Elvis is back!
After a two-year gap following the rapidfire release of King Of America and Blood & Chocolate, Elvis Costello has signed a new deal with Warner Brothers and is back in the album charts with Spike. This collection of collaborations with such artists as Paul McCartney, T Bone Burnett, and Roger McGuinn has already been acclaimed as his finest album yet. Certainly Elvis himself rates it alongside his own personal favorite, This Year's Model.
First off, I have to ask, who is Spike?
It's not a person, it's the picture on the cover of the record. It's the beloved entertainer who was like a clown. It was found in the forest, hot and hung of the country club. Spike comes from the verb to spike. Obviously it's a metaphor. It's show business and show business is the artist hung on the wall of the record company like a trophy.
How do you cope with that?
Actually I've never really had any pressure put on me, I just started out with a certain attitude and I've changed it, but never in order to agree with the people. For instance, if I look back on the period when I was with Stiff Records I can say that it was very imaginative early on and there was a lot of funny things happening with a very contrary attitude to the regular way of working. But at the moment I have the advantage that a lot of people like that are working with me at the new record company. It really comes down to the individuals; if they're doing their job properly and you can keep your sense of humor through some of the most ludicrous things that happen, then your work can be a lot easier.
Would you agree that Spike is a difficult record to categorize?
I can't deny that it shows a variety of musical styles, but the choice of the instruments and the arrangements was pre-planned. T Bone Burnett and Kevin Killen and myself got together and decided which instruments we would use for each song because we thought that would bring the songs to life in the same way that an arranger for an orchestra would choose any instrument he thinks is correct for the music. We tried to create the right mood for the songs, so the song dictated the instruments, and of course some things happened casually, as for instance the involvement of Roger McGuinn.
Can you think of any similar records in the past?
There isn't a record that resembles Spike. Maybe one song in Spike might sound like something I've done before but hopefully we have worked now in a more vivid way.
The fact that you keep changing names and the record company has to put stickers on your albums to confirm that it's actually you playing, can that be considered a personal revenge against the whole industry'?
Sort of. Basically the thing is that Elvis Costello is a brand name, like Ferrari, and the name changing is just like an act of taking on different roles to portray different characters. The idea of The Imposter was to make that song separate from Elvis Costello's songs but people took it too seriously and think it's psychological, that it's my neurosis — but I think it's theirs.
Especially in England, a few people have been very neurotic about you...
You know, there is a critical movement in the U.K. that really despises me; any reference to me is always negative because I represent a certain time which to them is not hip. It's a very narrow view of music which I can't agree with. I'm very open-minded about music. I like all kinds of music. I'm always looking for new music to listen to, something I don't know anything about but that is going to be inspiring. Last week I went to three string quartet concerts — and I've never been to anything like that since I was a child — because I looked in the paper and there were no rock 'n' roll concerts I wanted to see; I knew what anybody who was playing sounded like so l was not gonna learn something more. Even if I liked them a little bit I probably would rather listen to the record than see the concert. It was really enjoyable and inspiring. They were playing Shostakovich, which is difficult music to listen to — complicated, strange and almost frightening.
Was it inspiring to work with Paul McCartney?
Yes, very much. We did two songs on Spike and they turned out a different way because he's very logical about songwriting and really pays attention to the details, so it's like having somebody correcting your work all the time. Paul is very precise. "Veronica" is very concise, there's a lot of information about the workings of somebody's mind but it has a cheerful pop sound. The two things are in contrast and it would only work if the words were that way. This Town is a simple song but it seems a little crazy to be kind of analyzing it, but again he helped to explain what it means.
It's a very acoustic song. Who are you referring to when you sing "You're nobody until everybody in this town thinks you're a bastard"?
People who think that way are everywhere. Basically, I'm referring to business people, people in the rock business, the movie business, etc. And the town could be London, Los Angeles, Sydney. I hope it isn't Rome...
You seem to be obsessed with distorted human relationships, but you can't deny the fact that you've led many people to think that you're a difficult person to deal with.
Yes, but that was only because I tried to explain myself to people and when they wouldn't listen I stopped talking and that makes a bigger story than talking. And I was also too busy. After I realized it wasn't gonna work trying to explain what I was doing, I decided to wait 'til the time was right to speak. I was too busy thinking whether people could be offended by my work. My publicity was superfluous, but people took it personally and it wasn't intended that way. They didn't seem to understand what I was saying, so I didn't say anything. Obviously the record business people said we were wrong because the conventional way is to do as much promotion as you can. But in time we've come to an understanding that people don't ask me stupid questions anymore and I don't break anybody's camera.
What was your reaction when you saw yourself in the Rock Trivia Quiaz. Are people still perpetuating the 'Elvis is angry' myth?
I know my contribution to that game is about the Ray Charles fight. So you know what I'm gonna do now? I'm not gonna talk about it anymore. I'm gonna start denying. In my heart I know what is true and some stupid fight that went on 10 years ago is not of any consequence to anybody.
Do you think people were shocked that you could possibly work with Paul McCartney?
The Beatles have always been one of my main influences; I really believed in their music. It was Paul who asked me to write with him. I tell you, I was so afraid that we might look at each other and not have any inspiration that, as an insurance, I took two songs along in my pocket when I went to his studio. I had started to work on them and he helped me finish 'em and by that time we were relaxed enough to write brand new songs. We wrote a lot of material together and some of the songs will be going on his next album.
He was quoted as saying that working with you was similar to working with Lennon.
Well, that's a very high compliment, but I think it's because of the friction that we sometimes had, and their collaboration had a lot of friction and that's why it created sparks. Hopefully there's something similar in the way we work, but we're not the same people. I'm not confusing myself with Lennon. I'm not trying to replace John Lennon in Paul McCartney's life. He's a different person now as compared to when he wrote the songs with Lennon and I'm a different person now as compared to when I started in 1976. When you get two people together, they shouldn't just agree with each other, there should be some tension and a little bit of disagreement and out of that good ideas come.
Is country music still a main influence on you?
Definitely. I think it's a very honest and emotional kind of music. It's very simple music. Some of the best records I've ever made are in the country style. I didn't grow up with country music but there were things from country in The Beatles' music because they copied the Everly Brothers and the Everly Brothers copied the Louvin Brothers. And then I like the Byrds and they copied Merle Haggard and so on. If somebody buys my record Almost Blue and then goes and buys George Jones' record, well, you can see that I've done a good job.
So your collaboration with Roger McGuinn was deliberate. It didn't seem very casual.
At least not in the intention. But the way it came about was very casual. T Bone Burnett produced King of America and for the new album we went to New Orleans together to meet the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Allen Toussaint, who both appear on Spike, and one night we went to see a Roger McGuinn show in New Orleans. I went to the show and unfortunately someone put alcohol in my drink and when I met him I was very drunk. I was embarrassed the next day because I had waited nearly 20 years to meet him and now I was saying, "C'mon Roger, gimme a guitar..." I asked T Bone, who had met McGuinn in the past, whether he would be offended to come and play and very kindly he came.
McGuinn is still ahead of his time and there is a quote attributed to Charles Mingus about Charlie Parker that rings true about Roger, "If Charlie Parker was a gangster there would be a lot of dead saxophone players." Well if Roger McGuinn was a gangster, there would be a lot of dead R.E.M.s and groups like that. Not that they're not good groups, but without Roger McGuinn they wouldn't exist and he's not really given a proper credit for his influence on modem music.
Ireland is something else that seems to be central to your music. Obviously the reference is to tracks like "Any King's Shilling" and "Miss Macbeth."
Those are particular songs. The sounds are not imitation folk music. I translate traditional music into my songs but it takes on a different quality. Inevitably musicians like Steve Wickham (Waterboys), Christy Moore and Davy Spillane are using a different approach. They're playing arranged format music; they're not playing free form traditional music because they're telling a story and have to stay inside the structure of the song. I like Ireland because it's basically anarchy and also because Ireland is very repressed and the two things create ferment.
Are you still in touch with the Attractions?
Well, Pete Thomas plays the drums on two tracks. The others are joining the NASA space program. They're gonna be the first band to play on the moon so they're not available to tour with me.
What about Steve Nieve's solo album?
Steve is a great pianist. I personally prefer his first album. He's covered George Michael on his second. But I think the last one had a better sleeve, he looked very handsome, he looked like... George Michael.
Irony is probably one of your best weapons. Do you think over the years you've grown into an entertainer more than a rock star?
You see, if you think a rock star looks like Jon Bon Jovi, then I guess I don't like to be considered a rock star. If rock stars are not defined by the leather trousers then... In any case I don't like to be limited by the music. If the story I have in mind needs a different music then I'm open to any kind of music and I only manage to put a little part of the music that I like in the music...
I think you achieved all that with "Stalin Malone."
To a certain extent yes. It started with words and music, whereas on the record it's only music. In the end I preferred it instrumental. The words were recited and I really like the recitation, but I couldn't make it exist with the music and I couldn't make the music exist with the recitation so l decided it was best if people read it for themselves on the back cover of the album.
Do you have any literary model when you write?
No, not at all. I'm not particularly following any particular technique. People get different things from my songs. Not every song is a statement and I don't expect everybody to agree with me if I say something. Some songs are asking questions, others are just telling stories like, for instance, "God's Comic," which is very ironical. The comic is a vaudeville musical entertainer who plays the character of a drunken priest who's got lipstick on his collar and he's always leering at all the women in the audience and when he dies and goes to heaven he's afraid that God is going to be angry with him. And when he gets into heaven God is lying on a waterbed full of tropical fish, reading a Jackie Collins novel with one eye on a Bret Easton Ellis novel, and he has five TVs on, one with Sky Channel, one with the colorized version of It's A Wonderful Life and another with 9½ Weeks. He's listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber on his Sony CD and he's horrified with humanity and he thinks he should have given the world to the Monkeys and then he takes out his guitar and plays "The Last Train To Corksville." Does it make any sense?
What was it like reading Less Than Zero?
Mmmm... I got up and turned on MTV, it was boring. I went for a swim, I went outside, the sun was shining. I rang Justine, she wasn't in. I took some cocaine, it didn't make me excited, so I drank some more vodka, I felt sick. I went back to bed. I switched on MTV, it was boring.... You get the picture? Corksville. Does it make any sense?
T Bone Burnett was quoted as saying that people take months to write songs that you compose in 12 minutes. Are you scared of such compliments?
Ha, ha, ha. I can only say that I can write a song in 12 minutes if the inspiration is there. It's really just a question of not stopping yourself. And that's my philosophy.
Do you agree that your songs often have an inherent cinematic quality?
Possibly. I can only tell you that I'd love to do more film music. The music I did for The Courier film in 1987, which my wife Cait (O'Riordan) was in, was very instructive in the way I arranged Spike, because when you do film music you have pictures and you just make noises that suit the mood of the pictures and some of the music on Spike is just a noise, it isn't always playing the music of the song. Michael Blair, Marc Ribot and Mitchell Froom perform parts which are like a soundtrack. I made no music for the film No Surrender; I was just acting. In the film I had to wear a rabbit on my head. They had trained the rabbit with a man and it had sat on this man's head for one week. I had to wear the rabbit inside my hat but my hair had been greased back to look like a magician, so when they put it on my head it panicked and ruffled my hair. It was tragic. ..
Do videos still play an important part in your career?
Videos are like buses. If you miss one there will be another one along in a minute.
So how was it working on Roy Orbison's video Black And White Night: Roy Orbison and Friends?
That was an exception. It was great. Everyone was there for the right reason. There was no false sentiment, false emotion. Everybody had his own little reason for being there 'cause they admired the man. And I think they really did a good job. They filmed it well. Roy sang brilliantly, the band played well, and we enjoyed ourselves. I think it's probably the best of its kind.
Bruce Springsteen was very cool, he just kept in the background; we had to push him up there and to get in the spotlight. He was really nervous — he admired Roy. I think Bruce handled his appearance on that show with great sensitivity and dignity. I've always admired a lot of things he has done, but I feel like his life has been taken over by his fame. It's very hard for him. I'm very lucky I've had enough success to keep my career going, but never enough to change my life that much.
How do you feel when people who have been basic influences on you decide to cover your songs?
Most of the time I feel honored. My audience in the U.S. was made much larger by Linda Ronstadt who did my songs even though I didn't much care for her interpretations. In fact, I've been really rude about them. In retrospect it did open other people's ears. Most of the covers I've heard have been very good. I've heard a few fairly bad ones, but on the other hand some of my favorite singers have recorded my songs, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Dusty Springfield, Roy Orbison, Robert Wyatt. If at the beginning of my career in 1977 when I first started making records, someone had said to me, "Who would I like to record my songs?" there is a fairly good chance that three-quarters of those people would have been on the list anyway.
How do you look back on Robert Wyatt's cover of "Shipbuilding"?
His is the original, mine's a cover. His is the best version, even though I wrote the words.
Does your son listen to your music?
He likes some songs very much. He really likes Public Enemy and Guns N' Roses, but he doesn't take them seriously. He appreciates them like he would go and see Donald Duck when he was younger. As someone who grew up in the '50s and really believed in The Beatles or Otis Redding, I don't really believe Axl Rose. He's fine, he's a good cartoon, but he is a cartoon, just like David Lee Roth, who is entertaining but is like Daffy Duck.
Do you like heavy metal?
I don't like all that squealing like Metallica, Whitesnake or Guns N' Roses. I never liked Led Zeppelin, so I don't really know anyone who sounds like them. Heavy metal is fantasy music — it's escapist, just like a lot of disco.
Do you like your records?
It changes everyday. I like Spike obviously. It's the new me, I'm very proud of it. I like This Year's Model 'cause that was the first one with the Attractions, and I like Get Happy because of its mad sounds.