It's 8pm at the Brooklyn Bowl, a neon-lit tenpin bowling dive in Williamsburg, New York, where a small crowd including the actor Steve Buscemi and the singer Diana Krall have tickets for the hottest show in town. Tonight is the first joint concert by Elvis Costello, the former New Wave enfant terrible and also Krall's husband, and the Roots, the hip-hop crew who, via their residency on the taste-making chat show Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, have been dubbed "America's backing band."
They have just made one of the albums of the year in Wise Up Ghost, a dark blend of Costello's bristling social commentary and the Roots' vintage soul, ska and heavy funk. Both Costello and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, the Roots' leader and virtuoso drummer, are known for their collaborations — the former with Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Brian Eno, the latter with Amy Winehouse, Al Green and Erykah Badu — but this could be their best yet.
"I've got my bowling shoes with me and we're gonna bowl a few more — Whaddaya say?" drawls Costello in that unique transatlantic yodel, as he, Thompson and 11 colleagues play songs from the album in public for the first time. They sound swaggeringly great, as do beefed-up Costello oldies including "Watching The Detectives" and "I Want You." It seems an unlikely marriage, but watching the chemistry between Costello and Thompson you think: why did it take them so long?
We meet the following afternoon in Costello's dressing room at the Rockefeller Center before his latest appearance on the Fallon show. This is where he and Thompson first crossed paths; down the hallway is the Roots' shoebox of a studio, where the album was recorded.
Small and neat in denim jacket and stiff-brimmed hat, the 59-year-old Costello shows flashes of his old fire. When talk turns to his favourite enemy, Margaret Thatcher, and his decision to perform his Maggie-bashing anthem "Tramp The Dirt Down" shortly after she died — seen by some as being in bad taste — he shoots back: "Which is in bad taste: eradication of the dignity of whole communities? The Belgrano? Shall we tot them up?"
Mainly, though, he is genial and self-deprecating. Talking about the Blaxploitation-style strings that cloak the album, he smiles: "When you think Blaxploitation, you just see me in a leather coat, don't you?"
Thompson, 42, cuts a contrasting figure: ursine in blazer and cords, a comb protruding from his vast afro. He is equally affable but more meandering and prone to saying un-British things such as, "My master stroke, besides which I'm known for, was the insistence on Brent Fischer doing the strings."
Yet they have more in common than you might think. Both are the sons of musicians — Costello's father was a singer, trumpeter and bandleader; Thompson's was in a Fifties doo-wop band, then a soul group with his mother. Both grew up in tough cities with melody-making pedigrees, Costello in London and Liverpool; Thompson in Philadelphia.
And both, with their chunky glasses are omnivorous music geeks, bonding deferentially over the minutiae of their respective back catalogues. Costello has a particular love for black music, from ska (he produced the Specials' first album) to jazz (he is on the board of the Jazz Foundation of America). Thompson, whom Costello calls "Quest," says he is "the king of making people playlists": he sent his friends Jay-Z and Beyoncé four iPods of songs when their daughter was born.
A fully paid-up Costello fan, Thompson describes the lead-up to Wise Up Ghost as "the most polite kidnap plot in history", which he expedited by sending his abductee a mammoth playlist of his own songs many of which Costello couldn't remember recording.
Costello is tickled by the fact that the negotiations featured Lorne Michaels, executive producer of the Fallon show, aka "the man who said I'd never work on American television again". He is referring to his infamous 1977 appearance on Saturday Night Live, one of Michaels' former shows, in which he stopped playing the agreed song, "Less Than Zero," and switched to "Radio, Radio." "I was chased out of the building," he chuckles.
These days Costello — a resident for 25 years of New York, where he lives with Krall, his third wife, and their two boys — is a more welcome, less spiky presence on American TV. He has collaborated with Thompson and co several times on the Fallon show; when he first went on in 2009, the Roots displayed the depth of their devotion by playing the theme to the cult advert for R. White's Lemonade that his father, Ross MacManus, had sung in 1973, "Jimmy looks at me and goes, 'What? Why couldn't you just do 'Alison' [a Costello standard] when he walks on stage?'" Thompson says. "To me that's Captain Obvious."
Costello's father died two years after this, an event that he charted in the heartbreaking song on the album: "The Puppet Has Cut His Strings." It came about after Thompson sent him a backing track that he had been working on and Costello started writing some words and a vocal melody for it. "It wasn't until I'd finished it that I realised that what I'd written was a description of my dad's last days," he says of the track, which features lines such as "The crowd went home and left you / For dead / My old woodenhead."
This is the first time Costello has talked about the song. The fact that he allowed it to be included on the album is proof, he says, of the affinity that he and the Roots have established. "It's a very personal song, but it's a tremendous gift from the trust we ended up having in each other that I didn't just go, ‘No, that's too private.'"
The trust was clear from his first appearance on the Fallon show when he played several of his songs with the Roots and gave them "complete licence to flip his music around," Thompson says. "We thought we had a formula: us remixing his catalogue. But I quickly realised that that was the quickest trip to a critical beat-down." He imagines the hysterical headlines: "This is gonna be his rap record!"
They decided instead to do an album of original songs, but which drew, says Costello, on "the methodology of hip-hop, a sampled piece of music as the foundation." One track, "Stick Out Your Tongue," incorporates elements of three of Costello's older ones including 1983s' "Pills And Soap," his response to Grandmaster Flash's socially conscious hip-hop classic, "The Message."
Costello says repeatedly that the things he was railing about in the Eighties — social injustice, government obfuscation, imperial disgraces — haven't gone away. Another new song, "Viceroy's Row," refers to "a mogul who's about to have everything taken away from him." His eyes blaze. In Thompson, a vocal supporter of Barack Obama, he appears to have found a kindred, if less incendiary, political spirit.
We return to the spectre of Thatcher, who dies, like Costello's father, after suffering from dementia. "Did her death happen while they were making the album, I wonder? "When did she die?" Costello says with a hint of irritation. "I didn't mark it in my calendar." What was his reaction? "My dad dies of Parkinson's–related dementia; it's an ugly way to go. On a human level I'm enough of a good old altar boy that I wouldn't wish it on even my worst enemy's family."
So is he as angry as he used to be? "Tell me from evidence of this record! Ha, ha." He pauses. "That's a ‘When did you stop beating your wife?' question. A lot of things that were taken as anger early on were actually anxiety or lack of confidence… You're full of drink and other things and you think you know everything," But, he adds, "in the long run none of it really matters other than you do more good than harm. Hopefully I'm managing that, just about."
We're almost done; rehearsals for tonight's Fallon show are about to start.
"What's the song?" Costello asks as they get up.
"Can we do 'Pump It Up'?" Thompson replies.
"Sure!" he says with a wide grin. And with that they disappear down a corridor, off to regale the American public with another New Wave classic.