Mention Elvis Costello and the first association that jumps to mind is likely to be Elvis Presley, not Lou Costello, from whom the other half of the moniker was borrowed. Likewise, Steve Nieve is first thought of as Costello's keyboard player; the fact that he's also a classically trained pianist and composer is most often overlooked in favor of his more publicized role with Elvis' band, The Attractions. Nieve has appeared on every Costello album accept the first one, My Aim Is True (Columbia, JC 35037) and has played a variety keyboards, ranging from a Vox Continental organ to a Synclavier. However, Nieve's first solo project, Keyboard Jungle, is a particularly personal statement of musical independence, revealing the sensitive nature and classical leanings which have always hidden in the shadows behind the bright lights of rock and roll. Even the album cover suggests Nieve's musical integrity, exposing his penetrating stare, which has always been veiled behind dark glasses on the Costello record jackets. Here is a high-voltage keyboard artist with a powerful English band who has switched off the electricity and politely excused himself from the ensemble sound to record his own music with just a piano; no vocals, no synthesizer overdubs, no bass, guitar and drums - just the music itself in an atmosphere of classical purity.
Steve's passion for the piano began "as soon as I could get my hands on one," he recalls. I started when I was real young, but I didn't have a piano for a long time; I had a Harmonium. My next-door neighbor, though, had an upright piano, so I used to go around there in the morning before school and play. We finally got an upright when I was six or seven, and after that I started piano lessons."
Composition came as naturally to Nieve as piano playing. "The first piece I wrote was when I was about five years old," he remembers. "There was a clown in England used to go around all the schools giving children these things called "crazy straws." I wrote this little "Crazy Straws Theme" tune, and somehow, it must have been through the teacher, he began using it as part of his show. I've still got a copy of that somewhere."
Nieve studied piano at school but when he finally purchased his first instrument, he chose an organ. "It was a Vox Continental," he says proudly, "which I bought when I was 16 or 17 years old. It only cost me 70 pounds, maybe $150, which is whey I got it, and I still use in in the group today. I seem to be able to get a certain sound out of it. When I did Get Happy with Elvis, I used a Hammond, but I didn't really get on with the Hammond as well as with the old Vox."
When he was eighteen, Steve began what he describes as "serious music training: I went to the Royal College of Music for a year. I was studying composition and piano. I was playing a wide variety of things; pieces by Back, Beethoven and Debussy. I quite liked Debussy, especially the Preludes. But I was only there for a year, then I left to join Elvis' group. I've been with him for seven years now."
Why did he give up Bach for rock? Has playing with Elvis Costello changed Nieve's own music? When did he decide to record a solo piano album? Michael Davis talked with Steve about his experiences in Elvis' group, and Greg Armbruster followed up with an inquiry about the solo project. Their combined interview reveals some surprising aspects of Steve's live in the keyboard jungle.