Interview with Elvis Costello
Interview by Alan Franks Photographs by Graham Wood
T0 DUBLIN FOR A DRINK WITH DECLAN MACMANUS. IT sounds like an impeccably Irish appointment, particularly when you bear in mind he is married to a musician called Cait O'Riordan. This could take days. But of course Declan is really Elvis and MacManus is really Costello. Or the other way round, depending on how you like to look at these things. Also, the drink is only coffee, and we are done by lunch. He explains to me the relationship between Costello and MacManus, but it's not entirely straightforward. Elvis makes the records, dearly; that's him on the label. But even when Declan more songs for other people, the singers wanted the composer to be credited as Costello, since MacManus is not a famous name. The driving licence is Costello, as problems can occur if you are stopped and turn out to be someone other than who you plainly are, but the passport has changed back to MacManus. So it's an interesting - some would say Irish - collaboration, with one of them doing the driving and the other doing the travelling. The living full-time in Dublin and the reversion to the family name have the look of a statement You don't hear of Elton John or Cliff Richard wanting to become Reg Dwight or Harry Webb again. It's a tricky manoeuvre, like trying to unstick a loud wig after it's got you looked at for years. In Costello's case there is this sense of a palling joke, or at least a wish to live apart from the brand name. However, if you fear he has Gaelicised and re-rooted himself to the point of jamming with uillean pipers, his new record will set your mind at rest. It will also set the rest of you tapping, as it is as rowdy as anything he has done in years.
He says he set out to write the whole batch of songs with a Silvertone electric guitar, A 15-watt amplifier and ''a kid's beatbox with big orange buttons''. So if there is a reversion going on, it is here. He made the album at Dublin's Windmill Lane recording studios, but some of the tracks could almost be backed by the Attractions, the band he performed with when he first became fatuous as the most articulate of the late Seventies new wave artists. In those days he did rudeness and rage as dutifully as any paid-up punk, and he didn't let up. As it turned out, he was revving up for a good run at the Thatcher government, whose practices he vilified. Fewer words than Ben Elton, but the same idea. If that was the acceptable rudeness of the radical young rock star, there were other, less palatable outbreaks, notably his dismissal of Ray Charles as ''an ignorant, blind nigger''. He did take that one back later, but meeting Costello is still a touch nerve-wrecking, even after all these years. Yet people change. For example it is apparently quite safe these days to lend Pete Townshend your guitar.
Costello is no old charmer peddling a mellow retrospective of chart triumphs, but a mid-life musician in a hurry He wants to be taken seriously, and he is hardly alone in that. He is proud of the collaborations he has been involved in over the past ten years, even though some of these may have perplexed his early followers. There was the work with the classical Brodsky Quartet, the songs for mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, the co-writing with popular ballad maestro Burt Bacharach, and much besides. Patronise him at your peril.
"Actually" he says, with barely suppressed devilment, "I did have a furious row with someone from TV in America-they were doing a short feature on Burt Bacharach. I didn't really want to fit this into my day but it was Burt. The line of questioning was "Burt is king of cheese and you come out of punk rock, so how did you guys get together?" I said, Excuse me, you are starting from a prelude that I completely disagree with." He said it again, and I said, 'There's no way we can have this conversation.' After he asked it a fourth time I threw him out because it seemed so insulting to Burt. I thought, 'You are showing extreme ignorance of this guy's work.''
Both the question and the anger it provoked are understandable. It doesn't take a musicologist to see that Bacharach and Costello each have a flair for the skewed melody the clever way of giving the ear what it doesn't quite expect. In this respect their mutual interest was unsurprising. Yet they have supplied different constituencies - easy listening and not-so-easy listening. In fact, one of the problems of early Costello was that the voice which sounded so sullen, tender and bruised over the three-minute dash of 4 single such as Olivers Army or Alison could become thin and overwrought in the course of a whole album.
As a writer he was always pushing the construction off songs far beyond the few chords which were enough for many of his contemporaries. There's a colossal tension in him, a very productive one, between the scripted and the aural ways, the formal and the throwaway, the lettered and the unlettered. It probably touches every area of his life, and it certainly influences the way in which he writes his popular and his less accessible music. Bacharach's good opinion of him is like gold, and he flashes it without apology.
''I don't like people to be unaware of the fact that I wrote the music with him as well as the words (on the 1998 album Painted from Memory). Each of the songs had a different proportion, but the material we brought to the piano may even have been a lithe in my favour. After the career he's had, he was willing to open himself up to a full-blooded collaboration, which was largely unprecedented. He had written one or two songs with other people, such as Neil Diamond, but nothing like to this extent. And people like this TV guy still want to talk about him smooth, me rough. But I threw him out, so he got what he came for, because he ran into this 1977 guy! But, really, I don't have many arguments. If we're going to get angry, let's get angry about real tings, like politics.'' OK. Apart from the Manic Street Preachers, or Pulp, there aren't many big-selling bands doing social effusion songs, let alone giving the Government an earful. Five years in, they must be fair game. Blunkett rhymes with flunk it, Blair with yeah. What's everyone waiting for?
''The Eighties were very clearly defined'' he says. ''Either you made the music celebrating the greed culture, or you didn't. You were either part of the problem or part of the. . . not solution, but dissent. Very few songs actually changed anything. The only one I can think of that really influenced events was Free Nelson Mandella. That gave energy to a movement. It showed how a bold, bald sloganising song can work . . . I've never been one for making big broad statements that are easily picked up. People make the inference that because you've written so-called political songs - I never said they were - there's something lacking if you don't then follow them up.
"There's more than one kind of political song. It's a childish kind of impulse to blame the 'They'. Ive done this myself. This 'They' really means the part of you that allows particular things to happen.''
All this is delivered in his distinctive London-and-Liverpool accent. He was born in Paddington but later moved up to Birkenhead (he has strong views on the Robbie Fowlers transfer to Leeds). He's 47 now and was just 23 when his first album, My Aim Is True, was released to instant rapture. He talks at full tilt, doesn't need questions to keep him going, and sometimes treats them rather as a joyrider treats a sleeping policeman. For assertive fluency he's up there with, well, Mrs Thatcher. He doesn't smoke or drink. Used to drink, but gave it up and said it was no big deal.
There is a first Mrs Costello, who is in the strange position of retaining her ex-husband's stage name, and a 27-year-old musician son, Matthew, from that marriage. There is also a band of brothers, or half-brothers, from Costello's father's second marriage. Ruari, Ronan, Liam and Kieran MacMmus, all in their twenties, play in a London band called Riverway. Costello's judgement is on the line; about five years ago they asked him for his opinion of them and he said they would be ready in five years.
He looks content and prosperous. You wouldn't say fat - particularly not in front of him - but when you compare him with the cover of This Years Model (1978) he a matrioshka. Unscrew him at the waist and you would find the earlier, smaller versions going back through the decades - the Spike model of 1989, the Get Happy!! one of 1980 - all tile way to the weird and scrawny Seventies original with his twisty legs and nerd specs.
Considering he absorbs so many diverse styles, you might have expected to find more evidence of Irish music in his output. After all, the best of it belongs to a tradition in which there is not the same schism between supposedly high and supposedly low art as there is in England. For good measure, his great grandfather was born in Dungannon, his grandfather was a travelling Irish musician, and his father, Ross MacManus, is a singer and former bandleader.
This last influence is the most telling, for it brought the young Declan into contact with the pre-sixties repertoire of popular ballads. By 1963, the true beginning of the Sixties according to Philip Larkin, that epoch had already become a distant place of sheet music-which his mother sold for a living) and tuxedo bands. In the revolution that followed, the tunefulness and musicianship of the old regime was all but forgotten. He says that, although he didn't realise it at the time, the knowledge he acquired from his parents was as good as a formal musical education. He even played guitar onstage with his father when he was still at school, but was so out of tune that he tried not to be heard.
''I can remember being amazed at the gaps in people's knowledge,'' he says. ''It was not to do with the technicalities, it was just that they had never heard these things. Since then I've had chance encounters that have led me dorsal all sorts of different paths.'' And these paths seem to have emphasised the shared ground of the forms rather than the distance between them.
''Absolutely The threads of (musical) thought run across the world and across time. You find people inventing the same musical structures for entirely different reasons. For example, inside the Shostakovich cello sonata there's a perfect little melody, just like a Duke Ellington song. That can be a kind of illusion, but it happens all the time. You can hear bits of music poking out from the body of something completely different. Beethoven's very last piano sonata goes into something weirdly like jazz or ragtime. Nothing else quite like it crops up for another hundred years and you think, "What was that? Was it just a slip that no one else noticed?''
The Dublin where this conversation takes place is a racy cosmopolitan world by the restored and pencilled quays of the Liffey. The hotel costs more than a London counterpart, the staff are ultra-elegant in their dark suits that button all the way up to the neck, and the whole area feels far closer to Europe than the English mainland. Which of course it is. Earlier in the day, Costello bridled - nodding more than that - at being pictured in an old Dublin pub. Not, he insisted, because he's not a drinking man himself but because he disliked perpetrating stereotypes.
''I do think there is a lot of it [stereotyping] going on. English people know little of this country and what they gave to the world. They (English people) are still patronising and demeaning. It's not as though it's all perfect here. There's an influential and tolerated class of businessmen and politicians - which is most of them and it's not very admirable - who have worked out a deal with another authority, that of Europe, which maintains their place in the scheme of tidings. There are obviously benefits here, but if you go out to the middle of the country or further west, you can see that it hasn't been shared out properly.
''People assume the worst of politics and business, think that they are up to no good and that there is some weird compromise. Every day the papers are full of scandal and inquiries. So, although the country is said to be doing well, it's at the expense of this. It goes on everywhere. France, Spain, Italy all have versions of it, but the UK doesnt. There it's like, 'Well that's what you'd expect from them."
''Anyway, that's my experience of Dublin as an observer. I like it. I think it's a brake on some more oppressive and claustrophobic authority building up in the governing class, which naturally induces big business. It raises questions about the moral foundation of the governing class. But it's different in the UK, specially the president. Sanctimonious and laughable. That's why I don't live there any more. I didn't like the generalissimo (Mrs Thatcher) any more than I like the president of the new, undeclared republic. Let's have one (a republic), but let's come out and say it, and have someone with grace like Mary Robinson going round and standing up to dictators and telling them off. What a thing. Fantastic.''
Later this year he plans to collaborate with director Neil LaBute on a film project, and is appearing in The Simpsoas. After the touring with the songs on his new CD, When I Was Cruel, Costello's orchestral score for a ballet adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream will be recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. This is not a work that has evolved through a pop star's single melody line being fleshed into a full score by classically trained professionals. Through hard work and a good ear that hears ''vertically'' through the stave, he has been able to pencil-out a 200-page score himself. He says by the end he was able to write 60-piece arrangements straight out of his head.
This is an intriguing place to find a rock'n'roll star with a history of rebellion. No less so when he explains what happened to him as a boy. It was simple really, although perplexing at the time. He couldn't understand the link between the treble and bass staves. No one explained to him that they were part of a continuum, joined by the alto stave, but that the alto stave was left out as it was generally only used by viola players. ''It was the separation that threw me',' he says. ''I gave up music for 30 years. I could sing, so I sang in the school choir, but then my voice got too loud and they threw me out. I became an altar boy because of the solemn face, but I got thrown out at 14 for laughing. Because the priest used to mumble everything except the church plate takings.
''The music teaching was laughable. They did Gilbert and Sullivan, but that too I had to give up because it was so far from what I was interested in. And I wasn't getting anything out of Barbara Allen and The British Grenadiers.'' This picaresque account of his youth goes on and on, jumping to the inevitable postscript in l 998 when the school wrote to him asking him for help with a charity drive, and noting that he and the former Liverpool footballer Steve McManaman were the two most famous old boys. ''Not the best recommendation for the place, I'd have thought.''
Perhaps not. But you never know, the school could have done him a disservice if they had managed to house-train his ability in the approved way: Andrew Lloyd-Webber's father, a composer and music professor, realised his elder son's talents would not benefit from formal study and discouraged such a course. There are some people who have to get there themselves, and Costello is clearly one of them. What gave him his particular force - and still does on the evidence of these 15 songs - was the pairing of his clever, edgy noise with the spit of a lyricist who had learnt what was possible from a previous generation of rule-breakers: Bob Dylan, Lou Reed. even the prototype three-chorded moaner Woody Guthrie. The curious thing is this: the songs are more serious than they sound, while the man who makes them is more full than he's letting on.
Elvis Costello's new single, Tear Off Your Own Head (It's the Doll Revolution), is released on April 8, the album When I Was Cruel is released on April 15, both on Mercury. Elvis Costello plays London's Astoria on April 16