|The Elvis Costello
Interview with Elvis Costello
Another Good Year For The Roses
He's Homer Simpson's latest co-star, and a new breed of US punk kid calls him "daddy". But still Elvis Costello thinks the world just wants him to remake his old albums. "I'm an idiot, we all are," he informs John Aizlewood.He's Homer Simpson's latest co-star, and a new breed of US punk kid calls him "daddy". But still Elvis Costello thinks the world just wants him to remake his old albums. "I'm an idiot, we all are," he informs John Aizlewood.
Photographs by Jamie Beedon
U2 own the Clarence, a discreet hotel situated on the south bank of the River Liffey which bisects Dublin's ugly north from its more beautiful southern side, a reminder, despite everything, that British rule did leave nice Georgian buildings, handsome parks and wide streets. The Clarence serves the least edible but most expensive cheeseburgers this side of Glastonbury Festival and it is here where Elvis Costello has chosen to discuss his latest album, When I Was Cruel.
The leather jacket, thick-rimmed glasses and unruly haircut suggest otherwise, but he's looking less like Bono's slightly seedy uncle than he has of late. The jowls, tinted glasses and unkempt, sweaty air have been replaced by a look reflecting a successful artist who will turn 50 in 2004.
When the revolution nearly came, Costello was the angry but articulate voice of punk. More curiously, 20 years later he briefly became a soundtrack hero after covers of She and I'll Never Fall In Love Again made it onto Notting Hill and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me respectively. He is due to appear in a forthcoming episode of The Simpsons and is getting a new generation's respect, hence a 1977-vintage Costello photograph taken backstage at New York's CBGB appearing in a Sum 41 video.
"I loved that," he coos. "Apparently, they sell a lot of records. You know what I hear? In groups such as American Hi-Fi and Sum 41 I hear our early stuff processed through Green Day, who, to use Buffy speak, are the portal through which they pour bits of me and Joe Strummer. It's healthy but it's not going to change my life unless a bunch of kids buy the new record or reissues of the old."
However, none of this need equate with contentment. Costello doesn't so much have a bee in his bonnet as a hive. Thus he oscillates wildly between being guardedly defensive to the point of paranoia, and being infectiously enthusiastic about myriad musics, from the Mingus Big Band to the "seriously ugly" ex-Buzzcock Howard Devoto.
Costello's beef concerns the press reaction to his endless litany of side projects. Since 1996's All This Useless Beauty, these have included Painted From Memory, a disappointing album with Burt Bacharach; guest vocal appearances with our new friends the Mingus Big Band among many others; a Country Music Television special with Lucinda Williams ("Having me on it got her on CMT. I'm the one who wrote a song for George Jones and Johnny Cash - I've got pretty serious credits in Nashville") and producing Anne Sofie Von Otter's For The Stars.
"They're not side projects," he declares. "There's no sense of that to my mind. I go in there whole-heartedly and I give them all my time and attention. You're asking me to say that I somehow do them while my left foot is cracking walnuts, which is not the case. The attitude since All This Useless Beauty has been, Why doesn't he knock it off and make an Elvis CosteIlo record? I know that's the case."
Can't you understand that attitude?
"Not one little bit. You're asking me to subscribe to the idea that I shouldn't do them or that they're not worthy. I just don't see them that way and I never will. There's no argument or any of your talking at me that will get me to say Painted From Memory, working with Anne Sofie or scoring a ballet weren't worthwhile things. I was offered the opportunity to do them, I've really enjoyed them and that I've learned from them. It satisfies a need and, apart from that, I don't really give a damn."
Yet this catholic, spread-yourself-thin approach takes its toll on what he refuses to acknowledge are "proper" Costello albums. When I Was Cruel was made in just two weeks. A little hasty perhaps? The 200-page ballet score he mentioned will take a year.
"No. That's how long we recorded for. They're not exactly hard songs, and I'd been writing some of them for two years. This record is more about rhythm than melody because the melodies were so big on Painted From Memory. It's not like there's a shortage of tunes: My Little Blue Window, Tart _ and Radio Silence are all really good melodies. It's definitely not Armed Forces."
In fact, it's a fine record - Tart and Tear Your Own Head (It's A Doll Revolution) would make a Best Of collection. Those expecting something comparable in terms of quality with 1979's Armed Forces or `86's King Of America, let alone `80's Get Happy!!, the achievement of his lifetime, will be disappointed. Again. And this is the nub of the entire Costello problem. Is it that he won't do sustained magic again? Or that he can't?
"I could, but why would I do that? It's like if you ask Brian Wilson why he hasn't re-made Pet Sounds. It's because he didn't want to."
He trails off and looks across the Liffey. Dublin has been his home for 12 years now.
"I don't feel British. I'm about as far out of Britain as you can be while being so geographically close."
He hitches up his bright yellow socks and trots off for the world's longest wee. On his return, his hands smell of expensive soap.
`Green Day are he portal through which they pour bits of me and Joe Strummer."
"Actually, I'm wrong about being able to do Armed Forces again. I don't think I could - not through a lack of ability to capture melody, but because the air is different. I can't go to Belfast for the first time. I can't ride around America for the first time thinking, Isn't this odd, wow, look at the name of that shop, that sounds like the beginning to a song. I could pretend I was that naive again and that it was fresh to me, but you can't go back. That's the main reason for not doing it - you would be affecting it. The fact that I won't make Armed Forces again is something that I should get applauded, not criticised, for."
Costello says all this without rancour but with fervour. Again, that defensiveness ensures he will not admit to wrong turnings.
"I wouldn't characterise what I'm doing now or at any time as a mistake. Obviously."
Nor will it allow him to regard any of his own material with irreverence: "Then I'm denigrating some song that I believed in as I was writing it."
More realistically, Elvis Costello's lyrical edge is still tack-sharp. There's little of the bitterness of yore, although calling him bitter was always the easy option. Indeed, there's a beguiling ambiguity running through When I Was Cruel: 15 Petals' protagonist is part naive lovestruck soul, part deranged psychopath.
"Oh I like that," he purrs, "that's a lovely interpretation. There's quite a lot of humour in the record, not as in laugh out loud, more a celebration of the absurdities of life. There's a lot of love songs in the world, but I haven't written too many - they're always around the twist. I wanted 15 Petals to be as mad as love is."
He wears the burdon of being a great wordsmith lightly.
"The thought of being a great lyricist doesn't occur. I'm an idiot. We all are, we're all beautiful and we're all ugly. I'm not kidding. I'm not being falsely modest..."
Oh come on. Of course you are...
"No. I believe it. I don't care about it. I know that I can spin words and I know people admire it, but I don't want people applauding as I walk into the room. If you believe it, you start reaching only for big ideas and dazzling expressions. Upon A Veil Of Midnight Blue is a little-known song I wrote for Charles Brown - `You find your tongue is tied, your words escape and hide/ But she's so patient and kind, that she's prepared to read your mind/But that's all very well, `til you find because of the wine you drank/Your mind is just a blank.' Charles just sang, `I find it hard to think when I drink.' That's what happens if you get the quill out and say, I'll dazzle you. Fuck it, you're going to get slapped down."
He's made his money, but not enough to stop working. Sales of When I Was Cruel will show how much of his core audience he has retained. Typically, he purports not to care.
"They don't owe me anything. I don't owe them anything. I don't have disdain for them, but the price of admission is only to get to hear the thing I've made. People have more to do with their lives than count the days until I do a record."
If he says that too often, it might come to pass, but for all his ambivalence, Costello's been famous once and then gone back for more. He sounds starstruck by his dabblings with the word of film.
"One week Phantom Menace was Number 1, followed by Notting Hill and Austin Powers. I was thinking what a drag it was that I wasn't in Phantom Menace. I was big in Brazil and Thailand, I got to go to two premieres, I met Julia Roberts and everyone was really sweet. Now I'm older, being famous is not affecting me so much so I'm much happier than 20 years ago when I'd quit the business four times a week because I'd not gone into it to get famous. It's really silly, we worship the wrong gods."
It's time to go now. Costello has a photo session to endure. He takes part with good enough grace. "Doing this picture is like asking me to subscribe to the premise that I'm combative - and I don't think I am. That's why I said I'll only do it if the ring is full of roses and my corner staff are girls. Perhaps we can make a beautiful, absurd picture."
He still awaits Kate Bush's telephone call after he suggested they work together at last year's Q Awards ("We're hoping she will. Perhaps if she comes this way... "), but the future looks interesting, Costello is artist in residence at the University of California, Los Angeles and he's kept his Equity and Screen Actors Guild cards, the latter coming in useful when he guested in the overlooked film 200 Cigarettes and that Simpsons episode.
Annoyingly, he refuses to discuss the latter, refusing to reveal that he plays a counsellor at a music camp as Homer Simpson once more embraces rock. Then there'll be the ballet, more collaborations and perhaps a little time spent on actually being Elvis Costello. Don't bet on it, though.