Oor, October 5, 1977

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Elvis Costello interview

Archie Barneveld and Martijn Stoffer

After years of begging at all big record companies to get a chance to make his own album with his own songs, Elvis Costello finally did it. Not Decca, EMI or ABC, but Stiff Records, Jake Riviera's small label, dared to give this young eccentric (he says he's only 22) a chance. In the interview we did with Elvis it shines through that because of these frustrating experiences he doesn't speak highly of the "Safety-first'-policy the big record companies follow.

According to Elvis, in order to get a record company to consider releasing your LP, you've either got to be an established star or come in with a finished product as a new artist. They appear from his experience to be too miserable and too stupid to recognize, from a couple of raw guitar and vocal recordings, how good the finished product could be. Actually, it's Elvis's turn to laugh. After the success of My Aim Is True, Elvis's debut LP, produced by Stiff's leading producer Nick Lowe, he was offered to sign a lucrative recording contract with Anchor Records (ABC). However, just one year before, they sent him away like a naughty boy, when he let them hear a few of his tapes; something he's very sensitive about. He gives them one chance, and one chance only, then, as far as he's concerned they can *stick it!!* [or some such insult], as attested by Richard Williams, columnist at Melody Maker, who, in his position as ASR-man at Island Records turned Elvis down. Now, though, Elvis has every reason to be happy, his debut LP has been unanimously praised by the music critics and, on top of that, has sold quite well. Week in and week out, you can see his face on the cover of all the English music magazines and it's gotten to the point that the journalists apologize for the monotony of their articles, before, again, singing Elvis's praises.

Did you enjoy playing for so many people in Bilzen?

"Yes, it wasn't actually the ideal environment to play in, there was a lot of violence between the public on the platform and the bouncers, but I don't mind playing for a large group of people. Only at night in the open air, then you don't see how the public's reacting anymore."

We've read recently about your last concert for a large audience during the Crystal Palace Garden Party.

"That was a little ridiculous, because we played with a huge lake in front of us to a group of aging hippies. We only did it because we were paid very well and we'd just bought all our equipment. We played well but a bit further away you could hardly hear it. The press also reacted without much enthusiasm; but that's the way it is, first they're praising us for a few weeks, then they're running us down for a few weeks, and then they like us again. I really couldn't care less."

You only played four numbers from your LP.

"Yes I'm not really interested in playing exactly what people expect me to, I always want to have a few new songs up my sleeve."

We've already been made curious about the new songs like "Watching The Detectives" (a harrowing story about a young couple that's watching Starsky and Hutch, or something, when the girl is paying so much attention to her television hero that she completely forgets her boyfriend; the climax of the story being that the boyfriend kills her for this.)

"That's being released as a single on October 7th. The B-side will be live versions of 'Blame It On Cain' and 'Mystery Dance'. It's recorded with our new band, The Attractions."

In the music press, most of the attention goes to your lyrics.

"Yes, that makes perfect sense."

That's why we want to ask you something about music. It's maybe a difficult question, but we're interested in which music has had an influence on you.

"Hmm, there are so many artists that I'm influenced by, but there's not one that's more important than the rest. My favourite singers change weekly, depending on what I'm listening to."

You don't have any specific heroes?

"No, no. Every journalist has got someone in their head who I remind them of. When they then ask me about it, I always say that I wasn't influenced by that artist more or less than someone like Dusty Springfield, who I seriously appreciate but don't particularly resemble."

A lot of people compare you to Graham Parker or Van Morrison, but we don't think you're like anyone else.

"Some hear the similarities with Parker, but I don't notice it at all. The same goes for Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen. Those three are more like each other than I am like any one of them. My voice is much higher and lighter than their voices. On the record anyway, my voice does sound different live, but when I listen to the record, I think it's just nonsense."

One of the few direct traces of the past that we've discovered are the drumbeats on 'No Dancing'. They come from 'Be My Baby' from the Ronettes.

"Well, that's more or less an average drum pattern. You could just as easily say it's from 'Not A Second Time' from the Beatles. It's just the same beat, but it's not like we thought, come on let's use the drums from 'Be My Baby'. It happens more or less on it's own, without realising it."

There are musicians that do it intentionally.

"Yes, and there's nothing wrong with that. There are so many different drum fills you can use and it becomes dead boring if you always use the same one. If you sound like the Ramones or Bo Diddley, then it gets boring. You listen to people and you keep some of it unconsciously. That doesn't mean that you directly copy certain things."

What were you doing actually, before your breakthrough this year?

"I've decided not to talk about that. Not that I want to be so mysterious but only because I sound a little bitter when I talk about all those futile attempts to get a recording contract. I don't want to come across as bitter, but it's bound to happen when I start criticising those record companies. Because of that, it just becomes boring. I don't really like to talk about my past. I think that interviews where someone talks about what they did when they were 14 etc. are also a bit boring."

Is Elvis Costello your real name?

"Yes, it is actually an uncommon name in England, but it's true."

Were your parents fans of the other Elvis, or something?

"No, not at all."

It's also a name that a sly manager could think up.

"Yes, that's also a problem for me. But if John Lennon were to die tomorrow, they wouldn't be making a fuss about John Denver being named John; it's just the same as me and Elvis Presley."

An 'In Memorium' about Presley here in Holland ended with 'Elvis Presley is dead, but we already have a new Elvis.'

"Ah, that's just journalism; being so clever that you find another glib closing for your article; it doesn't matter to me. People see soon enough that I'm not just a misplaced joke; I'm not trying to fool anybody. It's just a name, you know."

To what degree has Nick Lowe's production, and indeed the whole atmosphere at Stiff, influenced your concept or sound? Would My Aim is True have sounded different with another producer and record company?

"Yes, because the sound, the tune of the whole record is for the most part Nick's job. That's why he's the producer. At a big record company, they could have made me sound very different, maybe they would have wanted me to be the new Bob Dylan, the new Bruce Springsteen, or the new Graham Parker. The big companies have a tendency to do that. They had quite possibly even less imagination than all these journalists, who also wanted to make me into the next 'new somebody'. Instead of just accepting me as Elvis Costello and making the best of it."

Nick Lowe sort of makes it a habit to play and sing on the albums he produces.

"Nick only plays bass on 'Mystery Dance' and sings some harmonies on 'Red Shoes' and 'No Dancing'."

Did you have an absolute idea about the arrangements in advance?

"No, before we decided to make a record, I just sat home writing a countless number of songs. The songs outnumbered any ideas I had about how the arrangements would actually sound on record. Only four, of the approximately 15 songs I sent to Stiff last year, ended up on the LP. The other 11 weren't even attempted, I'd already written so many other new songs in the meantime."

Do you really have so many extra songs lying around?

"Yes, right now I have about an album and a half of new songs that I wrote after recording My Aim is True. I also have about sixty numbers that I wrote before that. If my doctor tells me I have terminal cancer; I can still make 4 more LP's really quickly just to make a bunch of money before I'd die."

How long have you been writing songs?

"Since I was sixteen, but how long I've been any good at it I don't know. You only find that out when you let someone else hear it. You can easily get an inflated picture of yourself or have a misplaced lack of self esteem; if you never have someone else listen to it. I know so many people who don't think that they can write anything; but that are actually really good and only need someone to give them a little self confidence."

The interview with Nick Kent in NME didn't give the impression that you ever had a problem with lack of self confidence.

"For the best part of a year I was utterly convinced that I was right and everyone else was wrong. I thought to myself, I won't get angry, I have all these songs, no one pays me any attention, but every time I heard the terrible stuff on the radio, I got the feeling that I couldn't be wrong. And that the record labels were wrong to keep rejecting me."

You pulled quite a stunt with that outdoor concert in front of the London Hilton (Costello was eventually arrested).

"We were going to perform that night at Dingwall's, Camden and went that afternoon with flyers and such to advertise in front of the Hilton. I had my guitar and a battery-amplifier with me, and I then played some numbers off my album. There had just been a huge CBS convention, the president of CBS was there too. It was a perfect opportunity to let them know that we were there too. These people would otherwise never hear that sort of thing. In Park Lane no one talks about what's going on at Dingwall's."

Whose playing with you now? Is it the same line up as on the LP?

"No, it's a different band on the album. I can't say which one, because they have a contract with another record company. Only, it's not The Rumour; as some may think."

And The Attractions, the band that you have now, includes Pete Thomas, Bruce Thomas (no relation), and someone on keyboards, Steven Young, or something?

"Yes, it's a bit confusing; Young keeps changing his name. He has five names, Steve Mason, Steve Nason, Steve Winson... I don't know"

"That's what the guitarist from the band in question does. On the B-side of 'Watching the Detectives' you can hear me playing guitar; on the live version of 'Blame it On Cain'. I only play rhythm guitar on the LP."

Do you have a different sound with the Attractions than you did on My Aim Is True?

"Yes, on the album we used a clarinet, an acoustic piano and sometimes two guitars at once. It has a fuller sound because it has been recorded in a studio. Now, with the Attractions, the line-up consists just of drums, bass and a Vox Continental organ plus myself on guitar. And the latter not even all the time, sometimes I just sing. The rhythm section is very tight and I want to keep it thin, slim. The emphasis is on my vocals with the organ as melodic factor on the background."

That band that you can't mention because of contractual reasons, do they also play on other Stiff recordings?

"They play on 'Little By Little' by Magic Michael on the Bunch Of Stiffs album, that is the only song that I know of. What I however do want to tell you is that Steve Goulding and Andrew Bodnar of the Rumour play on 'Detectives'. That was as a matter of fact recorded in between the My Aim Is True sessions and the coming together of the Attractions. Steve Young (Mason etc.) did do some keyboard overdubs on top of it. So it's a mixture of Rumour and Attractions. Steve Goulding and Andrew also helped me when auditioning for the Attractions. By the way, I don't even know the person playing keyboards on 'Less Than Zero'. At first there was no keyboard in it, but Nick thought it would sound better with keyboards. That was also the reason for using an organ with the Attractions, because it really did sound right. That's why a lot of songs sound different now than they do on the record. This way it remains interesting for the ones that bought the LP. Some songs really sound like they're totally new. Most people are being positive, at least we haven't received any complaints yet, over e.g. missing the beautiful guitar in 'Alison'.

Do you know anything about the falling out between Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds?

"I know exactly. That NME-piece dramatises it all a bit too much. There was some tension between them, but on the coming Stiff-tour in England the Nick Lowe/Larry Wallis band is also playing. And that band will probably consist of Lowe on bass, Larry Wallis and Pete Thomas on guitar and Terry Williams and Dave Edmunds on drums. So those two can't have been that fallen out. It's more or less a joke: the Attractions-drummer on guitar and the legendary guitar player Dave Edmunds on drums. How things are with Rockpile, I don't know exactly."

You will be able to understand that it's not easy for a Dutchman to completely understand your lyrics.

"When you want to tell something in a song sometimes you have to chose for a form that is not understandable for everyone. Something that is understandable for everyone can be very boring, because in trying to make it clear for everyone, the result can be very obvious."

The song about The National Front, "Less Than Zero," we only then understood when we read in the music press what it was about.

"Yes, and that's the way I want it. Some song are very obvious, like e.g. ‘Alison', that anyone can understand, if you understand English. But it's a different case with the two songs about the National Front, ‘Night Rally' and ‘Less Than Zero', that actually is more about Oswald Mosley, a fascist from the thirties who was on television some time ago. That Mosley made me very angry, so I wrote a song about him. I didn't want to write a real slogan-song, but something ‘kind of tricky', That's why it's also very difficult for people in England to get the clue of the song, because the song does not have a clue; the clue as a matter of fact is that everything means ‘Less Than Zero' and that it doesn't measure anything. ‘Night Rally' is something different altogether. It is about The National Front, about what kind of people they are. I had the feeling that it was about time a song was being written about them, so that one gets some more insight into what they really are, what they want. I think that in England people were led astray as far as the N.F. was concerned, and I wanted to set that straight. I can't really take people outside of England into account when I'm writing songs. But it seems kind of useful if a song like this is being noticed in e.g. France or Holland and the people start sifting the lyrics. This way my song does spread some knowledge about these situations. You know, I really don't want to become such a big political personality who has big opinions and who says to others: everyone rally behind me. Because I don't know more about it than everybody else. I can only tell what makes me very very angry personally. I'm not saying I'm right, just that I snap about certain things, and then I write a song about it. And if you say I'm right, I hope that you first verify it. I am who I am, I don't possess a profound knowledge about everything at all, I look at it all with a personal view. Never follow someone off-hand, first try to find the real hang of things yourself, because just saying ‘you are right' is absolutely wrong.

In the NME interview you said that you're the first to make songs about the total loser.

"You should take some things in that interview with a grain of salt, we were very drunk at the end. I can't remember exactly using those words, but the idea behind it is this: there are songs where the singer is being adored, like e.g. Bad Company with lyrics like ‘Baby I'm Such A Man' etc. and there are songs that are tricky and funny, that deal with people that end up with the worse end of the stick. Someone like John Prine can write amusing songs about someone who is not doing very well. But because they laugh a bit at themselves you don't get the impression that they are not feeling that bad, or that they're that deeply hurt. The fact that they can still laugh about it, makes them win in some way or another, even if they lost everything. I do think that aspect got a little bit too much attention. Because Sneaky Feelings isn't about something pleasant at all. So instead of writing about ‘the great love I have for you, darling' or 'the great lust I have for you', it still remains ‘sneaky feelings'. Do you understand? It's not normal, it's neither respectable romantic nor respectable horny, it's more kind of weak. And the journalists have jumped on that writing about weakness. I think too much is made out of it and you'll find that my next album on the one hand will sound harder and harsher, while on the other hand it will be less about me. It will sound somewhat more arrogant too, because I want to get people off the notion that I'm a kind of super loser. I don't feel like wearing that tag for the rest of my life. When someone pushes you in some corner, you can do best by jumping out of it at once. If it looks like I'm heading for the other side a bit too extreme, that's the reason. First let people think about you in this way, then another way, first stand on your head, then take off all your clothes, and right after that put on 5 trousers on top of each other, that's the way I look at things, you know, confuse people again and again, doing the unsuspected is what I enjoy."

Journalists always want to push you in a corner. A review of your record had next to it, capitalised ‘Masochism'.

"Well, they thought it was a good point of view, from which they could judge the record. I can imagine that, as a journalist you have to write a good review, and you have to find a good point of view for that. In a sense it's the same as when you write a song. I could have made a very heavy protest song about that Oswald, but I'm not too fond of that. And the journalist takes out one aspect of my music and ignores the others. I can appreciate that but it will of course never mean that piece is the only possible truth. People can decide for themselves anyway when they buy the album, because I don't set rules for how people should listen to my music. Like: I just made this record, you have to understand it in this and this manner, you have to like it in that way. You just like it or not, whatever you want. I made it at this moment, the record is out and if people think they get what they wanted, then the reason behind their satisfaction is of no interest to me. If they like the record because of the colour of the sleeve, then that's their business. And if they want to analyse every single line, then that too is their business. They can do whatever they like."

Your songs all tell a small, complete story. That's something you also find in old country & western songs from people like e.g. Hank Williams and others.

"That's something I probably learned, because I listen to a lot of C&W music. It's important to me to get a complete finished story in a song. That's what I try to do, I try to make as clear as possible what the song is about, and that's also the case in C&W. The musical form is simpler, the same is true for the blues as a matter of fact, which also is a story-telling genre. C&W singers finish their story, including dramatical build-up and climax. I greatly appreciate the melodrama of C&W, and I listen to it quite a lot. Lately I have occupied myself with George Jones quite a bit."

In rock, singers sing about themselves most of the time.

"In rock you often have the Rainbow, Nils Lofgren or Mott The Hoople way of rock & roll, with long guitar solos or jumping on a trampoline. The songs are not of any importance at all. It's only about noise, well not even noise, but it's about utterly boring guitar solos and someone who runs to and fro on a stage, it's all show. As a matter of fact it's much more showbiz than people think. It's all in the showbiz-corner, with spotlights and so on. But I find it very boring, dull, empty and void. There's no feeling behind it at all."

In those old C&W songs you also find many songs about complete losers.

"Yes, I think so too. Blues on the other hand always has an arrogant feel to it, something virile. C&W always is … yes, take e.g. that George Jones song ‘It's Been A Good Year For The Roses'. The opening couplet is like this: ‘I can barely stand to see the lipstick-traces on the cigarette butts there in the ashtray and the ring on the half-filled cup of coffee that you poured as you left to pack, but at least you thought you wanted it and that's so much more than I could say for me'. So he compares himself to cigarette butts in the ashtray and a half-filled coffee cup. You can't fall any lower, can you? If that's not an example of how desperate you can get in C&W-songs."

Outside C&W-music there's another good example of absolute despair, to be more precise, several songs on Twelve Songs by Randy Newman.

"Yes, I am a big Randy Newman fan, he is one of my big …, no, I wouldn't want to say that he is an important influence to be discovered in my work musically. But I listen to him a lot and I very much admire him. He typically is someone whose music I like. My favourite song has to be ‘If You Need Oil', about a man who works at a gas station, with the beautiful line ‘How can you be asleep while you know I'm awake'. Yes, I'll admit that I'm not the first to write these kind of songs; nothing is completely new of course."

Do you feel the English press did you justice by the way they introduced Elvis Costello to the public?

"It is a bit exaggerated, all the praise, but I can't see why it wouldn't be sincere. Stiff Records does not have enough money to buy journalists, so you can't call this thing around my person a hype. I think we just surprised the press. I think they believed for a long time that this Elvis Costello was a big joke all the way, but when the album came out and we did our first gig, they noticed it was for real, dead serious. That might explain to some extent the impact it had on pop journalism in England. But it's already getting less hectic. You can't make the front page every week, they will have someone else to write about in a few weeks. It's not really unique. They only talk in the same manner about someone who doesn't sell records, like The Ramones and Jonathan Richman. The fact that I both sold records and got good reviews made it look like it was a hype, because it looked like they made me successful. But that is not the truth, just the fact that a lot of people bought my record and came to see me live means that they like our music and that they're having fun."

Even before your record had been released officially here, you had built up a cult following in Holland.

"That … happens ….. Everyone likes to talk about a singer no one has ever heard of."

No, it's not like that, they have heard your songs, because there are some import stores here. Your record was only officially released here last week.

"That is nice, but rather relative. A lot of people are just snobs that like to brag to others, like ‘Have you heard that guy Elvis Costello?' – ‘No, never heard of him.' – ‘I do, and I have known him for years now.' And so on. That's just the way people are. I did it too, and everyone has done it, it just is fun to belong to an elite group."

But are you satisfied after fighting against the grain for all these years?

"That's not the way I look at it. I never had the ambition, I only wanted to make a record. I did have the idea that I could prove myself, if the record would not be destroyed by some stupid producer of some stupid record company. But it's not like I can now sit down satisfied, having the idea that I made it, because that is the best way to ruin it all. I immediately think ‘how will the next record have to be, will it be this or that way', I want it to be different in any case, different but just as terse."

Do you have the idea that you're part of a new musical wave or do you feel you're on your own?

"It's not that I feel like I'm on a lonely crusade, but I also don't feel like I'm doing the same thing as a lot of others. ‘I'm not in any wave'. I do what I can to alienate me from it. Not because I don't like what people call ‘New Wave' but just because I don't feel like wearing a ‘New Wave'-jacket. And then to behave like they feel you should behave. I'd rather decide my own path, I want to be able to change when I want to, not when they want me to."

Who is going to be the first singer to cover one of your songs?

"We already know of a few near-covers. Dr. Feelgood thought about covering a song of mine on their new record, but my songs are too complicated for them, they want to keep it simple. I did write something for Nick Lowe's new album, but I find it hard to write for others, because you keep having your own voice in your mind when you're writing. We have heard of more people who showed interest in my songs, but we haven't heard anything definitive about that. What I liked best was that Bonnie Raitt, who I consider a great singer, showed great interest in my songs. By the way it was a rather embarrassing situation, because I'm not fond of meeting people I like at all, because I tend to make myself look ridiculous. She came to one of our gigs and she was enthusiastic about the band and all. That altogether was quite nice, that someone who you appreciate yourself that much is that enthused about what you do. Especially if you meet, as I do, a lot of people who tap you on the shoulder and tell you how much they enjoyed my second record."

Do you intend to record just your own songs?

"I don't know, but at the end of our first tour we did two songs by others just for fun. ‘The Price Of Love' by The Everly Brothers, and Dusty Springfield's ‘I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself'. But I don't think I'll record songs by other people on record for the time being.

Most of the time it's a sign that you don't have enough of your own material."

There I don't agree with you completely.

"No, I mean, it doesn't make sense to just use someone else's song without doing anything new to it. There really has to be a reason for recording that old song."

As it is you are exactly the opposite of Dave Edmunds. He only uses old songs from others. He thinks he can't write any songs himself.

"I think it is a slightly misplaced idea that he has formed about himself lately. He needs more confidence, then he'll manage. If you can play guitar like that, you can also write a song.

A song is half music and half lyrics, at least. Often the words are more important than the music, especially when you want to tell a story. The melody is very simple and not that important then. Others, on the other hand, can break someone's heart by just the melody, someone like Brian Wilson. I can't do that, I need simple melodies that go well with the words. Thus I'm not thinking about myself as a real composer. First I get the words, then I can always make a melody to go with it. I'm not composing in the classical meaning of the word, you know sit at the piano and then finding a melody as you're trying. Many artists think e.g. ‘what can I sing to this riff', there are an awful lot of people who make their records that way. And even if it's sometimes done quite well, most of the time you notice that they didn't put their whole heart into it.

The words are the content for me, the most important part. If I wanted to write really good music, then I would make instrumentals. Like e.g. Charlie Mingus, who can put anything he feels and wants to say in his music. I can't do that. One person writes poems, another paints, and I happen to be able to write lyrics."

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Muziekkrant Oor, October 5, 1977

Archie Barneveld and Martijn Stoffer interview Elvis Costello.
(English translation thanks to Jessica De Visscher and Wouter Pronk.)


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Photo by Anton Corbijn.
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Elvis Costello

Archie Barneveld and Martijn Stoffer

What is it, then, that makes him so great and so original? In England, most of the interest and praise are directed towards the lyrics; that in a very personal way reflect Elvis's point of view on politics ("Less than Zero") and sexuality ("Mystery Dance" and "I'm Not Angry"). It's mainly been the slightly masochistic character of his lyrics that have caused the English press to speculate about the possible autobiographical undertones. Costello doesn't deny these autobiographical tendencies in his lyrics, but, as we've experienced, he's completely unwilling to discuss anything he considers too personal. What he does want to discuss, however — and according to our impression, rather exclusively — are his own lyrics; since, in his own words, writing lyrics is the one thing he does well. In that regard, you also shouldn't expect any false modesty from him either. His musical competence, that on a number like "Alison" becomes so evident, is something that he'd actually rather play down.

Since the English pop press is no stranger to a certain style of journalism — la 'Henk van der Meyden's Privé' — our overseas neighbours have, in the past few weeks, due to lack of factual relevant information, built a myth that Elvis is a self-assertive and vengeful little man; that at the first sign of a question he doesn't like during an interview, he writes the name of the interviewer in a little black book, so that he may, when the opportunity arises, take revenge, in an unspeakable manner, on the journalist that would torture him so. Although this image offers a lot in the way of juicy reading material; the readers looking for sensationalism in this article will be a bit disappointed. From the moment Elvis entered the Jordaan district café, where we agreed to meet, he appeared to be quite the picture of kindness. He is dressed in a dark blue three piece suit with a black tie and this early 60's clothing is exalted by black thick rimmed glasses, that you can't find in Amsterdam at the opticians shop anymore.

Self-assertive, he is; especially of the fact that he can write fantastic songs; an insight that's kept him on his feet through the years of failure. Instead of taking pleasure in his sudden success, he's taken on an attitude of healthy skepticism considering all the extravagant praises now directed at him. Because of this, he was able to calmly meet the challenge of his first English performance for a large audience in Crystal Palace (before that, with the exception of the Bilzen-festival in Belgium, he'd only performed with much success in smaller clubs).

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