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Elbow builds music out of small details

The British band is touring to support its latest album, 'Build a Rocket Boys!' The band may not be widely known in the U.S., which may be due to its elusive sound, but it's been around since 1990.

October 01, 2011|By Marcia Adair, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Singer Guy Garvey of the British band 'Elbow' performs at a concert in August.
Singer Guy Garvey of the British band 'Elbow' performs at a concert… (Herbert P. Oczeret / EPA )

Reporting from Toronto — — "Have you seen any butterflies?" Not the first words one would expect to come from Elbow founder Guy Garvey's mouth, but Toronto is in the midst of the monarch butterfly's annual migration south, something that has piqued the curiosity of the 37-year-old Brit.

Elbow is in the middle of its own kind of travel: touring in support of its most recent album, the Mercury Prize-nominated "Build a Rocket Boys!," its fifth full-length release. The band won the prestigious Mercury — which honors the best British record of the year — for 2007's "The Seldom Seen Kid" but remains a relative cult band in America. The tour arrives at the Greek Theatre on Saturday night.

But perhaps Elbow's stature in America is less than it is overseas because its sound is so elusive. Sometimes described as prog-rock without the solos, the band, formed in Manchester, England, in 1990, makes music with exceedingly detailed structures that band members construct with sophisticated meters and harmonies. It's a British sound, prone more to introspection than to flat-out rock, created with the goal of finding the balance between musical and lyrical emotion.

"The game is," Garvey said, "how do you say the most in the fewest words possible and still serve the music? Some singers only sing to have something to do while they're dancing. It's not that way with me."

The recent single "Lippy Kids" manages to hit that spot. The song begins with a gentle piano and an echoed whistle that was created while Garvey was testing the microphone. The band captured the sound and then pasted it into the opening moment.

"We're very specific about how the sound suits the feel of the song," said keyboard player Craig Potter, "and we don't necessarily put drums, guitar, keyboard and bass in it just because those are the go-to instruments. We sit around the computer and build the layers, as opposed to putting a song together live."

Garvey and the band also weave his lyrics through this process, with the singer searching for personal moments that resonate. "Lippy Kids," he says, rose from what would seem like a passing thought prompted by an incident in his neighborhood.

"I was struck looking at some kids on a corner near my house," Garvey said of the song's genesis, "that my view of them had changed now that I owned a house, because that's where my loved one lives — and I had a castle to defend all of the sudden." Garvey took note of children's faces and what they were wearing. "Then I thought, 'Why are you feeling that way? That was you 20 years ago.' If you get annoyed with young people for being young, as I was doing that day, it's your problem. It's you that needs to fix it."

Garvey interrupts himself as a monarch flutters past the window, logging another few yards on its journey. The singer lights up like a schoolboy. "Wicked. That was beautiful, wasn't it?"

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