Elbow is one of those rare bands that seems able to do everything well. If I didn't love their work so much, I might even despise them for it. The perfect blend of abstract textural elements and great songwriting, Elbow's records represent a band rife with creativity and musicianship, well suited to Guy Garvey's beautiful voice and exceptional lyrics. Elbow has self-produced and engineered their last two records — 2006's Leaders of the Free World and 2008's The Seldom Seen Kid. The Seldom Seen Kid has all the hallmarks of self-production and seemingly none of the drawbacks — there's no sense of "lo-fi" or haphazard production here. This Mercury Prize-winning album is as meticulously crafted as a record comes, but doesn't suffer from a lack of soul or feeling. During their tour this summer, I was able to meet up with Craig Potter, Elbow's keyboardist, resident engineer and the producer of The Seldom Seen Kid.
The band as a whole was credited as having produced the previous album, Leaders of the Free World, but on this record you ended up with sole production credit. How did that come to be?
We've always produced and mixed our own b-sides. On Leaders of the Free World we did plan on doing it all ourselves but got a little bit stuck. I didn't feel I had enough experience to take it all the way, mix-wise especially. It had always been a confidence thing until this time — I did take more of a leading role as producer, and the band were very kind to give me the credit. It's the mixing thing again — I did it and it sounded good and no one is complaining. [laughs]
All the Elbow records have a very distinct character about them. Your debut [Asleep in the Back] sounded so confident — it sounded like you knew exactly what you wanted.
I suppose we were lucky to not get signed until we were good, because we weren't good for a long time. We've been together for eighteen years now.
Did the band work on an album before being dropped by Island Records [before the release of Asleep in the Back]?
We did, yeah. Steve Osborne recorded the entire album, and we got dropped before releasing it because of takeovers and the money things. It was really frustrating.
Do you think that studio experience helped you shape Asleep in the Back?
It must have — it is experience, and experience plays such a big part in production and mixing techniques. It's all about experimentation. I don't know anything about the technical side of things. I know people who have gone to technical colleges, and you still need a good four or five years of experience.
A lot people start off in a traditional studio as an assistant, but you got to learn a lot of that while working with the band.
I've got a band to record and it's my band, so it's quite lucky, yeah? [laughs]
I imagine it's difficult to juggle those roles as musician, the producer and engineer.
Yeah, it was us five [recording The Seldom Seen Kid] - the whole thing. [Drummer Richard] Jupp actually took on engineering. Everyone took his own role.
You guys did Leaders of the Free World and The Seldom Seen Kid at Blueprint Studios [in Manchester]. I understand that you guys rented a big space and holed up for a while?
Yeah, they have a massive room. We did it all in that room, except for mixing some stuff in L.A. at the end of the sessions. Blueprint Studios hadn't really been built until we started [The Seldom Seen Kid], and is actually on the floor below the big room. We were lucky to get that room to ourselves for Leaders of the Free World. It was really great — but a bit weird trying to get mixes together in there. Their studio is up and running now, so we can't use that room but for the odd day here and there. We do a lot of re-amping and that sort of thing. It's really great to chuck a few amps up for a couple of hours and try different combinations and mics. We get to play in there as well, but not all the time. It's made the record sound different — we used the stairwell. We've got a little room now, but the stairwell sounds better than the big room for drums. I wish I'd known that for Leaders of the Free World. [laughs] It's a little bit more pleasing.
How do you maintain your focus and not get bogged down with all that time to tweak and refine things?
We probably flip between songs a lot because we can. We do everything in Pro Tools, so it's all in the box — mixing, all the way. I don't have any outboard gear at all. I've got cheap [Focusrite] OctoPre preamps for recording.
That's what you used to track the record?
Yeah, and [the mix] was bounced to disk. It's great because we can flip from song to song and it's all...