Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 7, 2017

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One on one: Elvis Costello and the making
of his masterpiece, 'Imperial Bedroom'

Scott Mervis

Elvis Costello is the master of the opening line.

Imperial Bedroom, perhaps his finest hour, begins with a whisper of "History repeats the old conceits / The glib replies / the same defeats," and with that the British rocker opens the curtains on a "windup world" of domestic bliss, artifice and duplicity.

Song after song tells a heartbreaking mini tale of love gone sour and, for the first time, the Attractions make full use of the studio, turning to Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick to help provide the rich sonic backdrop.

Upon its release in July 1982, Rolling Stone declared Costello's seventh album a masterpiece, evoking such ambitious projects as Sgt. Pepper and Tommy. While it didn't soar up the charts (hitting No. 30) and none of the singles may ring familiar to the casual fan, it was a turning point in Costello's career, moving him further away from his prickly punk past.

You may have had to see it to realize it. On the '81 tour, coinciding with the release of Trust, Costello and the Attractions were still bashing through their short sets at Ramones speed. When they hit the Stanley Theater here on Aug. 17, 1982, they wielded more authority in an expansive 37-song set.

Thirty-five years later, Elvis Costello and the Imposters (keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas from the Attractions with bassist Davey Faragher from Cracker) are revisiting the album on the Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers Tour, using it as a jumping-off point into related material.

Late last month, he did his first interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to talk about it.

You were supposed to play here in November, but there was the Pittsburgh Symphony strike. I'm glad you were able to reschedule.

You never like to cancel. I've canceled very few shows over the years. It's probably the first time it's ever had to be canceled for such a reason, but I could not do it. So, I hope everybody understands and those that will come again, we'll hopefully put on a show to make up for it. But I presume it's all been resolved the best it could be.

This is actually my second Elvis cancellation, because I drove to Penn State in '81 and you were caught in that snowstorm.

Oh my goodness, that one! We started out with the best of intentions. Oh my goodness, I remember that distinctly. They said, "You might not make it." We were like "Nahhh…" We were very young. We didn't understand the extremes of weather you can get in America.

So, I saw you on the Trust tour a month before that at the Cleveland Music Hall in January 1981 and you plowed through a 50-minute set. Then, a year later, on the Imperial Bedroom tour in '82, you did this expansive two-hour show. Did you cross a threshold, maybe start seeing yourself in a different way as an artist?

I think now if I look back now, I can see there were certain things that were just pressed on us by circumstance. The one thing was, everything just felt like a shot in the dark in America for us. We didn't have much sense of … all we knew was the audience in front of us. We didn't have anything to base it on. We got written about in magazines and things like that, but we didn't have very many successful records by that point.

Those days, they kept saying, "You've got to get a record on the radio." It was all about the radio. And now it just seems silly that people chased it to the same degree, but you would sometimes release the worst song off the record just because it had a catchy hook. Maybe not the worst song, but not the one that told the story about that record. Imperial Bedroom is a very good example. I think the single, I don't know what was released in America, but in England, at least, "You Little Fool," which is one of the brightest-sounding tracks until you listen to lyrics, was released purely because it had a hook. I kept saying, "Well, ‘Man Out of Time' is what the album is about, that's the heart of the record. You can hear that, can't you?"

Of course, in those days, the people who understood what you were saying at the record label, those people didn't have any power. The people that sold the records for the corporation, they had their criteria and that was different, so we just went and played whatever the circumstances were. When we first went, that was all the songs we had. Then, we got into playing a little bit longer and by the time I'd gotten to that point, I'd accumulated that material and I was obviously quite proud of the songs on Imperial Bedroom and probably put most of them in the show. The only time we ever did that, ever attempted it, but we also tried to play all the songs that were valuable to us from the previous four or five records. That's why you got the lengthy show. They were two different things.

By the way, that Pittsburgh show, you were back-to-back nights with the Clash, which is still seen as historic in Pittsburgh. Do you remember crossing paths with them on those tours?

Early on, we were down the bill from them in '77 at Bilzen, one of the first so-called punk festivals. We replaced them at Mosport, I don't know what reason, in '80. We headlined the Mosport Festival outside of Toronto with the B-52's and Talking Heads and Pretenders, I think. I knew Joe [Strummer] a little bit, our paths would cross now and again. We got along well. Later on, I lived in the same neighborhood as Mick Jones, and I see Paul [Simonon] now and again in London when I'm there.

I know they had an impact on you.

Oh, yeah, I loved those guys. I loved their records. They were doing something tremendous.

Getting back to Imperial Bedroom. Did you set out to write a "concept" album, like, "This will be my Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds"?

I really didn't, truthfully. I know it probably looks like I probably did. I think the extent of the concept was that we had chosen to give ourselves as long as it takes to do this, never mind that nearly all of the records were made just on what money we had in our hand. Like the first one was made in 24 hours and the second one in 11 days or something. Armed Forces took three weeks and Get Happy took two. But we found a way to speed ourselves up to get the recording done. I think we recorded Trust twice, because we didn't like the studio we were in. Then, we realized we better get in a studio we really like. And of course we'd been to Nashville and done a record in, again, nine days.

To give ourselves 12 weeks was just unimaginable, so there was no sense of writing a concept record. I was aware that all the songs like lay in a certain area. Most of them did anyway. As it was with Armed Forces, I've used this line, so forgive me for semi-quoting myself, but I remember writing this when I wrote my book a couple years ago, it was, "The corridor between the war room and the bedroom." That's kind of like what a lot of those songs from that period are, and they always are going to be, aren't they? The difference between what goes on behind closed doors, to quote Charlie Rich, and the world that comes through the window — whatever that window is, whether you can see Russia from here or the window of the television set where every horror in the world comes into your house and affects you in some way — that's the same for every songwriter and you have just as much right and responsibility to comment on it as I do. I'm not abusing any unreasonable privilege by using the talents I have been given to turn it into songs.

This weekend, I was on social media … [trying to get to question about the content of the album].

They close in on you, and they close in on young people even more. They used to talk about "Don't listen to the older kids telling you to do bad things." Now, it's your own age telling you you're less than you really are because you look different or you come from a different place or you have a different philosophy or a different theology. The wickedness of it, and the joy and beauty that's out there all has to be held in some sort of balance, and that's what I tried to not be definitive about ever in any of my tunes. I try not to be dogmatic, which is why in some song, like "Beyond Belief," there [are] three or four points of view going on at the same time.

And voices …

Yeah, in some ways, they're much more like book writing. In some cases, I took that rather literally, and once I got the liberty of the studio for that long, I started to portray that musically by actually changing my voice mid line and singing in different vocal productions. At the time, it all sounded great to me, that's what I wanted, but when it came to performing the songs, it was nearly impossible for the good reason, as you know because you've seen the Attractions, they couldn't sing a lick — any of them. Some songs had to be put aside where you really missed the harmony on the chorus. Sometimes you were able to replace it with a keyboard part doing something crazy up high. We never really talked about or examined it, we just did what was instinctive, and we made as good a job of playing those songs as we could on that first tour, but it was clear over the next number of years, particularly when it came time to reunite and play in the ‘90s — the last sort of torturous kind of period of the group where there was like six months when it sounded good — there were certain songs that just fell into place again, like "Beyond Belief" and "Man Out of Time" and "Almost Blue," and there were certain songs where we just never had the patience to work them out, and then I hit on this idea of using this record as the starting place for a show.

Yeah, because you decided not to play it straight through.

I knew right away we were never going to play it straight through for the very good reason that it's not that well known. It's liked among our audience, but the general public would be mystified. I might as well say it's a new record, at that. So, I thought, let's just look at the strength of this record, and take them out of order, take them each as individual cases, let's look at what it takes to play the songs as close to the original composition or the original arrangement that makes sense to us now. In other words, let's correct ourselves if we went off on the wrong track. If those vocal arrangements, instead of making it clearer, made it more difficult to understand what I was singing about, let's deal with that. We enlisted two singers. We have a great singer in the band in Davey Faragher. So now we have four voices where we only had one. Sometimes the background vocalists and Davey are singing the lead line in songs like "Pidgin English." The arrangements are still very unusual, but I found you could follow the through line of the lyric more readily than you could with me suddenly changing my vocal production willfully. That was a nice effect, but it was almost like a "Bohemian Rhapsody" effect, like, "I'm just a little silhouetto of a man …"

I'm sure it's considered a favorite among your fans and that's who's coming to the show. [Trying to make the point that he could play it straight through].

Well, the recording is still there. I'm not saying it's better than the record. Obviously, we play with the feeling we have for these songs, and what we've learned about rhythm and articulation in that time. Steve has enormous experience of playing with so many different people. He was a bandleader in his own right on TV in a similar role to what Paul Shaffer did for many years. I've got guys who really know how to play, and let's face it, we had one or two synths that could sort of imitate the sound of an orchestra, kind of, if you wanted to convince yourself it sounded like an orchestra, but now you can have these most incredible sounds at the flick of a switch, and Steve doesn't have to worry about searching for the thing. He can get all these amazing sounds that, after all, he developed. He went into those keyboard and analog synths and dragged out some of these crazy sounds. It's not something that anybody ever commented about on our records, I guess, because we didn't draw all that much on that kind of European music. We always had more of the American rhythmic feel. No one really realized that we were using synths two or three years before they became everything in pop music in the mid-'80s. We already had them on Armed Forces and Steve was very good at using them. Now, people will say, "I love how you have those prerecorded strings," and I'll say, "That's not prerecorded, he's actually playing that."

[Publicist interrupts to say "One more question."]

You know, young people seem to go crazy over McCartney, Dylan, even bands like Journey. Do you think your music speaks to a younger generation?

I don't know, you better ask them. [laughs] I don't assume that's the case, but I see people who are clearly younger at our shows. I would be happy if they were in greater number, but then I wouldn't want them to push out the people who have always come. I don't make the music for any one type of person. I make it for whoever wants to listen. When I was a kid I listened to some music that I wasn't supposed to be liking: older music that I found value in and that moved me. So I know that there's always somebody who's got that, but they're not necessarily a cult. I also particularly don't want to be a brand and some of those things you mentioned are kind of a brand, and that's really their appeal, in being a brand. You know, Heinz sells a lot of beans, but they're not necessarily the best beans you can get.

That's a great segue into Andy Warhol. In a recent New York City show you mentioned meeting him. What was the substance of that?

It really was brief. He came through my dressing room. He was actually on his way into Nick Lowe's dressing room, because it was 1978, when Rockpile and Mink Deville were on the bill with us, and he just came to the show, like he came to a lot of shows in New York. He was fascinated by the fact that Nick had a silk green suit on. He wanted to get a close-up look at Nick's Riddler suit. He had a silk green suit with question marks on it and, one artist to another, it was simple as that. We were introduced and he shook my hand. I think he thought I was the doorman. And that was it. You meet a lot of people in this world. I don't know what we would have talked about if we talked for longer. I don't know that he talked that much. Some people you get the feeling. I saw Chuck Berry once on a TV show and I was just happy to be in the room with him. I didn't particularly need to have a conversation with him. I just had to observe him because I love his records. I don't know that it's going to him matter if I like his records, why do I have to tell him? Sometimes it's a bit of an imposition. Other times, you meet people and you're so totally blown away by the fact that whatever they've done, hasn't taken them somewhere away from people. I'm not saying one is better than the other. It's just a matter of who they are, at that moment.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 7, 2017

Scott Mervis interviews Elvis Costello ahead of his concert with The Imposters, Tuesday, June 13, 2017, Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, PA.


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