|The Elvis Costello
Interview about When I Was Cruel
An old boy with a new toy
His last record was called 'All This Useless Beauty'. Irony, of
course, but it actually turned out that way. Now Elvis Costello is back.
There's nothing wrong with 'ageing pop musicians'. And nothing's more
fun than playing in a band, is what he seems to be saying with 'When
I Was Cruel'.
Elvis Costello is having a good time. It's a beautiful day, a spring sun warms his favourite hotel in Amsterdam, the 'Grand'. His wife has gone out for a walk before dinner. First a couple of interviews and in the evening a television appearance on the 'Barend & Van Dorp' show. The day after he'll be visiting another European city, to patiently and cheerfully talk to the press about his new album When I Was Cruel, due out next week.
It has become a routine job, a horror to many artists, but Elvis Costello (1954, real name Declan MacManus) knows like no other how to combine business and pleasure. Although he freely admits that it hasn't always been like this. 'It took me years to get the hang of it. In the past I used to see it as some kind of interrogation and I'd be defensive before the interview had even started, but no one was attacking me'.
When I Was Cruel, his new record, is supposed to put an end to the misconception that Costello has said goodbye to rock 'n' roll. His roguish eyes look at you from behind his black rimmed spectacles with orange lenses. Friendly, a bit smug, but concentrated and formulating clearly he lets us know that he has always had fun being a pop musician, although five years ago he might have said otherwise.
'I was genuinely disappointed by the sales of my record All This Useless Beauty. It was a very important album for me because I had finally come to terms with the idea of being an older musician and so I didn't feel I had to compete with younger pop stars.'
'I acted as if sales didn't interest me, convinced as I was that there would be an audience for an old bastard such as myself anyway. But that record did practically nothing and that was a hard blow.'
There was a lot of rumours in those days that Costello was going to quit. 'I don't know what I really wanted then. Even the tour with The Attractions wasn't what I expected it to be. And then you come to a point where you ask yourself whom you're doing it for. It was meant a little ironically, but, when you look at it now, a title like All This Useless Beauty, wasn't a bad way to put it. Not that I wanted to leave the music business, maybe just pop music.'
He had every opportunity to change direction. His collaboration with Burt Bacharach, which started in 1996 with the song God Give Me Strength for the movie Grace Of My Heart, was continued. The record they made together, Painted From Memory, was a great success. Apart from an Edison Award he also won a prestigious Grammy Award, so, after a career of twenty years, Elvis Costello suddenly found himself welcomed in very different circles.
He likes that. 'The funny thing is, that I've often indicated that my ambitions went further than rock 'n' roll, through my work with The Brodsky Quartet or the Jazz Passengers for instance. But since that record with Burt Bacharach it's apparently become official.'
Elvis Costello, musical omnivore. That's how he likes to see himself. His experiences with string quartet or a composer like Bacharach have taught him to listen to music differently. Last year he also made a record with Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, called For The Stars.
'All of that, so I could finally start rocking again', according to Costello, who wants to return to the core of the conversation. His new album. When I Was Cruel is, he says, his first real rock 'n' roll record in more than fifteen years. 'You can see it as a follow-up to Blood And Chocolate. My last band album with the Attractions.
'After that we did make some other records, but the band feeling just wasn't the same. We were a couple of loose musicians who came in to play their respective parts at the appointed times. Maybe because of those other projects I started to realise that it's the band aspect that makes rock 'n' roll so much fun.'
Costello's current band, with whom he'll be playing the Paradiso on Monday, is the Attractions minus bass player Bruce Thomas. He's been replaced by Davy Faragher; his other companions are long-time partners Pete Thomas, on drums, and Steve Nieve, on keyboard. 'But the approach was very different, if only because this time I took the rhythm as my starting point not the melody. I did the drums myself, wrote words on the rhythm - which was new. After that came the melody and the arrangement.
'Why? Because I think pop can only remain vital, or rather become vital, because I don't detect much vitality anymore, when the rhythm is the basis of the song. The pop music I listen to mostly is hip hop and r&b. Not because I like the rap or the singing that much, but I'm interested in the sound. There's a constant search for new rhythm and new beats there. Also I wanted to use sampling and tape loops.'
On that, he was assisted by his new production team The Imposter. Costello may have been educated as a computer programmer, but recent technological developments have pretty much passed him by. 'My knowledge is about as relevant as that of a blacksmith for flying a spacecraft. But I'm learning quickly.' Costello uses electronics in several songs, but the creaking sound of his old Silvertone guitar is still very much in the foreground.
'It's hard to make something really original with a rock 'n' roll combo.' he says. 'Rock 'n' roll has always been a mixture of styles. Elvis absorbed the music of Dean Martin, Bill Monroe and Ike Turner and came up with something called rock 'n' roll. As long as you don't take the charts as the measure of things and look further, then there are countless possibilities and then rock 'n' roll does have a right to exist.'
And you can become old respectfully with that, he hastens to point out. He came to that conclusion by Bob Dylan's Time Out Of Mind and U2's recent world tour. Dylan proved that, at his age, he could still make a record that surpassed a lot of his earlier work and could still be attractive to a new, younger audience. And U2 were proof for Costello that basic rock music with bass, guitar, drums and vocals was still a valid form.
'To be honest, I never really liked it. My wife Cait, who's ten years younger than myself, used to play U2 records constantly. We also live in Dublin so we're sort of in the same circles. So you go to each other's shows, and with U2 I suddenly felt it: such passion and drive and moments of sheer excitement. I hadn't seen that at a rock concert in a long time.'
What struck him about U2, who, like him, have an extensive oeuvre: 'They keep it fresh for themselves by playing unexpected songs at unexpected times. I couldn't compare myself with them but those are things I learn from.'
So, apart from the new songs ('Hey, I've got a new toy I want to try out') the audience at Paradiso can also expect many old songs. Songs he's recently been going through extensively, because his oeuvre is being re-released, again. Every album is accompanied by a bonus disc which contains material from the same period. For the first time the lyrics to his first five records are being printed, and Costello himself takes care of the liner notes.
With irony, self mockery and a flair for anecdotes he elucidates the songs. 'No, I never kept a diary. I'm afraid I've got a very good memory. So I thought I'd do something with it before it'd disappear.' During his reacquaintance with his music he noticed a slight shift in the lyrics. 'Whereas I used to let my characters speak of anger and frustration, now they are mostly disappointed by their own impotence. Of course that has to do with me growing old.'
Elvis Costello doesn't feel the need to act as if he's 22 anymore. Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and U2 can still inspire with authentic music. You shouldn't cling to one image, he says. Then, there's still a lot to be discovered, and Elvis Costello, now 47 years old, can still hang around for years to come.
In spite of his own doubts he's now receiving the appreciation he missed around the time of All This Useless Beauty. He's a welcome guest at society parties, has got connections in the entire music industry and was co-presenter of the latest Grammy awards; with pride, he saw his friends U2 and his old partner T-Bone Burnett go home with the most important prizes.
'I know my old audience thinks I only do operas nowadays, but you can't please everybody. This is a good time for ageing musicians- and I'm bursting with energy. That's why I picked a place like Paradiso, to show my old fans that the old man hasn't forgotten them.'