Declan Patrick Aloysius Macmanus looks far from being the washed up wreck – weighed down with the problems of a turbulent lovelife, alcohol excess and a writer's block – portrayed in certain sensationalist quarters. In fact, the figure sipping his umpteenth cup of coffee during an arduous round of interviews looks a picture of health.
But there's no doubt that he's created a bit of a stir by dropping his monicker of the last nine years – Elvis Costello – for his real name. On the sleeve of his new album, King Of America he refers to himself as the Tiny Hands of Concrete, or Declan Macmanus. Even the Costello Show identity was an enforced compromise, with the singer preferring to call the ensemble the Macmanus Gang.
There were other upheavals. His 10 years marriage ended in the divorce courts. He became almost inseparable from Pogues' bassist Caitlin O'Riordan. His usual backing band of Pete and Bruce Thomas and Steve Nieve – the Attractions – were restricted to only one track on King Of America.
The rest was played by various combinations of TCB – James Burton (guitar), Jerry Scheff (bass) and Ron Tutt (drums), best known for playing behind Elvis Presley in 1968 and country rock pioneer Gram Parsons – plus veteran jazz men Ray Brown and Earl Palmer, and various members of Tom Waits' and Hall and Oates' bands among others.
Costello watchers also drew conclusions from the title of his last album Goodbye Cruel World and the fact that his only album release last year was a Telstar TV advertised compilation.
But King Of America, produced by good friend T-Bone Burnett, has proved to be a spectacular return to form, which equals, if not surpasses, the excellence of Imperial Bedroom. Those expecting the man – now 31 – to have mellowed from the brash and caustic persons of recent years, will be disappointed. His literate dissections of human foibles are still as effective, if not more so. Personally, he'll admit no more than the fact that all his previous confusions are clearer and he's never been happier, refusing to comment further on his relationship with Ms O'Riordan and his new found stability.
But he is forthright on his position within the pop market. “I'm just really consistent. I'm not going to be falsely modest. I'm just better than a lot of people at keeping a clearer view of what I'm doing. Others don't work hard enough at it. “
Why have you become a born-again Declan Macmanus?
It isn't supposed to be headline news. It's just something I did for personal reasons, most of all. It also has the objective of reminding people that there's a human being behind what ever they've come to expect or assume is Elvis Costello. Obviously I'll continue to be known under that name to a lot of people – especially my record company.
The name and image is very potent and it ties me to a time very acutely. I feel it's meant to be a big statement in the way it's been reported in other quarters, as some sort of artistic schizophrenia or even personal schizophrenia. It's nothing as sinister as that. It's a very simple decision.
After the acknowledged triumph of the Imperial Bedroom album, you seemed to be treading water with the last two releases, and have been publically dissatisfied with them. What happened?
During the last two years, I made records which owed more to the production sounds of that year, with a currently successful production team – Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. Punch The Clock, the first one, was quite successful in the sense that it was the record we intended to make. It was a brash, quite aggressive sounding modern pop-record, with a couple of substantial songs and a considerable amount of confections. It's ultimately not as satisfying as some of my other albums, but it was the record I intended to make.
Goodbye Cruel World – my last album – was a conflict between that way of making records and something akin to to this album, only it went horribly wrong and got terribly confused. That's the only record of mine which I think is a bad album.
I needed to clear the way to make a better record. Stopping playing live was one of the better things I did. I'd worked for eight years with only three weeks holiday. Not touring stopped me having to consider the massive amount of words, chords and tunes that I had to memorise just to play a show. That left me more time and a lot more brain power to think about these songs.
So how come you recruited such legendary session musicians, as well as members of bands like Hall and Oates, Tom Waits and Los Lobos?
T-Bone Burnett and I sat down and drew up a list of people we'd like on each track, once I'd got a good idea of the strengths, and where I'd like to place the emphasis of each song. We started to talk about bringing in other sounds, apart from doing it solo or with the Attractions. It just got out of hand. Suddenly we started suggesting other players and we'd filled up an album in the first week.
In between takes it was just like any session, once the ice had been broken. Inevitably you'd get talking about other things you'd done. The fund of stories from the TCB guys was pretty fascinating.
It was quite pleasing that they could talk of Elvis Presley like he was the singer in the band, and not as a god or a freak which is the way so many of those sleazy books portray him.
Having compiled last year's retrospective album on Gram Parsons, you must have talked about the tragic country-rock figure?
They remembered the sessions – I thought they'd be lost in the blur of the many session they'd done. James Burton spoke fondly of the sessions which was quite pleasing to me because those records, GP and Grievous Angel mean a lot to me as a music fan. I was pleased they meant something to him because he's played on thousands of records and they can't all mean something special.
When you talk to Ray Brown about days gone by, he goes back considerably further. T-Bone was talking about some Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong record and Earl Palmer interjected: 'Of course you know that Ray was Ella's first husband.' Then Ray came back and said 'Well actually I think I played on that record.' For us it was like 'God he played with Louis Armstrong – what's he doing here?'
After a while you think why worry about what he thinks, you can't impress him anymore than anybody else he's ever played with. You can't expect to be the greatest.
It wasn't meant to be a superstar session. There's no virtuoso showing off no this record, they play simply and with economy. Everybody who played on that record was the best we thought we could get for each song, and that includes The Attractions and that also includes the bloody vocalist – and that's me.
Why is the album called “King Of America”?
It's from the first line of the album. It's a good title – it makes people think 'What?' It's a double-edged sword; on the one hand it's shocking and provocative to people who are too sensitive, on the other hand, there are certain thematic things within the record – without making it sound like a concept album – that recur.
Certain concerns dealing with going to America, with hopes and dreams and having disappointments, or having acceptance or accepting. There are other concerns which are the fascination of America, morbid interest in celebrity and greed. But they aren't exclusive to America, so it's very easy to read too much into it.
I think people will think it's a sort of love letter, but it's neither a love letter or criticism. There's no political intent in the title – it's just a title.
"Brilliant Mistake" is about dreams. Each verse deals with a different disappointment with going to America. One of the elements of America is that it's based on very noble principles, that have been denied over the years. I didn't want to write something philosophical, so I chose little scenes that would illustrate something of that disappointment.
"America Without Tears" is about acceptance, following GI brides who can accept things as they are without denying themselves. It's comparing their pride with my disappointment. A technique I've used throughout the album is to tell a story to illustrate a point, and then add a personal footnote to it rather than write a personal song.
What was J Henry (T-Bone) Burnett's contribution to the album?
He taught me how to leave a song alone and stop worrying it – like a dog worries a bone. He wasn't a producer who'd say 'we'll be alright when we got the girl singers on the track.' He was a producer in the sense of what is this song about and why are you singing it. He was interested in the motivation of the song and it reminded me of why I'd written it.
If a false note crept into my voice he wouldn't let me get away with it. Sometimes you can do a performance that's quite dazzling – dazzling to the point where you don't realise the hollowness and it's an empty gesture. There are a lot of rock 'n' roll records like that.
I consciously left some songs off which would have changed the nature of this record. It's clearer but it's also more loving in some ways. There're still some aggressive songs where I feel bitter and angry about certain things. A song like "Little Places" isn't exactly benevolent, but I didn't want the feeling of these songs like "I'll Wear It Proudly" and "Jack Of All Parades" which are fairly open love songs, to be unbalanced by having a bitter and spiteful personal song next to it and confusing people.
That's not to say these feelings don't exist, so I think I'll make another record about the darker side of my feelings. I'm planning to make another two and a half albums this year.
I'm also planning some shows. I want them to be shorter, for one thing, and really just pack eight or 10 songs in, that I feel are essential to that night, and concentrate on the greatest performance of those songs rather than try and do a retrospective view and recreate every night of my life.
Why did you choose to produce the Pogues' debut album Rum, Sodomy And The Lash?
They just chose themselves. Somehow a suggestion that I might do a single with them developed into an album and an EP. They've got really good songs and a great attitude. They don't give a damn about anything. They're not virtuoso but they're exciting. I didn't bring anything to their sound. I just made sure the songs got onto record without the interference of some idiot producer who didn't understand them.
The Specials' first album and the Pogues' were the most enjoyable records to produce because they were like catching lightning – the moment would have gone. The Pogues couldn't make Rum, Sodomy And The Lash now – it would be beyond them. They've gone past that moment. The new EP is very different. That's not to say they've turned into a reggae band or something, but that was the moment to record that record.
Another string to your bow was acting in the TV series Scully, as a mentally retarded train freak, and in the new film No Surrender as an inept magician – both written by Alan 'Boys From The Blackstuff' Bleasdale. How did you get involved?
Just because I knew Alan Bleasdale and he thought I could do that role in Scully. I don't know how complimentary that is. Wait till you see the role I've got in the new film. I have a few lines, but the difficulty is that because I'm well-known in another field the film gets blown out of all proportion, which is disrespectful to the main actors. I've got a lot of publicity for the film and I'm only in it for three minutes. But, I have no desire to take on any massive dramatic role and make a complete idiot of myself.
Last year you performed to a larger audience at Live Aid. What do you remember of it?
I don't really remember much of it. It was too terrifying. There were not only 70,000 people there, but millions watching. I was supposed to play with the Attractions but the organisers were in the happy situation of having too many people say 'Yes.' So they asked some people they'd approached to play solo in order to fit everybody in, and unfortunately that meant the Attractions couldn't play.
Why did you choose to sing the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love?"
I thought it was funny. I thought the day needed some humour because it was transparent that love is not all you need. The sad thing about the whole event was that everybody had to turn up and tune in, when really the amount of money raised – as large as it was and as noble as it was – is nothing next to the problem and nothing next to the amount of money that could be agreed at a stroke of the pen by the richer governments of the world.
It would also save us the acute embarrassment of demonstrating to every part of the world how completely bankrupt pop music is as a creative force. There was no good music. I thought everybody was dreadful apart from Patti LaBelle – the only person to perform with fire. A lot of it had to do with fear – it was a very terrifying stage to take. It was a very sad day for music but a great day for humanity.
How do you feel about the current use of pop music for charitable ends?
There does seem to be a season or fashion for charity, and I'm more and more suspicious of it. I'm particularly suspicious when the objectives are very vague or can't be easily achieved. I'm doing a gig at the end of April – a couple of numbers – for a heroin rehabilitation centre in Plymouth. That seems to be worthwhile way of spending an evening, to say 'what do we need', 'we need beds', 'let's do a show', 'we get a bag of money and buy the beds the next day', rather than some vague thing that gets tied up in legal wrangling. Meanwhile, the motivation of the people becomes increasingly suspect. I'm not talking about Bob Geldof here, but some of the things in the wake of that.
There was to be an event at the Albert Hall. It was almost designer charity. The woman who contacted our office said 'we've got some lovely letter headings, I think you'll appreciate that.' I said 'The f**king people in Ethiopia are really going to be pleased with the letter heading you stupid cow.' It's really ridiculous.
What're your feelings on Red Wedge – the bandwagon for pop and politics?
Red Wedge seems to be terribly vague for something called Red Wedge. I think there are some really worthy people in it who believe they're doing a good thing and are being true to themselves in doing it, but it seems horribly vague. On the one hand, when I first heard about it, it was supposed to be promoting the Labour Party, but recently I've noticed a lot of people denying that and saying it's just to bring about political awareness.
That has a disturbingly familiar ring to it. The minute anybody in pop music utters the word 'consciousness,' I start to run because it reminds me of when people used to say 'we can change the world.'
Years and years ago there was the myth that if you brought Jefferson's Airplane's Volunteers album, you could bring down the government and put us in some happy Utopia. All it did was make RCA a lot of money, and brought us Jefferson Starship – "We Built This City On Rock 'n' Roll" – that says everything.
OK, so they're trying to raise the political consciousness of this country – but for what reason? Who voted the Government in? It was the people of the country that wanted them. It's like criticising the Sun for being a hideous bigoted paper run by a megalomaniac. But people buy it. It wouldn't stay in business if they didn't want it, so I don't know whether this vague, albeit worthy, parade of 'right on' views can do anything.
I also think that if there is any revolutionary change in this country, the first people that get shot will be pop stars – with luck.