Pop legends have passions like the rest of us — including unabashed fan love. Elvis Costello, for one, admires his fellow Briton Green Gartside, who has made some of the brainiest and prettiest pop of the last two decades under the name Scritti Politti.
Scritti Politti enjoyed a string of complex, deceptively sunny hits in the mid-'80s, then labored on in various incarnations and increasing obscurity due to personal issues (Gartside's stage fright and writer's block) and musical ones (Gartside sometimes name-checks European philosophers, not exactly a pop-wise move).
Now Scritti is back with the sparkling White Bread, Black Beer — nominated this year for Britain's prestigious Mercury Music Prize — and his first U.S. tour, which begins Sunday at the Roxy, stops Monday at House of Blues in Anaheim and Wednesday at UCLA's Royce Hall, where the group opens for Brian Wilson. As a preview, Costello offered to try on the journalist's fedora and interview Gartside by e-mail. We jumped at the chance to set up a conversation between these two sharp-witted bards.
Elvis Costello: Both of us began in the era labeled as "new wave" or "post-punk." I always thought that "new wave" was a silly and obvious marketing term for whatever couldn't be called punk. "Post-punk" isn't much better, but did you feel any kinship with groups of those days?
Green Gartside: I can remember feeling an affinity — A tactical affinity? An aesthetic one? A political affinity? — for bands like the Gang of Four, the Mekons, the Raincoats and the Delta Five. What I really felt was admiration. I thought they were all better than we were.
EC: I would have said that the sense of space in the music of White Bread, Black Beer comes from hip-hop, but the melodic ambition put me in mind of Brian Wilson at times. Would that be a compliment?
GG: Hip-hop changed my life like punk did (and funk). It gave me energy and optimism for years. I always dreamed of mixing it up with more melody, but it's a delicate balance. You've just gotta get your hook in there somehow.
EC: You spent quite a few years not performing. Were there times when you felt that music should only exist on record, or did some more personal or private reason keep you away from the stage?
GG: I think I grew up liking records more than gigs. I didn't play live for 20-something years; it frightened me too much. I felt incompetent and ugly. I don't much like being looked at. I'm a little more at ease now ... just a little.
EC: Wordplay is something for which I was constantly flagged in the early part of my career. People find it in my songs even when none is present. At one point, I could pun and alliterate compulsively, but I cannot do crossword puzzles. Do you think that perceiving patterns in groupings of words can be an affliction, or is it just a trick talent in service of an idea or emotion?
GG: Well, wordplay is important in all aspects of life. In understanding the world. In certain circumstances it helps rhetorical force, in other places it undermines it. I don't think of "it" instrumentally. It's endlessly productive.
EC: Have you ever hesitated before including a reference in a lyric that might be regarded as too obscure or, that most English of accusations, pretentious? Have you ever gone ahead anyway, just for badness?
GG: No I don't mind being pretentious. I think there may well be something to be said for pretensions. I don't police my lyrics much.
EC: Speaking as someone who only had a Secondary Modern education [high school], I feel fortunate to have had a reading list reflecting a life and class structure that I could recognize, even if I didn't feel bound by it. I'm speaking of "angry young man" writers like John Osbourne and Alan Sillitoe, with some obligatory Shakespeare thrown in. Is there anything in your education that particularly influenced your work?
GG: I'm really alarmingly unfamiliar with great swaths of 20th century writing. I've generally been more inclined to read books that are "philosophical," a word that others find more wanting than I do. That's a self-taught thing. I started at art school with Wittgenstein. I was interested principally in the indiscrete problem of meaning. The Beatles introduced me to the most powerful thing: ambiguity.
EC: Having lived parts of your life in Wales, is there any aspect of the more mundane English life and culture that has particularly influenced your work?
GG: There's a lot of Wales and London in my stuff. And a dollop of New York and L.A. I do refer very specifically to real places and people and events. There's a lot of pub culture there. There are areas where postwar British "new towns" touch the surrounding countryside. Those are important places for me. The edges of council housing estates and the fields beyond.
EC: Back in 1984 you contributed a backing vocal to a long and justly forgotten single of mine ["I Wanna Be Loved," from the album Goodbye Cruel World], and I was amazed by your apparently effortless access to that airy, upper register. Your voice is still incredibly distinctive, and time seems not to have eroded it. Do you suppose this has anything to do with not bashing it up through poor sound equipment around the gig circuit all this time?
GG: Yeah, I think maybe my voice has probably survived a little better through being used so rarely. I don't sing much round the house.
EC: Do you ever hear the voices of other singers in your imagination when composing?
GG: I don't hear anyone else's voice. When I was six I wanted to sound like Paul McCartney, when I was 16 I wanted to sound like [Soft Machine's] Robert Wyatt, when I was 26 I wanted to sound like Michael Jackson. I have never consciously changed my voice, but it has drifted around. Oh, and if you ever want some more backing vocals ... I'd be chuffed to little mint balls.