Elvis Costello is taller and burlier than you'd expect. The sound of his records and his early image as Buddy Holly's thin, twisted younger brother. don't prepare you for his physical presence. He's also an incredibly fast talker, and an obvious musical obsessive — you'll hardly get a word in edgeways once he gets going on a topic.
At the moment we're in a Dublin quayside rehearsal studio, where Elvis and long-standing sidekicks The Attractions are preparing for their European tour (see p39). Elvis is reflecting on their new album, All This Useless Beauty.
"The thing most people have got wrong about this record is they've got it mixed up in their mind with some sort of retrospective collection, merely because some of the songs were written for other people. But, as much as I hope I did satisfy those peoples' needs, writing a song that suited their style or played to their strengths as performers, inevitably I'm writing my own thoughts."
Elvis and The Attractions didn't play together for eight years, until they reunited for the 1994 'Brutal Youth' album. "We came together during the making of that one, but this one we set out to make together. We played the material live, which had an impact on the way we worked the songs in the studio.
"The original idea for All This Useless Beauty was to pull together lots of really strong songs I knew I had, some written for other people, some for films. I started out with about 30 titles, all of which were songs that had come out of work other than writing for an album.
"With Brutal Youth, the foundation of six of the songs was written in one day, so that was a very concise piece. This time the 30 songs covered a huge range of music. We tried to use as many variations of instrumental colour as we could, while still keeping it like a whole piece — and I think we achieved that."
The sounds on the finished album vary from the 12-string guitar of "You Bowed Down" to a particular keyboard part in "Distorted Angel" that could have come off Sly Stone's 'Family Affair'.
"You mean the thing that sounds like a cat being stepped on?," grins Elvis. "These little touches come out of the shared vocabulary of pop music, and music generally, both in terms of harmony or rhythm and also the coded version of music, like a particular tone. That tune has got a bit of Thom Bell [producer of the Detroit Spinners] in it that I didn't set out to write, but it has just come out sounding like Thom Bell from the way we arranged it.
"Music's plastic... you can mould it into different things. I try not to mention the phrase 'my music'. I say it sometimes, but what I really mean is my songs — which are a sort of formulation of things which exist anyway."
Despite tight rehearsal schedules, Elvis is an affable and talkative interviewee. Only once does he get tetchy, when I cite Noel Gallagher's remark that, "there are 36 chords and all the songs have been written already."
"I like some of Noel Gallagher's songs, but I don't defer to him as a musical expert," Costello sneers, as only he can. "Come back to me in 20 years time when he's done something. He's had a couple of hit records — so have lots of people. It's not a startlingly original observation, it was probably said in Bach's day: music of that era thrived on pastiche and parody, if you wanted to be a professional musician.
"There was a period until very recently when originality was everything, even if that originality was inane. Now we're back to a 'there are only 36 chords' attitude — which you can read as devil-may-care, allowing you a tremendous amount of freedom to pilfer any available style as the foundation for something new, or you can read it as laziness. I couldn't care less either way. I didn't know fuck-all about music when I'd made two records. I was definite about my own ideas, but I didn't know what a bass drum was."
With nearly 20 albums under his belt, and an approach to melody that verges on the sculptural, Elvis has a reputation almost second to none as a songwriter. I wondered what his reference points were when he started?
"There were hundreds — they were very broad. I think I narrowed them down quite consciously because broad musical tastes weren't in fashion in 1977. I knew if I went around saying I liked some of the music I liked I wouldn't get a hearing. These times are more generous. That was a furious-paced time where icons were being smashed, supposedly. A lot of it wasn't really happening but was being written about in the music papers, so it appeared to be happening — the only people taking account of these things were people writing for other people who wrote. I think the general public didn't give a shit.
"People go on about punk, but if you look at 1977-79 when punk and new wave were supposed to be in their heyday, the big success records were mainstream pop things and disco. The Bee Gees were at their height. Things happen simultaneously. If you were living in Miami, you'd be completely unaware of punk."
Even in 1978, Elvis was breaking with punk convention — take his early cover of Rogers & Hart's "My Funny Valentine," and his habit of introducing "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" to new wave audiences by announcing, 'This is a song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.'
"I learned that from Frank Sinatra — he always says who wrote a song. It's a beautiful song and we did as good a version as I could manage then. It wasn't flawless, but it was passionate.
"Steve [Nieve] and I just did a tour of America and we did that song because Burt Bacharach was in the audience, and it was great. Now I'm actually writing with him. The amazing thing is, not only has he got so much enthusiasm and imagination for music, but he really wants something new, he's by no means stuck. That's what's inspiring about working with him. And he's someone with such a massive amount of experience and success.
"I was going to the session of the song we wrote together, which is coming out in a film later in the year, and in the cab to the studio in New York the driver's radio was playing "Do You Know The Way To San Jose." You can't even get away from it on the way to the fucking session — his songs are everywhere.
"I'm fortunate to have worked with a number of people, sometimes in quite an intimate and involved way, sometimes very briefly in a bizarre, one-off situation. I've seen a lot of music close-up, right from when I was a little kid, before I ever picked up an instrument, because my father was a musician [big band singer Ross McManus]. I have a much bigger experience of music than, say, 90 per cent of the people I encounter. It's just luck — it's not saying I've worked harder at it or I know more. I've kept an open mind to the possibility that music isn't necessarily defined by the music of the moment.
"I sang with the Count Basie Orchestra once. Not many people my age can say that. I made a complete hash of it — I'd lost my voice because I'd just done three nights with The Attractions — but I did have the experience of standing five feet away from Basie, six months before he died, and watch him take a piano solo..."
A year later Costello was producing the classic Pogues album, Rum, Sodomy St The Lash. He's a man of many parts.
Elvis talks enthusiastically about working again with the Attractions — Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas.
"These guys are a fantastic band. We've had a lot of ups and downs, as a group and as people. I like the fact we didn't stay in one place, didn't make the same record over and over again... We walked away from it when we might have milked it. We could have gone round like a brandname but we didn't. We got back together without making a melodrama out of it and made a really good record — it's got a sense of discovery about it, you can hear us finding our feet together.
"On this record we made the conscious decision not to use the power most of the time. There's only "Complicated Shadow" and the bigger moments in "It's Time." When people talk about the Attractions sound they tend to think about a handful of records in the late seventies and a few other hits down the years as defining it. But the same band played "Shipbuilding" behind Chet Baker's trumpet, which is a subtle performance but very strong, and the whole of Imperial Bedroom, which has the same wide scope as this LP. You can explore dynamics from the quietest to the loudest without making them cancel each other out. There's been some beautiful quiet moments, but people were less ready for it then.
"We've found ways to play songs we've done for 20 years and really enjoy playing them again. You can probably see from the size of the equipment [points at a nearby Fender Princeton combo] that we've had something of a rethink about the sound. That's the biggest amp I'm playing through...".
The band's onstage volume is being kept right down on the new tour, and some of the gigs will feature acoustic grand piano. Things have been scaled down so the songs can be delivered with finesse, close to the studio versions.
This grew out of the aforementioned tour of the US Elvis did with Steve Nieve. Elvis especially enjoyed the fact that People could hear the lyrics and were responding to the words of numbers like "Poor Fractured Atlas", "about how pumped-up men get about themselves. It's got some funny lines and it was very pleasing to see them connecting — not laughing out loud, but it dawning on them and then, in the next moment, the tenderness and the pathos of the song getting to them. I said we had to have that."
"We've tried to keep the noise balanced, tried to keep it musical. There was a time when musical was a dirty word, but I don't think it is. There is an excitement in the cacophony of a loud gig — I really enjoyed the last shows we did in London where we played incredibly loud, the loudest we've ever played.
But with this record it seems crazy to brutalise the songs. We're going to play them the way they were written and arranged and recorded."
It must be frustrating to know his words may often get lost in the volume of a live gig. "Yeah, and I blow my voice out more. I've been singing for four or five hours a day for the last week, rehearsing, and although I'm ready for a couple of days off before we do any more work, normally I wouldn't be able to speak by now. On the road I usually do three show on, one day off to preserve my voice, but on that fourth day I'd probably be very hoarse, if we played as loud as we have played. I'd be going deaf as well. Now I can go home and hear the TV."
I ask Elvis what state the songs are in when they're presented to the Attractions. "They're finished, but there's any number of changes they may go through. Somebody may bring in a rhythmic idea or a thing in the bass or keyboard that will effectively change the harmony. Steve might enrich the chords in a pianistic way, and Bruce is inclined to get off the root notes quite a bit; there have even been occasions when someone has come up with something that changes the whole way the song sounds. If you'd heard the original renditions of "Distorted Angel" and "It's Time," you'd be surprised at how they went compared with the rhythms we play them to now.
"Sometimes I've got definite ideas about the figures that have to be played, sometimes I sketch them out. For "Little Atoms" we tried different pulses, and that gives us the ability to keep our feet off the ground instead of having a drum putting down a beat all the time. There's something to be learned from modern dance music in that the rhythms keep their feet off the ground a lot more. There's not this hard beat on the front of the bar, or on two, which you get in rock — that kick-drum rooting everything.
"It's surprising how, by throwing away the clichéd way of doing things, you can do a really obvious thing, like turning up the guitar very loud, and that sounds original too. We've never had as loud an explosion on record as on "Complicated Shadow," and because it comes out of nothing it sounds like an original idea, whereas if you had it all the way through you wouldn't notice it. It's all light and shade and tension and release, everything in music. I'm understanding that more."
I mention the arrangement of "Lipstick Vogue" (from This Year's Model) as an early sign of the band's skill. "Yeah — especially then. Bands didn't do that very often. I love that. Pete's drumming is fantastic, and yet it's got more in common with a jazz drummer — the drums have a lot of tone.
"Even though we recorded things in a quirky way then, anybody with any ears could tell we could play better than anyone else. I'm not a very good guitar player, but the other three can play better than nearly all the groups of that vintage.
"We all know that technique for its own sake is a complete dead-end, but there is something to be gained from being on top of your instrument enough to do something expressive with it. Obviously the Police could play their instruments, but many really great bands thrived on their inability to play any other way. Which doesn't make us better than them, but it means we could do more things. We had more options.
"We were also one of the few bands that had keyboards. Steve's always been the most dominant sound in the group — most of our records are keyboard led."
The classic, slow piano arrangement of "Accidents Will Happen" springs to mind. "We've been playing "Accidents" lately with more pride in the tune and more consideration of the melody, and less for the raw energy that comes from the fact it's a song everybody knows. After a while you can fall into the trap of everybody going, 'Yeah'. That's not a good enough reason to play a song. You've got to really play it, think what it's about and why you wrote it.
"If your perspective on the subject has changed slightly because of experience, you can acknowledge that and still make a truthful rendition. Like, I've been doing a song called "Man Called Uncle", which has a line in it, 'Do you think that I'm serious / You get that kind of talk from older men'. I was 24 when I wrote that. Now I'm 42 it has a different meaning, and I sing it so people get the irony of it."
Elvis was recently quoted in Mojo as saying he wants to delete all his old songs in the year 2000 — but if he had to pick six songs worth salvaging...? "Fuck, I don't know, I'd change them every day... "
OK, how about "I Want You"? "Yeah, that's a pretty good record. I like the darker, more evil-sounding records. I love "Candy" — it's got a helluva mood. When I hear some of the older records I hear the age of them now — the sound has dated some of them. Some in an attractive way, some less so. The Eighties records stand up less well than the Seventies records.
"Recently I've started changing the keys. Steve and I have been doing a version of "Veronica" [one of the songs co-written with McCartney] which brings back the feeling that was somewhat submerged by the brightness of the pop arrangement, by shifting the key. The verse is higher in register, in Eb, but then drops instead of ascending at the chorus, which closes the song into a more emotional feeling.
"If I hear "Watching The Detectives" today I think that's a fucking extraordinary record. It's not really reggae, or anything. I like some of the slower or moodier songs... like my favourites off this record are things like "Distorted Angel," "Little Atoms" and "I Want To Vanish." If I hear some of the records I've forgotten I sometimes hear the quality that other people love.
"Somebody gave me a video tape of us performing on German TV in 1978, and I remember distinctly hating this performance, but it's sensational. I can hardly recognise the frame of mind we must've been in when we did it. We were very young and bonkers-looking. It's one of the few times I've understood why people get so misty-eyed about that band at that moment, because it's pretty amazing. Forty-five minutes and never a moment's breath. But you can't go on like that your whole life.
"It's wonderful that people still want to hear songs of mine that are 20 years old, or 20 minutes — if they want to hear them, I don't care. It doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to jump out of a box like a performing monkey and get up there and just do what they want. I don't want to be a jukebox. It's a funny balance.
"But I'm only just starting: 20 years is a long time in pop, it's nothing at all in music. Verdi was writing when he was 80 — so watch out. It's all to do with your image. If you don't give a shit about that you can go on forever."