Sydney Morning Herald, August 31, 2013

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Pump it up

How hip-hop seduced Elvis Costello.

Nick Miller

We are in a crowded hotel basement in Soho, London. The music is eardrum-crushingly loud over the speakers, and Elvis Costello, yep, Elvis Costello is here in a blue suit, a hat, a black shirt and tie, with sunnies in his coat pocket. He is cracking jokes and talking about Thatcher and war and art and disillusionment.

Cool, right?

I did think when I was younger that we would all have jet packs and it would be a great future ... It hasn't worked out that way.

We are among the first in the country to hear some new tracks he has laid down in a surprise collaboration with hip-hop legends the Roots. The booze is free over the bar, even though it's barely afternoon on a Thursday.

Yeah, cool.

Except there are canapes. And this is Soho in 2013, so the hotel has a roof garden where the beers are 10 quid and everyone is a lawyer. Things change.

Just before our interview, Costello excuses himself and pops into the bathroom. And when he comes back he is a bit distracted. He is talking fast and he keeps grasping at a mess of ideas that flit past and I wonder if he has just had a big line of cocaine. Rock 'n' roll.

This is the story I tell people afterwards but, really, perhaps he just went for a wee then came back and his mind was elsewhere in his 15th interview of the day. As someone once said, I would rather be anywhere else, than here today …

Elvis Costello. One of those great snarling, tender voices that broke through the cracks of Thatcher's Britain. "Alison." "Oliver's Army." "Watching the Detectives." "Veronica." Catchy pop, idiosyncratic rock 'n' roll. And the lyrics — metaphorical, complex, angry and heartfelt. He built his songwriting identity, he once said, on guilt and anger. While his style has mellowed a bit (he is working on a musical based on collaborations with Burt Bacharach), his mood is still dark.

But you can see changes. New perspectives have been found. His new album, Wise Up Ghost, explores old conflicts and contrasts them with new ones. He has gone back to 30-year-old ideas, such as his anti-Thatcherism manifesto "Pills and Soap," and found fresh connotations. "Some of the things that were said in the songs when they were originally written … I want to say they have come true, but to me they have more disturbing significance because they continue to go on, certain actions that are done in our name," he says.

Back then, there were B-52 bombers, now there are unmanned drones. Then there was Panama, now Iraq, Afghanistan. "I did think when I was younger that we would all have jet packs and it would be a great future — you know, all that stuff we were taught in the early '60s — and it hasn't worked out that way."

In 1977, in his first press interview, Costello said: "I'm not going to explain my songs. If you can't hear what's going on from the song itself, then god help you."

It was a confrontational answer from a young man. The older Costello is more revealing. Tripwire, a tinkling nightmare lullaby of a song on Wise Up Ghost, is rich in imagery. "Just because you don't speak the language/doesn't mean that you can't understand," he sings. "Tripwire, there's a tripwire/Don't open the door coz they're coming/Don't open the door coz they're here/ Above there's an ominous humming /Below there's a murmur of prayer."

Costello explains: "I don't think analytically. I'm just writing. There are some things in the lyrics that are observational, but there are some things that are broad strokes, a broad slogan written on a wall. Is that a helicopter above somebody praying? Is that a drone? I don't know.

"You put the image there to ask the question of yourself, sometimes. Try to find two lines, paint a picture. You can't preconceive that. You write it, and then ponder it yourself.

"Then when you set it to music, it's speaking to you as you sing it, how it feels to sing it. The word 'murmur' and the word 'humming', it's sensual, it's literally sensual."

In past albums he has refused to put the lyrics on the cover, believing that with repeated listening, the song should reveal itself.

Or not. "I know that a lot of people who heard 'Oliver's Army' when it came out didn't know what I was singing about, or care," he says.

But this time, he wants them to care. This time he gave in to the boss of Blue Note Records, who asked for an edition of the record "where the lyrics could be read without a magnifying glass".

Costello agreed. "There is something, sometimes, to reading a lyric," he admits. "I've resisted that. This is maybe one of those records where I think there's a couple of different things going on, so I appreciate that focus."

If anything, he has gone to the other extreme. In the video for the album's first single, Walk Us Uptown, he and the Roots' drummer Questlove sit by a record player, crank it up, and then the rest of the clip is the lyrics popping up like words from a ransom note, as vinyl spins beneath.

Maybe Costello is a little sick of being misunderstood. Recently, he was attacked for playing Tramp the Dirt Down — his venomous ode to Margaret Thatcher — in the weeks and months after her death.

"The things she did to this country are still being done today," he told the crowd at Glastonbury. But he asked them to understand "it's not about burying someone … it's about burying an idea".

Costello says he doesn't want to be seen as distastefully glorifying Thatcher's death. "On a human level I have compassion for her and her family, because I lost [two members of] my family to a dementia-related illness and it is a dreadful thing. I don't actually wish people dead."

On the other hand, "some of the same lies are being told on her behalf by [those] who are heirs, who are currently the government, and many of the inequities of her time and a lot of the poison she let out is still in this country".

So, the song stays.

Wise Up Ghost was born of Costello's friendship with Questlove and the Roots, which grew during casual jams after a couple of appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in the US, where the Roots are the house band. They started on a project without a plan or a record deal, based on the suspicion that something good would come of it. It began as an idea to re-record old tracks with a new perspective, but it grew as it went along, as they exchanged music and lyrics, sometimes in the Roots' tiny room out the back of the Fallon studios at the Rockefeller Centre in New York, sometimes across continents.

One new song, "Stick Out Your Tongue," began as beats and bass and, lyrically, as 1983's "Pills and Soap." It brings in a bit of the chorus of 2010's "National Ransom," and mixes in a verse from 1991's "Hurry Down Doomsday."

Musically, too, it is a collage, referring to the original key figure of "Pills and Soap," but adding other references and new work. Throughout the album are samples from old Costello tracks, and plenty of performance, with the musicians switching instruments: in one song, Costello is on electric keyboard, in another he's on bass, in another he's lead guitar, in another he's rhythm.

Again, Costello is running on instinct; that these scraps will combine in an interesting, not merely random, way. "We're borrowing the methodology of hip-hop, but without making a hip-hop record," he says. "Being able to take something and create something new on that foundation — it's no more or less than [founder of the Specials] Jerry Dammers was doing, or I was doing early on. The Beatles were rewriting Smokey Robinson.

"We didn't feel we wanted to make a rule about having to have references to my other songs. It just sort of started to happen."

It was like a "blind dialogue", he says. "We just played. We were somewhat free from expectations because we didn't tell anybody we were doing it, because we didn't know we were doing it ourselves at first."

Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson is proud of the result. "Lines are blurring, people are trying to amalgamate everything and get rid of velvet ropes as best they can," he says. "I just knew that I didn't want to do anything less than an album that will hold up in 20 years, a top 10 Elvis Costello album. An album that a 24-year-old me would freak out about."

Questlove describes the result as an "apocalyptic love story". "It's a moody, brooding affair, cathartic rhythms and dissonant lullabies. I went stark and dark on the music, Elvis went HAM [hard-ass mother f---er] on some ol' Ezra Pound shit."

Costello seems to be wrestling with his habitual moodiness, though. The album ends on an almost, almost positive note. "I hope that the record, although it is dark and violent sometimes, it's ultimately … some of the music has humour to it and with the hope that things could be better," he says.

"I don't want to write Pollyanna, 'If we wish hard enough it will be a better world' songs. But that is why the record ends with [the song] 'If I Could Believe.' If I could believe that it would be better, then it would be better.

"I don't believe that right now."

Some things change and some things don't. An older and wiser Costello has revisited and remixed his past, but he struggles to get it to spell out hope.

Wise Up Ghost is released on September 13.


Sydney Morning Herald, August 31, 2013

Nick Miller interviews Elvis Costello and Questlove ahead of the release of Wise Up Ghost.


2013-08-31 Sydney Morning Herald photo 01.jpg
Photo: Snapper.


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