In his distinguished career, Elvis Costello has often collaborated with older songwriters, most notably Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach. This year, Costello, 59, became the senior partner in a new high-proﬁle collaboration: On Wise Up Ghost, recorded with the Roots, he snarls about the “lies and howlers” of people and governments, over spare, ﬁtful music he created with Questlove and the Roots’ longtime associate Steven Mandel. The teaming began at Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, where the Roots are the house band. After seeing them perform together on TV, some fans are already demanding a full tour. “We’re working toward making an appearance or two,” says Costello, “but we have to see what interest there is.”
You’ve been saying for a couple of years that you might stop making records. Is this your last one?
I have no idea. I didn’t say that to cry wolf; it was purely a practical matter. I have a responsibility to my and my family’s well-being. The weight and the place records have in the culture is different now, and if you expect the same scale of commercial success, that’s bound to end up in frustration. Also, on a personal level, I lost my father [in 2011]. Just as romantic disaster governs your younger life, mortality afects the way you do things when you’re older. If you’re going to leave home to tour, you’d better have a good reason to go.
What do you have in common with the Roots?
The Roots’ approach calls on them to play music with a lot of wit. That appeals to me. And when I was making [1980’s] Get Happy!!, whether we were listening to Stax and Motown or David Bowie’s records with Brian Eno, there was a collision of different styles. That’s a sensibility I share with the Roots: using a patchwork of ideas. We’ve taken the same trail, even though we started from different points in time. I’m amazed by the things Quest and Steven call up as references.
When we were working on [new song] “Come the Meantimes,” they played a percussion part with a bell. I said, “I dig that. It sounds like [Kelis’] ‘Milkshake.’ That’s one of my favorite records.” And Steven looked at me, like, “What are you talking about?”
Questlove has called these songs “dissonant lullabies.” You’re using soul instrumentation – horns, wah-wah guitar – to create unsettling feelings instead of joy. You could say that. Given my love of that music, and the references to it in the Roots’ music, it would be extraordinary if we studiously avoided R&B. But I don’t think it’s an unprecedented thing for those rhythms to be turned on their head. Think about the Norman Whitfield records for Motown, or Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” People have always turned to dance rhythms while telling a story of what’s going on in the day.
Modern hip-hop and R&B recording methods must have been new to you.
Well, there was no process of tracking, then overdubbing, then mixing. You’re mixing from Day One. If you’ve got a beat and a voice, you’ve got a record – then you make it more interesting as you add things, erase things or drop a beat out for one hit. Over beats Quest conceived, I laid down electric piano and stabs on the guitar, or three notes on the bass, and then I sent the tapes back to New York, and they added a sousaphone or replaced my bass part with one that’s more active. It’s an editorial way of recording.
Some of the lyrics you wrote for Wise Up Ghost incorporate verses you recorded as long ago as 1983. And the themes are bleak. Are you making the point that the issues you wrote about then are still relevant?
The words are sometimes bleak, and as a counterpoint, the music isn't bleak. That’s the same structural compound I used on [1979’s] “Oliver’s Army.” You know, I’m not being a conspiracy theorist, but somebody could be listening to us talk right now. You’ve got the idiocy that PRISM, the NSA stuff, has a logo. I’m sorry, there’s a design department at the secret agency? Satirical literature can’t exist anymore, because it’s in our newspaper every day.