The Big Issue, December 1, 1997

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The Big Issue

UK & Ireland magazines


OK Costello

Simon Rogers

Radiohead cite Elvis Costello as their major influence. So why is he relegated to Radio Four these days?

Elvis Costello, the most literate man in British Pop, has a soft spot for the Spice Girls. "I have a feeling they won't disappear," he says. "I have a feeling they'll go straight from being teen idols to being Cilla. That's my bet. They'll go straight into popular culture."

Costello is a bit of an expert on the troubled Spices — he plays a cameo in their new film. He also knows how the system works, having gone from Radio One to Radio Four in the past 20 years. "I'm excluded from pop radio in this country," he says. "I'm not banned, but excluded by virtue of having lived too long."

In the Kennington office of Warner Brothers, having thrown off a bright yellow coat and a black woolly hat, he's sinking into a black squidgy sofa. He is about to leave the security of this giant corporation, but his demeanour is unworried. For an interviewee who can swing from wildly sarcastic to amusing via defensive, the 43-year-old is in a good mood. Talkative and jokey. his words may sound bitter, but he says them with a smile.

The trademark specs stem so much a part of his appearance that without them you fear Costello would just disappear, becoming a character from a Magritte painting. His face is a collection of strange characteristics: light stubble, slightly gappy front teeth, hair shorn on top, straggly at the side. And, deep down, the intensity you expect from a man who used to style himself "the bug-eyed monster from planet Guilt and Revenge".

Ever since his first album, My Aim Is True, 20 years ago, Costello — recording under both Costello and his real name of Declan MacManus — has had the hits and the critical plaudits. He has written over 300 songs and recorded with and without The Attractions. His move to Warner in the mid-Eighties saw the creations of albums such as the acoustic King Of America and the thrash Blood & Chocolate, which defined him as the most inventive songwriter in British pop. Thom Yorke of Radiohead recently cited Blood and Chocolate as "awesome" and "the album made me change the way I thought recording and writing music". So: no Costello: no OK Computer.

Smiling today, only a year ago Elvis was telling fans on US radio that he was going to give up touring and possibly recording. Chat show host Jay Leno even begged him on air not to do it. Costello feels Warner don't know how to promote him despite the sales for biggest-selling albums Brutal Youth and Mighty Like A Rose. He claims the marketing budget for the latest collection his work, Extreme Honey — The Warner Years, was only $1,000 in the US: "a calculated insult." And this is despite a whirlwind work rate: recording with the classical Brodsky Quartet, then an album of covers (Kojak Variety), in between song-writing with Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney.

The LP's covered by his forthcoming, as-yet-untitled compilation album are all very different: pop work such as Brutal Youth and Spike interspersed with the reflectiveness of All This Useless Beauty. You might never have heard of it or, like Select, dismissed it as: "Oh no! It's the Beardy Years'

When Elvis released four singles in a month last year (one of which was mixed by Tricky) as a "billboard exercise," he says he found himself rounded on by executives within Warner and from the establishment. "I was being told officially, in this building from the most senior levels, that I was wasting my time. The head of all music at the BBC told me that I was wasting my time," he says. "He said I would have more hits if I took all the seventh chords and all the minor chords out of my songs. I'm not trying to make myself sound like Mozart, but doesn't it have a sort of ‘too many notes' feel to it? It's such a frighteningly ignorant statement."

There's a palpable desire among the critics for Elvis to come to his senses and produce pop — there was a huge critical sigh of relief when Brutal Youth came out in '94. Paul Du Noyer, contributing editor of Mojo, is a fan who nevertheless sums up the prevailing opinion: "His work's become more and more thoughtful and less accessible. It's now very dense," he says. "He was easier to enjoy in the old days."

Elvis is having none of it. "All I'm trying to do is write how I feel," he says. Patience is not something Costello, a renowned perfectionist, is known for. When Attractions bass player Bruce Thomas wrote a tell-all book about life on the road and a character called ‘The Singer', Elvis responded by writing "How To Be Dumb" for 1991's Mighty Like A Rose. Thomas said in a recent interview with a musicians' magazine: ‘Elvis is such an intensely demanding person — not just artistically but personally."

Now, the singer says he doesn't want to talk about it In the ensuing pause, he starts talking about it "Bruce just doesn't love music it makes me sad because he used to be a really good player and still can be on occasions when he concentrates. it just really made being on the road hellish, that's why I couldn't do it anymore."

Costello only occasionally finds himself in the UK nowadays, preferring to live in Ireland with his second wife, former Pogues bass player Cait O'Riordan. "I quite like it that I can just flit in and out of here now. I don't spend an awful lot of time here," he says. "It's funny I can be completely invisible a lot of the time. Some people think that I've retired because I'm not part of their view of popular culture. Then I can play and we sell out" This is true — even 1993's classical album The Juliet Letters sold 300,000 copies since its release.

This outsider status doesn't trouble him. Costello — working with Matt, his son from his first marriage, and Supergrass drummer Danny Goffey — recently asked The Artist Formerly Known As Prince if they could use part of his "Pop Life" for what has become "The Bridge I Burned" on the new collection. The Purple One refused. "Prince took on about it somehow — I think he thought we were making fun of him. He is a very touchy man."

He shrugs his shoulders and continues. He likes Goffey because he says they share a natural curiosity. "I may not be good looking, I may not be young, but I am curious," he says. "It's 20 years in, and I'm still doing things that are brand new — it can't be better than that whether or not the records will still be in the charts next week feels less important"

It matters to some, Elvis is the subject of much interest on the Net, which he calls a "boom town for obsessiveness". His fan base varies from anoraks through to something more serious. ‘There are things that would probably qualify as stalking. It's not a big deal. I have to be a little bit careful -some of it is more psychological than physical It can be people who say that you've written a song for them or you've promised them a job in your office."

But, whatever his fans think, for a long time he has been far removed from the dogmatic New Wave stage personality. Nowadays, he defines himself, lyrically, as "certain as a lost dog pondering a signpost". But that belies a real certainty about some things. Politics, for instance. He's critical, in a cheery way, of the stars who spend their time hobnobbing at Number 10. "No, I don't think I'll be invited, Anybody who wants the job should be disqualified for that reason," he says. "Unless you're representing working people, then I think you're the enemy." Is Mr Blair the enemy? "He could be. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he turns out to be."

Costello wouldn't be able to drink champagne at the Blairs' anyway — he's been teetotal for two years. "I've just lost the taste for alcohol. I'm not afraid of it — I drank a lot and some of it inspired some very good songs and then I got tired of it," he says. "It's quite interesting to be the only sober person in the room at a party. You have the memory of all those unhinged things that people say at the top of their voices."

If Elvis is content today it's because tomorrow he has first sight of a new contract at a new record company — a big corporation he won't identify. It's potentially a 15-year deal, which will enable him to record different types of music: "The Bridge I Burned," with its drum loops, is just one taste. Then there's revenge too: "I have a large back catalogue of work — I own it — and next year we're going to promote a new record, the older "best of." We're going to kick their arse, is what we're going to do." But you once said you wanted to set light to his back catalogue? "It's not the year 2000 yet. I might burn them on top of Primrose Hill still."

And be stands up, puts his woolly hat on and, still talking, walks out the door. He looks like a line from "London's Brilliant Parade," a high point of the new album: "Just look at me; I'm having the time of my life. Or something quite like it."


The Big Issue, No. 261, December 1-7, 1997

Simon Rogers interviews Elvis Costello


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