If you're an Elvis Costello fan, you've come to the wrong town. When Elvis walked out of Seattle's Paramount into the chilly night air, January 5, 1981 after a show with Squeeze, he never looked back. He hasn't just overlooked the Northwest the past 13 years — he tore us off the map, lit the scrap on fire and scattered the ashes across the English Channel. The closest Seattle came to Elvis Costello in the last decade was a lyric about Boeing on Nick Lowe's last album.
And don't think EC just hasn't been on the road much during the last four administrations. The Northwest was willfully ignored on the 1982 Imperial Bedroom (which included a stop in Des Moines, Iowa) and 1983 Punch The Clock tours; the solo and band outings of 1984; the famed "Spinning Songbook" run of 1986; the solo excursion in 1987 (West Coast dates included Davis, CA); not to mention the 1989 and 1991 campaigns. That's eight tours without a stop in the Northwest. With so much rejection, you'd think we'd take the hint and stop caring.
But Elvis is Elvis. As tattered and weather-worn as it is, the welcome mat still sits out and Elvis is finally taking us up on the offer. And he's bringing The Attractions with him too, just like he never left. To make up for lost time, Costello is starting his new U.S. tour in Seattle with a sold-out show at the Paramount on May 5 (he's still skipping Portland though). The Seattle show is in one of the smallest halls Mr. Costello will play this summer and word is he'll also be practicing here the week before the show. From his home in Dublin, Costello spoke to The Rocket about his outstanding new album Brutal Youth, the reissues of his early catalog, his first tour with The Attractions in eight years and how he single-handedly created the Seattle music scene.
Elvis Costello and Seattle have had an interesting relationship.
You haven't played Seattle since 1981.
I know. I'm very aware of that. I think we're going to get a rough ride when we get into town.
Why did you stay away for so long?
Part of the problem with a lot of places on the map is that the map seemed to shrink for us after a certain period. When we first came to America we played anywhere we could get a gig, and not always with any great success or any particular reaction; we weren't even making any money. Quite often the gigs had extremely low ticket prices. It was more of a question of just getting our music heard by people.
Those were called "Catch A Rising Star" shows in Seattle.
Yeah. We did lots of gigs with a $1.99 ticket, packaged bills with Rockpile and Willie DeVille. I'm sure every scene has the idea that it's the center of the universe, but outside of L.A. and New York — where we could find other bands that were all about the same sort of trip, even if musically they didn't sound anything like us, we could find some sort of rapport — once you got into some other parts of America, that just wasn't the case.
When we first came in 1978, we got a fairly rugged reception. What somebody's going to say when they read this is, "Hang on. I was there and I was really digging it." There would always be a hard core of people who had obviously got hip to the trip and they were there to see what we were all about. And then there were a lot of other people who were just horrified. I guess whatever music was currently popular, it certainly wasn't what we were playing.
I think when we went back in '81 it had loosened up quite a bit; things had caught on. Then after that agencies and promoters were starting to suggest that it wasn't viable to go to certain places; the limbs of America. The Northwest and the Southeast started to get lopped off sometime in the early '80s.
You almost have to start or end a tour here.
That was it. We did start in Vancouver, B.C. on that tour and work our way down. That's pretty much what we're doing this time as well. And I reached the point where I just said, "The hell with it, I'm just not going to Phoenix anymore. I'm not bashing my head against a brick wall in Kansas City." But then there's always things that confound that. I don't mean to be disrespectful, but the towns that even Americans joke about — "you think you're big until you get to Des Moines" — when you actually go to those towns, you find that's where some of the most enthusiastic music people are, because nobody goes there. Maybe that's the case with Seattle. The scene grew up in lieu of everybody visiting. We can now claim responsibility for the whole Seattle thing; it's because we didn't come that you all had to make your own music.
Wasn't white noise actually turned on to clear the crowd in Seattle?
Oh, that's where we did it? Was it in Seattle? A lot of those sort of events, those confrontational things, get kind of mixed up. We were doing a lot of one nighters and in some cases we never went back to some of these towns. Some because we got the impression that we weren't really very welcome.
Do you still enjoy life on the road? Bob Dylan now considers himself more of a live performer than a songwriter or recording artist.
I can't say really until I do it. I think I still enjoy it. I haven't done this kind of tour with The Attractions in eight years, so that makes it an immediately different animal than even the last tour I did with an amplified band. The last actual touring I did was a 25 day world tour with the Brodsky Quartet, which was something quite different. We were specifically playing The Juliet Letters. Since then I've been working on the album. So I see the two things inextricably linked: if I don't make the records then I can't go on the tour, if I don't go on the tour, then the record won't reach as many people, because I don't make the kind of records that go instantly onto every radio station in the country, as much as I like to think I do.
The truth is, I'm not interested in diluting the music I make, whether it's The Juliet Letters or Brutal Youth, just so I achieve that instantly, but I know very well how to do it. I would much rather take the Dylan approach and go and actually play the songs and people can see something that's unique at that time. You get a good night where everybody is right on and my voice is in good shape; that might be the best show that you ever see or that might be the best time we ever play that song. So I sort of appreciate the idea of the live performer. I just saw Dylan last October at the Hollywood Bowl give the best performance that I'd ever seen him give. Yet everybody says, "Oh, he just goes and trots it out." But it was absolutely astounding.
Well he's absolutely in the moment.
Yeah. It's getting the balance right between what you do in the studio and the crafted stuff. Which of course, if it's going to be worth anybody's time and second hearing, has got to try and capture some spontaneity. The two are linked.
You suggested that you know the formula for hit songs, but you choose to ignore it. Was their ever a time when you tried it?
I don't think I paid any attention. I think the producers paid more attention to it. We used Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley on Punch The Clock particularly, and made "Everyday I Write The Book." Funnily enough, we're just working on the process of reissues through Rykodisc and these last two days I've been home going through my own little archive of tapes. We've added a few things, sort of EPs, on the ends of these reissues. I've found an extraordinary version of "Everyday I Write The Book," the way it was originally written, which sounds much more like "Do You Want to Know a Secret" I'm hoping I can find a decent generation copy of it, because it's a much more lighthearted song. It never would have gotten on the radio like that, because it didn't have the rhythmic thing that was sort of contemporary at the time. But to my ears, the (released version) of "Everyday I Write The Book" dates just because of that.
What about the process of assembling the reissues? I assume it's the first time you've played your own albums in some time.
When I listened to the first three, I was pleasantly surprised with the second two. The first one I find hard to listen to and have for a long time, because I hear the haltingness of it and where I'm trying to find a vocal style that fits the song. But I can understand what other people like about it. I don't hear it as being this raging record that people write about, whereas I think the second two, particularly Armed Forces, came up sounding much better than I remembered, because everything has gotten so much more slick since that time. What I thought of at the time, and what was regarded as an incredibly sophisticated, produced record compared with This Year's Model now sounds like a really rough-around-the-edges thing in a most attractive way.
And when it came to the next two records, Get Happy!! had always been among my favorite three or four albums that we'd made together, but actually out of those two I now prefer Trust. I don't know why. Maybe because I just never heard it with a clear head. I'd always been prejudiced as it was a very physically tough record to make, just because I made it hard on myself personally. And now, with a distance from the unpleasant experience of actually doing it, I can hear the music. I think Trust has quite a lot in common with the new record in terms of the balance between incoherent rock 'n' roll music and quite structured songs.
So was Brutal Youth simply the next batch of songs you had written, not necessarily with The Attractions in mind?
I hadn't officially told anybody. Normally I'm supposed to notify the record company when I start my album. In this case I didn't think to officially tell them I started, because Pathway (where My Aim Is True was recorded), is a very inexpensive studio to work in. I wasn't really certain if I was making a record or just making demos. I mean, I treat all recording fairly seriously. Sometimes when you go into a less sophisticated studio you think, "Well, this will be good when I can make it sound good." Other times you like it all the better for being less sophisticated. Sometimes I can never capture the one little thing that I got on my home recorder, but the home recorder is not of the standard to release.
This wasn't some plan cooked up by Warner Bros.?
No. You see, a lot of great bands grew up together and they all went to art college together. It's surprising that such a good band as The Attractions was actually brought together through business, through auditions, through the channels which normally only bring together fairly dull bands. Pete Thomas was brought from California on some scam where he was supposed to play with some other group and he was all the time being brought to play in my group. The other two guys responded to an advert in the paper. It's terrific luck to find people with not only that ability, but also that rapport. Of course we didn't know we had the rapport until we worked a little bit together. That came about by who played the songs the best, the songs that I had at that point, which was the first album and one or two tunes I had for the second record.
The thing that's being left out of the story as it's now retold is Nick's involvement. He does play on seven of the songs on the record and that's a very big contribution. And because there's an air of romance about the "Attractions being back together" story, a lot of the articles that I've already seen about the record are tending to almost gloss over Nick's involvement. And that's rather wrong, because both the rehearsals and recording sessions were cut directly in half; one half recorded with the band with Nick on bass, the other with Bruce. We already had these two cuts which I'd done a few months earlier with me playing bass, "20% Amnesia" and "Kinder Murder." It is important to me that Nick's involvement doesn't get overlooked. It had nothing to do with the fact that he produced the early records.
In 1986 you employed the "Spinning Songbook" to keep the setlist fresh. How do you avoid reducing your set to simply crowd pleasers like "Accidents Will Happen" and "Red Shoes" and tracks from the new album?
I know full well that if I went to see somebody and they willfully ignored every single well-known song they ever had, then you would be put out. Or equally, I don't want to see somebody who plays one after another. "Hey, do you remember this one from 1977?" I don't want to see any of the people I really like play as if it's an oldies show. It's sappy to do that. There's somewhere in between where it works, and often it will be by, as you say, lighting on an unexpected song from your catalog. And by having 300 songs, it makes it a lot easier to find an unexpected song. Also, until we start rehearsing, which we haven't started yet, we won't know what the musical relationship between the new material and the old material is, in that we've always thrived on transitions from one song to the next.
I'm thinking in terms of playing a lot of these songs exactly as I wrote them and see how they stand next to the newer songs, rather than necessarily doing yet another radical reinterpretation. I think the question here will be building the bridge between the old material and the new material, not necessarily trying to turn it inside out for the sake of turning it. But I'm not suggesting that we're going to come out and play note-for-note the record. I think to some extent it may be a case of just seeing what happens when we play. One thing we've talked about doing is walking into the rehearsal on the first day and just counting off the set, the last set that we did and just see how far we get. It'll be great. I can't wait to do that.
How much do you miss side two?
Very much. That's why people think my records are too long. I don't think I've used the technology enough. You know how you have these flags on CDs that tell you when the track ends? On my next record I'm going have a flag that ejects the CD after five cuts, so you're forced to consider where the break in the vinyl would have been.
The thing is, it's not my turn every six weeks or six months even. I used to make records every nine months. Warner Bros. would never stand for that because they have to sell those R.E.M., Prince and Madonna records. I can't get access to the resources of the record company as readily as I would like. I would like to put out records, literally, every six months.
Too much attention gets paid to your albums when they only come out every few years.
This is the difficulty in putting out this covers album that I've got. I really want to put it out, but I don't want it to come out with this huge fanfare, because it's just a modest record of some songs I like, playing with some people that I really dig. We did it all in two weeks and that's all it is. It's not the ten commandments.
The well never runs dry? There's no emotional breakdown after you finish?
Of course there is. It's not obsessive, and equally, I'm not just spewing it out randomly. But I'm saying it would be better. I like to make use of the time that I have. I think I'm getting better at sequencing CDs to run for as long as you're prepared to listen to them. I used to listen to a record by an artist I really liked side by side and then song by song if I was really into that song. And therefore, I don't really have any problem about how long or short a record is, because all my records have been pretty long since 1982. Imperial Bedroom is an hour long.
Are you pleased that Brutal Youth has been so well received?
I knew very well that this would please a lot of people because of the associations that it had. There are a few people that have written things which seem to get to the heart of the matter and there are some other people who've just skimmed the surface.
And although they're praising it lavishly, they really haven't got it. Maybe that's down to the fact that there's a deadline. I don't make a record that you can necessarily get in five minutes, and they've got to write an article, something like: "The Attractions are back, he's cut the beard off, he's back." Fine. If that makes people go and buy it then that's great.
But that isn't all there is about this record. There's a bit more to it. There's more variety for one thing. There's a couple different kinds of music on it. There's the darker lyric accompanied by quite abrasive music like "Kinder Murder." There's the more reflective songs like "London's Brilliant Parade" and "Favourite Hour," which are musically more sophisticated and played in a more controlled way. And somewhere between there's this undulating music, like "Rocking Horse Road," which is the music that people are tending to miss completely, but I can almost guarantee you will be the stand-out stuff at the concert.
The stuff that's between those opposites is actually what gives the record some substance and makes it so they can listen to it for a little while. I don't want to make a record that people are going to get bored with in five minutes. I'm trying to make a record they can listen to for a full year and maybe a couple years to come.