Don't think that just because Elvis Costello is joining the Los Angeles Philharmonic for two shows at the Hollywood Bowl this week that the former Angry Young Man of the British new wave movement has gone soft now that he's turned 60.
In fact, Costello has played shows with orchestras in San Francisco, Chicago and Amsterdam (to name a few), tapping their massed sonic forces as part of the restless musical exploration that's marked his career for the better part of 40 years.
"You can create sounds with an orchestra that you can never create with a rock 'n' roll band," Costello said from his home in British Columbia, only briefly distracted when one of his 6-year-old twins with wife Diana Krall piped up in the background.
"I've been working with orchestral arrangements for 15 to 20 years now. It started out with small groups, but when I've had the opportunity to work with larger orchestras, I've found that the music can translate. I've learned a lot along the way about the kind of sounds I wanted to hear."
One sound he isn't interested in is having string and horn players simply provide sonic sweetening to his core songs.
"Why go onstage with an orchestra and play rock 'n' roll?" he said. "That's like making a dog walk on his hind legs. I'm playing with some of the best orchestras in America and Europe. These players don't want to be sitting middle distance in the music just playing whole notes in the background — unless it's incredibly well-arranged. You're kind of not using all the possibilities that are available."
Consequently, the British singer, songwriter and producer is selecting the songs for the Bowl shows, which he's sharing with Ben Folds, for their suitability to orchestral interpretation.
"It's tempting to play a lot of ballads with the orchestra," he said, "but I'm trying to get away from it just being ballad, ballad, ballad."
In fact, Costello said that joining forces with an orchestra afforded him the luxury of fleshing out a song the way he'd originally intended.
"I do have a couple of songs, things that in the original arrangements were imitations of orchestral arrangements," he said. "There were times I tried to imitate that Dusty Springfield in Memphis sound [with horns and strings], but I couldn't afford an orchestra, so we tried to imitate that sound with the instruments we had, with guitars and keyboards.
"It's curious to take some of those parts and give them to the instruments we were imagining."
For the Bowl shows, the orchestra will be conducted by Scott Dunn, and Costello will be accompanied by longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve from his Attractions and Imposters bands, plus bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Karriem Riggins from Krall's jazz band.
Because he's sharing the orchestra with Folds, who plays the first half of the shows, Costello notes that each musician is restricted to about an hour's worth of music.
"It's really a great opportunity," Costello said, "but I'm faced with the same conundrum Ben has, of playing what amounts to half a concert. So I'm really trying to pick the best things, and the way it's working out is we're playing all the songs I've arranged myself."
Costello has long shown interest in a broad swath of musical styles, from the raw pub rock of his earliest albums to the '60s-inspired Motown sound of "High Fidelity" to the country music slant of "Almost Blue" and the near operatic rock of King of America.
He took his biggest departure to date in 1993 with The Juliet Letters, a song cycle he wrote in collaboration with the boundary-pushing Brodsky String Quartet.
How do classically trained musicians respond to working with one of rock's most prolific — and sometimes most venomous — songwriters?
"Some orchestra people would be naturally skeptical, but once we get into rehearsal, the orchestra members can see there is certainly a sincere desire to engage with the sounds we're making," Costello said.
"The world is not in any boxes anymore. When the Beatles used orchestras in the '60s, there were two different cultures that were colliding — in a fantastic new way. What created that great tension was these rock musicians playing with classical players in their Edwardian outfits, Brilliantined hair and their cardigans. Now there's some pretty groovy orchestras in the world.
"But really, the aim is to underscore, literally, or amplify the feeling of the lyrics," Costello said.
"In the long run, it's not about an exercise, it's about conveying feelings and ideas and the spirit of the song. It doesn't matter whether they're playing loud or soft. It just has to be truthful."
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 5 and 6
Tickets: $18.10 to $188.10