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Interview with Steve Nieve
ItsGrey, 2002-04-30
- Kevin Lisankie


Steve Nieve's new album "Mumu"  

ItsGrey Tracks Down: Steve Nieve

“The grin of a keyboard black and white
I carry you all through my life / And you carry me too."

By Kevin Lisankie

In 1977, at age 19, fresh from the Royal Academy of Music in London, and with little knowledge of pop music, Steven Nason was chosen to be the keyboard player for The Attractions, the band being assembled to back Elvis Costello. Then, the name changes began. Since then, he has been alternately Naive, Nieve, and Neive. And, for one strange year in 1984, he was Maurice Worm.

Along with drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas, The Attractions recorded and toured with Costello until 1986, broke up, reformed in 1994, only to fall apart again in 1996. The past few years have been a frenzy of activity for Nieve, who now lives in Paris. Besides the Costello/Nieve duet tours, the opera "Welcome To The Voice," film soundtracks, and a host of other live and recorded work, he recently released "Mumu," his first solo album to include his vocals, and began work on his website stevenieve.com.

On the recently-released "When I Was Cruel" and the accompanying tour, Nieve and drummer Thomas, with bassist Davey Faragher, are again playing with Elvis Costello, this time as The Imposters. And this is where we find the 19 year old 25 years later, as ItsGrey Tracks Down Steve Nieve.

Why the title “Mumu”?

The album title is the nickname of my girlfriend Muriel [filmmaker, designer, and writer Muriel Teodori]. Most of the songs were addressed to her, and without her I would never have recorded it. Mumu is short for Muriel. And Muse.

How did the (December 18, 2001) Paris “Mumu” showcase go? Will you be playing more shows promoting the album?

I really enjoyed the showcase gig, at La Scene, a small club near the Bastille in Paris. I worked with Vincent Segal on cello. He plays in France with a band called “M.” On clarinets and saxophone, we had Renaud Pion, another excellent French musician who has played with many artists including Bjork. Mark Ribot was not available to play guitar, so I invited Elvis Costello, who approached the task with great creativity and added so much that wasn't on the album. On top of that, we had the great pleasure of reinterpreting a couple of my favorite Costello songs, “Shipbuilding” and “The Birds Will Still Be Singing.” We also did a rendition of “You Lie Sweetly,” a Costello/Nieve composition. I hope to do more live work here in Europe with the same musicians. And of course I'd love to play in the States with Ribot and Ned Rothenberg in the near future.

Speaking of "You Lie Sweetly," what are your plans for the many songs co-written with Elvis that you have performed live off and on over the past few years? Do you plan on putting them all on one album or will they come out on different projects?

The original idea was this: I discovered a great songwriter in France whose lyrics seem to have that same quality that Elvis' have, that sets them apart from the other songwriters. I put together a book of 24 “wordless songs” and posted them to Elvis and to the Frenchman, who will remain nameless. In my letter, I proposed that if they would put words to these “correspondences,” my music could be a bridge between these two men. Elvis, who is known for taking a risk with his work, jumped in immediately; he was intrigued by the idea. I sent him translations of some of the Frenchman's work, and that was how “Lesson in Cruelty” and “You Lie Sweetly” came about. On the French side, I'm still waiting to hear, but I want to give it time. Too many things these days are done with speed and I want to get back to some old fashioned values with “correspondence.” In the meantime, I have sent some new “correspondences” to some people I admire, just in case the original bilingual project doesn’t materialize.

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“Who knows where I'd be right now without my electronic keyboard?”

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The vocals are very “naked” on Mumu; you seem to be pushing your voice to its limits much of the time. Have you worked on your singing?

Muriel didn't want me to become a singer. I had to persuade her by re-recording the songs many times trying different approaches. I think it was her reluctance that pushed me to work on my voice. I discovered that I had to take distance, that if I put any emotion in my voice, it didn't sound genuine, because I'm not a singer. But, if I sang softly with no intention, sort of detached and cold, then the emotion appeared. It was a strange discovery, and trying to persuade Muriel helped me to find my way. “Mumu” has been on general release around Europe since late February [2002]. I trust it will be out in the U.S. soon but have no schedule yet.

Referring again to the songs you have co-written with Elvis Costello, he commented on the effect living in France has had on your writing; do you agree?

When I first came to France, it was to work with Alain Chamfort. For those who don't know, he might be considered the Bryan Ferry of French pop. Originally, he was a keyboard player with Jaques Dutronc. Great! I've watched some early black and white clips when he was really a young man. He composes music that is harmonically and melodically much more complicated and interesting than most other pop composers, but like Burt Bacharach, he is able to do that in a very pop way. I rearranged some of Alain’s hits for two pianos and we started to do some tours together. That’s how I met Muriel. Not only does Alain not write lyrics, but, like most French artists, they have someone who designs the concert--a Metteur en Scene or "putter on stage." Muriel designed the lighting, worked on the choice of songs and the text between them, and organized the movement on stage. Alain Chamfort co-wrote a lot of songs with Serge Gainsbourg. I think that discovering the chord sequences to "Geant" ("Giant") or "Personne N'Aime Personne" ("Nobody Loves Anybody"), started me in a new discovery as far as writing songs goes.

Any plans for an album of "Welcome To the Voice"? It seemed to be close to completion when I saw it in New York and the crowd reaction was great.

That's something I would love to do, but there has to be a major record company involved, and several expressed a desire to work with us on it, but nothing materialized. I find it difficult to believe that after all the long work with Muriel to write the piece, then the outstanding performance at Town Hall in New York with Elvis Costello, Ron Sexsmith, John Flansburgh (of They Might Be Giants), Ned Rothenberg, The Brodsky Quartet--the audience loved it, we had great press, and not one record company has followed through. I think it's because this piece is about breaking down musical barriers, and they don't know which “category” it’ll fit in, so they're scared of it. Muriel and I have been talking to the director of a university in Lyon, France. They have all the facilities--theatre, recording studio, accommodations, and even a CD distribution network, and they love the philosophy of the piece. So, I think we will try to work with them and produce a series of performances sometime in the near future.

On "Mumu," there is a short “reunion” of The Attractions on “Young People.” Was the rhythm track recorded specifically for this song?

Yes, I had the song on an 8-track, and the Attractions were recording an album in a residential studio with a Spanish artist, Arial Rot. One evening, after the session, I set my gear up in the corner of the studio and got the guys to overdub on the track.

You continue to work with Pete Thomas; any plans to work again with [former Attraction] Bruce Thomas?

Bruce is a great bass player and I miss playing music with him. I think his heart is in other things now. He writes books. The last one I have is a Bruce Lee biography, which delves into the whole thing of martial arts, something that he was always passionate about.

What are your favorite records from your keyboard-for-hire studio work of the 1980s and 1990s?

“Shipbuilding” by Robert Wyatt and “Bad Day” by Carmel.

I recently was able to buy a copy of the EP “Outline of a Hairdo” off of eBay; any chance of seeing this as a bonus on any CD reissue?

I don’t suppose [infamous former manager] Jake Riviera, who owns the rights to that music, ever thinks about it. I am, however, going to put the scores of those tunes on my Web site if any one is interested.

Who won the duel between you and the tree that takes place on the cover of “Goodbye Cruel World”?

The tree....eventually.

In 1984, Maurice Worm said that “music is a boomerang.” Discuss.

In 1984, Maurice Worm said a lot of things that I am not absolutely aware of. But that seems like a poetic statement. Music is a form of communication, and, in a way, I think it's a two-way communication between the musician and the listener. And I feel that Maurice was trying to say that when you send out some music, it always comes right back at you, like a boomerang. Having said that, there are certain shoes I wouldn't want to be in--Marilyn Manson's for one!

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“I'm certain as I sit here and play that the back of this chair is about to give way"

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How do you view your stage persona? You're very soft spoken, but you sometimes look and sound like a man possessed up there. Here at ItsGrey, the version of "Poor Napoleon/Instant Karma" from the "This Is Tomorrow" bootleg [recorded in 1986 and one of the final Attractions shows until 1994] is currently at number one for your best stage freak out.

My actions behind the keyboard are mainly inspired by the music. I may have been inspired by other things in the past, but I make a point now of playing completely sober. Also, knowing that Muriel is in the audience has an effect on me. I can't help that, but it's a good effect. And of course the audience reaction is another factor. I remember once playing at a festival with Elvis in Stockholm. We had to play before Iggy Pop went on with his band, so you can picture the audience! It was just the two of us—the “unplugged set”—but in fact, with those songs, and all the adrenaline, you don't need anything else. I always feel completely terrified before going on stage, and then the time seems to go by so quickly that it's always over before it started.

What are your plans for the stevenieve.com web site? Is this something that will be built a bit at a time or are you planning a full “launch” in the future? Are you creating the site yourself or working with others?

I’m doing that myself and it's a bit of a disaster right now because I've become aware that I'm losing my time on the Web. My New Year's resolution was to put some limit to my on-line experiences. But I do plan to produce some new music and distribute it through my web site--instrumental music, my next solo piano record, and I have an idea to record a series of “duets."

Can you tell us something about your books referenced on the site? Are they available?

Not available yet, but one day I hope. I began to write "12" shortly after I moved to France. It's 99.9% complete and should go to a publisher soon. If I get enough e-mail interest from the web site, I’m considering producing a limited edition of it. It’s a collection of thoughts about the interaction between a man and a woman, with some autobiographical information. Inside the main thread, which takes place in just 12 seconds, are 12 true stories and 12 love letters. I think 12 is a very thought provoking number.

In the liner notes you wrote for the "Keyboard Jungle" reissue, you said that you dislike “miniaturization.” Why?

Because smaller and smaller is like faster and faster. It's alright to a point and then something goes missing. In music, the sound quality eventually disappears. MP3 is dangerous in the sense that if we accept that it sounds OK, you can bet that in ten years time even the CD will be a thing of the past. We all accepted that digital sounded better than analogue, and now we all have CD's at 44.1 Khz which means that the sound is already degraded when it goes out of the recording studio. The problem with miniaturization is when the choices get smaller.

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itsgrey.com | May 2002

All Lyric Quotes Copyright 2002 Steve Nieve


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