Interview with Elvis Costello
Age (Agenda),1991-09-01, p9
- Brian Wise
Elvis Costello talks to Brian Wise about the changes in his music, and what Australian fans can expect from his tour this month.
The new Elvis: The latest incarnation, with beard and black suit, is in the vein of the Grateful Dead, for whom Costello has a strange fascination.
"I don't want to name names, but there are obvious people who are just pandering shamelessly to public expectation," says Elvis Costello, the British singer/songwriter, who, with 14 years and more than a dozen studio albums since his debut, is unlikely to be accused of pandering to pop's fickle public.
While the past decade has seen a prolific growth in Costello's musical vision, it has seldom been matched by chart success.
Not that this bothers him.
"I don't sell anything like Madonna's figures but I sell a lot more than a lot of groups who have been built up as the new thing and will probably be gone by the time my next record comes out," he says emphatically.
Costello's latest album, 'Mighty Like a Rose', has met the fate of so many other recordings produced by what his producer mate, Nick Lowe, calls the "second line" of musicians. General critical acclaim and affirmation from the fans is followed - apart from the infectious first single - by neglect from commercial radio.
It is an aeon from Declan P. McManus, the pigeon-toed, bespectacled nerd who re-named himself with a defiant poke at rock history. Peering from the cover of 'My Aim is True' back in 1977, the new Elvis sang with an invective that wrongly placed him in the so-called "New Wave".
Costello says: "I don't think anybody can be under the misapprehension that I'm part of any movement, which was often written about when I first started. I'm really just on my own trip and it changes a lot and that's why people come and see me play."
By his own reckoning, the only time Costello was ever in danger of becoming a pop star was "for about 20 minutes in 1978". By 1981, Costello had grown in confidence enough to journey to Nashville to record 'Almost Blue', an album of country and western cover versions which provided a clue to his later eclecticism.
Costello's early records, which transcended the punk tag to include varied musical influences, were accompanied by a seemingly abrupt, even hostile, attitude to the media - particularly after he was alleged to have made a racist remark about Ray Charles. This earned him a fist in the face from Bonnie Bramlett (of Delanie and Bonnie, and seldom heard of since) and press vilification.
'I'm really just on my
own trip and it changes
a lot and that's why
people come and see
"I was one of the people that read it and said, 'Well, screw this guy, who does he think he is talking like that?' " recalls session drummer Jim Keltner, who has worked with Elvis for the past five years.
"I was really happy to find out later that he loves Ray Charles and all the other great artists and he didn't mean anything by it. It was just purely a silly thing that happened at a bar.
"Before he had that kind of angry young man stance," explains Keltner. "Now he's this really affable guy, very good natured about everything. I think he's turned into a truly great performer."
By 1986 Costello was again ready to try something different. Enlisting the assistance of producer T. Bone Burnett, he augmented The Attractions with a cast of respected American session musos, which included Keltner and guitarist James Burton and bassist Jerry Scheff - both of whom had played with that other Elvis.
"Some of the most bohemian, open-minded musicians I've ever met," is how Costello describes his American section.
By this stage Costello had also produced for Squeeze, The Pogues and The Specials, worked with jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, duetted with artists as diverse as George Jones and Yoko Ono and completed an acoustic tour with T.Bone Burnett.
The 1987 album 'Blood And Chocolate' saw Costello re-unite with The Attractions and Nick Lowe for a dense, sometimes abrasive, record that was to become somewhat of a watershed. For Costello it was to be the last time he was to work with his band and the record was almost a throwback after the more restrained tones of the previous album.
By 1989 Costello had returned to his stellar cast of American session musos and some special guests such as Roger McGuinn, Benmont Tench, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Chrissie Hynde and Tom Waits, guitarist Marc Ribot. The resultant album 'Spike, was to prove Costello's most eclectic with music that shifted from the brass band rhythms of The Dirty Dozen to the bittersweet fruits of a stint co-writing with Paul McCartney.
By the time Costello was ready to record his latest album his musical metamorphosis was complete. Costello's Iyrics retain what some have called the 'chainsaw through the thesaurus' approach-packed with images that are either bizarre or stunningly accurate in their emotional impact.
Elsewhere 'Mighty Like A Rose' includes 'Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4' - one of the best ballads Costello has ever written.
If Costello's musical growth was not evident enough on his most recent records there has been ample evidence in his various projects during the past year. Costello has not only written some more material with McCartney, he has also penned a song for the latest Roger McGuinn album and written for the great blues singer Charles Brown. Costello and band have recorded an album of cover versions with an indefinite release date, and have contributed one song to the 'Deadicated' album - the collection of Grateful Dead cover versions. Costello guested on the Sam Phillips album, appeared on a Charles Mingus tribute album and recorded a track for Rob Wasserman's 'Trios' project. He's also on the Board of Demon Records-a label specialising in hard to get material.
As well as that there has been an interest in classical music and composing for soundtracks, the most recent of which - 'GBH' - has just been released.
'I suppose it does reflect an interest in orchestral music,' says Costello, 'I've been listening to it just as something to get away from the music I do for a living."
IN a list of his 'Desert Island Discs' compiled earlier in the year Costello chose works by Shostakovich, ,Beethoven and Schubert to accompany Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bob Neuwirth, Charles Brown and Duke EIIington.
The other, seemingly more contradictory, element of Costello's musical taste can be seen in his recording of the Grateful Dead song 'Ships Of Fools' which appeared on 'Deadicated'.
'I've always seen the Grateful Dead as a bit of an outsider's band,' explains Costello. 'I know that's how I identified with them when I was a teenager because they were weird and ugly and they had the same kind of attractiveness to a fifteen-year-old that punk rock did.'
The other surprise Costello sprang on fans was his collaboration with Paul McCartney, which resulted in some of the best songs on the latter's 'Flowers in the Dirt' LP as well as tracks on Costello's latest album.
"When I was 11, I was in The Beatles' fan club, for heaven's sake!" says Costello.
"We had our moments of tension, disagreement, but in the main we got through the work very quickly. I think some of the best songs are still to be heard."
For his present tour, Costello formed the Rude Five, actually a quartet with former The Attractions' Pete Thomas on drums, bassist Jerry Scheff, keyboardist Larry Knechtal and guitarist Marc Robit (who, because of other commitments, will not tour here).
Costello had aimed to re-unite The Attractions but a novel, 'The Big Wheel', by former bassist Bruce Thomas, effectively put paid to the idea. Thomas's memoirs of a rock band has as one of its main characters the Singer, nicknamed "the Pod" beause his shape reminds band members of something from 'Invasion of the Bodysnatchers'.
The novel appears to be a thinly veiled attack on Costello, who may have already replied to Thomas on the latest album with a biting retort on 'How to be Dumb'.
"I won't pretend we're friends any more," says Costello of his former colleague. "But I don't hold any grudge or anything. It's pretty boring reading, actually - the whingeing memoir masquerading as a novel. Maybe his next one will be brilliant."
Elvis Costello and the Rude Five will be appearing at the National Tennis Centre on 23 September.