Mojo, May 2002

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10 Questions for Elvis Costello

David Cavanagh talks to the acerbic songsmith about
Dublin, booze and the soul of Mariah Carey.

David Cavanagh

Q: Your new album, When I Was Cruel, is musically very aggressive with lots of distorted guitar and heavy bass. Were you aiming for the absolute antithesis to Painted From Memory, your 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach, and your 1999 hit single, She?

I'd sung a lot of ballads and I was in a mood to make a noise. It probably is the antithesis. It was a lot of fun to do the pop star thing around She, but that song isn't really close to my heart. I was very fond of the record I did with Burt Bacharach, but the concentration of doing those very elaborate compositions only makes the 'free' way of playing seem more attractive. That's why I thrive on the variety of things that I work on. Some people think they're an aside to what I should be doing. That's just people being over-sentimental about the late '70s.

Q: In the first song on the album, "45," are you the nine-year-old boy, born in 1954?

I am. I wrote that on my 45th birthday. It was kind of like, Well, I've got this far! I always liked the sound of 45. It's a mythic number, isn't it? The 45 record. The 45 revolver. And the year '45 was pretty momentous: the end of hostility, the beginning of the Welfare State and the Utopian outlook. It was written with quite a light heart, that song, and it was really just about the measuring of your life in musical signposts and landmarks. Which we all do, I believe.

Q: The title track is full of horrid characters such as the much-married captain of industry and the "shaven-headed seaside thug" who grows up to be a newspaper editor. Is the essence of that song: people get harder to tolerate the more reasonable you yourself become?

That's a pretty good way of putting it. The song is a panorama, really. The events are all true to life, but they're taken from several social occasions that I've walked through. Because of my age, maybe, I'm invited among certain company and I sometimes go out of curiosity where I might have once disdained to go. What's the alternative? The indie mentality, where I don't walk among those people because I'm righteous? That's dangerous. You have to go and have a look to see how human and frail they are, because then it takes away the terror. When you see these people up close, you realise how shabby and puny they are. Is the shaven-headed thug Garry Bushell? No, he's not actually. You'd be very surprised who that is. I'm not going to tell you, it'll only inflate his already inflated self-importance.

Q: You've worked a lot with classical musicians in the last 10 years. Do you have a completely different reputation among people like Anne Sofie von Otter?

Well, I don't suppose that any of the little nuances or petty memories mean a damn thing to her, you know. All Anne Sofie knows is that I'm some guy who had some hit records and had a reputation before we worked together. I think the big misreading of my work with classical artists is that the ambition on my part is to be taken more seriously. I'm already taken way too seriously! It's not to make myself seem more important. It's because I genuinely like the opportunities that working with those people presents. I enjoy seeing what we can make together. And if it isn't enjoyed by somebody whose musical values are — with all due respect — restricted to a certain canon or style, that isn't my problem. I'm not forcing you to listen.

Q: There's currently another reissue campaign of your old albums, with new sleevenotes and extra tracks. Why? Are you unhappy with the way your back catalogue has been packaged in the past?

My feelings about it change all the time. Somebody would no doubt remind you that I once said I was thinking of burying it all in a landfill and starting again. One of the main reasons for going ahead [with the current reissue programme] is that we did a very good job with the [1994] reissues while we still controlled Demon, but Rykodisc got a lot of credit in America for all the work that was basically done in Brentford. Ryko never did a lick. And they really gave up on trying to present those records to the public after the three easiest-to-sell ones came out. So when I signed a deal with Rhino, we decided to do the job in America properly, and also wrest back some control over the Warner Bros records [from Spike onwards]. I got very demoralised with Warners at the time of All This Useless Beauty. I don't like making a record I care about and finding that nobody even knows it exists because people are too scared to take an advert in a paper in case they get fired for doing it.

Q: In which case you must have been outraged when Virgin recently paid Mariah Carey £20 million not to make any more albums for them?

Oh, I won't hear a word said against Mariah. She's on Def Jam, she's my label mate. I'm putting my name forward to produce the record. You see her sing the national anthem at the Superbowl? It was fantastic. I'd make a killer record with her. She needs to go back to her roots. Those Venezuelan-Irish roots. Make a true soul record.

Q: Do the Attractions still figure in your thoughts, or is that book closed now?

Two guys who played in the Attractions [Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas] are on this record and will be touring with me. There is no prospect of the four people who played on This Year's Model working together again. There were some benefits to us making two more records. The Brutal Youth tour was pretty good — until we got to Europe. We played Glastonbury and we were absolutely diabolical. We completely misread the stoned mood of the crowd and came on like Led Zeppelin. And the next tour we were tremendously erratic because the mood was so bad and the concentration so appalling. I just couldn't tolerate it any more. I really don't want to rake over it. I don't need to write books about stuff in the past.

Q: You live in Dublin. What sort of life do you lead there?

We live about nine miles outside of town. In the years that we've lived there, the economy in Ireland has turned round — not taking any credit for that, like — so a lot of people are staying home or coming home. There's a spread of houses now where literally it was all fields until a couple of years ago. We've got a motorway coming right by us. I do most of my writing in Ireland, but if there is any free time we tend to go somewhere that's completely outside of music and city life: Ethiopia, the South Atlantic... It's great for clearing the mind.

Q: You produced The Pogues' Rum, Sodomy & The Lash. Do you regard Shane MacGowan as a casualty?

I have no opinion about that. It's entirely his business. Other people can be sanctimonious or pious about it, but the only person who knows what's right is the person himself. If he never wrote another great song he'd already have written more great songs than most people. I tried to get Rod Stewart to record "The Old Main Drag" and "Rainy Night in Soho," when I was going to produce his record. Can you imagine Rod singing those? It would have been so brilliant. But he was too much of a fucking coward. He wanted to go and watch some racehorses. And what did he record instead? "Cigarettes And Alcohol." (Sarcastically) Good choice.

Q: Are you alcohol-free these days?

I haven't drunk alcohol for six years. I lost the taste for it — literally overnight. It was the last day of making All This Useless Beauty. I just thought, That's it, and stopped. I used to drink a lot. I have a melancholy disposition and I think it probably wasn't helping my naturally gloomy personality. I've always been melancholy, since I was a little kid. But I don't think I was ever in trouble [with drink], certainly not the times when people thought I was. I remember being written off as an alcoholic in '84 by the music papers. "You saw me drunk a couple of times? Wow!" It's just that people never noticed before because I never showed it. I was completely drunk all the way through the early pop success, but nobody knew.

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Mojo, No. 102, May 2002


David Cavanagh interviews Elvis Costello.


Phil Sutcliffe reviews When I Was Cruel.

Images

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Photos by Deirdre O'Callaghan.

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When I Was Cruel

Man of many parts says "And this is me" again, with inspiring results

Phil Sutcliffe

Costello's decade of collaborations — McCartney, Brodsky Quartet, Bacharach, Anne Sofie von Otter — produced good diverse stuff, but clearly his solo self was building up a head of steam. When I Was Cruel is bursting with bile and romance, tricky lyrics and tantalising tunes, and finds him practically trampolining with the thrill of messing about with sounds. He uses loads of quiet — often just voice and a drum loop setting up the song — then piles in with big axeman guitars and dirty brass riffs. And still, at bottom, the oomph comes from his writing's fertile intensity, as exemplified by Alibi — seven-minute freak hit, anyone? Relentlessly circling, the insinuating vocal accuses, "Alibi, alibi" at every hackneyed excuse for every weakness until it twists back to the sweet refrain, "I love you just as much as I hate your guts." Costellar.


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Clipping.

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Page scan.

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Cover and contents page.


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