Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson knows how to bide his time. Nearly five years ago, the Roots' drummer and bandleader met for the first time with talk show host Jimmy Fallon to discuss potential musical guests for Fallon's new late night TV show. As newly hired music director — with the Roots as house band — Questlove listened intently as Fallon reeled off the names of artists: Herbie Hancock … Lenny Kravitz … Elvis Costello.
The veteran drummer picks up the story: "After the meeting, I went home to Philadelphia and told [longtime Roots producer] Steven Mandel exactly what Jimmy had said. When I mentioned Elvis Costello, a light bulb lit up in Steven's head. 'Can you imagine if you were to back him?' he said. 'He would fall in love with you guys. Maybe you could make a record together.'"
A year later Costello made his first appearance on the show. For the occasion, the Roots — who by then had earned a reputation for their inventive takes of guests' material — worked up an inspired arrangement of "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," a Costello tune from the late 1970s. Little did they know that the acclaimed British rocker was already an avid fan.
"I was well aware of the Roots from their recordings," reveals Costello, "and I admired the way they had transitioned to a second career, bringing a wholly different approach to late night television and being a collaborative band. They were also bringing a certain wit and a sense of exploration to that process."
Questlove didn't mention his desire for a Costello-Roots collaboration, but the groundwork had been laid. Last year, following Costello's fourth visit to the show, Questlove broached the topic by somewhat cryptically alluding to a classic album. Costello explains: "We were walking off the set together and Quest dropped this little code phrase. I don't want to tell people which band, which singer and what record he named, but I knew what he meant right away. While I knew we couldn't make that record, I hoped we might be able to make this record."
The resulting album, Wise Up Ghost, exceeded expectations. Begun in secret without record label backing, the project was sometimes pieced together in compartmental fashion — with much of the work being done in the Roots' rehearsal room at NBC's New York headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Center. Costello describes the making of the record as a musical dialogue among himself, Questlove, Mandel and the other members of the Roots. "Steven worked very long hours," he says. "He would get members of the Roots to lay in parts in response to things Quest and I had started. His mixing has lots to do with the space that's in the album — the 'dub outs,' things disappearing out of the rhythm, the way everything flows. It's a way of working that would be unimaginable if everyone had been in the room playing together."
High points include "Tripwire," a beautifully hypnotic, gauzy lullaby, "Walk Us Uptown," a dub-laden slice of New Orleans-style funk, and "Stick Out Your Tongue," a refashioning of Costello 1983's "Pills and Soap" with a dark, Sly Stone-like groove. String embellishments are scattered throughout — the work of orchestral arranger Brent Fischer.
Credit the Roots — indisputably hip-hop's finest ensemble — for showcasing new dimensions in Costello's songcraft. "Everybody comments on all the ways rock and hip-hop are different," says Costello, "but we're actually quite alike. I've always borrowed figures and rhythms as a way of animating the ideas I have. The Roots come out of a background that allows them to combine that with the editorial methodology of hip-hop. Rock 'n' roll is much the same — it's just different rhythms and a different society that it reflects."
Questlove concurs. "Whatever you do is derivative of whatever styles influenced you," he says. "Elvis and I found we had an enormous amount in common, things we discovered in making the album."
Did you share a vision?
Questlove: There wasn't any sort of summit meeting. But Elvis was insistent about the idea of us meeting each other in the middle. Had it been solely up to me, I would have been like, "OK, we have to compete with [Costello's 1978 album] This Year's Model." Elvis actually said, "Everyone's dreaming of the moment I'll go back to an album like that, but that's clearly not going to happen. I'm not the same person I was then." Plus, it turns out he's a fan of the sound we have. And obviously we worship the ground he walks on.
Did one song point the way?
Costello: "Pills and Soap" turned out to be a good starting point as a song from my catalog that we could re-examine. Quest laid down some drums that gave the flow of the music a very different feel, and I laid down keyboard, bass, some guitar — very spare parts. What we ended up with, "Stick Out Your Tongue," is a radically different record. From there we were able to go a lot more expansively into writing brand-new pieces or revisiting old texts with entirely different music.
Was it helpful a label wasn't involved?
Costello: It was significant in that we didn't have a timetable — the album was done when it was done. Two or three record companies expressed early interest, but Blue Note had an initiative and panache about the way they wanted to present the album. [Label president] Don Was very much wanted the words to be in balance with the music. He also suggested the nature of the cover art, which had a good humor to it.
Questlove: Once we had 15 songs done, it was like, "OK, now let's play it for some people and see if they like it." Don instantly said he would take it. What you're listening to is a record completed in our free time — a real passion project, which makes it more pure. It's probably the only album I'll ever work on where there was no outside pressure. "There has to be a single." "This has to be a hit." There was none of that.
Feel pressure to measure up to Elvis' past work?
Questlove: Absolutely. That's why Steven Mandel's role was crucial. I'm attuned to how critics operate, how they receive records. It's one thing if Elvis didn't have a history of experimenting — he's done a lot of that on his albums. But I didn't want to be stoned and flogged for a bad experimental phase. That's where Steve's role was important. All of Elvis' work is in Steve's DNA. Steve was the anchor. We totally trusted him. It's hard to be your own judge and jury — you really need a fresh set of ears.
Was the entire band involved from the start?
Questlove: Yes, all the Roots. The album was recorded in our dressing room. Elvis would give us a skeleton idea, and then James Poyser or Kamal Gray and I would work on it, and Elvis added vocals. The rest of the band — Kirk Douglas and Mark Kelley and the others — would later add their instruments. It might start as a bare-bones idea with Elvis emailing something. I'd start a drum template before handing it to the keyboardists, and then back to Elvis to add lead vocals and background vocals. Once that was done, we would dress it up with the bass, guitar and percussion.
How important were the orchestrations?
Questlove: We were blown away by what Brent Fischer brought back to us. I knew the record was great in its present state, but I felt Brent could breathe even more life into the project if that orchestral work was added. We actually paid for it out of our own pockets. Having those strings on the record gave us an outside perspective. It was almost like it wasn't just our record anymore — we became more like fans of the album.
Costello: That was a very inspired decision Quest made. It was at a point when we could have decided the record was finished. My initial reaction was, "Are you sure we won't be going too far?" But when I heard what was written, heard the care — particularly in the editorial and the mixing of the parts — I knew that it really was an amazing contribution.
You're insistent people not think of this as your hip-hop album.
Costello: If someone wanted to be incredibly lazy, they could call it that. I say that with some experience because I've had records defined by very lazy thinking. I made an album [2010's National Ransom] with a great cast of musicians, none of whom you would call bluegrass musicians — and the music had nothing to do with bluegrass. Still, the lazy shorthand for that record was it was a bluegrass album because it had a fiddle on it. It would be idiotic to do the same with this album, to say that because of the Roots' background, this is somehow a hip-hop album. Does it have anything in common with the methodology of hip-hop production? Of course. But it has just as much in common with jazz and dub and R&B. After a while I just get sick of labels — they serve no purpose.
Was recording in a rehearsal room challenging?
Questlove: From the beginning the Roots have recorded in very unorthodox places. I actually prefer an uncomfortable atmosphere. Distractions force me to work harder. I'm amazed at someone like Kanye West — he made Yeezus in Paris, a beautiful environment. He did My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in Hawaii. I'm not able to do that. I want the heater not to work. Our best stuff has been done in broken-down studios.
Has working Late Night made the Roots a better band?
Questlove: Between 1993 and 2009 the Roots probably did around 10 to 15 rehearsals, total. For the TV show, especially the first year, we were rehearsing two to three hours every day on the off chance someone would try to put us on the spot with a challenge. It's really paid off. We're all better musicians because we rehearse more.
What's the attraction of collaboration?
Costello: Any music is a kind of collaboration. That was true when I worked with my first band. Was it always on equal footing? Probably not, because I wrote the songs. Collaborations that people comment on are like Burt Bacharach or Allen Toussaint or Paul McCartney. That's because they're very notable songwriters, and we come from different backgrounds. There's obviously a different kind of accommodation in working with them. And that would be the same with this project. This is a great musical entity. I think Quest and Steven's telling of the project is that they kind of hooked me into this. [laughs] But I submitted willingly. They had a plan that I wasn't aware of. I take that in good heart, and I'm glad they did it. At the time we started working on this record, I was going around telling people I'm done with recording.
Has this project changed your mind?
Costello: I don't know, I'll tell you in about six months. It reminded me that it's some of the mechanical things that succeed the creation of music that are actually the things that drain the spirit. It's not the imagining of music — I never had a problem with that. I never said I was going to stop writing, just that I wasn't going to record. But I actually like recording, so long as I can find a way to do it that isn't a waste of my time, or isn't just vanity. This project is and continues to be a tremendous experience, working with Questlove and Steven and the rest of the Roots. We'll see where it goes.