|The Elvis Costello
Interview with Elvis Costello about Brutal Youth
ELVIS AND VIRTUE
Recently relaunched with a brutal album, the news came down on all
the telex machines: Elvis is alive! Therefore on the 1st of March at
the Hotel Parc Victor Hugo at 1:45 p.m. ROCK&FOLK, represented by
Marc Zermati and Philippe Manoeuvre, had its apparition of Elvis. In
a never ending ballet photographers, television technicians and rock
critics alternated in order to celebrate the renaissance of the phoenix
of Pop. At 2:00 p.m., the door of Suite No. 112 opens. Elvis is there!
He is more voluminous than his photos might let you guess. Dressed in
his traditional black suit and a blood-red shirt, he throws himself
onto the sofa and decrees: “Let’s start”. The following
is historical. Read it.
The photos on the cover, do they show you?
Yes! Yeah! I’m the one on the right side… No, on the left, I mean… I was seven years old. On others, three or four years maximum, because I was four years old when we left that house… The one showing me in a swim suit I remember well because I almost died on the following day!
Even then one sees a sure taste of attitude…
Oh yes, the black glasses…
All right, where shall we start? With the record? Because this is a fantastic album! It’s the going back to the roots…
es, but on the other hand, if I constantly did this type of album “Elvis Costello & The Attractions”, I would exhaust my public. That is why I think it is important to have a method. To do different things. Things that do not have the same emotional impact on people…
Well, because the very first thing one has done and for which one is known is always going to be the most crucial one! We shall talk about this in a moment regarding me, but in music, it has always been this way. Aren’t there the “one hit wonders”, the guys with a single hit?…Well, I decided this: I shall always be in music until my body can no longer do it. Therefore I cannot limit myself to just one style. Music holds the answers to many a question, so in a way music has to remain an experimental field, of course without losing all the public on the way!
But you do realise that this is a very nice occasion. For many rock critics “Brutal Youth” will be “the fifth Elvis Costello”.
I beg your pardon?
Yes, the fifth!
Wait a minute! These people wouldn’t like but my first four albums? I’ve heard a lot, but this!… You know often they say: ”This is his first one since “Blood And Chocolate”. I can understand that. They don’t like my experimental records, o.k., they don’t like “Spike” and “The Juliet Letters”. In any case, these are hypocrites! Yes, hypocrites of Rock! For them Rock is a religion, although you and I know it isn’t. They don’t like extremes. I’m laughing. Ha, ha! I hear Rock on “Brutal Youth”, but there are ballads of great elegance as well.
That’s for sure and it does no wrong.
No, but if I brought out a dozen records like this in a row, you would be fed up with Elvis Costello!
Alright, and then there are The Attractions behind you. It’s not a small thing to do to reunite them and to go back to the tiny studio of the beginnings, Pathways…
Oh, yes, Pathways, everybody keeps underlining this a lot, although we recorded very little there, two songs, the basic tracks… To be honest with you, I have to admit that I had decided to do this record all by myself. But then I had to face this reality: I’ll never be a drummer (laughs). So I called Pete (Thomas, drummer of The Attractions) and we did the two sessions together that really pleased me. There still was missing the piano and a good bass to fix it all… I needed musicians and I realised that I needed the good Nick (Lowe) and the old Attractions. I didn’t see who could have played that better than them…
And it’s… a miracle. Here you have got musicians who give their very best, refining the melody, weaving a subtle background for the singer…
Yes, but it doesn’t sound either like an old album of The Attractions. If that doesn’t show how much we’ve learned! Even if we may turn back wild again… To me this record recalls “Trust”. “Trust” is the record where I started having doubts about Rock ’n Roll. There are some lousy songs on “Trust”! Especially the Rock songs! They don’t mean a thing. It’s quite nice to let yourself go and to shout. If you take for example the song “Luxembourg”, we had great fun when recording it, but it has no meaning! If we listened to it right now, you would ask me: “What’s that?”. You have to see things at a certain distance. If we had taken all at the speed of “Kind Of Murder” or “20% Amnesia”, the record would be a real scrap car.
How do you write your songs? I don’t know, but I’ve got that picture of Elvis Costello getting up in the morning, making breakfast, and Bang!, he starts whistling a new song. At eleven o’clock, he puts down the newspaper, and Bang! another one, and so on…
Uh, I have my times. I have those lucky days when I get down a lot. For this record, I made five songs in one day. That seems easy to you? Yes, but then you have to arrange it, cut out parts, find the texts… And is it good? Is it working? That does not fall from the skies. I work hard. People have called me a “workaholic”, but what does that mean? On the other hand, it remains a pleasure, yes.
So everything’s fine…
Yes, but no! Because there is the promotion. Uh, this travelling, no way to escape from it, to go from one interview to the next, that’s the dirty work. Oh, of course, sometimes you have exceptionally a different question that gives a little sparkling… But to be honest, with no choice I find myself repeating the same phrases again and again and what for? In order to convince people to listen to this music!
People keep of you this image of “the angry young man”…
You can’t put me into a single category. It isn’t a nice little expression like this that will characterise me. Because “angry young man” yes, but what about my sense of humour? And what about the hope that I always keep in the air? Hum? I agree: “20% Amnesia” is an angry song. But the refrain is a cry of the heart: “Don’t let me lose heart”. Hope.
Yes, but at the beginning of your career…
I know. I had said myself: “It’s a matter of vengeance and guilt”. But that…uh! Do you know the critic Nick Kent?
A little, yes…
Nick and I made this in one piece! He had come to interview me in ’77 for the “New Musical Express” and during the interview, I had had ten Pernod. That was what I drank at that time, Pernod. And he had had as many vodkas and then, the two of us became very clever. Everything was very clear in our heads and I don’t remember any more what we said, but the interview came out the following week and without interruption, even fifteen years later, people come to see me and start quoting these declarations from that interview. It’s funny…as if the two of us had by chance invented the character who went with the songs! We burnt everything with the flame thrower in the reach of 400 meters in a round, but then? How to live on burnt earth? That’s what I had to understand in order to stay in the business.
I shall always remember the first time I saw you. It was backstage at Crystal Palace in London. There were all these people, punks, hippies and you, all alone with your guitar, dressed in black, and people did NOT dare to get near to you. One would have thought they were afraid…
Oh, my God… It was always like that! A character become alive. Oh, there was some truth in it, but there were so many weird speculations. Nonsense…
Yes, but it was you who had wanted it: “OK, I’m going to rub the nose of the music business into the shit”… Wasn’t it?
I don’t know. Everything went so fast, very fast. And we were living in a permanent conflict with the record companies and lots of these conflicts were just heated up by Jake (Riviera, still Elvis’ manager - note by the editor). Well, today, you don’t see any more against whom we were fighting because many of the people that I attacked years ago are gone. All that is over, gone by, passé! That’s what I told The Attractions: let’s not dwell eternally on past time conflicts!
You’re going on tour together?
That’s right! In May… But at the same time, I don’t take back anything. I’d be glad to sing you again certain old songs, of course. And the ones you won’t hear at the concert, it’s because I don’t want to sing them any more. It’s simple, isn’t it(laughs)?
I read the book by your bass player, Bruce Thomas…
Oh, that’s a Hemingway, isn’t it? I mean a Margaux Hemingway (crisis of laughter)! You know what? Bruce wrote this during a tour in the United States when having an infinite crisis of bitterness. We have spoken about it since and I told him: “If a journalist speaks to me about it, don’t count on me to tell him I liked it”, but he had to go through it by writing this book out of pure frustration! I have the chance to be able to make you a three minutes’ song that tells you exactly what I felt in that very moment. Little problem, big frustration…hop, a song and it’s over. But he… he made a book out of it, a sad, terrifying book. Bruce had been with other bands before. His problem consisted in the fact that he had already seen many of the things that we were trying out. Stupid things like staying up all night, drink until you drop, he had already done this! So this didn’t make him laugh, our stories while we, young greenhorns that we were, thought to be inventing something! He felt superior, had no patience for our little excesses, and therefore a terrible tension had developed. But you know what? I don’t know a single band that hasn’t had that. A calmer musician that the others make fun of continuously. And of course, in the morning, we always had these fantastic hangovers while he was fresh like an early bird and of course, in the evening when the party was at its height, he would be sulking in his room! Well, so he tells this and by the way, he doesn’t tell everything. He refrains well enough from telling certain incidents which is normal. Hey, this is his book, so who is going to be its hero?
Could you write a book?
Of course I could! And I’m going to tell you why I don’t do it: There are people who would be terribly bored. There would be people who would go to prison (laughter).
Are there other musicians that you respect these days?
Oh, there are people that I have always loved and that have all my respect. I accept what they are and who they have become (no matter what kind of hope one placed on them). There are people that I’ll always admire. Yes. Van Morrison, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. Oh, especially in the case of Dylan, people would tell you that it’s no longer the way it used to be. I belong to those who consider his last two albums perfectly succeeded. They even belong to his best ones. Nine months ago, I saw Van Morrison give one of the most incredible concerts that I’ve ever been to. Not to mention Neil Young! The evolution of Neil Young is fantastic! These people get older in a good way and they don’t seem to care if they lose their hair or develop a paunch… They’ve found their solution which is a musical one. People used to say that Rock ’n’ Roll was regarding the young people. Of course it does. But if this was only the point of view of the young people, let them tell me about it! I called my record ironically “Brutal Youth”. Let’s be frank: a record by Nirvana, by PJ Harvey, yes, why not? The problem is that I don’t get much out of it. From my point of view. I’m happy to get to know little things about their lives, but if I have to count on someone, it’s going to be one of the old ones. Van Morrison, Tom Waits, these are people who are to Rock music what Ellington was for Jazz. They don’t care about following actual fashions, they have their own laws and if they lose the teenagers they gain in intelligence. Dylan is making albums of a formidable dignity. And if one compares this to the pomp and arrogance of certain so-called young people…
Ooooh! So this one, to be frank with you, I have never been capable of listening one of his albums to the end. I liked the Smiths, but since he keeps repeating the same song with the same melody, he is a poet, isn’t he? It’s a pity he doesn’t write anything of interest, well, that’s my opinion.
I bought his compilation and that’s a great record. Career broken, lost, what does he become? Graham, that’s really the fault of bad luck.
The Rolling Stones?
Yes, the Stones are getting out a new album…
Oh, my God (laughter)!
What do you think of it like this without being prepared…
Do these things make think? The Stones, well, I like an intro here and there… As a matter of fact, you know what? I liked a lot the solo albums of Keith. His way of singing especially! Because there is someone who hasn’t much of a voice and who doesn’t try to hide this, not at all, he transforms this into a virtue. That’s great! He has a good feeling in his records. “Shouldn’t Take It So Hard”, that’s some kind of a song! Unique. But I also admire Charlie Watts. Great drummer. Remarkable. Well, he wouldn’t do all that does a Tony Williams, but he’s got that groove that never gets boring. It’s a bit like Al Jackson. That is a drummer whom you will never ask for demonstrations in the way of Billy Cobham, but he’s got that feeling… Ringo was like that and Pete Thomas, my drummer, has got that unique thing, too, even if he plays really ambitious things as well…
One could easily imagine you making an album of jazz…
I…I’ve been thinking of it since ’82 eventually. In my head, the relation between the instruments has changed… If I say jazz, I’m not speaking of making a record with a guest like Chet Baker, no, that would mean using an existing thing. I may sound pretentious, but since “Spike”, I’m thinking in terms of an orchestra. I would like to mix a lot of things, Roger McGuinn and The New Orleans which exasperates people. But since “The Juliet Letters”, I can write music which means that I can be very precise… In the future, I see myself work with a lot of brass in order to create an ambience and to make it all swinging…as one would do with the guitar… Yes, that’s a challenge for me.
Speaking of a guitar, at the end of “13 Steps Lead Down”, there is this almost unbelievable guitar discharge… I mean what kind of a guitar was that?
Physically, you mean? It was, as unbelievable as it may sound, an acoustic guitar! Yes. A Gibson 160 E, that was the one that Lennon had at the beginnings of the Beatles and afterwards that was the guitar that all the beat bands had, Hollies and all of them. A classical. I had been searching for it a long time. Unfortunately, Jon Bon Jovi used one in a recent video and of course, you don’t find a single one of it in America, because all the kids of Hollywood wanted to have one, too (laughter)! But I was lucky to find one and on the day when I got it, I wrote six songs in a day! The secret of it is that this guitar has a little microphone in its sound box and if you turn on the volume on top, really on its highest top, you get a totally psychedelic sound that is stunning!
Have you got many guitars?
I have bought quite a lot, yes (smiles). The first time when I was on tour in the States, I had my Fender Jazzmaster and I bought what seemed to me the queen of guitars, a Gretsch Country Club, the one from George Harrison, and that is the one that I used for “This Years’s Model”. Then I bought a Telecaster just before “Get Happy!!!”. The sound has got more soul, I got closer to Steve Cropper, Robbie Robertson, James Burton… Let’s stay calm: I don’t play as good as these guys, it’s just that a very exact type of certain guitars gives me the feeling to get closer to them. The guitar makes the musician. You go into a shop, you buy one and oops, you sound like Chet Atkins! Or like Jerry Garcia. A bad guitar player like me likes to have a lot of different guitars. That gives me the impression to know how to play although in reality I’m just touching the sound.
You worked with Paul McCartney.
The question is: Does it make you the new Lennon or the new Michael Jackson?
Oh, shame, these two options look a bit dangerous to me (laughter). No…uh…Paul must have regretted it since, but he said that “working with Elvis Costello was not nice at all”. And why would that be so? A little tension, what else! I don’t know, we haven’t done much, but in a band with him, I imagine that there would be a lot of tension. Personally, I had great fun.
Did you remain on friendly terms with him?
Oh, yes, a little postcard here, best regards, all that kind of stuff… Paul is always very active. We composed twelve songs, all of them have not been recorded. I don’t know what they are worth, would be necessary to have a look at this with a clear mind…
When he called you, I suppose that a little Costello very much of a fan had his heart in his mouth inside the big Costello, hadn’t he?
Of course! What do you think? When I was nine years old, I was a member of the Beatles’ fan club. So that gives you a strange reverberation when Paul gives you a call to write with him… But still, he didn’t call me when I was nine but when I was thirty-five. So I went there as open as possible and I was charmed to find out that he had no prohibition, no golden rule, no obstacle. Everything was possible. So we took out our respective songs, some of them not finished and we helped each other. And then we started to compose new ones and these songs speak for themselves. “So like Candy” is a damned good song. I would like to make a record with the songs I wrote for other people. And to give my versions of them.
What happened with Wendy James?
I met her only a single time. And that was after writing ten songs for her. Why not? She was obviously a good little pop star, a fashion girl. She has a feeling for what makes the headlines, she looks good on photos and for some people she is the sexiest girl on our poor planet! I myself didn’t see that (laughter), but believe it or not, there are people who are mad about her! Well, I wrote her song demos, trying to create a character she could identify herself with. On that, they glued a quite flat production. Pete Thomas played the drums on this record, but he could not lift that band of low key musicians all by himself. They imitated Rock instead of playing it. Lacking of conviction, they ought to have finished the project in two days, but it took them months…
We haven’t spoken of your beard yet…
Oh, my beard! All right then, let’s talk about it!
I was in America when you appeared with a beard and I remember a newspaper comparing you with a Rabbi…
What a fantastic affair, don’t you think?! This made me laugh madly when I saw how many people were horrified with my beard! Because then I remember ’78 when we went to America, we played in Texas and the hairy ones in the hall were throwing sticks at us because we had short hair! These Texans thought they were dealing with punks, they were mad with anger… They thought we had come to assassinate their good old boogie of their good old South or whatever! Really funny! Fifteen years later I grow a beard and it starts all over again, the other way round! Well, okay, if the guy from Duran Duran grew a beard, the little girls would be shocked, “our idol has become an old man”, that sort of thing, I presume. Whereas me, I just had lost my razor!
A psychiatrist might say that this was an effort to protect yourself from the world outside…
Bullshit! No, the other day I was interviewed on the phone by an American
from Boston, and this works out well very seldom with these phoners…And
I felt him turn around the “problem with the question of the beard”
without daring to ask for it, of course. So that at a moment I suddenly
said myself: “When I grew my beard…” and I heard him
sigh of relief on the other end of the line, he was so happy that we
could speak about that point (laughter)… Immediately he asks me:
“Elvis, why that beard?”
Well, on your record there is also that amazing song “This Is Hell”… Is that a comment on your life at home?
Not at all! Not at all! No, I just said to myself: “What if hell wasn’t a sea of flames and pain” as I was taught in my Catholic childhood where every respectable hell had to look as if it had been painted by Bosch…”It’s alright to pay a visit, but I wouldn’t like to stay”. No, I had that vision of hell as an old night club where nobody can escape from and everything turns bad constantly and where people don’t stop to make fun of each other and where you do the same stupid things. You always spill your glass over the girl you just wanted to kiss, all these stupid and pathetic things…
Yes, but the little melody is excellent!
I myself am wondering whether it was somebody else who wrote it (laughter)!
Does Elvis Costello listen to rap music?
I… find it kind of difficult. Frankly, rap or heavy metal, I don’t buy them for a simple reason: life is too short. On one hand I already know what they’re going to tell me even before having listened to the record, on the other hand, they are going to tell me again and again: “I am the greatest! I am the strongest!” Besides that, what’s new? No, I prefer listening to the demos by PJ Harvey. Or Björk.
There was the Costello box which was a great pleasure for all the old fans…
That was the first time the sound was on CD, but I’m happy that we managed to find the graphic style again and to pay a kind of tribute to Barney Bubbles (who designed the covers of Elvis at Stiff and at Radar - note from the editor). Barney was the master of parody and imitation. He could imitate anything, even Picasso on the cover of “Imperial Bedroom”… He was a bizarre and strange genius, a master of imitation whose sketches attracted the eye with their insolent sense of humour in a way that we had given him the surname “The Eye”. I felt I owed Barney something. Open the booklet of the box. It’s a Barney Bubbles.
After this box, is there going to be another?
No. We aren’t going to force you to build shelves in order to stow away my works (laughter). It’s over with the boxes, the next records will come out as a CD. People ask me to write notes for the booklets. I then very often just give information about the place, the date. Actually, I have forgotten all the rest, and then I am not going to give explanations of texts on something that I wanted to tell when writing this or that song. Please…
Do you happen to listen again to “Watching The Detectives”?
No. It’s often played on the radio in England and I don’t listen to myself, I have the impression to listen to another singer, another person… Same thing with the first album. I’m searching for my voice, trying a lot of things… Well, “Alison” seems to be sung with a certain sincerity, perhaps some people love this record, yes, why not?
How are things going for Elvis Costello in America these days?
Not too bad. Some records are selling well over there, others not at all. In any case, the critics love me over there. They praised “Imperial Bedroom” to the skies, that didn’t sell! Contrary to that, “Punch The Clock” that I don’t like so much, was a smash hit and “Spike” sold millions although that was not an easy record at all…
The Americans loved you and then they loved to hate you…
Yes, but I’m flabbergasted if I think that some have bought all of my records. I don’t see a logical relation between these records. I really don’t know how they do this. If some fans tell me that certain songs really meant something very important to them and their lives, what can I do? Burst out laughing? That would be rude!
You gave your album the title of “Brutal Youth”, and for me the first thing that came to my mind was the two little boys who killed a kid in Liverpool… Is there a connection?
These two words come from the song “Favourite Hour” and I liked the association. Good title. Corresponding to the brutal life described by the songs in the album. Somebody told me at that time: “People are going to think that you’re trying to draw publicity on this affair”. Which is stupid, because I never write about real events. But I’m going to tell you the most terrible thing: We’re doing the fiftieth interview and you are only the third ones to ask this question. Yap. Which proves that in the meantime there have been 800 even more horrible things. Massacres in Sarajevo. In Hebron. These things keep on repeating themselves. There are people taking drugs every day although they constantly know that it’s hurting them. Or drinking this little glass that will be followed by another one… I don’t judge this.
What is your method of not becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol?
For alcohol the beard helps. It’s difficult to get the glass to your mouth (laughter). What else shall I say? I stopped taking drugs. Sometimes I drink, yes, a real good booze-up, that’s fun. But I have never taken heroin or psychedelic drugs. And that’s part of my personality. There are people who aren’t happy unless they have undergone this or that. Not me. I don’t want to abandon my control.
STATEMENTS COLLECTED BY PHILIPPE MANOEUVRE AND MARC ZERMATI
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