"I don't have a master plan," contends the middle-aged British gent with the quietly retreating hairline and thick-rimmed glasses. "I never had any ambitions at all to do any of the things I've done, they just came up as I was getting on with the thing that was immediately in front of me. Something would knock on the door, or an opportunity would present itself."
That the man speaking is Elvis Costello leads one to believe that the 48-year-old song craftsman is either downplaying the turbulent, poetic vigor with which his pointed first albums announced themselves some 25 years ago, or he's conveniently forgotten about it. With a songbook fatter than most any other rock 'n' roller, current or otherwise, Costello has been nothing if not ambitious, often audacious, and always smart. If opportunities simply fell in his lap, as he seems to be implying, then our generation's Elvis certainly had the passion to run with them.
He wore the dismissive vitriol of British punk, but instead of street-level nihilism or politicized ranting, Costello made jittery little anthems for the ill-groomed geek, the cynical intellectual, the fumbling romantic… He was immediately and clearly recognized to be of a higher-educated background, his musical interests broader than the average rock songwriter; his songs were wordy, nervy, intelligent and immaculately crafted pop gems, from the get-go — and they came quickly and generously, recorded and pressed before they risked staleness. That so much of his early output — not to mention a reasonable portion of his later work — still sounds as timeless and immediate as it did upon first release only amplifies the man's talents, and if you need a refresher course then you owe it to yourself to pick up a handful of Rhino Records' steady stream of deluxe reissues of Elvis Costello's back catalog, each boasting an entire second CD of B-sides, demo versions and other rare recordings, many of which have gone unheard 'til now. The next set of three — Armed Forces, Imperial Bedroom and Mighty Like a Rose — are due Nov. 19th, with Punch the Clock, Get Happy!! and Trust slated for next April.
Certainly the classics from those albums were what many in the crowd at Chastain Park Amphitheatre came to hear back in June, and they were not disappointed. Or if they were, then that just made more room for the rest of us down front by the time Elvis and his current group The Imposters (which includes two-thirds — keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas — of his longtime band The Attractions) closed out the evening with the obsessive "I Want You." But Costello had more current concerns as well, having just released a new album called When I Was Cruel, which, like most of the albums he's toured on in the past decade, resides in the literate pop-rock style that serves as his home base in between toe-dipping expeditions into other modes of musical presentation, such as an all-instrumental score for a Italian dance company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, due for release next year. While not exactly a classic on par with This Year's Model or King of America, When I Was Cruel is a respectable enough effort that neither apes his past nor ignores it. And Island (Costello's current label) appears to have beaten Rhino to the punch on the rarities disc on this new one; just out is Cruel Smile, a CD of studio outtakes and live tracks from the summer tour.
Album 88 DJ Marc Crifasi interviewed a convivial and chatty Elvis Costello backstage prior to his Chastain show; the conversation was broadcast on the station the following day. With Costello and the Imposters returning to Atlanta for two shows at the Tabernacle, Nov. 6th and 7th, Stomp and Stammer is pleased to present excerpts from the interview.
Does it seem like it's been 25 years since My Aim Is True?
"Some days, yes. Of course, I know… you look at pictures and you can see that you're a different person, and things I know now I didn't know then. And you can't make the records that you made 25 years ago — there wouldn't be any point to it. But nobody'd want to hear 'em anyway. I'm quite happy with where I am. The age I am. You know, I don't long for the past, or anything like that. I'm not nostalgic."
But when you started out as a new wave/punk kid in the '70s, did you imagine you'd be doing it this long?
"Yes. That was my aim. My grandfather and father are both musicians of long standing, and I don't really feel like I'm in any kind of industry. I'm a musician, that's what I do, I get paid to play music and I get paid to make records, and I assist the record companies sometimes, when it suits me and I don't have something more pressing to do, to get them over to people, but really, it's their job to sell them."
You've gone through quite a few phases, especially in the last decade or so. The Brodsky Quartet, the Burt Bacharach collaboration, the newer material which is more rock song oriented…is that all to keep it fresh and new?
"I just have a curiosity about things. I don't have a 'brand' I have to protect. And there are certain things about my voice that people can recognize, whatever kind of music I'm singing. There's certain turns of phrase I'm attracted to, I suppose, a certain way I look at things. I'm of kind of a melancholy disposition most of the time, so I've been good at writing the darker, gloomier songs rather than a lot of really uplifting songs, but I try to find some bright music occasionally. I like it in other people, I just don't have a particular gift for writing it myself, and I suppose if you find you have a gift for expressing the moments of tension in life, then you should go with that. I try to change the way I write periodically, and part of that has led to curiosity about other forms of music and other types of writers, and then the opportunities to write with a number of people have come up, and I think it would be really selfish not to investigate them and see where it leads."
It seems like every time your albums are reissued on CD, there are more bonus tracks than before. Now the Rhino versions of your albums include an entire disc of extras that didn't make the original cut. How do you feel about putting all that out in the open now?
"There is a tendency now to always have the 'back story' of everything, you know, 'the making of' every film, 'the making of' every record, and to some extent I'm involved in that [with the reissues]. But I think with a bit of distance, that's quite interesting. You know, [extra tracks] are not going to change your mind about the record if you don't already like it. But if you know of that record, and you're curious about it, then that story around the making of it — the other tracks that were made at the same time, something of the transformation from the original raw material to the finished record — is intriguing. Or it may be. But other than that, I'm not so fascinated with this showing people how everything is done, or revealing… People are too inviting now. We have too much information on everybody. And some things we really don't want to know… In the days when I first started listening to music, when they used to ask people kind of innocent questions, like, 'do you like steak or ice cream?' it was a lot healthier than now — they wanna know much more intimate stuff, and it's nobody's business."
Music is so personal for whoever makes it.
"And it is. Yeah, there'll be something that has nothing to do with the actual finished record that colors it. Something within your life at that time. And as I say, I'm not of this all-confiding, confessional generation, so I have some regard for the pre-rock 'n' roll generation of writers, songwriters like Richard Rodgers or Gershwin and Cole Porter, who wrote very, very intense, very romantic songs, and some of them very personal. You know, I don't think you have to be a genius to work out that 'What Is This Thing Call Love?' by Cole Porter is a sort of coded song about his sexuality. But it was written at a time when people didn't even use the word 'sexuality,' you know... So he wrote this really beautiful song that works completely straightforward as a romantic love song, but it also has another meaning that people now read into it. Well, that was, to my mind, a slightly more attractive way to express yourself than every single thing that ever happened to you, and your dog died when you were seven, and somebody slapped you once, and that made you hate the world… It's like, get over it! You're not down a mine, you're making a record, you know. It's not difficult."
Are there times as a songwriter you plug in a word just because it works, not because it has a meaning or anything?
"No, I don't do that. I mean, I do like the sound of words. I think there are certain words that don't sing very well. I'll sometimes hear songs and I think, 'don't they hear that that just doesn't sing?' They don't hear the music that's inherent in certain words before [they] actually start to compose the music that accompanies the lyric, you know. That again is also, maybe, if you have any kind of awareness of the way they went about these things before everybody got so self-conscious and self-important, that in the 19th century, when they wrote songs, they really knew about the color of keys, or the color that was possible to express certain emotions. You would never write a particular kind of song in C, you would write a certain kind of song in D-minor. And also the way in which words were set was very, very precise. And we've kind of lost some of that. We've lost some of the precision. Because we're all just talking too fast, and all the time at one another, like a million miles an hour, and we all think our opinion's important."
From nearly the beginning, you've been blessed with a modest, respectable audience that's going to be interested in whatever you're doing, and will come to see you perform, but your flashes of mainstream success have kind of been…
"…Accidental. It's accidental, usually. We just had a big hit in Japan with a song I did for a Japanese drama television series, I did a version of the Charlie Chaplin song 'Smile.' Now I never in a million years would think that's gonna be a hit, but it was. Before that I had a hit with a song from the Notting Hill film, 'She,' it wasn't a hit in America but it was a big hit in England. And it was a hit in Brazil, Tailand, all these countries I've never visited. So they think I'm a crooner there! So I mean, it's fun to have these adventures away from the main thing that you do. But the songs that have prevailed [in the US] on radio have been things like 'Veronica' and 'Everyday I Write the Book,' neither of which are in our repertoire at the moment. They just don't appeal to me, playing them at the moment. It isn't to say I don't like the songs — particularly 'Veronica' is a very personal song about my grandmother, but I don't feel attracted to the music of that song at the moment."
One of the first introductions mainstream America had to you was your appearance on Saturday Night Live, when you stopped the Attractions mid-song and then did "Radio Radio." Now it's considered one of those classic TV moments…
"Well, considering how pissed off about it they were at the time, they've certainly got their money's worth out of the clip, they've shown it enough! I was banned off NBC — well I wouldn't say banned, they just didn't invite us on any shows — I wasn't on NBC for 12 years [after]. I didn't appear on American TV for three. I went back on Saturday Night Live I think at the time of Spike. And then had another row with them when I went on the next time, a much more trivial one, when I went on with Mighty Like a Rose. But I was on the 25th anniversary show and did the number with the Beastie Boys, I did 'Radio Radio' with the Beastie Boys backing me, so they, you know, it had now become part of the folklore of that program, so I mean, I don't hold any grudge about it."
Looking back, it doesn't seem like a big deal.
"It really wasn't a big deal, and we were copying this thing that Jimi Hendrix did on English TV in the '60s. And I remember thinking [when] we got to the studio, the whole show seemed a little bit kind of pleased with itself. And… we were full of ourselves, we were on our first trip to the States, and you know, everything was, like, new to us, and we were just trying to kick up a fuss. And they kinda just put us in a bad kind of mood, and we decided just to mess with them. And that was what we did."
Is there any underground music you're listening to right now?
"Well, everything's underground music if it isn't in the mainstream, isn't it? It's what touches you [that's] important. Good records are being made from major corporations, no doubt about it. I mean, The Clash were a great band, I liked them, they worked for Columbia Records. So it's not all about being on an independent, it's not all about being down a well or down in a basement doing some noble thing that nobody will ever hear. Some of that's good, and some of it's down a well not being heard by anybody because it isn't any good. That's the truth of it. Good music is good music, you'd recognize it. We just made it much more difficult than we needed to, and we've ceded too much control to people whose agenda has nothing to do with music. You know, major record companies are not really interested in music. The people that own the major radio stations aren't interested in music. They're interested in advertising, they're in the advertising business. They don't give a damn about music… We're just stating the obvious, but you do have to remind yourself that it doesn't have to be like that. We've sort of allowed a lot of things to get the way they are. Most of us are pretty lazy, and we like the easy option. We don't like to sort of shout about it and say, 'No, I don't want this. Actually, I don't want my MTV. I don't want Clear Channel owning all my radio stations. I don't want that.' You know, I want there to be diversity, and I want there to be quirky people who will come on and…if you get a guy that comes on and says 'I like this record so much I'm gonna play it 12 times in a row!' Can you imagine anybody doing that today? You'd be arrested! They'd say he was a madman. But people did do that. And that's how rock 'n' roll got started in the 1950s, you know, and a lot of things now that look kind of corny and old fashioned, were actually quite fun and truthful. There was a genuine enthusiasm for music."
Do you find it ironic that nearly two and a half decades ago you sang about it in — again — "Radio Radio"?
"Well, I'm enjoying singing it now, because it's just as true now as it was then."
It's kind of worse.
"Yeah! It's depressing. But there's so much that you can concentrate on that's positive. You mustn't get lost in the fighting, the battle against these things. I mean, if you want to hear a good song, buy a guitar, and learn to play. And don't even think about getting a record contract — just play where people can hear you. Don't even plug it in. Just an acoustic guitar, that's all you need. And learn three chords. And learn in the key of G, 'cause it's really easy! And write a song about what you know, that matters to you. And don't bother with the rest of it. Because you have that option."
But then again, that's not what you did 25 years ago.
"Well….you know, if I was starting now, I wouldn't. There's no way I'd get in a contract now. [But] I think there's a little bit of, you know, again, self-importance when people start talking about 'slavery' in relation to record contracts. That's an enormous word to use. I mean, you're talking about some serious history, and that's a very dangerous word to bandy around in relation to something which is supposed to be entertainment. Even if it's a very serious matter to you, which it is to me — I'm not joking about it, I'm very serious about what I do — but at the same time, when people start talking about 'should music be free?' talking about file sharing and stuff, you know, we're really lucky that we actually have the luxury of discussing these things. We're not all worrying about where our next meal is coming from, you know, we live in this very privileged society where we can have an opinion about something like that, 'cause we don't have to go and scrap around in the dirt for some roots to keep ourselves from dying. That's the big difference between us and other parts of the world. We can be having this debate, and people sort of forget that with freedom of speech comes responsibility. Freedom is not license to say anything that's idiotic. You've got to sort of think about it, so I mean, you might as well just talk to your friends and sing for your friends if you don't feel that you're going to get into this battle with a bunch of lawyers and accountants that don't respect you and you don't respect them. Why would you want to go to work for them? I don't mind doing it, because I'll happily spend their money for them. I'm very good at wasting corporate money."
So how have you managed to balance the commerce with the artistic aspect and stay ahead, with your integrity intact?
"By writing a ton of songs. That's the thing, I work harder than most of these people know how to do. And therefore, just the volume of stuff keeps me so that I'm not in their debt. So that I can basically do what I want, because I've got songs that are earning money for me by just [me] breathing. You know, I've never made any money at all off records. All off publishing. So I'm not really the great one to talk to about the idea that copyright shouldn't exist. Because I believe it should."
This tour with The Imposters wraps up in November — do you have any immediate plans?
"I'm going on a trip to Antarctica… Just to see it, because it's not going to be there soon. That's what they tell you, anyway. But it's gotta be an interesting place, very still. I haven't been in that part of the world before, and it's very beautiful…. That's the nearest you can get to leaving the planet. You're certainly leaving a lot of the neurotic modern world behind if you go somewhere like that."