Your new album is called When I Was Cruel. Does that mean you aren't cruel anymore?
No, it just means that you learn that the force with which you disdain people of power and influence is disproportionate to the dread they should inspire, because they're actually wearing a bad toupee. You learn that they have some grubby secret that makes them less terrifying than they might appear.
You're an artist in residence at U.C.L.A. Is that a lot of work, or is it mostly just throwing Frisbees on the quad?
It's a funny choice of words. How can you be in residence if you're never there? It's a season of concerts. The first one was an adaptation of Charles Mingus's music, with the Mingus Big Band. But I have nothing I could teach. I did spend a lot of time in Los Angeles when I was writing Painted From Memory with Burt Bacharach.
Burt Bacharach has a great head of hair, doesn't he?
Fantastic. Great, brilliant eyes and everything. Tremendously elegant man. That's one of the attractions of working with these people from other worlds. You learn something new.
After working with Bacharach, the Mingus Big Band and the Brodsky String Quartet, how did you get back to writing rock songs for your new album?
With an electric guitar and a kiddie drum machine. It put the rhythm back as the dominant partner in the writing, because heaven knows it wasn't over the last five or six years. When I saw Lucinda Williams play out in Red Bank, N.J., I saw a Sears, Roebuck 15-watt amplifier in a secondhand-shop window that said, Buy me. It had that great sound that you're always looking for. It lasted until the last day of recording, then burned out.
Who is more inclined to bad behavior, classical musicians or rockers?
I haven't experienced too much bad behavior, but you hear stories about orchestras on the road. Some musicians had to be escorted off a plane recently for drunken behavior, which is something you associate more with rock musicians.
Record companies complain that they have to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of an album to make money. Where does that leave performers like you?
Oh, what a drag. You know, I haven't made any money off records for 20 years. I've made all my money off publishing. So I don't care what the record industry whines about.
Do you get a check every time they play Pump It Up at a basketball game?
Yeah, probably. I'm doing fine. I didn't get into it to get rich.
Do you know how to download music from the Internet?
I was a computer operator in 1972, remember. But that's like saying I used to be a blacksmith. I have never downloaded anything — except for the other night, the drummer on a piece of orchestral music I wrote for the London Symphony Orchestra sent me an MP3. I was downloading it for three hours. I know that if you make something and someone steals it, that's theft. That's all you need to say about file sharing, isn't it? Where's the ambiguity?
Sometime last year, you reached a point where you'd been Elvis Costello for longer than you were Declan McManus. Did you mark the date?
No, I didn't. I don't see that as my identity. It's not on my passport. It's a show-business alias. Like Count Basie — he wasn't really a count. Though my driver's license might be Costello.
And your first wife goes by the name Costello.
Only professionally, though.
Hmm. This is beginning to sound like an Elvis Costello song. Have you written any lyrics that you read now and say, What does that mean?
Oh, yeah. But you know Monet? I look at his paintings without my glasses and they're in focus and 3-D. I think that about words. Sometimes you're trying to make a 3-D picture and not really saying exactly what you mean. But sometimes no one has any idea what you're talking about. And you realize, I don't even have any idea what I'm talking about.
Do you still expect to learn truths about the world from songs?
Yeah, but maybe small ones. I don't know that you learn big truths. Though I heard Bill Frisell play I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry last night, and that seemed as big as the world. It had all the sadness and all the heart.
What role does anger have in your songwriting these days?
You don't become more reasonable — you become less reasonable. But it's expressed more as absurdity. It doesn't have to be just fury and mindless insult. And on this album, most of the negative things are intended for myself.