Few artists in the lexicon of modern music can match the achievements of Elvis Costello. For 14 years he's been the voice that cuts to the bone of modern life. On the eve of his 37th birthday Costello speaks to MATT SCHOLTEN about his forthcoming Australian tour.
You know how it is when you're running late. Itís Friday night and dinner's on at a friend's place. Already, characteristically, you're late, but finally, you've showered, dressed, properly coiffured and juggling around three or four never before used excuses. Keys and bottle in hand, you dash to the front door. The phone rings. For a moment, you teeter on one foot trying to decide whether (to take) the other steps out onto the pavement or back to the hallway. Another excuse suddenly becomes viable and unlike the others, truthful. You pick up the phone. "Hello, is that Matt?Ē says a deep, English voice. You identify yourself. ďThis is Elvis Costello," says the voice.
Ordinarily, this is where the conversation would end in a flash of anger and crash down of a receiver, but suddenly somewhere in the back of your mind you recall your Editor casually mentioning that Mr. Elvis Costello could be calling you to discuss his upcoming Australian Tour. You dismiss the opportunity as a dream or at best unlikely. Suddenly, itís here and now.
And you're running late, unprepared, stomach rumbling. This is no prank call. This is not one of your friends.
"If this is an inconvenient time, I can call back," offers Elvis Costello in a friendly, casual voice.
Somehow I stammer that tomorrow would be more convenient, more conducive to an interview. Costello consents, and suggests one oíclock as a new time. I agree, pant down the phone breathless apologies and he is gone.
Itís not until I get to the first traffic light that I realise just what I have done in my impatient rush. Vision of Elvis Costello blacklisting me. Visions of a blonde, angry Music Editor pounding his fist on my head. Visions of writing for The Truth classifieds, still I guess not everybody can tell their grandchildren about the day you were too busy to talk to Elvis...
At five past one the next day Iím already finalising my suicide arrangements when the phone rings. My heartbeat returns to normal as Elvis Costello greets me again, inquiring politely about my dinner arrangements.
So far, Costello has lived up to my expectations as a casual, friendly chap more concerned with making and creating music than with controversy. Not that controversy has never been a word used to describe his so far fourteen year career. Regarded by many as the grandfather figure of punk and indeed of 80s songwriters, Costello has always been a left of centre, deliberately uncompromising artist.
Since 1977's My Aim Is True album and the classic Alison he has been a darling of the alternative glitterati and consistently an interesting, admirable artist; the classic purveyor of the pre-eminent pop single.
Controversy has been an almost constant shadow for him. From the first outrageous Australian Tour with The Attractions, his fights with various m of the music industry, the line up changes in his backing bands and his own personal life, Costello has been something of a whipping boy for the media, particularly in the United Slates and United Kingdom, where he rarely agrees to interviews.
Perhaps I have pulled off something of a rare feat by getting Costello to speak with me, even more spectacular in my ability to have him call me back. I think it is perhaps more of a case of my nationality. Costello has generally always had something of a strong and viable connection with his Australian audience. His visit here next week will be his ninth to our shores and he is quite happy about returning for number ten in the near future.
"Somehow, Iíve rarely disappointed people in Australia. You'd think that people would tire (of) me coming down, but they don't seem to. That's what keeps me on my toes and keeps me always thinking about the shows and the content.
"For those shows, Iíll be backtracking a little getting out and playing some older material, maybe even some old tracks off older albums that some people may not have ever heard before, so it will be something a bit different," says Costello.
"With that type of show, sometimes things can become a little random and a little disjointed so Iíve had to sit back and think a lot about structure and cohesion with the show so it becomes a performance of some nature rather than just a collection of songs."
Costello is touring with a band dubbed the Rude 5. I wonder what sort of people make up this group of musicians?
"People a lot like me. As a group we've really become really close, which is so very important when you are touring because you spend so much time together. Itís not an inevitable thing that you'll grow close to people you work and tour with, you need to work on it all the time.
"We're just concentrating on our jobs and on actually enjoying ourselves and having a great time there. We don't let things that are out of our control like sound and reviews and venues bother us. For that two hours out on stage we just concentrate on getting things right and getling our ideas across to the people?
Uncomfoftable as he is with the notion, Costello is someone whose opinion and ideas will be taken note of. Monikers such as 'the spokesman of a new generation' and the classic 'angry young man' are well and truly done to death with describing him and his music; indeed they are names both difficult to live up to and tiresome to keep explaining.
"The whole 'angry young man' thing was never a true and accurate reflection of me," observes Costello.
"It was a convenient tag, a tag someone gave me who never even met me or talked to me. It was so wrong, but it stuck. I always have regarded it as a bit of an insult really, itís like a dismissive little thing rather than something to introduce myself with at a party.
"Now at this stage of my career it really means less to me that it ever has. Itís like an old B-side or something. Very much throwaway. Iím definitely more interested in people's ideas once I've spoken with them," says Costello.
I offer my own recent tag of 'Mr. Consistency', which I described him as when I reviewed his latest album Mighty Like A Rose.
"Now I like that I think," says Costello, much to my surprise. "That is, if you consider what Iíve been doing throughout my career as something worthwhile. I could live with that nickname provided that I was also considered someone 'adventurous and prolific. I can handle that one."
When Elvis Costello talks about today's sounds you listen, and what you hear is the idea that things are going nowhere fast.
"I don't want to sound like someone who is nagging of whinging or looking back into the past with tearful eyes. I mean, I consider myself a part of today's music, a player you know, so really perhaps Iím as much to blame as anybody. Even though many people still slot me in the late seventies and early eighties, I think some of my best work has been done recently.
"But when I listen to the radio, which strangely I still like to do, I hear things that bore me. Like sampling and a lot of dance music. I mean, when I hear the word 'dance' I think of rhythm and of interesting beats but so much of whatís being played at the moment has this droning, god awful backbeat. It seems you can't escape it.
"Iím going to sound like an old bore here, but I still need to hear real instruments. I still like to hear a real guitar or some simple piano work of some real strings. That's what I still try and do. Tell some strange and some macabre stories with some truthful musicianship.
"But listen to me will you! Iím thirty seven years old tomorrow and that's considered ancient by some people. Maybe when Iím forty Iíll mellow out and actually start to like more things or maybe Iíll still be set in my ways."
Elvis Costello & The Rude 5, with special guest Richard Pleasance, play the National Tennis Centre on Monday September 23.