Question & Answer with Elvis Costello
- Chris Willman
TRAVELIN' MAN Costello's musical journey has always surprised
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
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
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
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
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
|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