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Question & Answer with Elvis Costello
Entertainment_Weekly, 2002-05-13
- Chris Willman




TRAVELIN' MAN Costello's musical journey has always surprised

Elvis Lives

Elvis Costello talks about 25 years as a rocker. The 47-year-old music man shares his sharp ideas about pop music, Dylan, religion, and his own impressive career by Chris Willman

Now that his recently reissued debut album, ''My Aim is True,'' has hit the 25-year mark, Elvis Costello joins the very short list of major rock & rollers who have sustained greatness for a quarter century. After leading the new wave surge and creating a cluster of memorable albums with his band the Attractions, he went on to explore a wild variety of genres: country (1981's ''Almost Blue''), neo-classical (1993's ''The Juliet Letters,'' a collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet), torch balladry (1998's Burt Bacharach collaboration ''Painted From Memory'') -- all the while bridging the gap between the insolent feistiness of the post-punk era and Cole Porter's panache in his witty, sophisticated lyrics. Costello's new album, ''When I Was Cruel,'' is being celebrated by fans and critics as a return to the harsher and more acerbic sounds of his early albums. Before the album's release, he talked with us about his old songs, new material, and impressive career.

Some fuss has been made over the fact that this is the 25th anniversary of your first album.
I get a bit confused, because I started making that record [1977's ''My Aim is True''] in 1976, and I don't really count those kinds of anniversaries with any significance. I always think, why is 25 years important? Why isn't 26? It's just perverse of me, I know. But I never understood all that century stuff. It's a bit odd, the way we break it down.

Did you ever get people at record labels telling you, ''Elvis, with all this genre-hopping, you're diluting the brand''?
But who would that person have been? That figure of extreme authority who's been on the job five years, or me who's been in the job 25 years? I rank everybody now. If Bob Dylan were to come up to me and say that, I might have a thought for it. But there's not too many people that have been doing what they do as long as I've been doing what I do. And trying to make a record I made in 1978 over and over again wouldn't be a serious endeavor for anybody.

Filmmakers take on and cast off their identities and the roles they're involved with and the people they're involved with. Like when Stanley Kubrick made ''Dr. Strangelove'' and ''Spartacus'' and ''2001''.... Really the only person who's in popular music with that kind of range is Dylan. Just, say, with the last two records -- they're so contrasting. One [''Time Out of Mind''] is drained of extraneous images, and then the next one [''Love and Theft''] is filled with them. In rock & roll, I suppose I can't think of any other examples. If they have the range, they don't have the scope or the scale. If they have the scope and the scale, they don't have the other things that make music good.

Did you feel that pressure to return to an earlier style from your audience, though?
Inevitably, you're going to get some people who are younger and don't have the same sentimentality about those early records. I know that was the case when I played at Woodstock '99. There was no consensus in the crowd about who I was and what they were expecting. Because of the age of the audience, they had no prior knowledge of my repertoire. The only song of mine they recognized was ''I'll Never Fall in Love Again,'' and once we did the ''Austin Powers'' song, we could do no wrong.

You went through a few years when you were identified as a crooner. But on your new record, your vocals are much more raw, even distorted-sounding.
The thing is, I didn't sing in the studio for some of it. On ''Dust,'' I'm singing live in the control room with just a regular stage mike, using the playback speakers as a sound system. So that put a real ferocious sound on them. And I wasn't prettying up my voice because I'm not singing with any vibrato to speak of.

TEAM PLAYER Costello performs with collaborator Anne Sofie in New York in June 2001  


''Daddy, Can I Turn This?'' is the most furious rock song on the album. The title comes from a news account of the last words heard before a plane crash a few years back, right?
That phrase occurs in the transmission from the flight deck of an Aeroflot jet that crashed in Russia. The pilot is supposed to have let his 13-year-old son pilot the plane, and that's the last thing he's supposed to have said. But the song itself isn't about a plane crash. I just used the horrible image to power a song about wanting to do the reckless thing. It's like ''Can I turn this gas on?'' or ''Can I turn the wheel of this fast car?''

There's another new song called ''When I Was Cruel No. 2.'' But you used to perform a different song called ''When I Was Cruel.'' Why did you go back to that title?
I felt I hadn't really examined the thoughts that were contained in that title, in that they limited themselves to the area of romantic betrayal. So I wrote another song, using the same phrase. In this one, it's about coming to the realization that people of influence -- the people you're led to fear -- are not so dreadful, but really quite puny, when you see their stained clothes and their bad toupees. There's so many boring songs written about fame and how hard it is -- or just simply ''I want to be famous.'' There's not too many that say, ''Yeah, well, it is something, and you will want it, but it's still ridiculous.''

The song ''Dust'' ends with the line ''I believe we all become a speck of dust.'' Is that pretty much your religious view?
Yeah, I think so. That isn't to say that there isn't any kind of guiding power in the whole of creation. But would it be such a terrible thing if we just became a part of everything? It'll just shut some people up -- like for eternity. That's gonna be a much bigger shock to Jerry Falwell, for instance, than finding there really is a hell and he's in it. Because there's some sort of melodrama to that. Just finding that he's silenced forever is a much greater form of hell for somebody like that.

Why another round of reissues when you just put the catalogue out as recently as the mid-'90s?
The main reason is because Rhino will simply continue to promote the records, whereas Ryko simply didn't after the first three came out. And my attitude is slightly changed. I think the liner notes are a little bit more cheerful, a little bit less depressed than the ones I wrote for Ryko.

HANDS DOWN Costello's career has ricocheted among genres  

You've feuded with Attractions bass player Bruce Thomas, who wrote a nasty book about you once. With the liner notes to these reissues, it almost seems like you're getting a chance to do a serialized retort, every time you mention him.
There's no retribution intended. I think there's a bit of wicked humor now and again.... The one thing I wouldn't be prepared to do is write him out of the story. I'm not a Stalinist. I think his contribution as a musician is always spoken about with respect and... I don't know if affection is quite the right word. Certainly he played great on all those records, and I don't think he's ever given less credit than the other guys. But he was always a miserable bastard, so I mean, I'm not going to pretend that he was once a great laugh. He did have a sense of humor briefly in 1978, and he was after that fairly hard work, to be truthful. But that's not the most important thing in the world, being mates together. We didn't grow up together like some bands, so it wasn't really very important whether we got along.

You must be aware that the odds are against anyone sustaining greatness over a period of 25 years in rock and roll. It happens in film and the other arts, but not here, generally speaking.
I haven't made any half-hearted records. That's probably the most I would allow myself to say. I've never made any records that I didn't really care about. There are some I've had second thoughts about, or tracks on them, at least. But there are no records where I can't remember why I was making that.

I've worked with different people and been therefore afforded different opportunities by the combinations of people -- mostly chance encounters with people who you admired previously who suddenly are brought into your life in a different context. Or a cataclysmic thing happens that suggests you should work together. Like the invitation to work with Paul McCartney... or the Burt thing, where somebody had the idea of putting us together and we clicked. But we couldn't predict that. That's not consistency, that's just good luck! Didn't Brian Wilson say ''I'm not a genius; I'm just a hard-working guy''? I hope he did. That's a great quote.


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