London Guardian, September 20, 2013
Elvis Costello and the Roots:
It is a humid mid-September morning in New York City that will later produce thunderstorms of biblical force, but neither Elvis Costello nor his sparring partner Ahmir Thompson are dressed for the weather. In fact, while on first sight this coupling might strike you as odd, the pair of them are dressed remarkably similarly: Costello in black jeans and a grey jacket and waistcoat, Questlove, as the latter is more commonly known, pairing his black jeans with a grey cardigan. There's an easy familiarity between them, despite their 17-year age gap and despite Quest's fear of freaking out Costello the first few times they met.
"Often in the past I've had mixed results with meeting my heroes," he says, describing a tendency to lay on the fanboy element to a bunny-boiler extent. "I know from my own experience that it's better just to engage people with normalcy …"
"David Cross" – the US comedian – "was talking to me about exactly this last night," Costello interrupts. "It's a story he tells in his act, how he met me when he was 18. I'm trying to figure out roughly how old is he, how far back into me being a bastard is this?" (Seeing Costello so jovial today, it's a stretch to remember that this is the singer who once replied to a masseuse who told him: "You're all wound up, relax" with the admonition: "It's my job to get wound up".)
"I was lurking backstage at a Clash gig on the West Side [in New York] and he tried to engage me in conversation. I wasn't out-and-out rude to him, but clearly whatever he said didn't impress me – and it was mortifying for him. So I told him: it was just the same for me – because Allen Ginsberg was at that gig, because he wanted to meet the Clash, and I could barely open my mouth to speak to him. 'It's Allen Ginsberg!' And so it goes … I've been in so many situations like that where you want to say the wittiest thing and you end up sounding completely idiotic."
"I did that once to Prince," replies Questlove. "I chose a real obscure cut and said: 'Dinner with Dolores has the best ending and fade in postmodern black pop history!" Prince was just like: 'Okaaay…'"
Costello picks up the story, telling the tale of his own faltering relationship with Prince, which began with him asking for permission to quote the lyrics from "Pop Life" in his song "The Bridge I Burned," and getting two cease-and-desist letters from lawyers in Minneapolis by way of reply, before they finally met at a function for Barbra Streisand ("although we only communicated in sign language").
If nothing else, there was an inevitability to the pairing of Costello and Questlove's band the Roots in making the hugely well reviewed Wise Up Ghost because each party could lay claim to being the best musically connected act in town. The former has collaborated with everyone from Burt Bacharach to Anne Sofie von Otter, while the Roots have redefined their reputation as torch bearers for hip-hop's conscience through their ongoing stint as the house band on US talkshow Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where they have performed with a Who's Who of guests.
In 2009, Costello was a guest on the show., in order to promote his own music-based TV talkshow, Spectacle, but was between records – or more accurately, was "wondering if making records was still a suitable occupation for me. I love writing songs and recording but ... am I being selfish in terms of my life with my young family?" (With his third wife, Diana Krall, he has young twin sons.) Lacking a new song, he left it to the Roots to pick a song to perform with him on Fallon; as well as "Watching the Detectives," Questlove and Roots producer Steven Mandel – secret "Elvis freaks" – dug out a real obscurity. "It was 'High Fidelity,'" Costello recalls, "but not the  single version; it came from a bootleg that we put out on some reissue. We thought we were David Bowie doing Station to Station when I wrote it, but I couldn't carry that off with the Attractions because we didn't have [guitarist] Carlos Alomar or Eno – we just had Nick Lowe, a lot of blue pills and vodka, so we played it really fast. But the bootleg version did have, that one time, this Chic-influenced funk thing going on – and the Roots went back to that."
It wasn't just that: when Costello appeared on stage for the peformance on Fallon, Questlove picked as his walk-on music a jingle known to generations of Britons and fans with "a PhD in Elvis-ology" alike: "Secret Lemonade Drinker," the song that made the famous ad for R White's Lemonade, performed by Costello's father, the showband singer Ross MacManus, with backing vocals from McManus Jr. "The only funnier thing than that was when Bob Dylan played my dad's ska record from the 60s on his Theme Time radio show," Costello adds, lapsing into a passable Dylan impression.
Like Costello, Questlove has a musical heritage – his father was Lee Andrews of Lee Andrews & the Hearts, a 50s doo-wop group. "I know a lot of singers who have fathers who were ministers or pastors or deacons. We call them 'PKs', for preacher kids, and I often see them bonding. But I'd never bonded with a fellow 'BK': a backstage kid," the drummer says. "I thought I was the only one. But no, Elvis and I have the same sort of upbringings."
Both their mothers were big music fans, too: Questlove's performed with her husband as part of Philadelphia soul group Congress Alley, while Costello's mum sold records at Rushworth's in Liverpool. "She was hired because she knew about jazz. It's amazing to me now, how she even knew about people like Lee Konitz – which is how I ended up playing with him years later. That's how my dad met her: he went into the shop to buy records."
"That's awesome!" Questlove says.
Raised a generation apart on different sides of the Atlantic, both parties adopted similar tactics in their formative years, too. Costello secured his first US record deal after he was arrested busking outside a CBS Records convention in London in 1977, an episode once identified as one of the 15 boldest publicity stunts in music history, while the Roots – as Questlove also elucidates in his recently published memoir Mo' Meta Blues – really found themselves musically through months spent playing live on the streets of Philadelphia.
"We did that all through the summer of 1992," he says. "There was no precedent for what we were. There wasn't a live hip-hop band in Philly or on the eastern seaboard. That element opened up the minds of people who would normally say no to traditional hip-hop acts. It was a good thing and a bad thing. People would be like: 'I don't like rap music too much, but I like you guys, because you're real musicians.' There'd be a few times in the very beginning when our agent had to sell us like: 'They're a jazzy, kind of poetry, funky band who … [quickly sotto voce] do a little hip-hop.'
"It's so weird," he continues. "Every time we reach some kind of milestone in our career, like playing at the White House or at the Grammys, I tell Tariq [AKA Black Thought, the group's MC]: 'Do you remember when we started out, busking on the streets just to get $20 each to get a turkey sandwich and take a girl to a movie? Don't you miss those days?' And he's always like: 'Hell, no! I don't miss those days!'"
Costello guffaws: "Glad to hear it!"
Fighting shy of compromise, both Costello and the Roots have effected the transition from unlikely outsiders to fully fledged members of the musical establishment, even though both parties have endured career vicissitudes. One case in point: the Roots are finally signed to Def Jam now, that most iconic hip-hop label, but Costello beat them to the punch, releasing When I Was Cruel, his 19th album, through that same imprint in the aftermath of a messy industry shakeup in 2002. (Costello: "So that explains everything!"; Wise Up Ghost arrives through a one-off deal with Blue Note, in whose mildly dilapidated offices in midtown this interview takes place.) This decade, however, Costello has performed "Penny Lane" in front of Paul McCartney and Barack Obama at the White House, while on Fallon, the Roots have played with the president.
In the week that we meet, Syria is dominating the news and, given the Roots's socially conscious track record on albums such as Game Theory, I ask Questlove for his view on whether Obama is twisting in the wind in the face of the crisis. In response he's equivocal: "What's the question? What do I feel about war? There's two ways to look at it …" Which lets Costello leap back into the conversation to support him, articulating the complications of the situation so deftly that suddenly he's on to the topic of Joe Kennedy's support of appeasement in the 30s and Churchill's ambiguous status as a hero. "It goes on … it's hard to be exactly right."
The themes explored on Wise Up Ghost are urgent and political, and not simply in the best tradition of Costello classics such as "Pills and Soap" and "Shipbuilding": rather, throughout the album, the singer reappropriates lines from his earlier songs, recontextualising them with new lyrics as well as new music, which tends towards a dreamlike, unsettling quality. It's a process that is itself indebted to the sampling culture of hip-hop, even though Costello is adamant this is not his hip-hop album.
Questlove hails Costello's intensity and the speed with which he worked on the project. "A lot of people I know suffer from writer's block. This year's gone by, D'Angelo will have taken 14 years to follow the Voodoo album" – a classic, which Questlove helped produce – "and every day it's like: 'Do the lyrics yet?' 'Nah man, they ain't come to me yet.' 'What?! It's been 14 years!'"
Working with Elvis, he says, has been an education, but that concession and his more lackadaisical manner shouldn't disguise the fact that, from the start, he had a clear-eyed view of what might result as well as the potential pitfalls. "I knew I wanted to have an album, but nothing scares me more as someone who's obsessed by record reviews when a summit meeting like this takes place, because one of the parties is going to get blamed if it fails. To begin with, I didn't want to sound too funky."
Earlier, Costello had meandered into an anecdote about hanging out at Brian Wilson's house while the Beach Boy hammered out a non-stop version of "Da Doo Ron Ron," and now Questlove interrupts himself: "Side note about Brian Wilson. After the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique in 89, unbeknownst to the world, Brian Wilson had let the heads of Capitol Records talk him into making a rap record: MC Brian Wilson with the Dust Brothers, who produced the Beasties' album. One track is out there on the internet, called "Smart Girls" and it's hilarious! All the intentions are in the right place, but if that album had come out, someone would have called for a firing squad … But what we have," he concludes, "I think it's pretty 50-50."
"For me, there's no such thing as sounding too funky," says Costello, and while Wise Up Ghost often sounds menacingly sparse, it is also propelled by thick grooves. But as our interview draws to a close he also talks urgently about one of three tracks recorded after the main sessions were finished (they now appear on the deluxe edition) that sounds quite different to the rest of the material. "It's deeply personal. There's no fear or embarrassment there. People say I'm ironic, but I'm not ironic; I mean what I say. I'm not a poet, though Ahmir might call me one. Seamus Heaney is a poet. I'm a lyricist. I know what I am."
Diffident as he might have been about continuing his recording career, it sounds like there's mileage for this outfit yet.
Is it true that the original 1983 version of Costello's "Pills and Soap" was inspired by the Grandmaster Flash classic of the previous year, "The Message"? "It was based on it in the sense that all the records that I'd heard at that stage that were edging that way were essentially 'put your hands in the air like you just don't care' records," he replies. "There was nothing that was saying things in the same way that record was saying them. It was like a bulletin from a particular time and place. It sounded like it was true to life. That doesn't mean we can go exactly down that road, but isn't that what Bob Dylan was doing at a certain point and isn't that what Chuck Berry was doing? It goes back to the blues and to hillbilly music. It's all in the mix of rock 'n' roll.
"I wanted 'Pills and Soap' to be like that, something stripped to the essentials. I just switched on a Linn drum and played this piano part to [Attractions keyboard player] Steve Nieve, and I said: 'It sounds a bit like a Dave Brubeck thing, in my imagination.' Well, you often dream the record and it comes out of your fingers somewhat differently. So Steve played it in that epic style of his, and I half sang, half talked it and that was the record … but there was no way I was going to adopt a rap approach. That would have been ludicrous, as it would have been on this album.
"Now, when it came to this project and Ahmir said we should get more serious about it after playing together on Fallon on three occasions, the first song he proposed was – guess what? – 'Pills and Soap,'" he continues. "But I thought: 'That's 30 years ago; I've got to connect it to things I'm thinking about now.' And, actually, some of the words are more true to life than ever. So to restate them to different music gives you the chance to place the emphasis somewhere else."
Not only that, but Costello interpolated further lyrics from another old song, "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Takin' Over)," on the new track that was emerging, subsequently titled Stick Out Your Tongue. "I return to the theme of media intrusion and media intrustion is not just an inconvenience now, it's not just an embarrassing picture of someone showing their knickers getting out of a car … it involves some of the most disgraceful, debased behaviour imaginable.
"So I lifted that verse out of 'Hurry Down Doomsday' … and then where does that lead us? It leads to all of the imbalances and injustices that we all know are there. I'm not saying anything that's unprecedented. I just wanted to give a voice to the dissent again," he adds, "and because of the spaciousness of the music, I was able to do that."
If this sounds relatively trivial, in fact the production of the record involved producer Steven Mandel sending loops to Costello with which to experiment, whether something such as an old Dilla drum part or one of the several thousand Roots tracks kept in a digital vault; while in their tiny studio above where Fallon records, the band and Costello also jammed, from which sessions, sounds would be chopped and subsequently re-assembled. In other words, as he finally concludes, "it's a real dialogue".
Wise Up Ghost is out now. Blue Note records paid for Caspar Llewellyn Smith's trip to New York.
The Guardian, G2, September 20, 2013