Elvis Costello warns you that he likes to talk. It’s an odd thing to say before an interview – “talking’s good,” you assure him – but Costello’s warning soon makes sense. You don’t have time to complete a question before he’s away, picking up on a couple of words and running with them. You get to feel like a quiz master continually interrupted by the enthusiastic contestant in the glasses. Mid-way through the interview he orders a sorbet.
Apparently his voice is feeling a bit sore. “The sticky weather doesn't help,” he says, somewhat missing the point.
We’re talking in a hotel near Holland Park. Costello has a flat nearby, although he spends most of his time in the Dublin home he shares with his wife, ex-Pogue Cait O’Riordan. The hotel is where he meets journalists with whom, it’s probably safe to say, he’s not particularly enamoured. His favourite gripe is about “boxes”. It’s a British thing,” he reckons, “wanting to fit people into boxes.” It’s his thing, he says, to endeavour to escape them.
Many words, it’s true, have been expended on the “Elvis case” – on the confusions caused by having an old punk rocker and a classical composer in the same man. It was 1992’s The Juliet Letters that started the fun. Composed by Costello with the Brodsky Quartet, this series of pieces for string ensemble was not, some thought, suitable employment for a purveyor of scabrous pop.
“I never understood the big deal,” says Costello. “With the different approaches. It’s not trying to make a point, there’s no polemic. It’s just doing music. People are always frightened off doing these things because they are told it’s not for them.”
Of course, there’s no counter to Costello’s argument. But he plays disingenuous. He might plead to be judged solely on his music, but he knows the image game. He’s smart enough to have used it to his advantage many times. When punk broke, he realised that even when he felt perfectly happy, a good snarl would do his career the power of good. It’s probable that his non-stop interview technique is his way of trying to make sure we stick to his agenda. “That’s not quite the question I was going to ask,” I find myself saying several times.
Anyway, what Costello say’s he’s up against is the sort of division which means that last year the Daily Telegraph feigned shock when discovering that he, as unwashed rocker, should spend his evenings in the Wigmore Hall, his favourite classical venue. On the other hand, the NME wondered whether he was still “on our side”. Make up your own mind, Elvis, was the sorry implication. Are you a pleb or a ponce?
He’s being a bit of both at the moment. A fine album of “pop” cover versions, Kojak Variety, is about to be released. It includes songs originally recorded by Screaming Jay Hawkins, the Supremes and Bob Dylan and demonstrates again Costello’s ability to inhabit a whole range of styles. It’s Costello’s “personal jukebox” ; some of the songs have been knocking around his head for 30 years.
"This American TV Company wanted to do a special on the album," he explains. "We were quite far into the planning when they suddenly announced that they wanted the original artists to take part. They didn't seem to realise that some of them were not around, some of those who were, would not be too well, ad what about the logistics of getting Diana Ross to come and sing a song with me that she last sang in 1964?"
No special then, but Costello is preparing for Meltdown '95, a week-long festival of music at the South Bank, running in June. Costello is the artistic director and his clarion call of a manifesto aims to bring together "music from near and far, from now and then, entirely new and extremely old". However, he's wary of appearing too evangelical: "It has a sense of bureaucratic posturing to it, you know, of the breaking-down-barriers school. Unfortunately, Meltdown also sounds like a tacky burger bar."
Still, he's planned an impressive programme. The line-up includes Jeff Buckley, the Jazz Passengers, his friends, the Brodskys, and interesting mixes, such as Brian Wilson and Ray Davies compositions placed alongside pieces by Shostakovitch and Brahms. "I didn't want to throw people together for the sake of it. I was following threads." says Costello. Concerts are grouped around themes such as melancholy and, er, melancholy. "Yes, I'm big on melancholy. But I wasn't thinking, how extreme can I make this. I'm not trying to make things unpleasant. But if you have a framework that comes out of a very subjective view, then in effect you're asking the audience to come along with you."
It sounds promising, I say, but there's no pleasing the man. He can already hear the boo boys. "It's going to offend some people. I know. There's this over-statement of the dire in this country. You hear all the time phrases like 'he's really lost the plot', or 'how embarrassing'. I always think if you find something embarrassing, why don't you just look away." The strength of his argument is weakened by what follows.
"That Late Review programme which goes out on Thursday nights and which I hate, is typical of what I mean," he says. "It's just pantomime, pointless debate by people like Tom Paulin who are infinitely less talented than those they're reviewing." The phrase, "why don't you just look away" might pass through your mind. Also deflating Costello's righteous anger is our shared recollection that on the show Paulin gave Brutal Youth, Costello's album from last year, something of a kicking.
He has a general strop about what he reckons to be the mean-spiritedness of critical comment in this country. Debate is frivolous too, he adds. For instance, he reiterates that he longs to be judged purely by his music. He doesn't want all the flam, all the chatter and fashion that routinely attends a pop performer. What he doesn't say is how adept he's often been at using the flam to his benefit.
He says now that he made his initial mark by "tailoring" his sound to fit in with punk. While other punk faces were struggling to find a third chord, Costello's problem was keeping his talents hid, holding back on the more complicated stuff which might have worked against him at the time. He recognised the prevailing wind and sailed with it. "There were songs on my fifth album written before songs on my first. But I knew they would get slaughtered if I put them out early. I'd be dismissed as precocious and pretentious.
For somebody who found his moment in punk, he holds a rare contempt for it, precisely because of what others found liberating - its lack of musicianship. "It was spectacle, street theatre, I wanted to play." There was anarchy abroad and Costello was worrying about having to veil his fancy tricks.
There are hints of Costello turning all puritanical when it comes to pop. The suggestion that he has hardly been solely concerned with music, that he has always made use of spectacle and of the timely interventions that pop allows (whether in song, in the post-Falklands Shipbuilding, for instance; or just using the interview platform to start a good argument) doesn't go down too well. It's not an insult, I say. Yet he's anxious that his changes in musical direction should not be associated with role-playing. That is the sort of thing Madonna would do; his changes, he says, are simply music-led: "When the image comes first, what are you left with? Something empty like Andy Warhol."
Costello says he still can't play any instrument "well enough to be employed by another band". However, he's still clear where his skills lie. "I'll never be a specialist. But I can hear things across different types of music, and I know how to get what I want. Take the Brodskys - and I'm not saying this to say, hey, I know more than they do - but to be as good as they are, you cannot afford to diversify. They know the quartet repertoire inside out. However, they might miss connections between different pieces of music which spring out at me."
Finding "hidden" connections is an evident pleasure. He mentions how he hears similarities between songs of Roy Orbison and Schumann, and threads between Purcell and Duke Ellington. This is not offered, he says, to blandly suggest that music is all interconnected. It's more to do with "the thrill of finding two musicians in different times and places discovering something similar". Costello's enthusiasm and skill for this sort of correspondence should make him an ideal choice for Meltdown. Soon afterwards, he will record a new album with the Attractions, and - still keen to mix it up - embark on an orchestral piece: "But I'm not quite thinking of Symphony No 1, just yet."