Interview with Elvis Costello
Vox, 1991-07-01
- Geert Hendricks

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The Elvis Costello Interview
Declan and Fall

From Vox, July 1991

According to Mister Misery, pop music's been in decline since Mozart. The more banal he rates it. The more headwork goes into his own recordings. Via a musical journey from Vienna to T-Bone Place. Elvis maps it all out for Geert Hendricks. Portraits by Caroline Forbes


Declan MacManus, A.K.A. Elvis Costello, is generally seen by the world as a serious-minded, prolific, political singer-songwriter. To his fans, he is the greatest living British pop writer. Paul McCartney sought his songwriting skills for his last, and to many, his best record for a long while - Flowers in the Dirt. Macca repaid the debt by co-writing two songs on the latest EC LP Mighty Like A Rose.  

Costello, as ever, refuses to be categorised or pigeon-holed. Jazz, funk, punk, country and even Irish folk music mixes and matched across Mighty Like A Rose. Now sporting a beard, long hair and surly demeanour, Elvis Costello has the appearance of General Robert E. Lee. With an abrasive tone, he sets about decimating the current pop scene and lauding proper musicians, like Brahms, Strauss and Mahler.

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Q- Mighty Like a Rose is, like Spike before it, quite a complex whole. When you listen to it, you have to spend quite a bit of time before you get to know the whole album. Do you expect the listener to work hard to enjoy your music?

A- You could put it another way. I don't want people to get tired of my albums too quickly, so I try cramming as much as I can. I hope they have the patience for them because today, people want everything served to them on a plate.  

The fact that there are so many different media that overwhelm the market with pop music means that people are already pretty spoilt. The first hit parades of the 1930s and 1940s were based on sales of sheet music and not records.  

In the mid-1960s, you didn't have more than two pop programmes a week, which young people today simply can't imagine. If even the most popular artist appeared only sporadically on television and radio in those days, nowadays such a clown as Vanilla Ice can make a disc consisting of nothing at all and become world famous overnight. There's an enormous demand for disposable music and that demand has to be met - not by me.

Compared with modern dance music, which hardly has any lyrics or melody and where everything centres on a monotonous if catchy rhythm which you soon get fed up with, what I do certainly sounds complex. If you use the texts of Samuel Beckett as your yardstick, my lyrics have little commitment of depth, while my compositions, in turn, cannot by a long chalk be compared with those of, for instance, Stravinsky.

Q- Which doesn't lessen the fact that you use literary techniques when composing lyrics. In a song, you often change point of view.

A- It is a question of choosing different approaches just like you use different camera angles in a film, which give you a better insight into the individual concerned. When listening to a song for the first time, it may be hard to follow, but clarity comes with listening. What's more, it is a suitable method to add drama to the story without lapsing into cheap effects.

I pretty often write in the first-person singular and so it seems I'm addressing a specific person, though I could just as well have crept into the skin of someone else's hero. It doesn't matter whether the listener knows the person sung about or not, in the sense of making it any easier or more difficult to understand. I use my own observations and experiences, which I try to generalise without resorting to cliches. You must give the text a certain universal validity so the listener is struck by what you're saying in one way or another.

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Q- Pop music is often used as a safety valve for intimate affairs of the heart. Your texts, on the other hand, are strikingly visual.

A- By describing my characters in minute detail, I allow them, as it were, to appear in my mind's eye, while I try to suggest at the same time what is happening to them.

I have a pretty good command of this stylistic technique, though I say so myself, but whether I have the talent to apply this technique on a larger scale is still a pretty good question.

In between times, I sometimes start writing short stories, though not with a view to publication. It must be said that I can't actually verify that they possess any quantifiable intrinsic literary value.

Everything I write with a serious aim in mind comes out in the form of song lyrics, and perhaps I should stick to doing just that until I don't get any more satisfaction from doing so. Besides, as a musician, I very much enjoy the advantage of having an extra medium where I can express myself with the help of simply hundreds of media.

To give you a simple example: almost everyone thinks that a song in the minor key sounds melancholy, so with the help of a combination of sound and language, you can convey a personal feeling without saying so in so many words.

Something I don't want to be is so obvious in my songs that nothing is left over to exercise the listener's imagination.

Q- Do you think the people who inhabit your stories are typically British?

A- The characters I invent could be living literally anywhere on this earth. I'm often inspired by something I see, read or hear about but sometimes the original idea that started the ball rolling was so trivial that there is no trace of it left in the final result.

I do occasionally set an event in a particular spot as it makes it easier for me to visualise what's going on. 'Harpies Bizarre' on Mighty Like a Rose, for example, is about a rather na´ve girl seduced by a smarmy snob. I imagined the scene during a chic ball which is why the intermezzo is played by woodwind instruments rather than an electric guitar or a piano. The ball need not take place in England as such.

While we're on the subject, I can only name one or two pop musicians typically British. Ray Davies, of course, Morrissey without any shadow of a doubt and, to a certain , also Pete Townsend, and not forgetting Paul McCartney. There are also a number of singers with a genuine English accent such as Johnny Lydon and Ian Dury. As for me, I am not only of Anglo-Irish extraction, but have liked American music from way back.

The fact remains, however, that as good as every American genre [is it] originated in Europe. Tex-Mex is full of polkas from Germany or Poland, while country elements can be traced back to Irish folk music. And if you listen carefully to George Gershwin, you will hear the influence of Brahms, Strauss and Mahler.

In pop music, unfortunately, people don't seem to look further than the ends of their noses. The history of rock'n'roll hardly goes back further than the magic year of its birth 1953, to say nothing of those who imagine that it all began in 1977 with punk. I'm just waiting for some idiot to stand up and claim that there was no pop music of any significance before the advent of rap in 1983!

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Q- In a recent interview, you let it be known that there is no other related genre for a pop artist where he can be directly influenced without risking obscurity.

A- This doesn't reduce the fact that each type of music can inspire reasonably well, though that need not be made too obvious. I hit upon the idea of using the passage in 'Harpies Bizarre' while in a lecture by a professor in the development of music in Mozart's Vienna.

In those days, there was, of course, no radio or gramophone. Even the king could not listen to an opera at home until, one fine day, he had the bright idea of arranging home concerts where his favourite arias were performed but perforce accompanied by a small orchestra consisting solely of woodwind instruments.

These musical soirees led to the development of a completely new style, namely, that which via nobility and aristocracy, finally found its way to the working classes in adapted form.

A modern equivalent of the Viennese tradition manifested itself in England after the Second World War, when the huge success of Glenn Miller popularised large dance orchestras. My father sang for years in the Joe Loss Band, whose repertoire varied from Engelbert Humperdinck's 'The Last Waltz' to Bob Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone,' so they felt forced to assimilate all sorts of songs. And I am not acting any differently when I compose of the basis of folk, blues, or Country or Western.

Q- Surprisingly enough, your father, Ross McManus [sic], accompanies you on your new album. Like him, did you also want to enter the world of music as a child?

A- I imagine so, although I didn't learn to play the guitar until I was 14. But I was brought up with music right from when I was a toddler-my mother was a singer. My father is currently with a cabaret group, but his roots are in jazz.

To be able to support the family, he had to give up his ambitions of becoming a trumpeter and take a job singing with Joe Loss. In the late '60s, when he was already getting on for 40, he let his hair grow to the astonishment of everyone and started playing records at home like 'The Grateful Dead' and 'Country Joe and the Fish.'

During my childhood, he played, apart from Irish folk music, lots of American jazz, which brings me back to the continuity of pop music. In certain pieces by Duke Ellington, I can hear some similarity to Mozart serenades and in which he, presumably as he played the clarinet, conveys a subtle sense of tenderness, which is romantic in a positive sense.

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Q- Talking of the late '60s, there was an artistic competitiveness, especially between the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and the Byrds. This healthy rivalry more or less disappeared by the end of the '70s.

A- The commercial side of things increases in importance from year to year, which means the pedigree musicians find it ever harder to keep their heads above water. Competition is less at a musical level. Everything seems to revolve around the creation of an irresistible image.

The gigantic financial rewards of today bear no relation to the mediocre musical efforts. I sometimes get the feeling I am in a no-man's land of pop music, because even good friends like Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze and Nick Lowe operate in a different field.

During the recording of King of America, I was the guest of T-Bone Burnett along with Peter Case, Victoria Williams and Bob Neuwirth and we played one another's songs the whole evening. I've never done that with somebody like Joe Strummer of the Clash; quite the opposite - we are constantly snarling at one another in public, though we don't mean it.

An evening like the one at T-Bone's now, five years on, seems virtually unimaginable, not only because the opportunity so rarely arises but especially as no one dares lay themselves bare anymore. The pop world is full of narrow-minded individuals.

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Q- When you entered the pop world some 15 years ago, did you know what to expect?

A- I was somewhat sceptical and suspicious, so I kept my distance right from the start. It was certainly no leap into the dark, not even financially because when it came to the crunch, I had a wife and kids to support. That is why I didn't resign from my job as computer programmer until I had a guarantee from the record company that I would be able to earn at least as much as the pittance I was earning then. I felt I was simply changing jobs and didn't realise the dramatic changes it would have on my personality.

The major changes in my private life came later in the day, not least because I flirted outrageously with all manner of temptation. I made the necessary mistakes, but that's life, isn't it? Only if I've hurt other do I feel bad about it.

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