Q, November 2010

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Elvis Costello

Cash for questions

Mark Blake

He's tackled acid-fried naked stage invaders and shot the breeze with a US president. So talk of his "sad git music" and an "embarrassing" turn on the Simpsons should hold no fears for the man born Declan MacManus. Oh...

Vancouver's Yaletown district is all coffee shops, chi-chi bars and boutique hotels. Everyone here is either sipping skinny latter and looking inscrutable behind their aviator shades, jogging in figure-hugging sportswear or walking bijou dogs down by the harbour. The sun is out, but even when it's not, you suspect the whole place still glows with positivity and good health. Perhaps that's part of the attraction for full-time singer-songwriter, part-time TV chat-show host, actor and Vancouver resident Elvis Costello.

Pooch-free and blessedly not in figure-hugging sportswear, Costello looks dashing in eye-catching jacket, double-cuffed purple shirt and pristine straw hat. He also looks slimmer and several years younger than someone with his date of birth (25 August 1954) is entitled to. They must put something in the water... Costello resides in West Vancouver with his wife, jazz singer Diana Krall, and their twin sons. But not every aspect of this good life appeals to the man born Declan MacManus in Paddington, West London. "I don't ski," he grins, between sips of macchiato. "But over here, it's a hobby like going to the swimming baths..." His mobile phone trills, but he answers it before you can be 100 per cent sure that the ringtone is The Clash's "London Calling."

Costello has a new album, National Ransom, due in October. It was made in Los Angeles and his second musical home Nashville, with producer T-Bone Burnett, and features country heavyweights Jerry Douglas and Tom Waits's "transcendent guitar player" Marc Ribot. One of an elite group of musicians to be invited back for a second round of Q's Cash For Questions (his first was in 1998), Costello looks alarmed when shown a copy of his last encounter. "Oh my goodness," he says, after spotting himself, dressed in a gigantic waterproof jacket. "What am I wearing? That must have been my hip hop years... No, I won't read it. It's all lies."

Shall we press on, then?...

"Long as a constable's truncheon," "enjoying the lay of the land," "try to jump your borders"; the lyrics on your new album, National Ransom, are littered with double entendres. Have you been indulging your inner Carry On... film? — John Foyle, via email

Actually, "long as a constable's truncheon" is a single entendre. I think we all start out imagining we are [Carry On... actor] Leslie Phillips but end up as Sid James, whom I resemble much more these days [laughs]. But it's interesting to hear what someone else thinks of a record, rather than someone asking me, "Is that real life?" Because my answer would be, "Is it your real life?"

What do you miss about England, and what's the worst thing about living abroad? — Will Davies, Swindon

I miss Radio Four. There's not a station like it anywhere else. But, apart from that, there's a little piece of England everywhere. If HP Sauce or Jaffa Cakes are your thing, you can find a place that will sell them anywhere, even Kuala Lumpur. The worst thing? There is a creeping use of the word "Mom," even here in Canada [grimacing]. It should be "Mum" or "Mam." We are resisting, though I am aware that we lost a revolution over this.

As a rock star, it must have been easy getting other rock stars to guest on your TV chat show Spectacle: Elvis Costello With...? — Matthew Toogood, via email

[Pauses]. Maybe. When I suggested Lou Reed, the show's people were like, "Are you sure? Lou Reed?" But you never know. He turned out to be great, very funny, even told a joke. He was on with Julian Schnabel, the painter, and Julian started talking about his father's death and how much Lou had supported him as a friend. That was extraordinary.

There might be a vacancy for a "music and chat" show host at the BBC, now that Jonathan Ross has been let go. Do you fancy giving it a go? — Martha, via email

They couldn't pay me enough for Jonathan's wardrobe. I don't think I was ever on his show... [ponders]The one where you sit on the couch? They show it over here, and I've seen it when I've been back to England. Jonathan had my band for a while in the late '80s. Steve Nieve [Attractions keyboard player]was his band leader when he was essentially doing a Letterman knock-off. Jonathan genuinely likes music, but his shows are essentially about quips, the guest as human sacrifice and the host's personality. My show was totally about the story and the music. I didn't ever see it as a shift in vocation.

Spectacular Spinning Songbook? A good idea that got the audience going, or a disaster? — Trisha MacNair, via email

It was a good idea, because by 1986, less than 10 years into my career, I already felt like we had a lot of songs. So, on the tour, we came up with a game-show wheel from which members of the audience could choose songs at random. Being the singer and the MC was too hard, so I asked friends to help me out. Our first guest MC was Tom Waits. It couldn't get any better, but it was downhill after Tom [laughs]. It was fun, but there were some wonderful road crashes. One night, a girl walked onto the stage and as soon as I saw her, I was like, "Oh my God, you're tripping." Next minute, she was taking her clothes off. It wouldn't work now, because people would think we were just doing American Idol or The X-Factor. But, back then, we were playing three-to-five-night stands in every town and it was about trying to make the presentation different every night.

Your appearance on Frasier in 2003, where you talked in a Cockney accent and sang "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport." What was with the Dick Van Dyke accent? — Ian White, Thornton Heath

No idea. Not my finest moment [laughs]. I was doing my man-of-a-thousand-voices routine... and that was the voice I settled on. I do not have a Dick Van Dyke accent in real life. My accent does shift around because I have lived in so many places, so, sometimes, I can sound like I come from the place I'm in. But no one comes from that place in Frasier.

Do you ever get the urge to dance the way you did in the video for (1980 Top 5 single] I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down? Because I love it... — Anne-Marie Miller, via email

You may be alone there. We went to one of those proper dance studios with the mirror on the wall and the choreographer was trying to teach us basic Motown backing singer steps. I was drinking and said, "Well... the lead singer doesn't usually do the moves," so I did a few steps and left it to The Attractions to do it all. The idea behind those early videos was to make comical little films. Once you started to think, "I'm remaking The Third Man or Citizen Kane," it lost a little of the charm.

My ex-wife used to call "Almost Blue" "sad git music." But I loved it. Who was right? — Martin Jagger, via email

That may be true in your life, but not mine. Women bought that album. It was the moment where I realised there was a different audience for my romantic songs. It was a strange thing when [Costello's 1981 cover of the country song] "A Good Year For The Roses" was a hit and everyone that liked what went before was horrified. Let's face it, if I was an actor I would never have been called on to do the Cary Grant roles, but I know for a fact that it wasn't just men that bought Almost Blue.

Was there anything you really wanted to ask Bill Clinton when he was a guest on Spectacle, but couldn't, because, well, he's Bill Clinton? — Lars LJ, via email

No. It wasn't a political interview, he'd agreed to talk about music, but the interview was shot while he was working on Hillary's campaign to become the Democratic nominee so his people told us that he would only be in the building for 45 minutes, not long to do a 52-minute show. He plays an instrument and some of the communicative skills as a musician have fed into his ability to charm people as a politician, to get ideas across. But then I asked him a question about the music that someone in office would refer to in a time of crisis. That was the one question where his demeanour changed. His eyes flashed. It was like I was in the ring with Muhammad Ali and I'd managed to land a punch. We got a lot longer than 45 minutes, and we even talked after the show. He is a man, and whatever office he had held and decisions he has made, and whether you agree with them, when Clinton's talking about music he is just a man, like you and me.

You wrote a whole album, 1993's Now Ain't The Time For Your Tears, for Transvision Vamp's Wendy James. When was the last time you saw her? — Andy Machin, via email

I only met her the once. I have no idea what happened to Wendy James. I don't keep tabs on all the people I write songs for. She wrote me what I took to be a sincere letter [asking for guidance] I wrote an album for her and said, "Take it or leave it, but it's a suite of songs, written as a piece." What did I think of the album? I thought it was a ghastly sounding record. She sings like she sings, but I thought the production was wrong. It needed to be trashier. The songs were a parable about a girl who wanted to be famous. Put it out now, you could throw a rock and find someone that would be able to sing it.

What was more embarrassing: your appearance on The Simpsons in 2002 or US sitcom Two And A Half Men in 2004? — Paul Beadle, via email

Neither [incredulous]. Obviously I have never been as yellow in real life as I was in The Simpsons. But it was amazing to sit and read with the cast. Two And A Half Men came about because a friend of mine is the show's executive producer. There was an inherent ludicrousness in me being part of [Charlie Sheen's character] Charlie's support group. There was me, Sean Penn, Harry Dean Stanton... We were drinking iced tea, and I had to puff on a cigar. I'm not a smoker, so I was turning green, but there was Sean drinking real whiskey at nine o'clock in the morning. By take nine, he was saying anything. They cut out some of the best stuff as it was just too surreal.

Do you have fond memories of the demon heckler from your Brodsky Quartet gig at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in 2009? — Martin Heron, via email

Ha! Somehow this woman managed to buy tickets for a clearly advertised Brodsky Quartet gig and still imagined we were going to start with "Oliver's Army." So she started shouting the odds. The thing is the Royal Concert Hall is not Glasgow Barrowlands, where they'd hang you upside down and shake the loose change from your pockets. The ushers there are quite gentle, they move quite slowly. It's happened since. At one of my first shows with The Sugarcanes [the band that played on 2009's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane album], some drunk girl shouted out, "Rock 'n' roll!" I thought, "You haven't heard what we can do yet."

You've been known to queue outside record shops on the day albums are released. Are you saddened by the way all music is digital now? — Gareth Davies, via email

I am of the mindset, pay for everything, steal everything. But you are cheating yourself if you don't get the music in the best format. There will be a vinyl version of National Ransom, and we're pressing some excerpts on 78rpm, just because I want to create a beautiful object. Then people will have to hunt for something to play it on. You can't upload a 78. What album did I queue up to buy? [hesitates]I did it once or twice... U2's The Joshua Tree, but Tower Records was just down the road from where I lived [laughs].

I understand you're a big Ray Charles fan. So what's your favourite song by the great man? — Bill Johnson, via email

It changes. "It Makes No Difference" is a beautiful record. "What Kind Of A Man Are You," "Busted..." [wearily] Do I still get asked about the Ray Charles incident? [In 1979 Costello made a racist remark about Charles, for which he later apologised, blaming it on being drunk] Yes, you just asked me [hard stare]. It's in the CV, so I'm not gonna offer any more explanation.

I was upset and disappointed by your decision to cancel your recent shows in Israel [Costello called off two summer concerts in Caesarea in protest over Israeli treatment of Palestinian civilians]. Have you anything more to say on this? — Zoe, via email

I think given the essential levity of this interview... [hesitates] I wrote a very clear and conflicted statement of why I reached that decision [an open letter on his website in May 2010]. It was very painful to me as I absolutely abhor the use of violence to achieve any political, theological, philosophical or spiritual objective. I never used the word boycott, I am not and nor will I ever be a member of any political party. I made a personal and very painful decision, at that moment. I'm not brushing this question off... but I'm not getting into it.

What do you think of the film Napoleon Dynamite borrowing your pseudonym [Costello used the Napoleon Dynamite alias during the mid-'80s]? — Luke Dietrich, via email

I have never seen the film and I know nothing about it. I remember seeing the name and being startled by it. The guy who made the film swears he knew someone [called that], and he's not an Elvis Costello fan. I have no ill feeling. I was just curious about it, as I made that name up.

You've made too many albums. Which is the best one? — Denise, via email

I don't have a personal favourite. They reflect different moments in my life. Fans are the same; some might tip towards Get Happy!!, others to Painted From Memory. I've never understood why you'd make one record and then make all the others the same. I didn't want the first three Elvis Costello albums to be the same, never mind the 22nd or 23rd. I don't buy into this juvenile way of looking at music: that if you do something gentler or with different instrumentation that it erases what you did before.

My parents named me after your song "Alison." Does it bother you that your fans do this kind of thing or do you find it flattering? — Alison, via email

It doesn't bother me. Naming a child is a big decision, and it means that the song was significant and meant something to someone. I have met a couple who had an "Alison" and a "Veronica" [Costello hit in 1989], and they were that exact distance apart: 1977 and 1989. There's a "Josephine" on National Ransom ["A Slow Drag With Josephine"]. Maybe they'll have another child... although that might be testing the boundaries of science.

What's the worst thing you've ever done that you wouldn't want anyone to know about? — God's Comic, via email [Laughs]Absolutely nothing I am going to tell you!

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Q, No. 292, November 2010

Mark Blake profiles Elvis Costello and conducts a "Cash for questions" session.


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Photo by Austin Hargrave.

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Page scans.

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