Q, July 1991

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The misfit

Charles Shaar Murray

No, he doesn't want to be a pop star. No, he doesn't care if dance music is where it's at, or if "the song is back." Once he was new wave's brightest boy, but nowadays Elvis Costello is where he's happiest — in the Awkward Squad. Interview by Charles Shaar Murray.

"I'm blowing my cover," Elvis Costello announces mournfully, as the sun, knowing no better, blazes happily down on Notting Hill Gate.

A stocky figure in a rusty black suit, topped off with a lank black mane and a couple of inches of bristling auburn beard, he is barely recognisable as the Man Who Would Be King, the former boss of Nuevo Wavo. Now, with Mighty Like A Rose — his best album since, oohhh, Blood & Chocolate at the very least — hot to trot and the touring season once again upon us, his new guise is about to become public property. And he's not altogether happy about it.

Ever since the former Declan MacManus achieved his late-'70s institutionalisation as the new wave's brightest boy — a living crossroads between the sharp end of the mainstream and the smart end of punk — he has occupied his own wee niche in the public imagination: typecast as that Avenging Nerd in the thrift-shop outfits and the Clark Kent specs. All toad-sweat and retribution, wielding a Fender Jazzmaster like he wished it was Eazy-E's Uzi; a death-list scrawled in the black book somewhere in that constrictingly tight jacket: no sooner had he been placed in that particular lucrative box than he kicked his way straight back out again.

Nowadays, if Costello can be classified at all (which is itself debatable), it is as a fully paid-up member of the front rank of the Awkward Squad, alongside Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Waits and Van Morrison. Even at the sprightly, youthful age of 36, the former Angry Young Man is now an Angry (Prematurely) Old Man: a cranky buzzard, a cantankerous coot. A curmudgeon, in short; and the role appears to suit him. Still happily ensconced with former Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan, he commutes between Dublin and West London; indulging his newfound fetish for classical music, continually composing, occasionally performing, and even less frequently talking.

Installed in the back garden of EC's preferred local pub, we start with a brief guided tour of Mighty Like A Rose and its environs before wafting off into the (occasionally) clear blue yonder...

Considering that you're normally pegged as a "words guy," the music on the new album provides some quite extraordinary moments...

I would say off the top of my head that I probably paid more attention to the balance of my abilities, and concentrated more on words and music, whereas there are other records where I would wholly admit that telling the story was important, and the music served it. This time, the music is at least as important, and in some cases more important, than the words. I paid a lot of attention to the musical detail, and had a lot of fun doing it, and there are a lot of things in it that were really enjoyable to do. I was working with a very good team — the producers and the musicians — and they were the sort of songs that stood up to it.

You mentioned earlier that you were working on a movie score which doesn't call in any way on your abilities as a lyricist, so what's your musical centre at the moment?

I don't have one; I never have done. I just go with a new interest all the time, hopefully. The great thing about music is that you can get the biggest computer in the world and it will never work out the endless permutations of it because of all the other factors involved. It's not mathematics. You can analyse it mathematically, but there are so many combinations of variable forms in all the different kinds of music that I already liked that I just try to keep my mind open to lots of things in the same way as, when it comes to writing music, whether it's for songs or the other things I get involved with, I don't see any limitations, really. Only the ones of your own abilities. You keep trying to stretch a little bit, to learn a bit more.

I haven't made the time in my life to go and study the way I want to, which I hope to do after this, because certain things I start to find frustrating when I try to work in films. Like, the simplest notation is beyond me, which just seems crazy now. There was a time when it didn't bother me, because most of the time when you work with a band you just hum stuff to people, or bang it out on the piano or guitar, people pick it up, and then they put their little bits in and you bounce off that and you're off on to something else. Or you pick up somebody else's record and copy it and turn it upside down. It's just the process: the magpie thing of pop music which is what I've done for years. I'm not saying I want to get all serious, but there are certain things that I need to learn how to do now.

And of course it all comes back to songs. After 10 years of the canonisation of the groove, does it bring a wry smile to your face when "song" becomes a buzzword again?

There's always a lot of false alarms in pop music. The longer you do this for a living, the more you just worry about solving your own problem and not worrying so much about whether it's true or not that "the song is back" or whether dance is everything, whether acid house is just like punk in sensibility “ that's just stuff to fill up magazines. It's nothing to do with what I do, it's irrelevant to me. It can be amusing if you listen to the records, but I'm not interested in it. I don't follow that stuff any more. I've written some very simplistic songs and some very tricky ones. I wouldn't say they're very complex, or elevated in musical form, but they're tricky, and both things have served me well. 'Hurry Down Doomsday' (from Mighty Like A Rose) is a very simple song musically, but there's a lot of things happening in it because it's trying to paint a picture, and other songs on the record have a lot more variety of melody and harmony than that one, and we tried to bring the best out by using more extensive instrumentation.

I've done that in the past, and I've done the simple thing as well, so I don't have any relationship to "the business" in that sense, whether "the song" is back or not. It's never gone away as far as I'm concerned; it's just been not selling because the trends have been a certain way. Then the trend goes another way, and usually by the time people have put a label on it, that thing's not happening any more. Where music really happens is in people's imaginations; either in the players' or in the listeners'. Most of that stuff is just made up by journalists. Like there was this television programme recently which came to the startling conclusion that The Rolling Stones are in it for the money. As if that was a surprise! They've been in it for the money for a very long time. This is some hangover from the '60s...

And the late '70s.

...that money's not supposed to be in the picture. This is what I do for a living, and I'm quite serious about it. I've always had the philosophy of being completely serious and completely frivolous at the same time when it was appropriate; being serious about what I do and not giving a damn about certain things which other people seem to value so highly. I do do this for a living, and I do want my records to be successful. People are always saying, "Aren't you embittered you haven't sold more, because they're really good records?" and they worry about that. I don't worry about that.

You mean the "Elvis Costello's made another great record; will anybody notice?" syndrome?

Who cares? People do notice. That's like denigrating the people that go out and buy them. People always need to be reminded that my worst sales are some bands'...the height of their ambition would be to sell that many records. So it would be incredibly arrogant of me to say that 60,000 people don't matter if a record sold that few. I do pretty well, and I do this for a living. This is my job, like some people make chairs, I make songs and make records out of it. The only element that I don't do is I'm not a pop star. I'm not interested in that side of it.

You were in acute danger of becoming one.

For about 20 minutes in 1978. Time and fortune takes care of all that, as they say. The new record is a proof of that, I think, because there are things on that which are pop music, unashamedly, and using pop music as the correct medium for putting that song over. But it doesn't have any self-consciousness about it, because there's a distance from it: there's humour involved. 'The Other Side Of Summer', the single, is obviously designed to be as much like a Californian summer record as possible, but you listen to what's going on in the song and it's contradictory of that. It's like playing and writing what people do sometimes rather crudely with samplers, but I'd rather those records went further out and forgot about harmony completely, so that they sounded like John Zorn records, which are completely sound collages, rather than fake music, which falls short of being continuous music and it's not imaginative enough to be as intriguing as some records which are written.

I still work in a song form which might sound old hat to some people. Where are these people at? What are they doing? Where are they going? I don't care about them, quite frankly. There are some dance records I really like, but I never buy them, because it's like buses: there'll be another one along in a minute. It sounds patronising, but it's not. I don't go to the places where you hear this music in situ, so to buy them and take them home, what would be the point?

You've used Marc Ribot's guitar almost as a calculatedly disruptive element on this record...

It depends what you think he's playing. Actually, Ribot's playing on this record is incredibly restrained compared with his playing on Spike, where he took a lot of breaks on three or four songs. He plays nearly all of the precise layered parts on this record, and all of the disruptive guitar you're referring to is by me.

Well, shut my mouth!

(Laughs) I'm credited with "big stupid guitar" on this record, because I didn't want Marc to get blamed. Not everybody likes that kind of thing! The good thing about these musicians is that it was a pool of musicians with the sensibility of a band, without all that unpleasant living-each-other's-lives way that bands can get after a point. Some of the people on the record do the opposite thing than their reputations would suggest; for instance, the solo on 'Hurry Down Doomsday', which most people would imagine is Ribot...

That's you?

No, it's James Burton.

Oh, my God...

Yeah. The buggy-sounding stuff at the end is Ribot, and the stupid riff that goes all the way through in 7/8 is me. We just mixed it up, with different people doing different things. We had two bass players, and the one who leans more towards contemporary pop work is T-Bone Wolk, who used to play with Hall & Oates, but the one doing the fuzz-tone six-string bass is Jerry Scheff (like Burton, a veteran of the other Elvis's Vegas band) who most people would think was the more traditional player, but he also played on LA Woman. There's nothing for any of these people to be afraid of in anything I'll come up with. Larry Knechtel (the pianist on Simon & Garfunkel's 'Bridge Over Troubled Water') has played on a tremendous amount of really incredible records that everyone takes for granted as just being there and being pillars of this rock 'n' roll pantheon.

That's what's interesting about these Beach Boys re-issues because you get outtakes and them rehearsing, and you hear the take next to the take that they kept of 'Good Vibrations', and Knechtel's on it; he's the organ at the front. You have to get it out of him with a bloody crowbar, because he's a very modest man, and because some of the sessions he did were actually very forgettable, but they've been embellished by time. Or their novelty made them hits and not their quality. I'm not necessarily trying to go back to that time, but I've got a lot of experience, so they don't mind experimenting and shifting around.

Whenever you read about the making of records not only is it a fairly dull, difficult process to describe in an entertaining fashion it's either incredibly amusing things that come under the heading of "you had to be there" or you talk about this incredible innovation that the musicians seem to think they have. It's no innovation at all: it's only in relation to their own previously dull work that it might seem an innovation.

I really like this bunch of players, and they can stretch a long way. There's only about 10 musicians on the whole record: two drummers, two bass players, two guitarists. We had three keyboard players simply because we wanted everybody to be able to play simultaneously; we didn't want to overdub lots of stuff on a couple of tracks. On 'Georgie And Her Rival' and 'The Other Side Of Summer' we actually had four keyboard players playing simultaneously, so it was more like the way they did records in those days. If they needed 16 players, they hired 16 players. We played like an orchestra, with all the flamming and the slight disagreement about where the beat is: only minuscule, but enough to give it character, instead of being MIDI. I like mistakes: we've got some good mistakes on this record.

Like on the Dylan box, where we found out how narrowly we escaped 'Like A Rolling Stone' in waltz-time...

See, I thought that was great; it was like 'If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody' in waltz-time. I thought it was terrific. I wouldn't trade it for the version there is, but that's what's interesting about that box: the original song's good enough that you can hear a crappy run-through of it and it's still interesting. I mean, I won't rush to play it every time I want to hear that song, but it's worth having. Spike was done in a piece-by-piece way and we had to keep upsetting the order in which we assembled the record in order to keep an originality to it, because otherwise it just becomes a building-block process, which is fairly boring. Plus it was done instrument-by-instrument from a drum machine, though we'd sometimes do the thing backwards by putting the bass or drums on last to leave funny holes in the arrangements and keep it from going into one of those stock layered things.

But if you listen to those songs, or take a guitar and play them, most of the songs on Spike are actually very simple, so they were embellished by the different instrumental colour that we developed by going into these various locations, whereas these new ones are a little more musically developed. The melodies are a little more interesting; therefore it was more a question of having a good feel that amplified the melody. So we needed to play as a group; there was a tracking session, because we put strings on one and a woodwind band in the middle of another, but that was only to finish it off. When we tour it won't sound much like the record, because some tracks have got a lot of instruments on, but we'll just strip it back down. I did that for 10 years with The Attractions, and it was never a problem.

People have got used to the fact that you go out and see people and everything's sampled or on tape, but I'd rather rearrange the songs and play 'em in a way that a five-piece band can play 'em. It'll be four pieces and me: two guitar players, keyboards, bass and drums; the core of the people who made the album. Ribot and me on guitars, Pete Thomas, Jerry Scheff and Larry Knechtel.

So you managed to prise Pete Thomas away from the Jonathan Ross show.

Yeah! (laughs) Well, he gets to play for longer than 30 seconds at a time when he comes on the road with me. He did the last tour as well with a seven-piece band. That was good fun: three of the guys played horns.

How important is playing live as part of the artistic process, as opposed to the promotional process?

I think the two things are separate. I'm not even sure that the same people come to see me live as buy the records. Certainly not all the people who come to see me live...I do fairly well for live, considering that on the evidence of single sales in recent years, you would never guess that I would sell tickets. It must be a different kind of appeal, and it's a different thing as well. Obviously, I don't come out and do A Show that's the same every night. I like to ring the changes; I've a lot of material. When I had a regular band, there were a lot of possibilities, though it used to drive the band mad when I'd call a song that was five years old and expect them to play it at one day's notice.

Or one minute's notice.

Yeah, sometimes. I think we can establish a fairly reasonably sized repertoire. Just as The Attractions developed a characteristic sound based on the styles of those players, so will this band. It already has one. We have done three lots of recordings together, so we know each other a little now. I've worked on four records now with Jerry Scheff: King Of America, Spike, a record I did last year which hasn't come out yet, and this one. It's not like a "band" band, but when this group of people get together, it starts to take on a character based on how they play my songs. They play a particular way when they start to play my material as opposed to any other work that they might do. There's such a variety: Knechtel lives in Nashville, Pete's on the Jonathan Ross show, Jerry Scheff plays with John Denver, Ribot's doing some strange things in New York. When they arrive it's all so different. It's great.

Are there particular songs in your repertoire that you have to play?

You get like a couple of people at American shows who are relentless about it, and if you don't do their favourite song by a certain point in the show, then they're not going to let you off the hook and they might interrupt the flow of what other thing you do. It's much easier just to reconcile yourself to that, and it's pretty flattering that people still want to hear a song that's maybe 10 or 12 years old. It must mean something; and if you can still maintain some sort of understanding or interest in that song, then fine. I've got some songs that I wouldn't do and some I would; some I can relate to, some I can't. I pick 'em on that basis only, and hope to have enough material rehearsed so that I can ring the changes, and if we do older material it won't become stale again. For the first few nights it might be a novelty to sing certain songs, but I have to pick old songs carefully so that I don't ask the band to completely work a new arrangement on a song and then tire of it after three performances and want to retire it.

When it was a band that had played together for 10 years, you sort of knew the songs even though you might not have played them for a couple of years. You could work 'em up fairly quickly, and you were playing your parts from the record so you probably remember them. Even though the core of this band, the rhythm section, is the same as the last time I toured in America, we're not going to do the same back-catalogue material we did. Maybe two songs from last time, and I'm hardly doing anything from Spike.

Have you gone off those songs?

No, of course not. I mean, we played 'em (laughs). We're gonna do some songs from it, but not as many as people might expect. I've got a lot of different things I want to do. I just want to leave a certain amount of expectation that people might want to hear new songs on a new record they just got "that's understandable" and maybe people want to hear some old songs, and it'll be down to whether I think we can do a good job on 'em and I can sing 'em still. The rest of it I want to be a surprise. I like to go and see someone and have them take me by surprise, myself. We've got some I didn't write, and some that I wrote for other people that I want to have a go at.

I dunno...I'd quite happily go on tour and print a programme like when you go to a classical concert and they tell you exactly what you're gonna hear next. Maybe I'll do that sometime, provide a formal programme. I think people will be surprised at how much like a "group" kind of group it sounds, rather than a bunch of hired hands. The same applies to the album.

Well, it's much more unified than Spike, which was surprise after surprise...

Well, that was the idea. I did that, so there was no point in repeating that approach to the songs. The songs bore a bit more concentrated approach than the ones on Spike, where you were just trying to create contrast. It was a different record. Why make the same record twice? It's silly.

A lot of artists are highly rewarded for making the same record twice, and certain audiences seem to resent it when someone doesn't.

Unless they're being completely wilful in an insulting way, deliberately insulting the audience...I can't really understand this desire to keep people just as they were. Sometimes people manage to outsmart themselves by trying to be v-e-e-ry different (laughs). If someone says to me "I liked that album of yours" and they bought it, who am I to say that it's actually crap? I only have serious structural doubts about one record I ever made: Goodbye Cruel World, which was a badly planned record from my point of view, and the blame has tended to drift on to the producers, which is unfair because it's all to do with my attitude. Still, one out of 14 isn't bad, y'know. There were some good songs on there which I've managed to rescue by reworking them and other people have covered them, like Orbison covered 'Comedians' and Christy Moore did 'Deportee'.

It seems as if you do your work according to your own imperatives, with only an academic interest in the market...

I have a vivid interest in my market. There's kind of a misapprehension that it's all altruistic...

I'm not suggesting for a moment that it's altruistic; you obviously do the best job you can and you hope it'll be as successful as it possibly can be, but...

That's the extent of it. I'm sure that the people who buy my records would be disappointed if it was the other way round, if I suddenly decided I was tired of being myself and wanted to be someone else for awhile. I mean, who would I be? There's nobody I want to be. I've gone into different kinds of music because I just really love music. My main interest in music at the moment is classical music. I got tired of going to concerts where I just knew what was going to happen next, so I started going to classical concerts and I found a whole world of things. Inevitably, you make mistakes, going to concerts which bore you silly, but I found a lot of music that I'd overlooked and it was very thrilling. After listening to music all my life, since I was a baby, to find a completely fresh thing and have the same enthusiasm about going to a concert that maybe you once had.

I think it's too bad that people draw a line there — people standing on both sides of the line and they're cheating themselves. If somebody asked me what my favourite record was, it would probably be something that didn't have anything to do with pop music. And it wouldn't mean that I've got serious or that I've got pretensions to do that, because I don't have the equipment to go into that area. I'm wholly a fan again in that area. You can't help but be curious; you see how the process is done, but that doesn't mean that you can master it to the same level of expression.

The problem with concert platform music is that the level of technique and complexity of much of the composing is such that in order to begin to express yourself, you have to study for 20 years. It's like being a Jesuit or a doctor. From where they're standing, what I do or what a lot of people do seems like some kind of hideous trick for which we get paid lots of money and get the world thrown at us; meanwhile they're just operating in this funny little bitchy world, like publishing or something. Every time I think I might want to get out of the music business I just read one of the supplements on the weekend and decide I don't want to write books, because it's such an awful world.

Did you see The Late Show the night Graham Greene died? With Anthony Burgess? Wasn't it brilliant? It was really comical having that guy talk to him on a bakelite telephone because it was The Late Show and its style. They couldn't have him use a boring BBC plastic phone. I was thinking maybe it was a joke, that Greene had it written into his will: "When I die, I want Anthony Burgess to come on and slag me off." You think, "God, I'm so lucky that I'm in something where I only get asked questions every three years."

Normally, people like to feel that it's their own racket which is the most corrupt.

I read The Hit Men (Frederic Dannen's enthralling account of modern record biz corruption) with interest because it plotted the demise of my career at Columbia Records through the boardroom backstabbing, which had a direct effect on the little people, ie the acts. They were under the corporate umbrella of these protagonists of the story, and you see one person being replaced by another, and all these acts were all just under a cloud for five years. It's fascinating, like being an extra in Dynasty, but you can't let it inhibit what you do. It's like this country: you know the government's a bunch of clowns. For people reading this, this isn't my philosophical treatise for this year: my opinions aren't of any importance outside of what I do as a job, which is to write these songs. My attitude is in some of the songs, like in 'The Other Side Of Summer' or 'Hurry Down Doomsday' or 'How To Be Dumb'...

"How To Be Dumb" has an extremely high bile count: you must've been furious when you wrote that.

The minute you appear to get pissed off about something, two things should come into your mind. One is that it gets it out so that you don't go and kill somebody, and the other is that anything you write, you must have the sneaking suspicion that you are addressing it to yourself. McGuinn asked me who 'You Bow Down' (on Roger McGuinn's Back From Rio album) was about, and every time I see him and his wife they tell me that they've almost worked it out. They think it's a puzzle, but I felt that it might inhibit his performance if I told him the questioning in the song is addressed to other people, but you might address the same question to yourself.

That's not a fair thing to say to somebody: you give them the song and say, "Sing this to yourself" because what you intend as the writer is quite often different to what you might intend as the performer or what you might intend the potential performer to see in the song. Is that clear? The same thing goes for 'How To Be Dumb'; you get it out of your mind. You get "out of your mind", quite literally.

Another thing to point out is that the record is structured quite consciously and there's more importance to the way the tracks follow one another than just "that's a slow one, better have a fast one next". The album wasn't recorded in sequence, but it was recorded with sequence in mind, which is not to say it's a thematic record. One sentiment will follow another, and lead somewhere with the end of the record in mind. I knew what order it was in before we started rehearsing; I just didn't tell anybody. It can be inhibiting for musicians if they think you've got some kind of master plan. A song like 'Playboy' is lightweight as a song, but it's a necessary part of the record because it's a bit of screaming and shouting; it lets the air into the room after 'Candy' and before 'Sweet Pear'. It's a purely theatrical device; three minutes of stuff happening, because otherwise you just asphyxiate people. As lyrics, I think they're more comprehensible; less oblique, obscure references than at other times.

How do you approach collaborations or commissions to write for or with others?

Each case is different. With Paul McCartney, the original impetus was to write songs for his record that he could sing. I've just finished a song for the totally great Charles Brown, a ballad that I think he could do. We're worlds apart in age, experience, background, music, everything, but it's the same as sitting down to write a song for Johnny Cash or McGuinn. 'Broken' is totally Cait's song; it's not a collaboration, so that's like doing a cover, and it's a tricky bit of singing, so you have to pick a good day to record it. If you get too conscious of technique, it all starts sounding too considered.

You have to trick yourself into singing, just as you have to trick yourself into writing.

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Q, No. 58, July 1991

Charles Shaar Murray interviews Elvis Costello.


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Cover and contents page.

Photos by Jill Furmanovsky.
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Page scans.


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