Mojo, November 2020

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Waiting For The End Of The World

Sylvie Simmons

Elvis Costello (OBE!) has made the best of the pandemic. More time for Diana, the kids, Facebook jams with Steve Nieve and work - an enhanced Armed Forces reissue and a serendipitous new album with myriad moods and Shipbuilding brass. Verily, a man for all seasons? "There isn't one true church from which I stray," he reminds Sylvie Simmons.

In the basement room of a house in Vancouver there's a jukebox and an upright piano. A little Kay guitar stands propped against a wall. Above it, an Elliott Landy photograph of The Band's Rick Danko is staring straight at Elvis Costello. "It's my good luck charm" he tells MOJO.

Costello was on a UK tour with the Imposters when the pandemic cut it short and he had to fly home. Covid-19 also put on hold a musical he was working on, an adaptation of Budd Schulberg's A Face In The Crowd. He says he's just got off the phone with his mum, who turned 93 the othe day, and he's sad that he couldn't have been there with her. But he's not complaining, he emphasises. He's grateful to be in Canada, where things are relatively safe and sane. He speaks daily to friends "who are in places that are much more challenging, trying to talk them down from the ceiling." And an upside, he says, is "the day-to-day time that I wouldn't have had with Diana [Krall, his wife, the jazz singer]" and their 13-year-old twin sons.

When the lockdown began, the family holed up for a while in a cabin on Vancouver Island. He'd take daily walks along a wild trail that led to rocks and ancient trees "that look like the stuff of fables". It's where Diana took a photograph (see previous page) of Elvis looking wholly off-duty: hatless, out-of-uniform, windblown hair and salt-and-pepper beard. "Of the many things there were shortages of, it seems razor blades were some of them," he says. Back in the city now, "my only trips are to the store to get supplies."

But mostly he's been busy working. Really busy. "It's obvious that not everybody fares well with isolation," he says, but clearly he's not among them: "I've written four scripts and I'm hard at work on a huge stack of songs" - a couple of them for a collaboration with Tommy McLain, the now-80-year-old Louisiana singer who did a version of Sweet Dreams that Costello covered on 1981's Almost Blue. There's another project with New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the upcoming Armed Forces box set reissue he's been overseeing and for which he's writing a new set of notes (see p48). But the pièce de résistance is a brand new album, his 31st, the 14-song Hey Clockface.

Dense and delicate, noisy, quiet, cinematic, poetic, strange and strangely beautiful, Elvis says he had no idea what his new album would be like, other than that it would be unlike the one before. Look Now (2018) featured the Imposters and a handful of songs he'd co-written with Burt Bacharach and Carole King. It won a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal, beating fellow nominees Barbra Streisand and John Legend.

The new album's contrasting styles weren't "perversity" or "hubris" on his part. "I mean there isn't one true church from which I stray, let's make that clear," he says, prickling a little. "For me every one of those things is a whole-hearted thing, not detours - other than the [2015-2017] tour I called Detour as a satire on the idea. It starts from the place of I make the record I'm making, not the record I'm not making. Because I can make the other record. Maybe," he muses, "once you make one thing one way, it frees you a little bit. It makes the surprise of noise and rhythm into something you want to jump into again. That last record, I had everything worked out. This record is the opposite."

Something else he finds freeing is “travelling to a new location where nobody knows me. The sense of adventure. “It was February 2020. You could still fly. So he got on a plane to Helsinki. “I’m not as well-known there. I’ve only been there twice in 40 years. But I found this little studio and it was the jolt I was looking for.”

Suomenlinnan Studio is tucked away in an 15th century fort built to keep the Russians out. You reach it by ferry from mainland Helsinki. “A great way to start the day,” recommends Costello. “Walk down the main drag in Helsinki, go up to the top deck to get a lungful of bracing air, then work for eight hours.”

Alone bar the engineer, Eetü Seppälä, he spent three days recording three songs. “I went there to record as much music as I could, but when you’re playing all the instruments it slows you down a little bit.” Because Costello doesn’t play drums he sang the kick part into his phone and Seppälä’s team turned it into a sample. Then Costello sang over it, playing piano or guitar. “The Helsinki Sound,” he dubbed it.

All three of the songs he recorded there have been streaming well, ahead of the release of their parent album – the bitter No Flag the longest, since June. “They are to some degree commentary rather than emotional,” says Costello. “They’re not love songs, are they, any of them? Even in the three days there were three different moods. No Flag has a degree of anger; Hetty O’Hara Confidential is kind of humorous, and We’re All Cowards Now is more melancholic.”

There was a report in a Helsinki paper saying that Costello had gone there to make a protest song. “There might be something lost in translation,” Costello says. “People want to see No Flag as a protest song, but I didn’t see it like that. You’re writing and it’s like what does it feel like when you get to the end of your tolerance? What does that place look and feel like? I guess that’s what No Flag is. But I don’t send out pamphlets telling people what my songs are about and how you should feel when you listen.”

From Helsinki, Costello flew to Paris. “I went to celebrate Steve Nieve’s birthday and him getting his passport – he’s a Frenchman now, dual citizenship.” The Attractions/Imposters keysman had booked a quartet of classical musicians into Les Studios Saint Germain for the weekend. “Steve had transcribed the songs in chord charts” says Costello. “Classical players always tend to want a sheet of dots in front of them, but these musicians were very open-minded, cross-the borderlines.” And in the end, much of the music was organised on the hoof, with Costello singing live.

The plan was to finish the album in New York, but first there was a UK tour. It found Costello in high spirits. “It opened really spectacularly at the Liverpool Olympia,” he says. “My mother came to the show. They had her on a platform where she sat in a wheelchair. It was so emotional, because she had danced in that ballroom as a girl in the mid ‘40s after the Second World War.

“It was a beautiful way to start, and then the final show in Hammersmith…” he’s momentarily lost for words. “If that were the last time I was ever on-stage, it wouldn’t have been a bad show to end on. That tour we did in England before all tours had to stop, was, I felt, the first time that we had been heard in 10 years. “


“I felt that the audience was hearing who we actually were, not who they imagined us to be. They didn’t seem impatient, if I sometimes played piano. We got to show them things that only the American audiences had seen. We had backdrops for the whole show instead of having just a bank of lights. “I just felt,” he pauses, “as if we were all on level ground for the first time in years in the homeland. And it felt good. I really felt good on that tour.”

And then the world went into lockdown. Costello flew to Canada, and Hey Clockface was completed, like everything else post-Covid, digitally and long-distance. Two late additions, Radio Is Everything and Newspaper Pane – the first a noir poem, the second equal parts cool and urgent, almost Dylanesque – are collaborations with guitarist Bill Frisell and trumpet/flugelhorn player Michael Leonhart. Hearing the contributions of the latter, it’s hard not to be reminded of Chet Baker’s 1983 work on Costello’s Shipbuilding. Had Costello made that connection too?

“That would be a very good connection,” he says. “Chet coming in and playing on that record was to make it distinct from Robert [Wyatt]’s original [1982 single] version. I had this idea of a trumpet. I couldn’t believe we got Chet Baker and how beautifully he played. But I wasn’t thinking of echoing that however much I love it. I love the flugelhorn. It has a slightly rounder, more mellow tone.”

While some artists of his generation grumble about the process of recording in 2020 – flinging sound files around the world, with parts and mixes flying back, there’s only going to be more of it post-Covid. So Costello is minded to embrace the digital connectivity. It allows even more opportunities to collaborate and work.

“I was hooking up with Steve Nieve every Sunday morning,” he says. “We were cheating physics! We’d worked out a way we could play together on Facebook to a group of people who’d been tuning in to these 45-minute or hour improvisations, with his partner Muriel narrating and her son singing. We tried some tunes that I wouldn’t normally sing, songs that people would never hear you sing on a stage. It was a way of connecting with people because we didn’t have the prospect of doing that in person for a while.”

His partnership with Nieve has spanned five decades. How would he define their working relationship?

“It was always me and Steve,” he says . “Steve and I have a huge repertoire of piano, voice and guitar. We can literally play anything we can remember. He’s a remarkable player. He can find music in all sorts of corners. I can predict in advance what he might do to something I give him – or he can completely surprise me, and he continues to. When Steve and I play together, just the two of us, in some ways the scope of the music is much greater than when it’s the band.”

Stuck in lockdown with a jazz pianist, did Elvis find himself making music with Krall, or did they work in their own man/woman caves? “Diana has a record that I think might even come out before mine (Krall’s This Dream Of You is due in September. Hey Clockface, November),” reports Costello. “I know it’s my wife but its been absolutely thrilling to hear her pull a record out of these beautiful performances – and the way she asked Al Schmitt [Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan], who is one of the great engineers, to mix them was something quite different. They have an immediacy and an intimacy that you sometimes don’t get on modern recordings, and some beautiful piano playing.

“So that will be going in one part of the house,” he continues, “and there’s one boy mixing in one room, and another boy has got the room set up with every kind of computer for video games, and I’m out on the back porch writing a song. This isn’t my man cave. My lads populate this part of the house most of the day – they’re just not up yet! I have a man porch. I like being in the open air. If it’s not too windy I can record out there. So it’s a busy house.”

A final question. Elvis and I last spoke five years ago, in Vancouver. He had just published his 688-page memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. If he were writing that book today, how might he see two big things that have happened since: cancer and his OBE?

“I have some things to say about those two subjects,” he says. “One, cancer. Steve rang me up an said, “Don’t even say it.’ And the only reason anybody know about it was because I overestimated my own energies: I’m so used to being able to carry on regardless, and I just went out on the road before I had my strength back to do the job. I regret announcing it – although I had to – because people that I hadn’t got around to telling personally yet got alarmed, and because other people go through so much worse. I have friends who are no longer with us. I lost a couple of good friends. I was so fortunate to avoid serious illness. There’s nothing more to say.

“The other thing” – he doesn’t spell out its letters – “I took the gong because my mum wanted me to do it. I don’t even know how you can get an Order of the British Empire when there isn’t an empire. It’s a ludicrous idea.”

Of good Irish stock, Declan MacManus/Elvis Costello’s views on the British establishment have not been warm. Oliver’s Army, Tramp The Dirt Down, Shipbuilding again, have referenced its iniquities and hypocrisies. Moreover, there was a score of sorts to settle with Buckingham Palace on behalf of jazz singer father Ross. “I wanted to see the inside of that place one time,” he says. “My dad went in the back door. I went in the front door. Playing there in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s with Joe Loss, my dad used to go in through the service entrance. Eventually they’ve got to look you in the eye.”

How did it go? “Nobody was unpleasant. I know symbolically some people don’t like the idea of it, but to me it doesn’t mean anything. I’ve been to see for myself something that’s been building up in my mind for a long time. After my moment, the military band played ‘Consider yourself at home / Consider yourself one of the family’ [from the musical Oliver!]. Somebody there” he laughs, “has a sense of humour.”

Tags: Diana KrallSteve NieveArmed ForcesShipbuildingThe BandRick DankoBudd SchulbergA Face In The CrowdTommy McLainSweet DreamsAlmost BlueHey ClockfaceLook NowThe ImpostersBurt BacharachCarole KingJohn LegendDetourNo FlagHetty O'Hara ConfidentialWe Are All Cowards NowThe AttractionsThe ImpostersLiverpool OlympiaRadio Is EverythingNewspaper PaneBob DylanBill FrisellMichael LeonhartChet BakerRobert WyattMuriel TeodoriAJUQSam CookeFrank SinatraUnfaithful Music & Disappearing InkOliver's ArmyTramp The Dirt DownRoss MacManusArmed Forces (2002) liner notesBruce ThomasPete ThomasNick LoweThis Year's ModelDavid BowieIggy PopScandinavian TourThe BeatlesThe Rolling StonesBenny AnderssonAnni-Frid LyngstadKnowing Me, Knowing YouSwindonElvis PresleyLipstick Vogue(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?American SquirmSunday's Best(I Don't Want To Go To) ChelseaEmotional FascismPinkpop Festival

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Mojo, No. 324, November 2020

Sylvie Simmons interviews Elvis Costello about lockdown and Hey Clockface and previews the super deluxe edition of Armed Forces.


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Photo by Diana Krall.

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Elephants Memories

Sylvie Simmons

Armed Forces returning soon in "last word" box set form hoiked Elvis Costello to the next level. It was all thanks to ABBA, he tells Sylvie Simmons

"If you like this record and you've liked it for 40 years, this is the last word on it."

Elvis Costello is talking about the pending reissue of his 1979 album Armed Forces. He admits it's been resurrected a couple of times before - the 1993 Rykodisc CD with bonus tracks, the 2002 Rhino with bonus disc and Costello's copious linernotes. "But this" he says, "is the innards of it as well as the outer thing, the wonderful artwork. There is nothing more to be said."

Costello was in his early twenties with two albums under his belt when he and the Attractions - Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas, Pete Thomas - went into Eden Studios in London with producer Nick Lowe in the summer of '78. A few months before, he'd released This Year's Model. It reached the UK Top 40 and went gold in the US. Since then they'd been on a non-stop tour. The songs for a follow-up would have to be written on the road - in his hotel room after a show (Bruce his hotel room-mate, recalled him sitting up all night scribbling in a notebook) or on the bus heading to the next one.

"The experience and the oulook of travelling around the world, everything I saw seemed like the beginning of a song," Elvis remembers. "Whatever came past the window got into the song." So to some degree did the music they were playing on the bus. "We only had about five cassettes: Bowie and Iggy's Berlin records - and Abba." The Abba cassettes were picked up at motorway service stations on the Scandinavian tour. Elvis and the band would argue the toss over whether The Beatles were better than the Stones ("Me and Bruce were more Beatles, Pete was Rolling Stones and Steve claimed not to have heard either of them and listened to T. Rex") but they all came together on Abba. Literally so at a Swedish festival where they met Benny Andersson and Frida Lyngstad and serenaded them with a four-guitar acoustic version of Knowing Me Knowing You.

The band had never been so solid, he says. On the reissue's live discs, "You're going to hear the band tearing through this music. In the liner notes I've talked more about the playing and the pace. The pace is probably the reason it all came crashing down, but it's also what maade the band ferocious. It all got up to speed very quickly. There's a video of us playing in Swindon the night before Elvis Presley died where we seem like a youth club band. Then three months later we were making This Year's Model and playing things like Lipstick Vogue, and by the next summer Armed Forces. That pace had a lot to do with melding the sound of the band."

Two long weeks in the studio - "a luxury!" - made for a richer, more textured, sophisticated-sounding record. Costello's version of Lowe's song (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding), previously a B-side to Lowe's American Squirm and credited to Nick Lowe And His Sound - although it was in fact Elvis and the Attractions - wound up on the US album in place of Sunday's Best. "They didn't really understand the English references," notes Costello.

"They didn't understand (I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea either and took that off the previous album, so I wasn't too surprised." Nor was he when they turned down his original album title Emotional Fascism.

The upcoming box set reissue, he says, including "facsimilies of my original notebooks, all handwritten, lines scrawled out, half verses not used and all these subtle changes. It was a way of learning the songs as I wrote them, how to sing them and also to understand the story the album told."

There are also comic books, postcards and six discs, including two 10-inch live records, the entirety of their June 4, 1979 Pinkpop festival show and the original album remastered directly from the studio tapes. "It sounds as close to the way it sounded to us in the studio as we could make it," says Costello. "That's a beautiful thing."

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