit and before I was using a very dense PHX kit from Yamaha, which I love but I didn’t end up touching on this record. I then moved drum companies from Yamaha to Sakae, so this record was a big deal for me because it helped me change my whole set-up really. I love Sakae because of the thin shells they make with their kits. The tone and sound of their kits are fantastic.
Were there any hurdles and challenges when it came to making this album that you guys didn’t expect to deal with?
Craig: Nope, nothing really. It really all came together easier than it ever has before. I don’t think any issues were able to arise with the way we work luckily (laughs).
Something I admire a lot about this album is how it subtly expands a sound you guys work within. There are a lot of layers but everything feels very direct. It’s very much an album that a band makes because they fully wanted to. Was this ever the concept for how you guys approached Take Off?
Craig: It’s very nice of you to say that. At first we said we wanted this album to be a bit ‘proggy’ but the main aspect was to give the songs more space to breathe, which is probably why a lot of the songs on the album sound quite long.
Richard: I think also that after ‘Build’ we felt that we finished something off, like a body of work. So with ‘Take Off’ it felt important to start something new, even if we did so in subtle ways then people would normally expect.
To me a song that really stands out is Honey Sun. How did that come together?
Craig: That was written by Mark and I think it’s our strongest example of things being different yet still reflecting on stuff we’ve done before. They’re parts of the song that kind of remind me of ‘Asleep In The Back’, the dark bits and the drum machine. I love how the song is mostly dark yet the chorus sounds bright and soaring.
Richard: It reminds me a bit of how Beck overlays on his tracks, a bit of an American-ish vibe.
Craig: Mark’s very much into blues so I think that’s where that aspect of the tune comes from.
Was it a quick track to make?
Richard: It was quite quick, yeah. The song was mostly completed by the time Mark brought it to us actually.
Craig: Yeah, we added some bits and sounds but we didn’t want to fuss with it too much. The structure of that song is everything and was there from the start.
Which song of Take Off were you guys most excited for the fans to hear?
Craig: For me it was ‘Sad Captains’. It’s a very simple song that’s strong and I knew that with the vibe of it that it was going to go down very well.
Richard: ‘Real Life’ for me. That song is…it’s just fantastic, I love it. It’s probably the most ‘Elbow’ song on the record, apart from ‘Sad Captains’.
It’s incredible that you brought up ‘Real Life’, because I find that track to be a shining example as to how greatly thought out the tracklisting for the album is.
Richard: That’s very good to hear because the journey aspect of the records is something that’s incredibly important to us as a band so it means a lot hearing you say that.
Is that aspect very deliberate?
Craig: Absolutely. We think about that aspect of the album very early on, we really want our albums to feel like journeys in a way. There have been times where we’ve ‘Frankensteined’ songs in the studio so that they’ll share a tonal quality to them to help them feel more fitting. I think on Seldom Seen Kid it’s very apparent with a track like ‘Weather To Fly’, the way that tracks recedes into the next specifically.
My favorite tune of the album is definitely ‘Fly Boy Blue’. It’s an example of the song-titles fitting the songs as well.
Craig: That is a big tune isn’t it? (laughs)
Richard: It is mind-blowing to us how different yet similar songs can sound in the studio and in a live setting.
I love that you guys are playing most of the songs off of Take Off, I think that’s the best way to get fans into a new album.
Craig: Thank you. That aspect of touring for an album is very important to us. It’s almost like, if you’re not going to do that then what’s the point? We are still playing some of our old songs but we really did feel it was more important over anything else to play these new songs for our fans. Our next goal is to play the title track (The Take Off And Landing Of Everything). We don’t do that yet but we really want to.
Richard: We discussed it because I’m a massive fan of it, we’ve talked about it a lot and it’s a tune that’s such a big production in itself, it’ll be a challenge for us to get it out.
The reception towards the album has been incredibly positive, but I’m curious: what’s an opinion or perspective you heard about the album that’s surprised you?
Craig: Someone said to us that ‘it’s not only your best album, but it’s one of the best albums I’ve heard in the last ten years’ and I remember right off the bat thinking ‘what?’ (laughs). I mean for a band like us, that kind of reaction is just…it’s insane, absolutely insane. We’ve never had that type of response before.
Richard: It’s moments like that which shock you the most because before an record comes out you’re always shitting it a bit internally, spending way too much time wondering how it’ll be received over anything else.
Craig: I think the biggest difference with this record over the other ones is the level of comfort we have talking about it. In the past we’d always have a bit of hesitation towards saying certain things and kind of hoping for a positive reaction in the back of our minds but with Take Off we feel very confident about it being the album we wanted to make, we’re very proud of this record. Simply put: we think it’s really good (laughs).
Richard: Yeah, to answer your question specifically it was when we demoed ‘New York Morning’ and ‘Sad Captains’ and seeing our friends and family react to those. To see people react to demos specifically was wild to us, because the response was overwhelmingly ‘what is it that you’re doing? that sounds fantastic!’ and we truly never expected that.
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