Mojo, September 2013

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Double vision

Dorian Lynskey

Forged in the unlikely surroundings of an American late-night TV show, the transatlantic union between Elvis Costello and The Roots' drummer and co-frontman Questlove has resulted in one of the landmark albums of the year.

It's 5.30PM on a Tuesday afternoon in the studio of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York. Showtime. Fallon, an affable Saturday Night Live graduate with none of the thorny egotism of a Jay Leno or David Letterman, likes to create an atmosphere of relaxed goofing around and his favourite playmates are the men he proudly calls "the greatest band in late night": Philadelphia hip hop crew The Roots.

Tonight, as every night, the eight members squeeze themselves onto a compact, split-level stage, anchored by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, the huge, teddy-bear-shaped drummer that Rolling Stone has dubbed "America's bandleader." In this role Questlove possesses the comical hangdog demeanour of a sitcom dad, and wears a suit like he's been blackmailed into it.

Questlove will later tell Mojo that music is his "second language," but it feels more like his first. The Roots warm up the crowd with some Stevie Wonder, play walk-on music for guests Gillian Anderson and comedian Aziz Ansari, jam with Maroon 5 keyboardist PJ Morton, back up R&B singer J Cole, punctuate Fallon's cornier jokes with sardonic drum fills, and take part in the semi-regular "Freestyln' with The Roots" segment. Fallon asks the band to improvise songs about various audience members in randomly selected genres: today it's '50s swing, reggae and Daft Punk. A nod and a murmur from Questlove and they're off. They've yet to encounter a style they can't play or a guest's song that they can't learn in less than an hour.

Since Fallon took the Late Night reins from Conan O'Brien four years ago, the show has transformed The Roots from well-regarded if low-profile workhorses into national treasures. In a country that has no dedicated national music programming, the late-night talk Show is live music's most important shop window. Driven by Fallon's fandom, Late Night attracts guests of the calibre of Prince and Bruce Springsteen while spurring rival shows to raise their own game musically. The Roots are its engine room. Now the show has indirectly allowed the group to make an album with Questlove's hero, Elvis Costello, the brilliantly ominous Wise Up Ghost.

Costello's own history at 30 Rockefeller is somewhat more chequered. Just two floors above the Late Night studio is the home of Saturday Night Live, where Costello made his live US TV debut in 1977. Midway through the agreed performance of his debut US single "Less Than Zero," the spiky 23-year-old — whom the Village Voice nicknamed the "Avenging Dork" — called a halt and led the Attractions into "Radio Radio," his as-yet-unreleased dig at censorious broadcasters: "I wanna bite the hand that feeds me." SNL producer Lorne Michaels was so enraged that he told this limey upstart that he'd never work in television again.

"We rubbed each other the wrong way," Costello later tells Mojo. "They were kind of pleased with themselves and we were super-arrogant on our first trip to America. We thought we knew everything. We knew nothing."

Ironically, many Americans who were too young for new wave have since come to know Costello best through TV, where he has played the role of dapper renaissance man since mending his bridges with SNL in 1999. He has been a regular guest, and even stand-in host, on Late Show With David Letterman. He has cameoed in The Larry Sanders Show, The Simpsons, 30 Rock, Treme and Two And A Half Men. Five years ago, he launched his own chat-and-jam TV show, Spectacle, and filmed the first four episodes in the very studio where he had once incurred the wrath of late-night's gatekeepers.

That tasty irony is just one indicator of how American music television's surprising resurgence has regenerated the careers of two former outsiders. Both Questlove and Costello had given up hope of wooing the American public with hit records, only to find their way into the beating heart of the culture via the small screen.

Only when you see Costello and Questlove sitting side-by-side in the midtown Manhattan offices of Blue Note Records do you get the full odd-couple impact. They talk like they dress: Costello's answers are sportive and precise. Questlove's shaggy and loose. What unites them is an encyclopaedic understanding of music history. They spend a good five minutes discussing the discovery of some long-lost Stevie Wonder reels before Questlove remembers he's being interviewed and sheepishly apologises for the digression. Clearly they could go on like this for hours, laughing at each other's anecdotes, nodding approvingly at relevant points, relishing the chance to discuss nothing but music.

In terms of vast knowledge and passion in diverse genres, they are perhaps each other's only rivals. Both are regarded as popular music's leading tour guides, au fait with all the main drags and most of the backstreets. They know a lot about a lot and like to share their expertise by compiling long, annotated playlists for magazines or giving lovingly curated iPods to friends. When Beyoncé and Jay-Z had their first child last year, Questlove filled four (four!) devices with a round-the-clock soundtrack for little Blue Ivy Carter. "You gotta get them while they're young," he reasons. The iPod The Roots gave to Costello before they began working together last September included tracks the singer couldn't even remember recording.

"We're Elvis Stans," Questlove says bashfully using the Eminem-inspired slang for an obsessive fan. As far back as The Roots' first meeting with Fallon and Lorne Michaels, Questlove and Roots engineer Steve Mandel agreed that Costello topped their wishlist of guests to perform with. "Of all the people who visited Late Night, the person we wanted to freak out the least was Elvis. I so didn't want to drop the ball." He laughs. "It's so weird to say this in front of him now."

Ever since he outgrew his youthful Mr Angry persona in the mid-'80s, Costello has been one of music's most relentlessly agreeable participants. Booking a benefit gig, tribute album or awards show? Costello's your man. Such sociability is new to Questlove. Playing up to 230 shows a year left The Roots little time for networking, and Questlove is naturally shy. "Even 18 years into our career, the idea of shaking hands with people we admired was new," he says. "I thought this was a retirement gig, Every act falls off so we might as well fall off gracefully. I forgot to consider the possibility that things could get better."

When Costello, who currently lives in New York with his wife Diana Krall and their twin boys, first appeared on Late Night in November 2009, The Roots set about seducing him with arcane knowledge. For his walk-on music they played the old jingle for R White's Lemonade, composed by Costello's dad Ross MacManus, and featuring the young Declan MacManus on backing vocals and bass. For the actual performance, the band prepared "High Fidelity" in its slower, Bowie-inspired demo form. By Costello's third visit to Fallon, last March, Questlove had summoned the courage to ask him about working together, no strings attached.

Costello had in fact decided he was done making albums, and would be happy just performing live from now on; but, true to type, he was hooked by the prospect of an unusual alliance.

"Your natural curiosity leads you down trails and some of them are going to seem like false trails to people who liked you first," he says. "The penny doesn't necessarily drop until a long time afterwards. Thu do something really different, people get horrified — the sky is falling! — and then 10 years later they're telling you, 'Oh, I get that now.' You've always got people walking in and out of the door, unless you're in the business of trying to rule the world and having as many people as possible like you for the most basic reasons. That's not a musical vocation. That's how you become Mussolini."

Did he ever have the Il Duce instinct? He shakes his head. "Except maybe around 1978 when we thought about moving to Austin to try and crack America." He smiles grimly. "As if that was possible."

Costello describes the new album as "a slow-crawling snake". For the first few months, starting last September, The Roots laid down tracks in their tiny rehearsal room-studio at Late Night ("It's like the fucking TARDIS," marvels Costello) and sent them to the singer. "It's like that game where you fold a piece of paper in three and draw the head of an animal and someone else draws the body," says Costello. Later, they decided they had to be in the same room. Steve Mandel's initial idea was to rework Costello's back catalogue: their first song together, "Stick Out Your Tongue," was a hair-raising collage of lyrics from "Pills And Soap," "National Ransom" and "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)." But it quickly evolved into a full-blooded collaboration. "I didn't want to be the had guy that puts a stain on his legacy," says Questlove. Costello laughs.

Wise Up Ghost is audibly influenced by the heavy, blue-black drama of '70s soul. Over thick grooves and surging horns, Costello sings of hand grenades and blood stains, wailing sirens and tolling bells, marching feet and unanswered prayers. "This could easily have been a Roots album: the sonic density of it," says Questlove. "I don't know if we're getting darker or just more mature. Maybe I was in a more native period in my life when I was 21 and making [1993's debut album] Organix, just me and my high school buddies. By the time we started Rising Down in 2008, Philly's murder rate was an astonishing 12-to-14 a week. They almost started treating it like a telethon: 'Good news, it's only five this week!' So that started to affect our outlook."

Costello is more vague about his real-world inspirations. "I guess if you look out of the window you don't have to look very far." Margaret Thatcher's recent death may have sparked memories of his gift for writing protest songs both humane ("Shipbuilding") and homicidal ("Tramp The Dirt Down"), but he's always down-played their significance.

"It's the delusion of protest music: because you write it, it changes things. It doesn't. It only changes in the hearts of people who listen. And it's not brave. Victor Jara, that's brave. If they lock you up in a football stadium and chop your hands off, that's brave. Most of the time, the worst thing that can happen is they won't play your record or the record label drops you." He shrugs. "It's not the most dramatic: thing that can happen to you."

To sit with Costello and Questlove is to watch a recent friendship developing before your eyes. There is a respectful "after you" formality to the way they refuse to interrupt each other, and there are stories they clearly haven't shared before this interview When they discuss their childhoods, one in '50s and '60s Liverpool, the other in '70s Philadelphia, they're delighted by the similarities.

Costello's late father sang with the Joe Loss Orchestra. "My dad was on the radio a lot and he had to learn the hits of the day. He would bring home a stack of records to learn. Fortunately for me, of the three singers he was the most versatile mimic so he'd be given the Levi Stubbs records, Roger Daltrey, Dylan... That gave me a head start and one thing leads to another."

"Yikes!" yelps Questlove. "Same story!" His father, Lee Andrews, was a doo wop singer who restarted his career during the early '70s nostalgia boom and kept going as a full-time nightclub act, featuring his wife, playing the latest hits five shows a night. Desperate to keep their son safe from Philadelphia's crack-fuelled crime epidemic, the couple ran a tight ship at home as well. Questlove had to come straight home from school every day and was forbidden to watch TV except for Sesame Street and music shows. "Maybe I was an introvert but my parents were very strict. Thank God my father had a 5,000-plus record collection."

Gifted with metronomic timekeeping and computer-like recall for songs and dates, Questlove was destined to join the family business. At six, he was shining shoes, brushing suede and navigating the band to venues. At 10, he was operating the lights. At 12, he played his first ever show — at Radio City Music Hall, right across the street from 30 Rockefeller. "One day a drummer couldn't make it and my dad said, 'You know the show' After that he was like, 'Oh, you're way cheaper, you're my new bandleader?"

"My first gig with my dad was at the Central Club, Blackpool," responds Costello. "Not quite as glamorous as Radio City. I was 16 and played guitar. I realised I was half a step out and just turned it down and mimed." He smiles. "That was a pretty good apprenticeship for television."

This is one of a few comments today that suggests Costello still struggles to shake the old suspicion that TV is a naff and artificial avenue for musical performance. Questlove was wary, too, when Fallon first approached him. "My main concern was, OK, it's taken us 16 Years to finally make a living," he says. "Do we leave what we built to go into the unknown? What if the show gets dropped? What if we lose momentum? How could this ever look cool? So it was a leap of faith. [NYC blog] Gawker said The Roots taking the Fallon gig was like Miles Davis becoming a subway musician, but I like being underestimated, because in my heart I knew we could nail this."

Questlove now calls it "the wisest move we ever made". Coming off the road not only saved strained personal relationships, it restored friendships within the band. "Being in this intimate box together has made us closer than ever. On the road we were just eight individuals." It's also given them long overdue job security. "Because we were never a multiplatinum rap act our only saying grace was critical acclaim," he explains. Words cannot do justice to Costello's look of incredulous amusement when Questlove confesses to obsessively checking The Roots' score on on-line reviews aggregator Metacritic.

Late Night has opened countless doors for Questlove. Last year, before he hired a team of trainers and therapists and lost 40 pounds, he contracted Coxsackievirus, a rare infection brought on by overwork. "It's hard for me to say no, which I guess is a fault of mine," he says. Not long ago, he had 12 jobs, five managers and four assistants. He has just finished his semester teaching music appreciation at New York University, his memoir Mo' Meta Blues, and his work on D'Angelo's first album in 13 years. That just leaves a restaurant, a clothing store, two movie scores, a sit-com soundtrack, regular DJ gigs, the 16th Roots album, a coffee-table book about the seminal black-music showcase Soul Train, and seven hours at 30 Rockefeller every weekday. Next February the band will follow Fallon to the Tonight Show; the most prestigious gig in television. "Short of an unfortunate circumstance, this is pretty much our job for life," says Questlove. "If we want it."

Costello's schedule seems leisurely by comparison. "I've never been that prolific," he insists. "I just give that appearance." He's currently writing new songs with Burt Bacharach for a stage version of their 1998 album Painted From Memory, and working on a book. "It's not a typical memoir because there's an account of you on the internet now so why would you argue with that? The only thing of value would be something nobody else could possibly know, because it's in your head."

What both men have achieved is that most elusive prize in any career: a second act. Haying been born into the world of the old-fashioned showbiz pro, they both spent many years wary of the mainstream's temptations and compromises before returning to that world, via unpredictably circuitous routes, to find that it doesn't necessarily diminish your art — it can even strengthen it.

"I stayed outside of lots of things for a long time," Costello reflects while Questlove nods supportively. "I didn't join in for the first 20 years of my career. And then I thought, OK, let's see what it's like through that velvet rope. Is it more fun or less fun or just different? There's something self-defeating about standing on the periphery and staring at your shoes. It's self-satisfied, really I've had some fun going to the most unlikely places. Other times these experiences confirm your worst suspicions. But you'll never know from outside exactly what's there."

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Mojo, No. 238, September 2013

Dorian Lynskey interviews Elvis Costello and Questlove.


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Photo by Mattia Zoppellaro.

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Page scans.

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Cover and contents page.


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