Interview with Elvis Costello
On The Street,1989-01-18
- Andrew Mueller
Elvis Lives!!! - Photo by Tom Mott
In the beginning was the Word. And the word was No.
No as in No Interview. Elvis Costello would be talking about his forthcoming album, Spike, but not to us.
And Lo, there was much weeping, wailing and gnashing of bared teeth at OTS HQ, where the prodigious works of the bespectacled one had been venerated most highly for many a full moon.
And so it came to pass that the seething hack thundered in one sunny Friday to collect his ludicrously overstuffed pay slip to be greeted not with ashes and sackcloth, but with a triumphal cry of "WE GOT IT!!"
Only a day later, and Elvis Costello and I are ensconced in the presidential suite of the Sebel Townhouse, garnering no mild amusement from the thoroughly incriminating razorcuts that cries-cross the glass-topped tables. Elvis is decked out in this trademark suit-with-no-tie and large dark glasses that stay resolutely in place throughout the interview. He's wearing two watches. I manage (just) to refrain from starting off with an appalling gag about time on his hands, and instead present him with a brace of the sort of local vinyl that no maverick pacesetter should rightly be without. He wants, apparently, to talk mainly about the new album.
"That's best if I show you the sleeve, when Cait (O'Riordan, Costello's wife, occasional songwriting collaborator and former Pogue) comes up. It's more to do with the picture and everything, it'll explain it-there's no particular significance to the title or anything. It's more a graphic thing than anything else. I'd say flippantly it's named after Spike Jones, but that's not really true either. There's something of Spike Jones about the record, I think sometimes, but. . ."
Cait, by the way, never does drag herself from their room downstairs, which means A) That I don't get to tell her that her vocal on The Pogues' Haunted is so moving that I've usually changed address five times by the second chorus, and B) that we'll have to take Elvis's word for it as regards the album cover.
Spike, of course, is in the unenviable position of having to surf it's merits in the mighty, and still rippling wake generated by Costello's two 1986 releases, King Of America and Blood & Chocolate. While King Of America was a tour de force of brilliant songwriting, in a largely acoustic vein, and where Blood & Chocolate ranks surely as some of the most brutal, bare-knuckled rock'n'roll ever commited to vinyl, Spike defies, at least superficially, any attempt to locate a coherent theme. In comparison, diverse seems a good word. . .
"Yeah, well one of the things that holds those records together is the way in which they were recorded more than the way they were written, I think. If you look at this new record now, you could take those songs and do them in the acoustic way King Of America was, and just arrange the instruments very kind of simply, playing very simple supportive roles. Or you could-not all of the songs-but a few of them you could amp them up a bit more, have a few more drums. But I'd done that, both those things."
Have you ever thought of making a purely acoustic-guitar-and-voice album?
"Um, yeah, I think so. Yeah, it's crossed my mind. The difficulty with that is that when you get actually in the studio, you see the red light, you know-you get red light fever, and you do a couple of takes on a song (waves hand in a manner that suggests that it's very difficult to resist embellishing on the basics). . . I've done some demos that I'm quite proud of, that I think capture something about the song just as well as maybe the more arranged version that I've done later, but there's always that nakedness about it, that you'd feel uneasy about a whole album of that, whether anyone would really want to hear it."
Springsteen's Nebraska and Dylan's Another Side Of are cited as effective examples. I ask if he's ever heard Chris Bailey's Casablanca. He hasn't. The stark realities of solo performance clearly do have their appeal, though. . .
"The thing about it is that I generally keep that part of the playing and the process of it for the live concerts that I do solo. I mean, I'm going to go on a little solo trip after the record's out, in April, in America and some dates in England. And that's a very very good way of finding out what you know and what you don't know about the songs. The very first solo trip I did was right before Goodbye Cruel World came out. I did it in America, and it was horrible, actually, because I found out how bad that record was, before it was released, but it was too late to pull it. I generally use live concerts as that kind of therapy, whether or not I'd ever want to put it on a record I don't know.
Spike, by far Costello's most arranged album since the lush splendours of Imperial Bedroom features greater diversity of instrumentation, sound and personnel than ever before. Paul McCartney, Allen Toussaint, Chrissie Hynde, Christy Moore, Roger McGuinn and Mitchell Froom all stamp their marks across the various tracks. . .
"I didn't really think of it as an all-star cast, I'll say that off the bat. There's obviously a couple of names there that everyone's going to talk about when the record comes out, and their parts are essential to the whole, but there are people who did more work on the record, and I think that should be acknowledged."
Sure, but especially in light of U2's fumbling attempts to prove themselves a "real" Rock Band by recording with Dylan and B.B. King and plundering Bo Diddly riffs for all their counterfeit worth, aren't you worried about Spike being seen as an attempt to reinvent yourself as a Songwriter's songwriter? Including former Byrds and Beatles in your backing menagerie and all that?
I don't think I worded it with quite the same breathless eloquence at the time, but an eyebrow was nonetheless detected arching beneath the shades. . .
"I hadn't really made that connection, I was really more concerned that people might misunderstand my using the traditional forms like the Dirty Dozen brass band from New Orleans and the traditional Irish instruments, and might think it was like a musical travelogue. Because I can justify every note on the record, I know exactly why those sounds are there, I think they really illuminate those songs. I haven't had time to consider what anyone's going to think about it. I know some people have very bad preconceptions about Paul McCartney, but I'm involved to the extent that I've written a bunch of songs with him as well. (Macca co-writes two of the album cuts.) I know he's a really good bassplayer, so I'm not too bothered about what anyone thinks about him playing on my record. I don't think it reflects at all on my perception of myself as a songwriter."
Getting specific, then. Tramp The Dirty Down, without doubt one of Costello's most vicious vignettes yet closes side one of Spike. More or less an open letter to Britain's thoroughly unlovable PM, the chorus snarlingly threatens "And when they finally put you in the ground/I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down. . ."
You'd dance on someone's grave?
"Well, the thing about it is the song was written at that extreme point, where that's what you feel. I kind of almost scrapped it a couple of times, I thought, that's not really the way I think, I'm more balanced than that. The arguments carried through the song are not balanced, they're not reasonable, they blame the wrong people for the wrong things, but. . .you don't want like the social worker song, you know the person who understands everything. Writing the song is only a little bit better than kicking the television in when the news is on . . . The song is only a little bit short of mindless violence, isn't it?"
Mindless or not, if Morrissey got denounced in the House Of Commons for the chill whisper of Margaret On The Guillotine, headlines are guaranteed for Tramp. . .
To mindful violence, and Let Him Dangle, a song previewed in concert here last year.
"It happened, I think, in 1952, so it's a couple of years before I was born. It's one of the cases that's always brought up when they have the big debate about capital punishment. And as you can hear in the song, I didn't want to make any ironical point, it's fairly much a statement of what I understand the facts of the case to be, and what I feel about it, and the way the debate is used as a distraction from . . . from the horror of an execution. The song is kind of written like a Woodie Guthrie song. It tells a story and then says 'And the moral is. . .' "
That's a more straightforward approach than you're known for isn't it?
"I think a lot of the songs on King Of America are very straightforward."
What about songs like Tokyo Storm Warning from Blood & Chocolate?
"Well, I think it's very easy to understand . . . it's just a series of snapshots. A football hooligan's view of the world. Songs like that, people look at them and they expect them to make sense. The point of them is they do not make sense. The world doesn't make sense."
But from that album, Tokyo. . . and I Want You are both really tense, really overloading experiences. People are stunned by I Want You live. . .
"It's a funny song. It does seem to have quite an effect on people."
Are you really that angry?
"Er. . . no. I mean, you put things into songs. Not every song can be that kind of intense. People have asked me the obvious question 'Why don't you write more happy songs?', but really when you're being happy, you don't think to write, you're just enjoying yourself."
Of todays' alleged "happy" music, written, produced, but above all marketed by those three fat, rich and supremely cynical profiteers Stock Aitken & Waterman, Costello says "Their music is really average and totally without joy." We also manage to find common ground in a mutual admiration of Yazz, at least partially because she makes great dance records while being such a thoroughly atrocious dancer.
A sigh. "But they're all irrelevant, they're going to be gone next year. It's like. . . I saw this clip recently of T-Rex on television, and I really remembered seeing it in 1970, and I thought 'Is this music never going to go away?' I mean, I really hated T-Rex. I like them now, but I didn't like them then. And the number of times I've felt that since 1970 whether it be Duran Duran, or Bros or something . . . and then I think Fuck it-Stock Aitken & Waterman are going to be a footnote in the history of pop."
But how about the young bands sparking new fires? House Of Love, The Pixies, Loop, Cocteau Twins-the envelope is still being pushed. In the light of all this youthful creativity, do you ever feel in danger of becoming irrelevant? A dinosaur?
"You could go anywhere, and you'd find someone who had that opinion already, about anyone really. When I say they're (SAW) irrelevant, they're not what they think they are. I don't think I'm anything, therefore I can't not be it. I get a little resentful sometimes when I pick up a paper and I get lumped in with this resume of the current scene, and some young (a glance at the acne-kissed youth of your reporter), well not necessarily young, but some very cynical person decides to write me off in a couple of lines because I'm past my Use By Date, in their view."
It speaks volumes for Costello's confidence in his own viability that even after such memorable descriptions as "A twisted runt with a voice like a can-opener" by Melody Maker's normally together Steve Sutherland, he can still bear some sympathy for the lot of the journalist, in a backhanded kind of way. . .
"I suppose if you were somebody working in a factory who checked to see whether the bolts were on the wheel of the car, you'd probably go a bit screwy (laugh at accidental pun) after a while. But a journalist is like the same thing, you're checking these records coming down the line and you're expected to be equally enthusiastic and open about every one."
The interview trails off on one of its many tangents, this time in hot pursuit of the theory, practice and limitation of the pop song and rock music.
Have you ever felt limited, constrained by it? Have you ever, as Nick Cave has done, thought of branching out into prose, poetry or film?
"I have written a few stories, but I haven't published them or anything, or put them to a publisher. But usually I do do that to get something down on the page that I can't get down in Iyric form."
Miss MacBeth, the cut from Spike that starts out as a folky Mercy Seat is such a song. Costello says it's just a matter of "finding a way to trick the song out of your head."
Why be a songwriter?
"It's better than working for a living. It is. The only other job where you get to travel round the world like this, you have to shoot people to do it, and wear a uniform. No, I really can't answer that sensibly."
We've by now taken up an hour and more of what was supposed to be a day off for Elvis before he flew to Melbourne to work on the video for Veronica, his hookiest pop single since Oliver's Army. I think of the corniest Interview-rounding-up question I can possibly imagine, and for the first time, Costello sounds entirely perplexed. . .
If you could be remembered for one song, or one album, which would it be?
"Um. . . White Christmas? That I wrote. . . I've no idea, er . ."
Bo Martin, WEA promotions guru, enters the room and does some prompting . . .
"You still haven't written it yet."
"Thank you Bo. That's the smart answer. That's what Jolson would have said. No, that's a good question, but I really don't know. . . I suppose the answer would be really, any song a DJ wouldn't pick. If I died in a plane crash, I'd want them to play any song they wouldn't naturally pick."
Elvis Costello plays the interview game like a seasoned professional, letting slip only what he wants you to find out. But the most important things about him are the ones that you only need to listen to the records to be aware of. There is little doubt that he's the most adept, expressive Iyricist ever to have graced a pop song, and his interpretation and arrangement of his many musical influences have extended perimeters in nearly every direction imaginable.
Spike will be a landmark, will be a timelessly human masterpiece, will blast its authority across the all-terrain landscape of eighties rock. He's done it again.
Elvis is King. Long may he reign.
Spike will be available at Record Stores late February/early March through WEA.