BAM, April 7, 1989

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Elvis Costello interview

Keith Moerer

There's a song on Spike called "God's Comic" which isn't exactly controversial but could be misinterpreted or offend some listeners. In light of Khomeini's death threat against Salman Rushdle, do you ever worry about being misinterpreted or offending any of your audience?

There are plenty of examples of my songs being misinterpreted, but never in such a drastic way as we've recently witnessed. But no, I write what I think.... I've never deliberately gone out of my way to say something which I knew to be wrong, but I've said it for effect, or something like that. I've said things privately (laughs) but who hasn't.

In terms of songs, that's one thing I can say. I have plenty of songs that I say, "Well, that wasn't a very good song," or "We didn't make a very good job of recording that song." But the good songs, I stand by them and if they cause any offense to people, it's maybe because they look at that particular thing differently than me.

Have you ever written a song that you later regretted or wish you hadn't written?

Only badly written ones, you know what I mean? (laughs). I don't think I've ever written something that would bring about such an extreme reaction.The only ones I might think of are ones that might have political interpretations. (But) if someone was so removed from your point of view, chances are they never would hear the song to begin with.

There are a couple of songs on that album written with Paul McCartney. Were you a big Beatles fan as a kid?

Absolutely. Yes I was, yes.

Was it intimidating, then, to sit in the same room and write with him?

No, not really. Not as a person. He's a very friendly sort of man, he's very down to earth. He doesn't put any conditions on it. If anything, I think everybody else, critics and record company people are more concerned about all those things than we were. We were just two people trying to get on with our job.

You've collaborated with a lot of different musicians in the past. As far as collaborating with other songwriters, though, you haven't done a lot of that.

I've never done one long sort of songwriting job with somebody like this was. The brief was to write for his record; now by coincidence I brought some material so we had a starting point and he had a song to work on in a similar sort of way. I think we were both aware of the fact that we might just sit there and stare at each other, waiting for the inspiration to strike, and wouldn't that have been embarassing?

Was there anything you learned from writing with Paul McCartney, in terms of his taking a different approach to songwriting?

He is very practical about it, you know? He made me understand that sometimes I don't explain myself, I maybe take too much for granted in the listener, (that they'll) understand my sort of internal logic in the song. He analyzes a lot of things that I maybe just take for granted. Sometimes I like to leave things a little ambiguous. It helps create a bit of mystery and atmosphere, and other times you're just being stupidly vain and missing the opportunity to say something more concisely. So I think his contribution to the two songs that appear on this album is, lyrically, a little bit of that kind of discipline. Musically, he entered the picture at the certain stage. We took a left turn from there, and then obviously had to resolve back. In the case, say, of "Pads, Paws and Claws" - which is really a simple song so it sounds a little stupid trying to analyze the structure. But it goes along telling the story, and it gets to the chorus, then it tells another verse about the guy, and then it gets to the chorus and he (McCartney) said, "Now all we need to do is explain what this Pads, Paws and Claws is." Simple as that! Another time, I might have come to that conclusion myself, I've written songs like that, "Everyday I Write The Book" or something like that. That's one style of songwriting, it ("Pad, Paws And Claws") doffs its cap to a certain kind of pop songwriting. That gave us the opportunity to inject that little bit of melody in there instead of just being a John Lee Hooker riff with a little rockabilly one. Up till then it was like John Lee Hooker meets Carl Perkins and suddenly you have got the Kinks come in the room or something. We wrote the damn thing in ten minutes.

How did the Dirty Dozen Brass Band get involved with the album?

Well, obviously I don't live in New Orleans so I don't know them all for years and years and years. But I had their first record when it came out, I went to see them in New York City. Then Demon (the English independent label that Costello co-owns) actually put out their second album, but that's just the good release policy of Demon. I can't take any personal credit for that. And I look forward to hearing their new album, too. So I just heard things in them, particularly Kirk Joseph, the sousaphone player. It's hard to separate any one member of that group. They create this one kind of very multi-faceted voice through the different ways in which they approach their instruments.

Kirk's probably the only one you can isolate a little bit, probably because it is so extraordinary to find such a virtuoso on the sousaphone. So I had the idea to use him on his own on "Chewing Gum" and then we developed the idea of the horn refrains being interludes of the song, 'cause it's such a strange displaced sort of song I thought it was quite appropriate for these horn things to appear out of nowhere, like a little commentary on the way the story jumps locations. We were using (the horns) in a visual sort of way. They do conjure up good pictures.

You contributed a song, "The Comedians" to the Roy Orbison album. We did an interview with Orbison last November where he mentioned that you brought the song to him and he asked you to simplify it.

Yeah, what it was, well I don't know if you're aware of the other version of the song I recorded, you're not missing an awful lot if you're not, was written the way you hear it now musically. When I came to record it, I had a lot of ballads lined up for the album Punch the Clock and we really were a little stuck for mid-tempo material, so we did a very kind of peculiar arrangement which I think really undersold the song. It was fun to play at the time, but it was like in 5/4. It was like a novelty track. But that's all well and good, you make those mistakes, you have to accept them. So when T-Bone Burnett rang me up and said, "Do you have a song for Roy?" I was able to present the song. Now at first I just wanted him to hear the melody. I had the inkling there might be some work to do on it. I sent it [the original version] to him. The lyrics, the original lyrics, were also kind of that opaque lyric where you assume the listener's gonna read a lot into it and I don't think Roy's songs have ever been like that. So I think that's what he found, you know, that it was too complicated a lyric, so I wrote a completely new lyric which told a much clearer story and I was able to revert to the original rhythm and everything which had him in mind in the first place, ironically. I had that "bolero" feel that he used on "Running Scared" in the back of my head when I wrote it. All I did was modify the kind of modulation at the end so it stepped up to a much higher crescendo out of my range, but effortless for him.


BAM, No 305, April 7, 1989

Keith Moerer interviews Elvis Costello.


1989-04-07 BAM cover 1.jpg


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