|The Elvis Costello
Article about When I Was Cruel, including exclusive transcript
of full interview
There's a certain Elvis Costello fan who recently bought his fourth copy of Costello's second album 1978's This Year's Model. He had it on vinyl; bought it on CD ages ago, bought the reissued CD (with seven extra tracks) a few years back and now has the second reissued version, which comes with an extra CD of extra material.
Now this fan, who has more than 80 Costello albums on vinyl and CD, legitimate and bootleg, is more than somewhat tragic. But even more appalling is that he isn't the slightest bit embarrassed. And nor for that matter is Elvis Costello, who has this year also released his 19th album, When I Was Cruel.
"Well I'm actually in the furniture business," Costello cackles. "I'm the evil genius of the CD trade and CD shelving is where I make my money." Of course shame is irrelevant now. The thing is that given it is 25 years since Declan MacManus changed his name to Elvis Costello and released his first album, My Aim Is True, his fans not only can afford to indulge in reissues (and sell out three Enmore Theatre shows next month) but they're the kind who want to hear the four-track demos Costello recorded before each album; the kind who want to read his detailed liner notes with their flashes of wit and matching seriousness about the process. The kind in fact who are hoping that Costello releases the fabled demos of songs he and wife Caitlin wrote over one weekend for an album by '80s popstar/'90s nobody Wendy James. "That's a fun kind of record really," Costello says of the James demo. "It was written very very quickly as you know and my wife and I just wrote those songs on a weekend and recorded them with [long-time Costello drummer] Pete Thomas. Actually not that dissimilarly to some of the tracks on this new record: Pete and I in the studio together.
"When you hear Dissolve [from When I Was Cruel] it sounds like a rock and roll band playing together but sometimes you get a better feel when it's just two of you. For certain types of song anyway, certainly something like that which is sort of stupid and it's supposed to be stupid, it's intentionally stupid."
"Intentionally stupid"? This may be hard to believe for those who always have pegged the Dublin-resident Costello as wordy and at least as much brain as heart. "Rock and roll band"? This may be almost as bizarre to those who have watched Costello spend the past 10 years in (usually fascinating) avenues such as his Grammy-winning ballad-heavy collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory; an album of reworked pop songs with Swedish soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter; a song-cycle for voice and strings with the Brodsky Quartet, the Juliet Letters; and both classical commissions for symphony orchestras and jazz-inspired music for ballet companies. But When I Was Cruel is undoubtedly a rock and roll record. Spiked with occasional odd instruments, cheap beat boxes, quirky time changes, and even a sampled vocal, sure, but backed by two-thirds of his original band, the Attractions (Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve are joined by new bassplayer Davey Farragher) it is noisy, guitar-laden and spitting out the kind of lyrical barbs that almost define Costello's work for most people. For the first time in years, the 47-year-old Costello has fired up rhythm and riffs and rawness.
"Certainly the way they've recorded my voice, that's very much how it sounds in the room," he says of this rawness. "I've seen it written that my voice is deliberately distorted on the record, and it isn't. There's no distortion added to this record at all. When I sing, that's the way I sound. People have got used to things with other singers, and I've been singing in a much more gentle manner, [using] the vibrato in my voice to soften the tone. "So in that sense it's fundamental, primal to me, Just the fact that the guitar is so more prominent is unlike any other album I've made."
Speaking of guitars, Costello makes a point of identifying every one he plays on the album and in interviews he's been quick to stress the role individual guitars played in not only the sound of the record but the way he approached writing the songs. For a man who claims no virtuosity, and indeed once identified himself on an album as playing with "little hands of concrete", it's one of the many small oddities of When I Was Cruel.
Which makes it harder to understand that so many of the early reviews and press coverage of When I Was Cruel featured the predictable cheers from those who celebrated what they saw as Costello giving up the "dabbling" of his non-rock work and "going back to being Elvis Costello" as if those two were mutually exclusive. It's a type of simplistic, reductive thinking that carries little weight with Costello, who is typically loquacious and acidly polite on the topic.
"Those who are doing this are speaking from a position of deep conservatism about music which is a sad thing to say: that rock and roll has become a conservative force in music," he sighs. "Rock and roll was a revolutionary thing; now it's the conservative status quo in the opinion of people who speak like that. And their attempt to patronise you for doing these things is disappointing but you can't be too aggravated because you shouldn't mock the ignorant. It is just ignorance to say that that is dabbling, because it fails to understand the value of it."
It's ignorance and fear isn't it? People scared of what they don't immediately understand.
"It's fear and posturing as well, which is when it is objectionable," Costello says with a bit more venom. "What I want to focus on is that the listeners are so much more varied in their response. There are people who have no problem at all listening to both The Juliet Letters and When I Was Cruel. And there are some people who only listen to the first few records, who like Blood And Chocolate and might like this record. And there are people, who by virtue of just being younger, don't know any record other than She [which he recorded for the soundtrack to Notting Hill and became a huge hit internationally, including in Brazil of all places].
"Again when people are cautious, conservative, you have to have sympathy for their position because it's founded sometimes on a lack of ability to experience a broader, rich picture of music. If we listen with greater openness that might happen; but I won't hold my breath for that."
He points out that the albums which his critics like to identify as the most "Costello", such as This Year's Model and Blood And Chocolate were not big sellers, while Spike, often labelled one of his oddest, and Painted From Memory were among the biggest albums of his career.
"So whenever I'm the most "me" that they're saying I am they never really sell," he laughs. "You know what's my biggest selling record? She. And that's the least "me"record that I've ever made. There's your theory right there. On the other hand, When I Was Cruel just went into the American charts at number 20, the highest entry we've ever made, so who knows maybe this will confound that theory."
And one final word for those who haven't got the point yet. "There is more than one way to tell something that you obviously know as a writer," Costello says. "There is more than one way to use words; they don't always have to reveal themselves completely. This is not a mistake; this is deliberate. In the same way that you can fling paint onto canvas and make it give the impression of something or you can finely paint it with two or three strands of horsehair until it builds up to an absolute likeness. Which is the better painting? There is no comparison."
Elvis Costello and the Imposters
IMPERIAL BEDROOM (1982)
KING OF AMERICA (1986)
ALL THIS USELESS BEAUTY (1996)
PAINTED FROM MEMORY (1998)
Exclusive transcript of full interview
"It's a joy playing in this way again"
I was looking at my shelves and realised I have just bought my fourth copy of This Year's Model and I'm waiting on the next batch of reissues, I have 45 of your CDs here and about as many vinyl. Why are you doing this to me? "Well I'm actually in the furniture business," he laughs. "I'm the evil genius of the CD trade and CD shelving is where I make my money."
What is the thinking behind the reissues?
"I thought we'd done a fairly definitive job in the [previous reissues] certainly in the presentation. It really turned out that it wasn't and also the American record company didn't do a very good job beyond the initial releases; they lost interest in the whole project and did a very cursory job presenting the record.
"And the whole point of reissuing records is to release new material so that people can go back and get something more than a cheap compilation. Maybe they can get into a record they hear played in concert. As you know when I was last down your way I was doing a concert with Steve Nieve where we were drawing songs from every time in my life and it's a good feeling to know that if people are curious about those songs they can get a decent well mastered copy with some background to the thing, an idea of how the record came to be. I think the new editions are very much better: they sound better; they're obviously very much better value for money - though maybe not for someone like you who's already got them - they're very much better value for money and the additional tracks are on the second CD so you can choose to enter that. I'm realistic that if you don't like the original album the second album is not going to change your opinion. But if you do like the original album that second disc is going to throw a light that might be interesting to you.
"And generally my humour has lightened a little bit in the last five or six years and you can tell that in the notes, they're written with less of a note of finality."
Possibly the only person who hasn't been getting the jokes is Bruce Thomas I guess.
"You can't have it both ways you know."
What's been intriguing me and possibly frustrating me with the reissues is not having to buy them again because there's so much more to play with but given I have 20-odd bootlegs of yours I wouldn't mind putting some of that money into your pocket and I'm waiting to see the live releases you must have.
"This has been an ongoing mystery story for us because periodically we started to compile material but the truth is there's almost been a cast iron rule that whenever we've put a mobile recorder outside the theatre we've played horribly. One day we will do that. Towards the end of the rhino reissue program there are a couple of different things we've discussed but haven't worked out. One could be a collected works kind of thing, a compendium that's broader than the best of. The other would be to look at the huge amount of live material. As you say there's no real reason not to as the music's been stolen from us we might as well steal it straight back. Some of the best performances are caught on the fly, fuzzy radio recordings. And I think people's tolerance and interest in that kind of stuff is much greater. It's one of the reasons why I feel perfectly justified putting out four-track home cassette demos on these. Quite often they capture something about the song that you won't hear on the recorded version. Not necessarily better but it's definitely another, fresher view of the material and you get a sense of the song."
Which brings up another request, the Wendy James demos. I've been searching for a long time for those.
"Well you may not need to search much longer. That may be on Rhino's shopping list. That's a fun kind of record really. It was written very very quickly as you know and the tools of the trade of that kind of songwriter came into my hands and my wife and I just wrote those songs on a weekend and recorded them with Pete Thomas. Actually not that dissimilarly to some of the tracks on this new record, Pete and I in the studio together. Dissolve was recorded exactly like the Wendy James demos, guitar and drums and the other things added. When you hear the record it sounds like a rock and roll band playing together but sometimes you get a better feel when it's just two of you. For certain types of song anyway, certainly something like that which is sort of stupid and it's supposed to be stupid, it's intentionally stupid."
Are you the type of fan who values the kind of reissues you're putting out, artist liner notes, demos and the like?
"If they're records that I've really loved. I was very delighted to get The Band reissues; they're albums I've spent a lot of time with over the years, really meant a lot to me. When I heard the alternate version of Tears Of Rage, which to me is one of the most perfect recordings ever, and couldn't believe that the alternate version is in some ways better with even more passionate singing. I can understand why they used the original because it's more seamless, there are a few little stray notes in the alternate version. "But that's one of the frustrations of live recording in the studio, quite often the judgment of the producer or the artist will be to use the track that has no flaw. Pete Thomas has said to me many times '[the producer] used that backing track that has me speeding up.' Yes but listen to the mood of it, listen to the singing. Sometimes you have to go with my judgment to go with a flawed rhythm track. And of course in concert we play it ten times better but we never get that mood again. It's not a compromise it's just that place you have to reach: you can't have everything perfected because we're human; we're not supposed to do everything perfectly. So you go with your best judgment about what flaw to have."
There's that question about whether there ever is a definitive version.
"I don't think there is. I know that because we're not performing with a horn section we've already had to adapt songs from the new record even. We've done some club shows to kick things off and already the songs are starting to change shape, and these are brand new. Because of course we recorded the record very quickly in one sense. Most of the songs I wrote at the beginning of last year, two or three of the songs I wrote in '99 because I ws intending to make the record in 2000.
"When I went back to this style of recording the idea of writing what I would call a rhythm record or a beat record I had worked a lot of the things out at home. I wrote the songs rhythm, then words then melody then harmony, which is a very unusual combination for me. Mainly because my main fascination, having written all these ballads was to pick up the tempo and make the rhythm very dominant. Not just added to a song sketched out on piano or guitar but actually fundamental. So the rhythm pattern of Spooky Girlfriend is as fundamental to the song in my mind as the chord sequences. And it's something I invented so Pete had to pick up this kind of crazy pattern that really needed eight arms to play. And the combination of my beatbox - which was then transformed by my producers, young producers I was working with who were of course very familiar with the ability of the classic nature of the modern studio to transform things almost as you're doing them which makes it a pleasure to work with because you're playing the studio as an instrument - and Pete reacting to that and you end up with the record that we've got. That's a very different kind of music than I've experienced in the past. You tend to 'hello boys, what shall we play today' and you fall in behind.
"The danger is that once you've done that a few times you might start repeating that. It's more interesting for me to find a way to go forward that doesn't use that same predictable map but still gets the excitement." Although you are using the studio as an instrument, this record, because it's such a rhythm and riffs record, is quite primal in parts, raw.
"Certainly the way they've recorded my voice, that's very much how it sounds in the room. I've seen it written that my voice is deliberately distorted on the record, and it isn't. There's no distortion added to this record at all. It's very hot on tape, but that's just the way I sound. When I sing, that's the way I sound. People have got used to things with other singers, and I've been singing in a much more gentle manner, the vibrato in my voice to soften the tone.
"So in that sense it's fundamental, primal to me, and the same with the personalities of the other players, particularly the ones that people have heard playing with me before. Inevitably that's going to put people in mind of the work we've done in the past but I can't think, when I analyse it, that there's anything that's remotely like any song we've made before. Just the fact that the guitar is so more prominent is unlike any other album I've made. In another record Steve might come forward more. He played, I wouldn't say a back seat role, but he played a more ingenious, more insidious role. Quite a lot of things that you probably can't put your finger on what they are is him. He's just playing a different style."
You've listed the type of guitar you've played on every track and on several of the reissues you've identified the guitar you were using and how that influenced the kind of song you wrote as much as the sound of the record. You've mentioned the Silvertone in particular with this record, how did that influence the type of song and later the sound of the album?
"I think if you're a real virtuoso guitar player you can truthfully pick up almost anything and get the sound you want. But if you're like me and can only play within certain bounds .. I can't play other people's music very well; I can play my own things pretty well. And I know where the guitar fits into the songs. You'll hear there's a motif in a lot of the songs on this record, much as there is in Watching The Detectives, I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea and a number of other songs, a signature that I've used from time to time. Because I'm not a virtuoso technician on the guitar I think the individual characteristics of an instrument count for more with me than with other more accomplished guitar players.
"So the thin cheap sounding guitars like the Silvertone and the Magnatone seem to create a mood much like the rhythm boxes that I was using, which are obviously very modern instruments but very elementary ones as well. The pleasure of it is it's almost like a toy and I think it's the play element that's gone out of modern recording and I was trying to put it back, while using the studio with all its modern possibilities. The guitars had a kind of finger painting aspect to them and I think if you were to continue the painting analogy they're fairly broad strokes the instruments, particularly the guitar. There isn't a lot of subtlety but they are the right thing for it and some of that is coming from the actual integral sound of the instrument. This Magnatone does two things, it doesn't have a lot of other tones, and the Silvertone the same. It's economical, I don't have to play a lot of notes. The most expansive it gets is Dust you know, that's just something that happened, a moment of drama. I don't' think I've ever taken off into a break like that but it just seemed to work in the context of the song. This is a song that's both very serious and very offhand about matters of life and death and it needed a bit of drama in it, with all these different conundrums about people holding us to ransom, ourselves holding us to ransom, ourselves disappearing into little specks of matter. They are serious matters but they are said in a way that I hope takes away some of the dread, shouting at shadows."
Is it too simplistic to say, as some reviews have suggested, that your records are a response to, a deliberate turn from whatever you did beforehand? Lyrically and sonically this album is markedly different from the Bacharach and even All This Useless Beauty and presumably the music you' ve been writing for the ballet.
"I think it's understandable because obviously from a critic's point of view there is this assumption that it's being done in reaction because that's kind of the order of things that is necessary to think logically, albeit sometimes duly about music. Whereas I'm just doing these things; I'm not doing them in reaction to myself. I'm just moving on. I feel like I had explored ballad tempo. You couldn't really have any finer expression of it, for now, that the ballads of All this Useless Beauty, and Brutal Youth for that matter, the work with Burt Bacharach and having Anne-Sofie Von Otter sing No Wonder or my wife's Baby Plays Around. I'm not saying that her version is superior to mine but it is an expression of that song that has a stillness that I couldn't possibly achieve which I think is very lovely. And many of the things on that record were as self possessed and contained as you could ever wish to have as a singer. When I sang on the record it was like an acid drop by contrast. I put a lot of work into helping her choose those songs and arranging them. And then I just stopped thinking about it and it was the same with the ballet, once it ws done I stopped thinking about it because my job was done until the next time I had to consider about that music which was when we had to prepare it for the recording and I had to take the score and edit it down because it didn't need to do all the repetitions that it needed to do for the structure of the dance.
"That is going to be a very different kind of presentation. It's purely instrumental, it has elements of orchestral, some things that I suppose you would associate with jazz but they're not improvised, harmonies and rhythms, certain shapes that are more commonly associated with jazz. I don't know what kind of music people will call it. It doesn't have to have a name. But it certainly wasn't written in reaction to the Ann-Sofie record than this record was written in reaction to Painted From Memory. They're just records I wrote.
"The way I was feeling when I was making that record will be different again now because I'm now combining these new songs. The fact that they are structured very differently to songs I've written in the past - the superificial similiarities such as the fact there are the same people playing on it that I've had in the past disguise the fact that they're very different to anything I've ever written before, particularly lyrically. The musical thing is probably the thing that will strike you first, the fact that I've raised my voice and tempo and the relative aggression of the sonic side of the record, the guitar I'm playing and the rhythms being more swinging, but the use of words is quite different as well.
"Of course in a short period of time that's not all going to get absorbed. The thing I'm very aware of now is that record companies are all so vast it isn't your turn to record as frequently so I want to give people a decent piece of music that they can go back to. We're not making vinyl records now, we're not making one or two act plays, we're making collections because people's patience for listening to anything is so brief that you need to give them places to enter the record so it's longer than it used to be. That 's not a mistake, it's a collection of things that you can enter or leave at any time, it's like a continuous newsreel. And some of the songs operate in that fashion. When I Was Cruel, obviously other things have occurred before the song begins. It doesn't begin at the beginning of the story, it begins somewhere around the middle and it doesn't pay off to a tidy morality play at the end. There is a comment but it's a comment that's constantly changing in relation to the events that are being described. Other songs aren't even describing anything at all; the words are presented in conjunction with the music, the tone of voice and the sound of the record to evoke something. There is more than one way to tell something that you obviously know as a writer. There is more than one way to use words; they don't always have to reveal themselves completely. This is not a mistake; this is deliberate. In the same way that you can fling paint onto canvas and make it give the impression of something or you can finely paint it with two or three strands of horse hair until it builds up to an absolute likeness. Which is the better painting? There is no comparison.
"It's kind of an elementary thing to say that there is more than one way to sing a song but it does seem to have escaped some people's notice. Maybe because so much celebrated music is so very dull that it's never occurred to anybody that there is more than one way to write, more than one way to sing, more than one way to use words and music. Really it's beyond a lot of highly celebrated, highly rewarded performers that this is the case. It's not their fault; they don't know that yet."
The reactive theory is as empty an approach as the line that says finally he's going back to being Elvis Costello after dabbling in these other areas, as if the exploration is merely distraction.
"Those who are doing this are speaking from a position of deep conservatism about music which is a sad thing to say that rock and roll has become a conservative force in music. Rock and roll was a revolutionary thing; now it 's the conservative status quo in the opinion of people who speak like that. And their attempt to patronise you for doing these things is disappointing but you can't be too aggravated because you shouldn't mock the ignorant. It is just ignorance to say that that is dabbling because it fails to understand the value of it."
It's ignorance and fear isn't it?
"It's fear and posturing as well, which is when it is objectionable. What I want to focus on rather than being in the feedback world of media and record creation is that the listeners are so much more varied in their response. There are people who have no problem at all listening to both the Juliet Letters and When I Was Cruel. And there are some people who only listen to the first few records, like Blood and Chocolate and might like this record. And there are people, who by virtue of just being younger, don' t know any record other than She. There were some young people, about 17 [years old] who came up to me recently when I was signing with the new record and the first record, they'd read about My Aim is True or This Year's Model, whether they read about it in the build up to this record or some group they like now mentioned it in their interview. There are so many different responses and to limit yourself to this very rigid idea based on someone who has their picture on top of a newspaper article would be very idiotic of me to react to that. You can't possibly please everybody and I'm not even attempting to do that. You've really only got to serve my own desire in music and to believe that what I made will interest enough people to justify actually being a commercial endeavour. If it isn't then I'll just be writing because that's what I do. I did it before I made records, maybe I'll be doing it after I stop making records."
As you say in the liner notes for Spike, an album you expected wouldn't be liked by the record company at least turned out to be the biggest selling album you had had up to that time.
"You never can tell. The truth of it is that a lot of people who write about those things and say well you should go back and make an Elvis Costello record, the truth is none of those records sold. This Year's Model wasn't a success, Blood And Chocolate wasn't a success. (With) Brutal Youth we had one hit single in England but it wasn't a huge success in America. So whenever I'm the most "me" that they're saying I am they never really sell. You know what's my biggest selling record? She. And that's the least me record that I've ever made. There's your theory right there. On the other hand When I Was Cruel just went into the American charts at number 20, the highest entry we've ever made, so who knows maybe this will confound that theory.
"The UK press is filled with stories about how UK acts, and I'm not a UK act now that I live in Ireland but they count me as a UK act, can't break America and we've just proved that wrong.
"It's a measure of the fact that we've got people's attention. Now I'm going to tour and whether we engage with a lot of people or a smaller group of people who've bought the records over the past 10, 15 years . The big myth about me is that I ever sold a lot of records. In fact I've sold about the whole (same) amount of records throughout my career with a few exceptions, a few records that you would expect sold a little less. Like Juliet Letters which was going to alarm some people and gain new people, but it still sold very respectably. Painted From Memory sold half a million copies which, given that it wasn't played on one radio station anywhere in the world, is not bad. "I think that these judgments are based on very inflated posturing that goes on in the media and at the record companies, all this puffed up talk about millions instead of thinking about a human singing and a human listening. That's what's got lost. Of course it's a thrill to see the record in the charts and to hear the record on the radio all day long but I've had that experience and it doesn't break my heart that it doesn't happen on every record that I release.
"Again when people are cautious, conservative you have to have sympathy for their position because it's founded sometimes on a lack of ability to experience a broader, rich picture of music. It is sometimes a very strident judgment, spoken from a position of ignorance, from a failure to be exposed to more stuff. If we listen with greater openness that might happen. But I won't hold my breath for that."
Song selection on tour?
"The most recent shows they were designed as tasters for the new record and we did about two thirds of the new album. Those songs sounded pretty fine alongside the songs from This Year's Model, Blood And Chocolate and Imperial Bedroom. But that was just our first selection and they fitted together very well. I think by the time we finish rehearsing we'll have an even greater variety of songs. I have in mind to do a couple of songs at least that I've never performed on stage. We have obviously a foundation of songs that people have always called for but I think we will undoubtedly have a few surprises beause with Davey Farragher in the band. He's been listening to the records with fresh ears and saying why don't we do that song, and that's not a bad idea. The band sounds really good and it's a joy playing in this way again."