"You want to interview Steve?" asked Elvis Costello's manager, the feisty pugnacious Jake Riviera. "Well then, you'd better ask him about amplifier settings." He cracked a smile, and explained himself: "Steve's been up all night and we've been kidding him about the guy from Musician magazine who's going to ask about settings," Riviera laughed.
I followed Rivera to the dressing room. There sat Steve arranger, composer. orchestrator and keyboard player extraordinaire. unshaven, dressed all in black. with a black fedora atop his head, slouched on the couch, he looked like a sleazy character out of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil.
With straight face, Riviera introduced us.
"Now Steve," I began, before I'd even taken a seat. "The first thing I want to talk to you about are your amp settings..."
A look of horror crossed Nieve's face. Suddenly there was laughter from the adjoining dressing rooms.
"Just kidding," I said,
For six years, twenty-five-year-old Steve Nieve has been a lieutenant in Elvis' army. From the Peter Gunn-meets-Jamaica mystery of "Watching The Detectives," the first Elvis track he played on, through the horn-dominated soul revival Punch The Clock, Nieve has helped sculpt the unique pop sound that has made Elvis Costello one of the most respected of modern day rock 'n' rollers.
Steve Nieve deserves to be respected as well. A classically trained pianist who studied at London's Royal College of Music, he can play garage-trashy a la Question Mark ? the Mysterians (This Year's Model), pump out Nashville honky-tonk (Almost Blue) or do a Booker T (Get Happy!). Perhaps his most stylistically distinctive work is evident on Armed Forces and Imperial Bedroom, where he works his classical roots into Elvis' material, giving the tunes a majestic neo-Sgt. Pepper quality.
Those classical roots still remain dear to Nieve who, when he's not recording or touring with Elvis, composes classical music In London. one can sometimes find him playing this music at a small French restaurant, L'Escargot.
Recently he recorded an entire album of his own compositions, Keyboard Jungle (on Demon Records), The music is not what one expects from a driving force in one of the key modern rock units. Recorded digitally in four hours, Keyboard Jungle, an album of instrumentals, finds Nieve and only Nieve holding forth on a Steinway grand.
"I like the idea of going against the system." said Nieve a soft spoken young man not used to being interviewed (this was only his second interview — ever). "I think someday music won't be so commercialized. There was a time, before record players, when people could make their own music, however terrible it was, to entertain each other at home. It seems to me that the way records are going. a lot of them are sounding the same as the last one I'd like to see a time when it goes back to that thing of people entertaining each other in their houses, rather than buying a record by Styx and they don't even know what the lead singer looks like. It's just a noise, it's just a record company-produced thing. And especially in America, the way the radio is set up, they completely dictate what kind of music those kinds of bands make. That's why my album probably won't get played on the radio. But then it's completely what I wanted to do.
Born in Bishop's Stortford, Nieve grew up in the small English town of Erith, just down the road from a factory where Vox organs were made. His parents played classical music around the house and he took piano lessons from a neighbor beginning when he was six years old. It wasn't until Nieve turned fifteen that he got hip to rock 'n' roll "Studying classical music. they'd play you something and then you'd have to write it down by ear." he says "That was part of the training. Of course most of the kids were into pop music So one time the teacher said. 'Let's just listen to pop records' and he put on 'Metal Guru' by T Rex and we were sitting there writing it down;' Nieve laughed at the memory "I thought. "This is great! So I had to go out and buy it. And that's what started it all going."
From there it was less than a year before he had bought his first Vox organ (which he played on Elvis & the Attractions' first American tour) and began playing in local combos including the Albinos ("We never played any gigs we just rehearsed.") and Second Foundation, a ten-piece band with a girl singer that covered the hits of the day. Still, playing pop music was a hobby, until the keyboard player joined the Attractions in 1977.
That Nieve ended up in the Attractions was pure luck. He was attending the Royal College of Music in London at the time. But he was tired of college life. Nieve wanted out and thought it might be fun to play in a pop band. Looking through the musician's classifieds in the back of Melody Maker, an ad for "keyboards for a rocking pop combo" caught his eye "so I called them up and they had so many people calling them up that they were trying to put people off" said Nieve, lighting the first of numerous Camel cigarettes that he would chain-smoke during the interview. "The secretary said to me, 'Yeah we've got this Elvis Presley impersonator.' I said, 'Great I'll come down.'
"It was like an audition." he continued. "They had Steve Goulding from the Rumour on drums and I think Martin Belmont on guitar and I just walked in this room and there was a Hammond there; I had never seen a Hammond before so I was trying to figure out how that worked. I just played three songs. 'Less Than Zero' was one of the songs. This was before My Aim Is True came out. I'd never heard the songs. It wasn't like I decided to join Elvis' group. I just wanted to get into a band. But then after that we went into a place in Cornwall and rehearsed for a week. And then when I got back to London I got a message from the college that I'd been expelled. So it was perfect timing."
The combination of Elvis Costello and the three Attractions — Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Peter Thomas — has been a particularly potent one. In six years they've recorded eight superb albums. Nieve says the group works intuitively, there's no formula for making an Elvis Costello record. "It's a difficult thing to talk about 'cause we've recorded so many things and they're all recorded in different ways, really. Some albums we go away to a little country cottage and stay there a week to learn the songs and they go through different transformations. Sometimes we'll be doing a song of Elvis' in some different way and we'll get up in the morning and he'll have been up all night and have rewritten the words because of the new music." And what has kept this band together for over six years? "Good question. Nearly all the bands that were around when we started have split up." he says.
"I tried to figure out what it could be and I thought maybe, bands like the Clash or the Pistols that had some big statement to make, once they had made their big statement, there wasn't really much else for them to do. Whereas when we got together we didn't know what we were doing. So we just carry on not knowing what we're doing." He laughed. "I think that's why we stick together."
Asked about the garage Vox sound that dominates This Year's Model, Nieve said, "That was what we sounded like live at the time. That was the only keyboard I had. When we started out, everything had to be done on an organ. And as time progresses you start moving into bigger studios that have space to fit pianos in and so you say, 'Okay, I'd like to play piano.'"
As for the genre-hopping that characterizes the recording career of Elvis Costello & the Attractions — garage rock to psychedelic to soul to country — Elvis and the band are heavily influenced by what they're listening to as they make a record. "Until I started making records, I hadn't really listened to pop music. That's the great thing about working with Elvis. He's got the biggest record collection you've ever seen. In fact, it's so big you can't get in his house now. I think he's going to have to move. It's not that it's something that I've heard and liked, it's something that Elvis has just played for me. It's an instant thing, rather than looking back. It's a new discovery for me. We might have been driving to the studio and Elvis puts some Aretha Franklin on."
Which is how the country album, Almost Blue, came about. "When he first started playing Loretta Lynn, I just got completely involved in Loretta Lynn. Mainly because it was just before my daughter was born and a lot of the songs were about family life. Being on tour and knowing that my wife was about to go into hospital, it really cheered me up. I think that was what steered us into doing that album. Halfway through the tour we went to Nashville and did a couple of takes and said, 'Yeah, we're going to come back and do a whole album.'"
For four Englishmen, cutting a country record in Nashville was a rather strange experience. Nieve calls producer Billy Sherrill "a pretty weird redneck. He was just sitting in the studio and he pulled three guns out of his pocket and put them on the table. First producer I've ever met with guns in his pocket. Constantly tellin' these jokes. "What's black and white and can't turn around in an elevator? A nun with a javelin through her head.' Pretty strange jokes."
Making that record, which took one week, was a breeze. "You'd just walk in, put the headphones on and start playing the piano and it would sound like a George Jones record straightaway."
Of the work he's done in the Attractions, Nieve is particularly proud of his orchestrations for "Town Cryer" and "...And In Every Home," which appear on Imperial Bedroom. "In school, I used to write a lot of orchestral stuff, but I never actually heard it played. This was the first time I ever wrote something down and heard thirty people playing it back to me. It was amazing. It's a costly thing to have all those players, so I was quite nervous about it. I actually recorded it myself with a synthesizer first, just to make sure it was going to sound the way I wanted it to. When I was actually writing it out, I sat at home with a Portastudio and a Prophet and after I'd written out the parts, I recorded them so I could really hear the whole thing."
Nieve's orchestrations were unusual to say the least. "I had this concept about violins. On one track ("… And In Every Home") I didn't use any violins, it was all violas. I think that gives it a slightly different sound. And on 'Town Cryer' I just did violins, about thirty of them. The guy who booked it just couldn't believe it. It was so I could get this really massive, piercing string sound."
There there are six clarinets he used on "Town Cryer" as well. "I was trying to emulate, not copy, the sound of Glenn Miller. I think he achieved that through the use of block clarinets. I might be wrong but that was my idea."
In addition to an arsenal of keyboards including a Prophet 5, Fender Rhodes, Synclavier, Casio 247, Bosendorfer grand piano, Fairlight CMI and Vox and Hammond organs, Nieve is particularly enchanted by the Emulator. "I've been experimenting programming records into the Emulator. You can get four or five seconds — enough time to get in a whole bar of a song. And then you can loop it and you play one key and the whole track comes out of it. You can do some pretty interesting things with intros of songs. You can loop them on the wrong beat. Or if you get a bar of something, use it as a rhythm track and who's going to know?
"I also found that if you program in something like that, so that you can have the whole track on one note — there's a code so you can make all the notes on the emulator play the same note — then you can press down like five notes, but slightly out of time with each other, and get these really amazing phrasing effects. You know those scratch records? I'd like to do that with the Emulator, so that halfway through a track you could program one part into the Emulator and then you could edit the song in the middle of the track, have a really weird phase section, 'cause you can make half the keyboard play the sound backwards. If you had one note playing a bar of music, then you could do scratching just by alternating notes. You wouldn't have to ruin your records," he laughs.
"I met someone in L.A. who has programmed 'Papa's Got A Brand New Bag' into the Emulator. He's divided the keyboard up into bass, drums, all the instruments except the voice."
Nieve thinks the synthesizer is the electric guitar of the 80s. "I think what's interesting at the moment is that twenty years ago the electric guitar was something that was pretty cheap to pick buy and people picked it up and made this noise on it and it became rock 'n' roll. What is interesting today is that the same thing is happening with the keyboard, especially something like the Casio. Young kids can go to a shop and buy a Casio for ten dollars or something and learn to play in some sort of way and maybe come up with something that someone who has learned to play the piano wouldn't have come up with. And I think things like Eurythmics are what you're actually looking at. I think that's a great thing. And hopefully there will be some wild racket invented instead of all this plippy, ploppy stuff that I can't stand."
Does Nieve, playing in a band that draws so heavily on the music of the past, think it's possible to make really new music? "I think the main thing you have to bear in mind is the people who listen to it. I think that if you want to do something new and completely ignore the people who listen to it, then you're not going to do anything. If you're gonna make some kind of new music, you have to make some new music that people are going to want to listen to. I mean when people like Beethoven were stretching music, they were able to do that and still be the most popular musicians on the day, whereas today there are people writing weird atonal music that no one has ever heard and what's the point of that? I think the most important thing is the audience. It's like a triangle. There's the person who thinks of something, the person who can play it and the person who listens to it. And if you ignore one of those three points, then the music you're making isn't really worth listening to.
"If there's a planet billions of light years away with beings with ears on it, I wonder if there is another kind of music, or whether they're actually listening to the Beatles," he smiles. "I think they probably are."