Elbow interview (Monster Riffs Week)

Elbow's 'Grounds For Divorce' entered our Greatest Riffs Of The Decade poll at number 42. A Page-esque bluesy barn-stormer (powered by a multi-tracked Les Paul and an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff), the song was chosen as the lead single for their 2008 Mercury Prize winning break through album 'The Seldom Seen Kid' .

'Grounds For Divorce' blindsided Elbow doubters and won a coveted Ivor Novello award for Best Contemporary Song. TG spoke to guitarist Mark Potter to find out just where the hell it came from…

Check out Total Guitar issue 207, a Monster Riffs special.

Elbow interview mark potter talks 'grounds for divorce' riff

Elbow interview mark potter talks 'grounds for divorce' riff

© David Atlas/Retna Ltd./Corbis

Another attention-seeking lead guitarist

When did you come up with the riff?
"You know how most guitarists have something that they play every time they pick up a guitar? Well, that was my one. For 10 years the lads never seemed to notice it. I'd play it and look around the room expectantly and be like, 'Oh well, no reaction again.' Then about two years ago, I played it and Guy [Garvey, vocals] was like, 'What's that?' I said, 'What do you mean what's that? I've been playing it for 10 years!"

How did you record the song?
"It was a Gibson Les Paul through an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff pedal and then I used a '54 Vox AC30 head with a vintage Marshall 4x12 cab. It's not like I thought 'I'm writing a rock riff, therefore I must use a Les Paul'. My favourite guitar is a Gibson ES-335, but I played it on that and it didn't quite have the sort of crunch that I was going for, so as soon as I picked up my Black Beauty Les Paul, that was it - it sounded great. Originally I just recorded the one riff and then I thought 'Well, how about if I track it two of three tones up the octave?' Then I did down the octave and then I played it on a bass, bending the note on that as well. When we twinned these four or five signals of the same riff played in five places on the guitar, it just sounded massive."

Elbow interview guitarist mark potter

Elbow interview guitarist mark potter

© Bob King/Corbis

Getting it off the ground

How did you build the song around the riff? It's not a traditional 'bed' for a rock riff…
"Originally Guy tried to sing along with it, but it didn't work really, because it's such a bluesy riff. It didn't sound genuine, but the riff on its own did stand up and eventually we decided not to have a vocal on it. I came up with that slide guitar riff - which is very simple and I thought, 'Well, if we keep the verse acoustic then this dirty riff kicks in on the chorus then it's going to be all the more effective'. We did about three or four versions of it though - there was like a dancey, Stereo MCs-style version and a full-on rock version, which was pretty heavy and had distorted guitars all the way through."

Was it a chance to show off Elbow's heavier side?
"It's the heaviest and loudest Elbow get really. I'm sort of the rocker in the band - I love Led Zeppelin, AC/DC are one of my favourite bands - but it's very rare I get to rock out, so I was pretty chuffed that people liked it and we got it to a stage where the rest of the band were enjoying it. It's my moment really - I love playing it live."

What do you think it is about that combination of notes that gives the riff its power?
"It's quite a lazy sounding riff and I think it's a little bit sleazy. Especially because of the way the notes are bent, and because it features several guitars tracked and bending, the notes are never going to sound the same. If it was done on an octave pedal, which I have to do live, it hasn't quite got the same feel because the bends sound the same."

Keeping the faith

Were you surprised by the reaction you received to the song, or was it more a case of being confident that your time had come?
"I believed in it - I was just waiting for everyone else to come round! We went for it as the first single, because we wanted to come back with something that people weren't expecting. Hopefully, it was what made people start paying attention a little bit. I think if we had come back with 'One Day Like This' first, things wouldn't have been the same. That's an anthem and we kind of knew that it would do well on the radio, so it was a conscious decision not to lead with that. The real danger was people turning around and saying, 'What are Elbow doing playing blues?' Fortunately, that didn't happen."

Who are your riff-writing influences?
"Angus Young is one of my heroes. I love Peter Green and early Fleetwood Mac because I like guitar players that sound like they're afraid of disturbing the neighbours. For me it's 'less is more'. I've also been listening to a lot of slide players and Delta blues stuff recently. When you think of riff writing though, you think of Jimmy Page. I love that documentary with Jack White and The Edge ['It Might Get Loud'] - their faces when he launches into 'Whole Lotta Love'… He's the master really."

Have you got any tips for readers who are trying to write their own riffs?
"If you can sing it and it's in your head then it will more than likely transfer to your guitar. If it stays in your head, then it's a hooky riff. The more you pick the guitar up, the more likely you are to come up with something good. Like I said, I played the riff from 'Grounds For Divorce' every time I picked the guitar up. Not any more though, it annoys everybody in the band now!"

Check out Total Guitar issue 207, a Monster Riffs special.

Matthew Parker

Matt is a freelance journalist who has spent the last decade interviewing musicians for the likes of Total Guitar, Guitarist, Guitar World, MusicRadar, NME.com, DJ Mag and Electronic Sound. In 2020, he launched CreativeMoney.co.uk, which aims to share the ideas that make creative lifestyles more sustainable. He plays guitar, but should not be allowed near your delay pedals.