Juke, September 21, 1991

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Elvis Costello

Look at my eyes, look at my eyes!

Dino Scatena

Millionaires talking about no possessions, pop princesses shooting up downtown, and Elvis Costello has merrily continued to forge his own path. Is he the leader we've been looking for? The modern day Roman Emperor who has pointed the way to truth? Dino Scatena spoke to him in Japan on the eve of his Australian tour.

Elvis Costello would have been a significant individual no matter when or where fate chose his life to be run. Put simply, he is a leader.

Intelligent, articulate, humourous, ethically correct: he is one of the great orators, be it in the spoken word or the song. He is the blueprint of the politician this world lacks and needs.

If the course of history was to be altered, you could easily slot him into alternate positions of influence. He could have been a trade unionist, carefully and passionately explaining the reasons for the painful strike to the workers. He could have been a Roman Emperor, evoking the necessary spiritualism in preparing his men for battle.

If it was the spirit of Costello — instead of the form of Yeltsin — that had boarded the tank in Red Square during the coup, it probably would have been one of mankind's finest moments rather than merely a fleeting catch on the evening news.

All this, of course, runs quite contrary to the private Costello with whom we have been gifted: the Costello who, thankfully, chose music as his medium and limits the demands of public life to opening his heart and soul on record and in concert every few years.

The political world's loss, the music world's gain.

For the last 15 years of his life, Declan Patrick MacManus has been trekking the planet, carrying with him his multitude of musical luggage. Today, the bags get opened for the loyal Japanese congregation.

The travel has helped give his art a universal feel, blending images and emotions from around the world into his work. Elvis says the impact of passages on his writing is not a very conscious thing."I wrote plenty of songs when all the travelling I did was back and forward to work on the Underground," he says. "Now that I go around the world, I don't assume ... I've just arrived in this town — I've never been here before — and I'm staring out the window at a lot of office blocks with indecipherable Japanese slogans on them and off beyond that is the mountains; it doesn't immediately make me want to pick up the guitar and write a song about it.

"Maybe when I've been here a day, something might happen and that's just as likely; if you leave yourself open to influences, of course, you can.

"While you might get some good ideas — things might occur to you in a certain way — because you're taken out of your natural environment, it may either improve the way you play the concert or, in the long term, leave you with some bits of paper with gibberish scribble on it which may later on turn out to be a song. Who knows?

"I keep a note book near at hand all the time or find little bits of paper with things scribbled on it. Often they develop into more coherent ideas and turn into songs. But most of the times when you're travelling, it's because you're touring and then the main concern really is the show."

Is the songwriting a personal, isolated process or does it change along with the environment and peers?

"It's probably a little bit difficult to gather your thoughts in a crowded, noisy environment but I have written in those circumstances. I've written songs on aeroplanes going over the Pacific and on trains and other places where you think you'd be distracted but, equally, I find a lot of good use for a bit of solitude or a little bit of peace of mind.

"That's one of the reasons I moved to Dublin. So both things can be inspiring but different sorts of things come out of it."

You're something of a songwriting messiah to many. Have we seen something of your soul through the music?

"I don't know. It sounds awfully medical, you know?

"One would hope I wasn't just operating at the surface of feeling. I don't think I am. A lot of the time I'm trying to get to quite strong emotion, even if every song is not written in the first person; you put something of your heart and soul into it.

Of course, I think it is music where there is a lot of thick emotion a lot of the time. I don't like too many trivial songs. That's not to say all the songs I write are very earnest or serious. I think sometimes that side of what I do is rather over-played by people who analyse it and dig into maybe a little too much. They put constructions upon it.

"I know certain songs are serious and have very, very strongly felt feelings but I don't think the cumulative effect of them together is one which will put you in a stupefied trance. I hope there's some light in the picture but even if you look into the darkest things around you and in yourself, you find some way out of them. Otherwise, I think it's just like wallowing, which isn't a purpose of music at all."

Unlike many of your musical contemporaries, you've been able to maintain an element of rawness in your work. Has that been a conscious thing?

"I don't think it's a question of maintaining a rawness so much resisting attempts to make the music more polished in pursuing some sort of ideal; some production aesthetic that's perceived to make music more palatable to people who otherwise might not listen to it. I'm not too interested in that.

"There are plenty of artists over the years who have filed all the rough edges off their music to try to make it more readily digestible to a broader bunch of people. I'm always delighted if anything I do can make it over into a very wide audience, which occasionally I do; occasionally I hit the mark with a single or even a whole album. But I have to accept that when you compare the thing that 1 do with some music, it's very unlikely that it's going to sell millions of copies. I think the sales that I have are about what you must expect given all the other impetus.

"And there's so much distraction. I don't think my stuff is particularly difficult to understand but the longer I work, I'm working against a process in which people's attention span is being limited by the way in which most other entertainment and media is presented to them.

"Younger people, in particular, have real difficulty following it because everything they enjoy is based on a very surface, mix-and-match kind of cultural identity which might, in time, develop into a language of its own. But it's not the one that I speak.

"It may already be a language of its own; some people will tell you that. I personally disagree. I think it's an erosion of language. But I'm bound to say that, aren't I, because I work the other way. Other people will have another thing to which they're entitled but I'm standing by what I think is the way to go with my stuff.

"I'm not criticising the other thing or forbidding it. People can get on with whatever music they want but I'm not going to change mine to, fit in with that criteria. If it disqualifies me from appearing in certain arenas like MTV, then so be it."

The musical side of your work, as is evident on your last two albums (Spike and Mighty Like A Rose), is becoming more complicated. Are you treating it more academically now, concentrating on the arrangements?

"I don't think it's academic to pay attention to the detail and arrangement.

"There's this sort of strange quirk in the history of music that says: 'Somewhere around 1955, a truck driver and a couple of people from the Southern states of America did this very simple, really volatile music, and from then on, attention to detail was no longer acceptable.'

"Now, I love that music as much as a lot of people do but it doesn't forbid us forever paying the same attention to detail as, say, Duke Ellington when he did his best work. I'm not saying I'm imitating Duke Ellington or trying to even compare myself to him — I'm not a hundredth of the musician he was — but I don't see any reason why if the songs can stand it you don't put some detail in. It gives people a record they can return to and find something in on repeated listening.

"On these particular songs, I don't characterise them as complex musically one little bit. The arrangements, I'll agree, are more detailed. That's the best word for it. Some people will say dense, some people will criticise it and say it's cluttered. But it's only cluttered in their mind. I think it's their mind that is cluttered, people who can't hear this record.

"I think it is very well arranged and I think it's an indication that certain people can't hear music anymore because, believe me, everything was carefully weighed in the arrangements for this. And if you don't like it, then fuck you! I don't care. This is what I do and if you don't like the way it is, go and make a record yourself and have it exactly the way you want. This is me expressing myself the way I want.

"The other point is it is not an irrevocable step in any direction; I don't think I'm getting all complex. I just treated these songs a particular way, I treated the songs on Spike a different way, the songs on Blood & Chocolate were very different again and, no doubt, my next record will be something else.

"It could be anything from a 50-piece orchestra to a comb-and-tissue paper. I haven't made up my mind. I haven't written the songs. I don't know. I just like to leave the door open."

When you sit back and listen to finished tracks, do you think, 'I've created something beautiful here,' or, 'I've got what I want'?

"It depends on what the objective is: beauty isn't your sole objective. I think there are a couple really great sounding tracks which you could say were beautiful on this album and there are some that are very harsh but they're deliberately so because that is what is complimentary to the story or the lyric or whatever.

"Like 'Hurry Down Doomsday'. You wouldn't exactly say that was pretty or beautiful. On the other hand, I would say the melody of 'All Grown Up' is quite nice and likewise the one for 'Couldn't Call It Unexpected' even though the treatment — both in the vocal style and with all the clashing of the instruments — make it a rather garish arrangement, I think that balances the emotion of the song.

"You see, it's all done deliberately. There's a bit more wit to it than maybe some people are willing to confess themselves when they take the jump to the conclusion, 'Oh, it's just got a lot of instruments on it. He's just doing it to indulge himself'.

"I'm not indulging anything. I'm really doing something with music and there aren't too many people who are prepared to jump in and really go their way. If later on I don't like this ... Even if I now want to take a song into concert, I won't necessary replicate a studio arrangement because in concert it might not work as well.

"For one thing, it's a four piece band: it's never going to sound like the arrangement on a record and it would sound funny if we tried to play it like that. So we find new ways to get inside the songs. Having now lived with them a little bit longer, we can find new ways to play them that work equally as well. But I don't think I would want those arrangements in preference to the ones that exist on album; it's just a different thing that works with a live performance."

On the right night, if he's in the right mood and the audience is prepared to play their part, Elvis Costello in concert is the ultimate musical experience.

With an ocean of material to fish from, he can make you dance, he can make you cry, he can make you break out in a cold sweat, he can do anything to you he wants.

"It's just like any job you do," he states candidly. "You can be put off by being tired or having a headache or something trivial like that; no one's super human. You always hope that for the two hours you're on stage — no matter what other things you have to go through during the day — that's the moment when all your energies are absolutely with you.

"And you hope your voice is working properly and the sound is not self-defeating: we can hear ourselves clearly so we can actually both play expressively and enjoy playing.

Last night was a case in point where everything didn't go according to plan. Playing the large Budokan stadium, Elvis was constantly distracted by static shocks from his microphone. "I thought the show was quite a success, there was a huge crowd — over 8,000 people — but it wasn't enjoyable for me to play because every time I started to lose myself in the singing, I'd get a massive belt in the mouth from the microphone.

"I was always, 'I hope this really is just static electricity and not some current running through it which is going to make me go up in smoke'. As you can imagine, that makes performing hair-raising, to say the least. No pun intended.

"That can undermine the free-flow of the performance but I've been doing this a while — I'm professional — and I have a responsibility to the people there to not let it effect me completely.

"It just didn't feel like the sort of performance in which I could abandon any fear and just let it happen, which is obviously what you hope to do; you hope for it all just to flow. And then the unexpected can happen, and the accidental and the coincidental can really happen, and that's where the magic starts."

The Australian leg of the tour is the homestretch of five months on the road. The local shows will be the first the band play as a quartet, having lost guitarist Marc Ribot due to recording commitments.

Instead of finding a replacement for the handful of shows, the band decided they could do without, changing the focus of a few of the arrangements and allowing Elvis' guitar to take a more prominent role. We started out with 25 songs in May and we now know something like 50," says Elvis in way of explaining why Ribot wasn't replaced. "I played in a four-piece band for 11 years and no one ever said it ever lacked any power or any detail."

The material for the shows will cover all of Elvis' public live, from My Aim Is True through to Mighty Like A Rose. The set will feature some covers (he recently recorded an album worth of his favorite songs which should see the light of day next year) and originals which until now have been assigned to history, lost somewhere among his 13 albums.

"Sometimes you just get back inside some songs and realise you missed something, even in the record," he says. "Maybe it was just on a record placed next to bunch of other songs that just took people's ear at the time and, if you take the song out of context and put it in a concert, it can sometimes surprise people."

And, of course, there will be the usual reassessment of his career: songs rearranged and perfected for the present, keeping the songs alive. "Of the new songs, the odd line I might change or just improvise something different.

"Sometimes I write things and then dismantle them and bits end up in other songs. Maybe a verse which I didn't think worked in the original form, I'll write something around a good verse or a good bit of melody. A lot of songwriters do that.

"In some cases, I've taken songs and re-worked them specifically for other artists to cover. Especially the song I wrote for Roy Orbison ('The Comedian') which was originally modelled after Roy Orbison but when I recorded myself, we had a brainstorm and recorded it in 5/4 for some obscure reason. It really kind of rather masked the song.

"And when I was approached by T Bone Burnett, I was able to take the song apart again, write a completely new lyric and really improve upon the melody, improve upon the structure and build it up a lot more, so it gave Roy something to sing.

"Songs aren't set in stone: you can take them apart."

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Juke, No. 856, September 21, 1991

Dino Scatena interviews Elvis Costello ahead of the Australian leg of the Come Back In A Million Years tour.


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Page scans.
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Tour dates clipping.
1991-09-21 Juke page 18 clipping 01.jpg


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