Dazed & Confused, May 1996

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Dazed & Confused
  • 1996 May

UK & Ireland magazines


Straight To The Point

Billy Bragg meets Elvis Costello

Billy Bragg

Elvis Costello: I can't think of anybody I want to meet. I've met a couple of people I admire for one reason or another, or because I've liked their records, and wished I hadn't met.

Billy Bragg: What about Bob Dylan?

EC: I met him in '78. I went along.., in fact, it's a really long, convoluted story...

BB: So what did you say?

EC: He said, 'Hey, I've heard a lot about you', and my mind went blank. And then I said, 'Well, you know what? I've heard a lot about you too'. (both laugh) But he was good, you know, and we sort of looked at each other a bit like a young boxer and middleweight. And then I ran into him quite a lot on that tour, like two or three times. Then a few years later we ended up with a party of us in Minneapolis, but that's the only time we really talked.

BB: And you've just been playing with him now?

EC: Yeah, we went out after one of the shows in Dublin, but the conversation is always enigmatic. But he's a great guy. I think he's a good spirit, and won't have a bad word said against him. I think all of his songs are just like works in progress. I saw him do a show at the Hollywood Bowl, where he did a version of 'Gates Of Eden' that was hair-curling. Somehow it was completely new and every night of that tour I did with him he did something that was extraordinary.

BB: Do you think he's doing it for his own benefit, or do you think he's challenging the audience to walk out? That's the thing.

EC: I don't know what it is; I can't pretend I can let inside what it is. I think a lot of these people who were really famous in the '60s, I think they're only... well, it doesn't matter how many records Michael Jackson will ever sell in the history of his life, it doesn't make any difference. The Beatles, Dylan, they're the only people who really understand what it feels like. That's how kind of famous they were. Being a movie star, in the '40s was probably easier, and more equivalent to being a video star now, or being a pop star now. Where's the surprise? How can it be that Kylie Minogue has hit records? She's cute, she can sing enough, and she's incredibly photogenic, and she was first of all on TV twice a day, and, you know, apparently, she's got a sense of humour. But where's the shock? I mean, what's harming anyone?

BB: I thought the reaction to Brutal Youth, of this whole thing of going back to 1978, was just bullshit. I couldn't believe it. It was such an easy shot...

EC: ...depending on whether it was pitched as a criticism or a compliment, because it was used as both. In England it tended to get everybody rather overexcited for about 20 minutes, about the prospect, and it was never conceived as an Attractions record, and therefore it had the same sense of discovery. In fact, it was almost exactly the same format as This Year's Model in the sense that half the songs already existed when we started the record, but the band didn't exist. And when I started I was only actually speaking to one of the Attractions and by the end of it we were a band again. What it lacks in clout, it has in a sense of discovery.

BB: I don't know anybody who makes albums at the rate you do, and takes as many turns between the way you record them. Do you think people who perhaps first plugged into you from earlier albums might think, 'I don't understand what's going on now'?

EC: I can't complain about making an impression with an early record. I'm not embarrassed by it, and I'm very proud of a lot of my stuff, but from time to time I've obviously gone out of my way to dismantle that imagery, not musically but physically. I really freaked people out with the old beard and everything, which I really enjoyed doing.

BB (laughing): Like, there have never been beards in pop. It's another one of those things like 'Oh my God, he's got a beard. Oh my God, he's playing with a string quartet'.

EC: It's just a question of timing. Liam Gallagher's 23, or something; he grows a beard, and admittedly he's got a pretty great beard, one of the real, full, Celtic beards which I'm not blessed with, despite my heritage. I tend to look like an old tramp; he does look pretty cool with it.

BB: Do you think it's because you've defined yourself so clearly in the first place? I mean, you have a very strong visual image.

EC: What I didn't realise was how sentimental people were about music that I thought we had no sentiment about. I was never really into the punk thing, as you know, but I did assume that it was being done at the moment. And when we were making stuff on Stiff, I had no idea that it would be going on for five years, let alone 15, 20 years, so it wasn't made to last.

BB: There ain't no one way, but how do you write your songs? Hank Williams, on the road, used loads and loads of little notes. Do you make notes?

EC: I try different bloody ways. I don't know, I try not to think of it. If I knew it, then I'd keep on doing it like that, and things would really start to get redundant. I tried big bits of paper for a while, I tried little bits of paper; I tried carrying a notebook, then not carrying one, carrying a Dictaphone or something.

BB: I think it's much more satisfied when a song comes all in one go. Songwriting is so difficult to explain.

EC: I always quote this line that Galton and Simpson wrote in The Rebel, when the Hancock character is asked how he mixes his paints, because he's such a great painter. And he says: 'In a bucket, with a big stick'! That's about what it comes down to at the end.

BB: Yeah, that's where I am at the moment, with my record.

EC: The worst thing is when you're falling asleep, and you tell yourself you'll remember that line...

BB Yeah, you have to get out of bed and write it down, and wake up the baby.

EC: Well if you don't, you'll be tortured forever by the thought of what it was.

BB: It happens all the time, 'I'd wish I'd written that line down'. So do you consider Meltdown as something outside of your career as a pop singer, or do you consider it as an extension?

EC: I don't even think it's an extension. I just think it's kind of a byway in the highway of life. (laughs)

BB: The South Bank seemed to like it.

EC: I started by saying, 'consider less what we call "contemporary" music', which is a group of the usual suspects, the names which have agreed to be the representatives of the boundaries of 'contemporary' music; what about contemporaneous music? I don't want to be pedantic, but there is a distinction, because contemporary has been appropriated on behalf of these composers whether they like it or not, just the same way that Blur and Menswear are described as 'Britpop', but they're very different. I wanted to go further, but we just didn't get the right people. I wanted to have Ray and Philomena on there; I wanted to have some things that people would never in a million years say is 'art music', because it's all happening now. But it just became impossible to embrace everything, and then it looked like we were doing it in some kind of arch way. So I got the things I could get, and we did all sorts.

BB: Have you ever fancied doing anything like writing a piece that's a play with songs?

EC: Yeah, actually I did. A couple of years ago. I got commissioned for one pound, because I didn't want the burden of a real commission to write, for the Nottingham Playhouse, which is still in the works. Unfortunately I realised that once I'd written one draft — old clever clogs here wanted to write the play, the libretto, the music and orchestrate it! I wasn't prepared to compromise, which means my abilities as an orchestrator would have to keep pace. You can't. I wrote this song on Brutal Youth called 'My Science Fiction Twin', taking the piss out of myself for this tendency to try and do everything at once.

BB: Was it a play with songs?

EC: I was trying to find a new form which hadn't been thought of yet.

BB: Everyone thinks that as soon as you say you're going to do something that's not a record, it's got to be a musical or a rock opera or something shit.

EC: Yes, that's the problem... I wanted to have something that wasn't quite like anything else in as much as everybody tries to do that. Then there's the musical style that dominates the West End, which obviously conforms to the template. And we'll probably never be free of the Lloyd Webber sugar or the revival mania. There's a possibility that at the end of this year I might change the way I work, to allow me some flexibility. I've had a couple of discussions with different people in film, and things are opening up all the time.

BB: Are you a good flyer? Do you like flying?

EC: No, I'm a rotten flyer, but I'm not as bad as I used to be. I used to have to get really drunk to get on a plane. If I'm tired I get more nervous.

BB: Do you think it's a trick of the imagination?

EC: Why?

BB: Because a lot of the people I know who write songs hate flying, or are very nervous about flying. Having an imagination is a boon, but it's also a curse isn't it?

EC: Yeah, but I don't start thinking about all the things that can happen. I actually have a problem with the equilibrium. Once I get unsettled, I can't get steady again. I haven't got the greatest sense of balance. I could never ride a bike.

BB: When the plane starts shaking I really start thinking about my mortality...

EC: (laughing): Mmm, I do too, but I think about that enough without being up in a plane. But in every other respect I think I'm OK. I don't get too bad now... I got on a plane coming back from Los Angeles the other week, and I picked up a paper, and it said, 'Major To Play Class Card'. And it said he was going to accentuate his working class background, because now we have a middle class Labour party. I thought, Fuck it. I'm in bizarro world now. I feel like I'm in a Superman comic'.

BB: It is worrying when you look at where the Labour party is. It doesn't seem to be drifting towards much; it seems to be dashing off there. There was a thing in the NME a couple of weeks ago, where I had inadvertently given the wrong impression in a press conference in Australia about Red Wedge. Someone asked me about Red Wedge and they said, 'Would you do it again?' and I said: 'Yeah, if the situation was similar, of course', and I laid out why the situation would have to be different. But it ended up in the NME that, yes, I was up for doing it again, so I had to do a little bit of press about why I wasn't doing it again.

EC: You couldn't deal with that Mandelson guy. He'd be in there, you know? Fucking crawling up your ass. I wait for the day when they announce that they are going to publicly behead the Duke of Westminster in Parliament Square. Tony Blair is going to wield the axe himself, you know. Followed by the entire Westminster council. And the day that they announce that they're going to do that — that's the day they get my Vote. I mean, they have my sympathy, they have my support. If I'm in the country I'll vote for them because I don't want the other fuckers to win again.

BB: But it shouldn't have to be like that; it shouldn't be that kind of choice.

EC: I mean it. They should fucking behead those bastards.

BB: ...and it would make great telly...

EC: I do believe in capital punishment, not for murderers and drug dealers but for those fuckers..

BB: For the the Duke of Westminster. If only for the fact that he's got everything off William the Conqueror.

EC: Well that's a good enough reason right there.

BB: Do you define yourself in any political way?

EC: No I never did. I've never actually belonged to any organisation. I don't trust them. I think.., well the worst thing that ever happened in this country was Michael Foot becoming leader of the party; not because he wasn't a good man but because he was unelectable. And when he was young enough, if Tony Benn had been prime minister everything might have been a lot different.

BB: Even if Healey had been prime minister at least he would have fucking had a go.

EC: He was a big enough bastard.

BB: He would have got hold of Thatcher by the scruff of the neck. And it was a really sad old Labour party compromise. Michael Foot is a lovely bloke, but he's not the sort of leader the party needed.

EC: Not against the Force of Nature, and that's what it was, you know.

BB: It was like Callaghan, you know; he's like this sort of avuncular character.

EC: Wilson was a bastard but he was our bastard. That's why I live in Ireland, because I have a real problem with the undiluted strain of English Tory. It's not conservative with a small 'c' but there's a strain: I believe there is almost a race of people that live in middle England. That they look different, they think different and they are hostile to the rest of us in this country, let alone everybody else.

BB: And they are afraid of Europe, but they're also afraid of any form of regional devolution. They don't want to be in Europe and they don't want people in Scotland having their own assembly, or Wales, or Northern Ireland, which is I think why the peace process in Northern Ireland is so important. Because if, fingers crossed, something happens and they do get some form of assembly together then the Scots and the Welsh will be able to turn round and say, 'Look, we haven't been at war with you for 25 years, and we've been offered nothing'.

EC: And the only reason we're even considering it is because all the other options are so unthinkable. I mean, we can't sort that out now. I wish we could.

BB: You mean me and you as songwriters? (laughs)

EC: We can't sort it out either.

BB: There's this great line in 'Tokyo Storm Warning' about protest singers still shooting us, which always gets me. In my heart, Elvis, thanks, mate...

EC: I might have written that one exclusively for you.

BB: There are a number of lines that go straight to my heart but that is one that sticks out.

EC: You know, I'm sure you get to the point where you've met most of the people you ever admired. And I'm very glad to say that most of the people I've met that I've admired were not a disappointment. A couple of them have been almost frighteningIy as much like I wanted them to be, both good and bad, like Jerry Lee Lewis — fairly frightening experience.

BB: Yeah, I bet it was. It must have been really scary.

EC: Yeah, but he's sort of so much himself; he's just like that. He doesn't scare me, I'm not intimidated by him, I'm not in awe of him.

BB: I mean who do you measure yourself against as a songwriter?

EC: I don't think of myself in competition with anyone.

BB: Are there any songs where someone's said in two verses what it took you five to say in your own work?

EC: No, because it would be different if I was trying to write songs like a lot of other people write but I think they're fairly individual to me. I know how the mechanism works, which is more than a lot of people do. I actually know how to do it. I think that has caused some resentment in the business even among some people that support me because they almost wish I did it, just to prove it, but I can't be bothered. Life is too short to waste your time doing something like that.

BB: You can find yourself giving in to make those compromises. It's so easy to do something in your career that the public just suddenly latch on to, like poor old Jarvis is going to forever be known by the greater public, but for...

EC: ...the wrong reasons, but I think he'll enjoy that, I think he's smart enough. I don't know him; I've never met him, but I love that reference to the wood chip in 'Disco 2000', because it seems like something he's filed away from a personal experience, but he's put it in this song that is really universally understandable and I think that's his main strength.

BB: He seems to be head and shoulders above the other so-called Britpop writers. What do you think of the Sex Pistols revival? Are you going to see them in Finsbury Park?

EC: No... I mean I've got nothing against it, I just think it's like another trip to the pantomime. I dug 'em the first time, and I think they made some great records. It's like pushing the joke. They've already made a record called Flogging A Dead Horse, so what can you say to them that's gonna hurt them? They can just say 'Well, we told you; ever had the feeling you're being cheated?'.And whereas that seemed like a great line thrown away, now I see it as the headline. Everything we ever said in these circumstances has now become a script where it's become history... Do you get weird mail?

BB: Yeah I do occasionally get weird mail, not so much 'cos I haven't put an album out for a while and it's kind of dying off a bit now. But in what way do you mean 'weird'?

EC: Just people thinking that you wrote the song for them, that kind of thing.

BB: Oh yeah, I get a lot of that. I tend to not take any notice.

EC: I never write back.

BB: On a few occasions I have and I find that if you do write back, they just cling on and they never ever let go.

EC: I've had some remarkable ones. Somebody wrote a letter to me, using lines from my songs to complete sentences. They'd taken a lot of thought, it wasn't just titles, it was whole lines, and the thing made sense. It's a bit like the internet; it's a bottomless well of pointless thought, there's no reason for it to exist — it's a self-perpetuating delusion, and people say, 'well, I'm obsessed, because I am obsessed', you know.

BB: What do you do with people when you've written a song that does mean so much to them, about a particular time in their lives? I mean, what responsibility do you have as a songwriter?

EC: I think the main responsibility is not to betray the character they imagine you to be. You wouldn't sing a song that didn't ring true to you, so even if you wrote one once that meant something and then you lost the meaning of it somewhere, you wouldn't just sing it as a matter of course. There's a few you can't go back to, and the responsibility is not always yours.

BB: It's like Jimi Hendrix setting fire to his guitar at every gig, after a while you can't do that, for yourself.

EC: It's not that you no longer have the edge, or the willingness to go there, but you need to use that ability to go on somewhere else that you've never been before. I suppose that's what I've tried to do on this record.

BB: Do you have a favourite album?

EC: Of mine? I don't know. It changes all the time. I have some that I've fallen out of love with, and like better. Like Trust — for a long time, I couldn't listen to, because I was in such a terrible frame of mind, in such terrible shape by the end of it that I got really ill. I was actually frightened to listen to it. Nervous, I should say.

BB: I think the King of America / Blood and Chocolate year must have been very interesting...

EC: It was pretty intense but in kind of strange ways. It was a crossroads in my personal life. We all kind of knew that the image of that fitted the mood of the record, in a number of ways; the bitter tone, the bitter sound. It's no accident that the last number we played at Glastonbury at the last gig we played, was 'Instant Karma'. (Both laugh loudly).


Dazed & Confused, May 1996

Billy Bragg interviews Elvis Costello.


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Page scans.

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