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Interview with Elvis Costello; Elvis Unchained
Union Tribune (San Diego), 2002-05-23
- George Varga


Elvis, unchained

Mr. Costello continues to go his own, passionate, way

By George Varga

May 23, 2002
Like Elvis Presley before him, Elvis Costello is everywhere.

But unlike his American namesake, who became a bloated self-parody before his drug-fueled death at 42, this English music maverick is more passionate and active than ever at 47.

Costello's new album, the edgy, hard-rocking "When I Was Cruel," is the highest-charting of his career, reaching No. 20 last week on Billboard's national sales charts. His ongoing tour with his band, the Imposters (which features two members of his first group, the Attractions), stops Wednesday at downtown's Copley Symphony Hall.

Earlier this year, Costello collaborated with rootsy singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams on a "Crossroads" concert special for Country Music Television. His next TV appearance will be on an episode of "The Simpsons," and his name now has such cachet that the new guitarist in the glam-metal band Hanoi Rocks goes simply by the lone monicker Costello.

Born Declan McManus, the real Costello has completed writing his first symphony, "Il Sogno," which was commissioned by the Italian dance company Aterballetto. He recently oversaw its recording by the London Symphony Orchestra, with Michael Tilson-Thomas conducting and saxophone and drum contributions from John Harle and Peter Erskine, respectively. "Il Sogno" is scheduled to receive its U.S. premiere in July at UCLA, where Costello has been "artist in residence" for the past year.

Then there's his jazzy performances with the Charles Mingus Orchestra, and Rhino Records' recent re-release of such classic albums as "This Year's Model" and "Blood and Chocolate" (all with a generous array of bonus tracks). Costello, who contributed a song to R&B vocal great Solomon Burke's upcoming album, will also play a prominent musical role in the next film by director Neil LaBute, who will use only Costello's songs for the score for the film adaptation of LaBute's play "The Shape of Things."

But this diversity has proved to be both a blessing and a curse.

Some listeners welcome the opportunity to hear Costello team up with such disparate artists as Burt Bacharach, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Tony Bennett and Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter.

Others, however, regard his musical adventures as self-indulgent exercises they must contend with in between his sporadic returns to the rock-oriented projects they crave.

Costello, not surprisingly, regards such fair-weather fans as just that.

"It's conservatism," he said, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. "The assumption is that my only motivation is some vain ambition. From where I'm standing, everything I've done has been taken far more seriously than it deserves, while singularly failing to be popular across the board. I always hoped I could sell records by making good records. I didn't need the validation of people thinking I'm doing 'high art.' "

His artistic mandate, Costello believes, is to constantly stretch himself creatively.

"I've managed to have a rapport with people in jazz and classical music," he said. "But, ultimately, we're humans about it. We believe this is possible, and maybe we're trying to go beyond what's possible, to something new.

"For somebody to denigrate it because of their own lack of imagination is disappointing. But you can't feel too much anger; it's more that you feel pity for them for being so limited. There's way too much consideration of 'what it all means.' There is no party line about music. Everybody hears differently. If songs are your thing, then perhaps you won't like instrumental music."

For some listeners and musicians alike, rock, jazz, country and classical music are worlds apart.

Not so, Costello, whose enthusiasm for different idioms has become increasingly pronounced in his own work. He had a well-developed passion for jazz and classical back in the late-'70s, when he was being marketed as the tart-tongued "angry young man" of rock. But he lacked the technical skill then to effectively assimilate and utilize his diverse musical loves.

"My knowledge of other music was probably greater than other people of my age," he said. "I was like some study case who heard so much music as a little child, before I understood what name you put to it. It gave me a head-start when the meaning and the feeling behind it became comprehensible. Consequently, I never had a fear of jazz or classical music.

"In the early '80s, I started to listen a lot more broadly, and that brought in more colors and harmonies to my music. I couldn't execute those ideas precisely at first; I was happy to get the closest approximation."

As an example, Costello cited the ominous-sounding "Watching the Detectives" from his landmark 1977 debut album. His musical inspiration in crafting the song's chilling arrangement was composer Bernard Hermann, whose film scores included Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" and Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" and "North by Northwest."

" 'Watching The Detectives' doesn't draw your ear to it as: 'Hey, Bernard Hermann!' But I was literally thinking Bernard Hermann when I wrote it," Costello recalled. "I also had every intention of having it be as close as a garage band could be to Hermann, and there's a beauty in reaching way beyond the supposed limitations of what you're doing."

Costello's lyrics on "When I Was Cruel" rank among the most oblique of his career. Their meaning is open to multiple interpretations, which is exactly how he likes it.

"With a lot of songs on this record there is not a literal 'once upon a time,' " he noted.

"Something is happening before and after, and we're just getting a glimpse. It's up to the listener to figure out what he or she thinks, because I'm not going to tell you. It's about provoking a response. It's much better to do that than being dictatorial. Whatever people make of it, it's their own work of imagination and it's really egotistical to think only your view matters. It's no accident that the words don't make literal sense."

But what about making entirely instrumental music, as Costello did with the brassy New Orleans song "Stalin Malone" (from his underrated 1989 album "Spike")?

Or, to cite a more recent example, what about his symphony "Il Sogno," which was written for a dance production based on Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and has a score that is 200 pages long?

"I'm not doing this to be clever," replied Costello, who taught himself to read and write music shortly before making "The Juliet Letters," his 1993 album with England's Brodsky String Quartet.

"I'm doing this because I want to write something, and not to write some new language, which so many composers see as their sole responsibility. It's amazing if you can do that, but I don't believe every composition can strike new ground. It takes time to figure out what's valid and what is a cul-de-sac.

"The artists I'm most attracted to, like Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, always moved their music forward. You get that same sense from Dylan as well. Most of the great musicians I pay any mind to have that quality, and if I can't maintain that in my own work, then I fail."

Copyright 2002 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.


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