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INTERVIEW: Elbow's Mark Potter on taking Build A Rocket Boys! on the road
We obviously did things right last time because this is TG's second visit to Elbow's space within Blueprint Studios. We previously made the pilgrimage up the M6 in November 2010 as the band were tying up work on their then-untitled fifth album.
It's now early February, Build A Rocket Boys! is in the bag and we're back in Salford, ready to witness how the band prepare for their largest headline tour yet: an 11-date procession through the UK's biggest indoor venues culminating in two nights at London's O2 Arena at the end of March.
The riff emanating from the Victorian warehouse that houses the studio is from the band's latest single, Neat Little Rows. It's a powerful pentatonic lick, barely muffled by the building's red brick walls. Elbow are in 'The Big Room'. They're taking a break, but amiable and quick to introduce themselves.
"We're gonna make the arenas feel as intimate as we can."
"Just try not to make me look fat," frontman Guy Garvey laughs as TG checks it's okay to photograph their rehearsals. This room has changed a lot since our last visit. The grand piano that took pride of place during recording is covered, a whole stage has been erected and guitarist Mark Potter's reduced – but still extensive – touring setup occupies a large corner of it.
The sides of the space are littered with piles of music stands, bottles of water and giant spools of cables. A large selection of hardcases, stencilled with 'ELBOW', are dotted around and four or five green leather Chesterfield-style chairs now live in one corner. A ping pong ball rests on top of one of them. For all TG knows, there's an accompanying table buried somewhere in here, too.
The Big Room is the musician's shed mark II, a cornucopia of vintage gear, music-related oddities and whatever else the band have stored here in the six years they've had the space. And we're ready to see it in action.
Onstage, Elbow work together with the kind of efficiency, humour and co-operation that can only be achieved through a 20-year friendship. "If everyone remembers the gaps in this song, I'll give you a tenner each," says Garvey, before TG is privy to a debate over which chord to end the set on.
The album's finished now, but that doesn't stop them from tweaking the songs for the road. As they work their way through set closer, The Birds, it's Mark's bluesy slide riff (played on a National Resolectric) that resonates across the room, in contrast to the recording.
"I'm proud of that riff," Mark tells TG later in the day. "It's kind of buried [on the recording]. Initially, it was right up in the mix, but because it's so repetitive it had to sit in the backing track a little bit. The temptation would have been to say to my brother [Craig Potter, keyboards/ producer], 'Go on, push the guitar up!' OK, I might've said that a couple of times!"
This modesty is indicative of the band's attitude. Take their self-imposed schedule, for example. When the band are off tour, they work a nine-to-five in the studio, and whether they're writing, recording or rehearsing, they clock in and out with the rest of Manchester.
There's only one exception, and that's at the beginning of every album cycle when they embark on a strictly band-only retreat to the Isle Of Mull in Scotland's Inner Hebrides to stay in a mutual friend's converted lochside chapel.
Every Elbow album since third effort Leaders Of The Free World has been born out of a ritualistic fortnight of building fires, fishing, beach combing, communal dinners and a generous helping of single malt whisky. It's like Swallows And Amazons, but with more booze.
"The most creative time is in the evenings," Mark tells us. "It just seems to come at night, doesn't it? We'll carry on until three or four in the morning because we can. That's the whole point of being there. Nobody's got any kids to be getting up for, and if the music is coming, we just keep on going."
One of the record's most beautiful songs, the fingerstyle Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl, was written and recorded in Mull. "John Martyn is one of my favourite players," says Mark of its origins. "I'm not saying I can play like him, but he's a huge influence on my acoustic guitar playing."
The song is based around two chords and an open tuning. "I just started playing it and Pete [Turner, bassist] being the subtle bastard that he is came up with this bassline that hardly ever moved, so when it does, it's so effective."
Elbow's more textural approach involves a lot of different equipment, though, which has to accompany them on the road. Among his rig are four Godin Montreal models. "I started using them about five or six years ago. They have an acoustic output and an electric output and the electric sounds as good as my ES-335.
"I'm in talks with Godin about making a signature guitar. It will be somewhere between the Montreal and the 5th Avenue. It's still very early days, but I'm hoping that the next time I'm in the studio, I'll have a guitar with my name on it!"
In total, Mark takes about 15 guitars on tour, including "four Godins, two Gibson ES-335s, two National Resolectrics, two standard Teles, two Martin acoustics… You need two of everything to go on tour, and these are nice guitars we're having to get 'backups' of," he says. "This why my bandmates hate me!"
Mark's latest acquisitions are a TC Electronic G-System and an RJM Amp Gizmo. "[This setup] does everything," says Mark of the careful programming by his tech (and artist himself) Matt Skinner.
"We use the Amp Gizmo to sort the channels on my Mesa/Boogie Roadster and the G-System to sort the patches. Now, when I hit one footswitch on the G-System, [the G-System] changes its in-built effects, the loops to my analogue T-Rex pedals and my amp channel [via the Amp Gizmo]. It's the setup I've been looking for for years."
Gear in place, Elbow are pulling out all the stops for this tour, including a four-day tech rehearsal at a purpose-built studio. "We did a couple of arena gigs at the end of the last tour, but it just feels like everything has stepped up a level now," says Mark.
Elbow are determined to offer both new and established fans an experience, as TG finds out when we're treated to a soaring rendition of new track, Open Arms. "We're gonna make the arenas feel as intimate as we can," Mark concludes. "We want to make it unlike any arena gig you've ever been to."