The first surprise was that the interview happened at all. Three years ago, I wrote a story called 'Elvis Costello: Talking 'Bout The Man Who Won't Talk'. He was famous not only for refusing interviews, but for active hostility to the press. You could count the major pieces between 1978 and 1984 on one hand without putting down your fag. And right up till the day, I expected the Sydney publicity firm's busy media schedule to be curtly cancelled when the star arrived in town.
The next shock was the man's cheerfulness. I mean, we're talkn’ about Mr. Revenge & Guilt, right? The man who made venom into an art form, and never hid his contempt for the machinations of the music biz. The night before, someone said "You’re talking to Elvis Costello? God, he's one twisted, paranoid freakout... good music, but what a weird guy!" I rubbished this, but not with 100% confidence. Secretly the best I hoped for was a guarded encounter — nothing like this good-natured chat liberally spiked with laughs and raves about various favourite performers.
He certainly looked like Elvis Costello as he sailed into the hotel room (albeit not nearly as lean and hungry as of yore). Charcoal jacket with a silver thread, black shirt and peg trousers over outrageous red gym boots, mini ghetto-blaster over the shoulder, ordinary specs that he replaces with shades whenever a camera is produced, calling for mineral water "and large pots of tea". Last night was his first sight of the Attractions in over a month, and the celebration has left a mild case of the dry horrors.
The temporary separation was due to Costello's undertaking a solo tour of America. "It was very good — I can see a 'he said modestly' going in there! No, it went really well — the audience reaction was incredible. It was mostly about 4,000 seaters, but there were some quite prestigious ones in there, like the Avery Fisher Hall in New York, which were tough to play because the audience is nearly as intimidated as you are by being there.
"I'm wondering whether that'll be the same at the Opera House, actually..."
As long as they don't rip out the seating ... Still, the band will have had two days' rehearsal in Sydney and three dates in New Zealand to kick out the jams. Costello agrees that starting a world tour in New Zealand is a bit of the 'out-of-town' warmup syndrome: "To be perfectly honest, you get a little less intense attention. Obviously we want to do good shows there — but it's a funny sort of place, I find. So conservative. I find it quite difficult to play there, in fact. Palmerston North! Even Kiwis snigger when you say you're going to Palmerston North!"
Those who caught the recent Continental Drift footage of last year's European tour may be expecting the same extended lineup. Tough. The TKO Horns and the backing vocals of the Afrodiziaks will not be present. But Costello doesn't think the repertoire will be shortchanged, even on numbers from Punch The Clock (which was recorded with said extras).
"Some of the rearrangements sound better — or just as good in their own way."
He promises "a sort of cross from all the albums". But the enthusiasm is all for the new material, soon to be released on an LP called Goodbye Cruel World. And how would you describe it...?
"Brilliant! I dunno... I couldn't describe it, really; I've never been good at that. But I think they're the best songs I've possibly written, ever. I think they're certainly much better songs than on Punch The Clock..."
The best songs I've ever written. That's a fairly awesome prospect. The seven original albums this man has released since 1977 — My Aim Is True, This Year's Model, Armed Forces, Get Happy, Trust, Imperial Bedroom and Punch The Clock — not to mention compilations of B-sides and alternate versions like Taking Liberties, Almost New and the just released-in-England Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How's Your Fathers, make up one of the greatest collections of work in rock music. It's not everyone's taste — Duran Duran sell more records — but if you're interested in music of craft and distinction, lyrics whose sense and literacy shame almost all others — and an uncompromising stand against insincerity... well, chances are you rate Elvis Costello & the Attractions highly. Are you ready for even better?
Meanwhile, the object of this silent veneration is rattling away nineteen to the dozen. A hangover doesn't appear to shut down the brain: words spill out, often in a sort of shorthand in which stock phrases are rapidly begun and rejected, parentheses inserted and ironies signalled. The talking voice is softer, less stridently 'London' then the one you might have heard introducing songs: despite the speed, constant use of emphasis keeps it lucid. Beguiling stuff... so tell me, how come you’re doing all this talking on this visit, whereas in 1978 and 1981 the most a persistent questioner might have copped was a punch in the nose?
"Well, there just wasn't much to talk about in the early years," he replies blithely. "And all those idiotic questions over and over..."
He laughs, shakes his head at "how it always seems to be the Australian journalists who ask the dumb questions — like, "whaddya think of Midnight Oil, man?" Jeeze, I wish I'd thought of that one — but wait a minute, surely the British press is as rabid as anything in the Antipodes. How come they've never staked out your house and gone through your garbage?
A glint in the eye: "They learnt pretty early on that it wasn't a good idea." The privacy of wife Mary and son Matthew remains intact, it seems, Nor does it profit to rehash ancient brawls or quotes. Costello is almost 30: the Angry Young Man phase has gone the way of all flesh. This doesn't mean he's going soft — Punch The Clock had some slashers like "Pills And Soap" and "Love Went Mad" ('I wish you luck with a capital 'F) — but rather that he refuses to repeat himself. He's talking now because a) there's a lot of music to talk about, and b) he wants that music to reach more than the devotees.
Besides returning to the basic lineup, the new album apparently signals a leaner, more urgent creation. "We recorded the first album" (My Aim Is True) "in four six-hour sessions, the second one took two weeks. Then Armed Forces took a really long time — about five weeks — and we thought we'd turned into Yes!"
Imagine the shock if he'd forseen the process on Punch The Clock — two months — or Imperial Bedroom — three months. "This time we set ourselves the task of writing it in two weeks, recording in two and mixing it in two: we ran over about a week on the recording and mixing.
"I had about four songs ready and I wrote about eight in a couple of weeks — just locked myself in an office. I wasn't rushing to do it: I have to stop myself from writing songs. I can write at will — fortunately — so I decided not to write and to store up the ideas and see what happened if I let them all out at once.
"I think it worked for this album; I wouldn't necessarily do it again. But something different came out — there's a more coherent feel about this record."
The same pressure went into the recording. This was a jolt to producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. "They're used to working at a very steady pace and getting everything organised, and there we were, just tearing songs up. We'd do one take and 'NO, THAT'S WRONG, let's do a completely different feel, let's get a rhythm box, let's get a saxophonist, let's grab this person to sing on it...’"
Costello has called in outside vocalists before ("the difficulty is that none of the Attractions sing all that well") like Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze, the "Nashville Edition" on Almost Blue and the sassy Aphrodiziaks (Caron Wheeler and Claudia Fontaine) for Punch The Clock. But he expects his guests on Goodbye Cruel World to raise a few eyebrows.
"For certain songs I particularly wanted another voice, so we got Green from Scritti Politti in. He's got quite a high, soft voice, and we blended it quite nicely so that it almost sounds like one voice, but it's neither of us, y'know?
"And then we got Daryl Hall for one track ... We just heard that they were coming to town and we went to see him expecting — I dunno what I was expecting, I mean I knew that they'd had loads of hits, but somehow I still thought they were a bit of a cult act. Hadn't sort of prepared myself for someone who was doing three massive sell-outs at Wembley Arena — a whole audience of airline stewardesses and professional footballers!
"But he's a very nice person: very professional, came in and did the session very quickly and seemed to enjoy himself, Some of the inverted snobs' of the music business are perhaps going to be offended by his presence because they associate him with some vacuous form of pop. But he's got a great voice, and that's all I care about.
"It's really wrong to cut yourself off from people because you don't approve of what they stand for. You don't have to become like them just because you use some of their talents."
Nothing funny 'bout peace, love and understanding, right?
We talk of the possibility of other projects with other people. Costello is as unstinting in admiration as he is cutting in condemnation of fellow entertainers. Jerry Dammers is a big fave, and Costello produced the current (brilliant) single from the Special A.K.A., "Nelson Mandela." John Hiatt is another singer he has a lot of time for — Hiatt joined him onstage at a Los Angeles concert, "But I wouldn't just do an album with someone that was 'cute projects that I could get up to in my spare time'. I'd only do it if it was the emotional and artistic — I hate using that word! — thing to do at that exact moment."
'Cute project' could be the way some people characterise Almost Blue, the album of country material he recorded in eight days with famous Nashville producer Billy Sherrill in 1981.
"There's a lot wrong with that record but it's not as bad as the people who hate it say it is. It's not bad at all — in fact, it's a very good record, well-played with a lot of feeling.
"I reject the idea of 'affection': it wasn't intended as an affectionate tribute. (Equally I wasn't expecting to turn into Merle Haggard overnight!) It was just me singing those songs: I wanted to record an album of very sad material, and we only did the up and medium tempo numbers on it as a concession to some form of pacing on the album.
"Almost Blue was using other people's songs to get out a feeling which I couldn't express in my own words. 'Cos I got a bit disenchanted with my own ability to clearly express what I felt."
An interesting admission from one so articulate. But there are times when Costello's elaborate word associations and double meanings seem the chief delight. Costello denies contrivance. "l get accused a lot of clever word play — like I sit around playing Scrabble with myself all day! I don't — it just happens. And sometimes I'm aware of the fact: not that they're not being clever-safe, but that they're too-smart-for-their-own-good type of phrases. They're just too glib, they don't carry any emotional punch, so therefore they don't serve my purposes well.
"I just happen to have that kind of mind that flips a phrase around. It's almost like a nervous habit."
He emphasises emotion several times; one gets the impression that emotion vs. intellect is a debate he's been dragged through — by others or himself — for a while. I don't want to dredge up the famous quote from his first interview in 1977 about revenge and guilt being the only motivations he could feel — it's obvious both from later work and encounters that there's plenty more — but I hedge towards it by suggesting that many people find it hard to write from a happy state...
"Mmmm ... I do. Just because the vocabulary of anger or sadness is a lot more profound... It's a lot more resonant, anyway.
"'Nice' is a terrible word, isn't it? I mean, 'Nooice' is a biscuit! It's dreadful — I try not to use it, but I find myself being lazy and thinking 'Isn't this a nice day' or 'That's a nice painting'.
"That's what it is — the words just aren't as good. And also, when you're happy you don't think so much: you're just experiencing being happy. When you're miserable, you're going 'God, why am I so miserable?' or 'why am I so hungover...?'"
One target for which Costello has often found both the words and the passion is politics in the U.K. From the first single, "Less Than Zero," through much of Armed Forces, to "Pills And Soap" on Punch The Clock, he's raised the spectre of repression and the public's self-interested complicity in it. In a Rolling Stone interview last year, he said "I'm English but my ancestry is Irish ... my wife's Irish. Sooner or later we'll probably have to leave England — because I'm sure the people of England will try to send the Irish back." I ask if he really sees this as a possibility?
"Anything might happen in our country: we're an occupied country, and we've got a leader who's completely off her trolley. I dunno what she believes she is now — it just seems to get worse by the day. Really — I mean it's not runny, she's so out of touch. so insensitive and completely convinced that she's right.
"The way individual freedoms have been eaten away, and things that took twenty or thirty years to set up, like the National Health ... Another five years with her in charge — God knows. The more confident she gets, the more outrageous and more despotic she can become.
"And people seem to accept it — and because the press is in their hands anyway, there's this conspiracy of ignorance. 'Ignorance is strength' as George Orwell said — I hate to quote that book this year, but y'know...
"So it could get to the point where it's like 'Okay: we've always, in our little Fascist clubs that lurk in the back benches of the Tory party, wanted to send the blacks back. Now we've got a mandate, we'll do it'. And the Irish could be next — they've been blamed for enough things."
So where would you like to be deported to, Elvis?
"Somewhere really nice and reasonable and caring and liberal. Like Brisbane!"