Almost seven years ago now, the son of dance band singer Ross MacManus invented somebody called Elvis Costello. It was possible to do that in those days. 23-year-old Declan McManus had a wife named Mary and a two-year-old son named Matthew. He had a comfortable, if uninteresting, job operating a computer in a West London factory. If Elvis Costello had anything to be angry about it was that no one wanted to buy his songs.
He had been to the major record companies — carrying an acoustic guitar to his appointments. No more polite refusals through the post; he would sing the songs and solicit a direct response. But the deals he was offered were insubstantial. So he went to Stiff Records. He already knew Nick Lowe, the house producer. He met Andrew Jakeman — the ex manager of a pub rock group called Chilli Willi who now styled himself by the shark-like handle of Jake Riviera — and Barney Bubbles, formerly the director of Hawkwind's light show.
These three were to be instrumental in shaping the public perception of a runty, bespectacled, pigeon-toed singer/songwriter whose ability to turn a memorable phrase was matched by his inability to find a decent suit. It was decided to call him Elvis — a neat piece of iconoclasm that fitted the temper of the times. The sensitivity that he has since had to fall back on was buried in a fraught delivery of songs of bitterness and rejection; rejection of the Sixties, the record business, America — fashionable targets all — and, adding an extra string to his bow, bitterness towards a string of women.
It was as though he had to work up a head of spite to write and perform — and be was, after all, competing for attention with the Sex Pistols. He soon learnt to glare at the camera; soft lips grew taut from uttering lyrics so full of snarling though eloquent contempt. The vulnerable man of his early (and much later) recordings withdrew into a hard, defensive shell. He looked like Buddy Holly, but this wimp was going to write the book of hate.
From his first album of songs — well-formed but sketchily presented — Elvis' music grew apace. He recorded his second album, This Year's Model, with The Attractions, borrowing the stylings from English beat groups, dipping his pen in a deep pool of poison. By the time of his third album, strongly influenced by Abba, Elvis' ambitions were vaulting. Armed Forces established him as both a popular and credible artist. His work was visually stylish, musically adept and lyrically not quite mature but certainly adult.
The critics threw bouquets, some of them barbed, but Elvis, as usual, remained aloof. Though he does take some notice. '1 think they're sometimes a very good indication of your own vanities, because I think the critics themselves often tend to be quite vain; therefore they're very bitchy about... conceits... in either the writing or the performance. They're probably most accurate on that score."
With an album that could be sold internationally and a sharply-defined, dramatic image — guilt and revenge tattooed on his knuckles — Costello seemed unstoppable. What stopped him was a drunken argument in a bar in Columbus, Ohio with Bonnie Bramlett and members of the Steve Stills band, in which Costello, to annoy his adversaries, made an unfortunate remark about Ray Charles.
Transcripts of the press conference that he gave afterwards to try to counter accusations of racism and quell the scandal that threatened his US tour reveal a New York music press aroused by an easy, and in their view — since the victim's arrogance and disdain for them, their ilk and their country was no secret — merited kill. An incontrite Elvis, anxious to explain the circumstances but trying hard not to apologise, doesn't help. In any case, the damage was done. It was too late to cite his own anti-fascist song "Night Rally" or his appearances at British RAR benefits.
Suddenly the persona that had so enthralled the media had become a straight-jacket. Costello found himself unable to perform the same adroit manoeuvres in his career as Barney Bubbles and Jake Riviera had contrived for his public image. The time had come to get those famous tattoos removed and replaced by ones that read: rage and remorse.
Costello retired, hurt but still a little punchy, to hiscorner. His subsequent career has been erratic, achieving musical peaks that he might never have otherwise attempted, but no longer so sure of its direction. He has produced records for The Specials, Squeeze and The Bluebells. He has marked time with his own albums such as the country songbook, Almost Blue, and Trust, a throwback to his earlier oeuvre. And he has produced his best work on Get Happy — a set of superb Sixties soul stylings on some of his most open, moving songs — and Imperial Bedroom, an album that was "against rock 'n' roll; against the idea of an individual solo singer."
Imperial Bedroomcontained further departures in that it featured Elvis singing with an orchestra, an experiment repeated live with the Royal Philharmonic. The opinion of Ross MacManus — who has been singing for years in front of a more modest orchestra — goes unrecorded. But his son admits the experience was "nerve wracking. I'm not going to do it again."
Over the past three years Costello has learnt to live with himself, as well as with a smaller audience than he once anticipated. He has put on weight, and permitted the occasional smile for the camera. Quite unexpectedly — so much so that only 15,000 were first pressed — he has just had a hit single. 160,000 copies were finally pressed of "Pills And Soap," a devastatingly bleak prognosis of Tory Britain. I wondered what sort of mood he was in when he wrote it. He didn't answer.
"Lyrically speaking, it carried on in a sense from "Shipbuilding." The intention behind releasing it at such a time was that some people might sympathise with it. That's all. One of the funniest things I ever read in an interview was Sting saying 'We've got a really subversive song on our new album' — which was that song 'Invisible Sun'."
He grins like a teacher who has caught out a bright pupil. "The first rule of subversive pop is: Don't say it's subversive!"
The interview that follows took place at F-Bears West London offices.
It's obvious why you called yourself Elvis, but why Costello?
It's my great-grandmother's name. I had already started calling myself Costello anyway, because it ran easier on the phone — this was when I was working as a solo singer. There were too many hard consonants in the name McManus to say on the phone. It was purely that — just convenience really.
Where were you born?
How long ago?
Where did you grow up?
I lived in Olympia in West Kensington until I was seven. Then I lived in Twickenham.
Your father being in a dance band, did you travel around the country?
When I was very young, yes, but then for 14 years he was resident at the Hammersmith Palais and it was really just like an evening job. They did tours in the summer but it wasn't like the kind of touring we do - going away for months at a time.
What did your mother do?
She worked in various offices - and in records. She worked in records originally. She ran the record department in Selfridges for some years.
What did they think of your musical ambitions?
Parents not involved in music tend to think it's not a very reputable occupation. My parents were aware of the dangers and pitfalls and disappointments of it but they never discouraged me. On the other hand sometimes when you get families in a career like that, they tend to be over-encouraging. My parents were never really insistent. For instance I never learnt to read music, which I now sometimes regret. I think they were very conscious of not putting me off it.
Do you have any brothers or sisters?
What sort of education did you have?
Did you benefit from it?
I don't know.. . I didn't like it very much - I don't think anybody likes school very much. I went to Catholic schools: I was taught by nuns for the first few years and then lay teachers until I was eleven; then I went to a secondary modern school in Hounslow until I was 16. Then I went to live in Liverpool for two years - I took my' 'A' levels there.
Why did you move there?
I was sick of living in London. My parents were separated by then and my mother was quite happy to go and live in Liverpool. Both my parents are from Merseyside - my father's from Birkenhead - so it was a question of going home really.
Did you get any 'A' levels?
I got one - English.
When did you start wearing glasses?
When I left school. I had really good eyesight until I was about 15. I never noticed anything about it until I started working in computers and then under artificial light looking at figures all the time I used to get lots of headaches. It dawned on me that I couldn't see quite as well as I used to.
What is actually wrong with your eyesight?
Astigmatism - the wrong shaped pupil or something like that. I can get around without glasses but I find if I try and watch TV or read I get headaches.
As a teenager, what interests did you have?
Music's always been my main interest - since I was about ten.
I assume you liked pop music. Did your parents frown on that?
My father was in what was, I suppose, a fairly out-moded style. The big bands of the Forties and Fifties were by then an anomaly, but they were so entrenched in the way the BBC was set up. They used to have a Friday lunchtime programme with the Joe Loss Orchestra on which beat groups guested, and the repertoire of the orchestra was all the hits of the day. My father was probably the most versatile of the three singers they had, so he tended to get more unusual material to deal with. And as the Sixties wore on, the task got harder and harder. In the late-Fifties there were still ballads that you could do justice to with an orchestra. By the time you get to '65 or so you're talking about an orchestra doing "God Only Knows"! But I always had a lot of pop records around the house because he used to bring the acetates home to learn. And my mother's taste in music - although it was rooted in jazz and ballad singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra - she never really disliked pop music.
Who inspired yon when you were 16?
It's hard to say. I used to read an awful lot. You're much less cynical about political theory when you're young - so I was very interested in that. I used to read a lot of newspapers, I used to read them all! I used to think it was really important.
Did you have many friends?
No. Not from those days. I don't have very many friends at all, actually. That sounds terrible - what a sob story! I don't know.. . I really liked football. I'm not very good at it. I'm not good at any sport really. But I was fanatical about it in those days. I was always a Liverpool supporter so I suppose my 'hero' was Roger Hunt.
When you left school you went to work in computers. That must have been unusual at the time.
It wasn't as common as it is now. It seems odd now . . . I think that was the first year of a million unemployed - the year I left - so jobs were scarce and as always they were more scarce in the North than down here. So there weren't an awful lot of jobs going. I had neither the inclination nor the qualifications for going to college but I was already too old for certain sorts of jobs. I went for any job that was going in the paper. I went for a job as a tea boy but they told me I was too well qualified with my one 'A' level. I went for a job as an Admiralty chart corrector. That was a funny place: a really Dickensian office with a row of tables and a high desk for the supervisor. You had to have really precise handwriting. God knows how I ever got considered for it because no one can read my handwriting. But I just happened to go for a computer job and got it. I knew nothing about computers. I was terrible at mathematics. But really all that's irrelevant, because the whole point of computers is they make all that redundant. It's just button-pushing and dealing with tapes and printers. It's manual work really. It has a sort of status attached to it because it's modern technology.
So you worked in computers until you began recording?
Yes. I changed actual jobs. I went from working in a big banking computer centre to working in a small factory with a computer that I ran on my own.
You said you were keen on politics as a teenager. What were your political beliefs at that age?
(Sighs)... I don't know. I had more faith I suppose in the Labour Party. I still would like to have the faith; I still would always vote for them as an alternative to the Tories or the SDP, if you want to talk in terms of party politics. But I think you have more naive and more fanciful notions about socialism when you're really young. Some of which I still believe in, but others ... I'm not talking about being a disillusioned cynic, I mean the very naive notions that you have when you're 14.
Can you recall your favourite singers when you started singing?
I went through a period - I'm sure everybody does - when you disown music that you liked when you were younger. For a time I resented liking things like the singer/songwriters of the early Seventies. But that was what was happening then; it was either that or glitter rock which didn't particularly appeal to me. So I went for the more introspective thing.
Like Randy Newman, for instance?
Well, he's one of the ones that I still admire. I was thinking of the more irksome types like James Taylor. His first couple of records had some nice songs on them. It's just: how much of that confessional stuff can you take? But I liked all radio music. I didn't have any secret knowledge of music. Up until I was about 16 I really liked Tamla Motown and a certain amount of reggae.
Were you a mod?
No. I was too young to be a mod. Everybody was more a sort of skinhead by then. I wasn't really a skinhead either, but that was the kind of skinhead music: "Motown Chartbusters Vol. III' and the "Tighten Up" records. They were the party records. So there was that stuff, and when I went to live in Liverpool everybody was more interested in American West Coast music. I struggled, rather than be out of step, to like that, but I was never totally convinced. And then I sort of gradually drifted back to liking soul music. Actually it was meeting Nick Lowe when the Brinsleys came to play in Liverpool that had a lot to do with it. That was kind of an eye-opener to me. I suddenly realised it was okay to like Lee Dorsey. Then when I came back to London when I was 18 I found there were a lot of bands playing short songs that didn't have any big, heavy messages and the players weren't necessarily virtuosos - 'cause remember there was a lot of music snobbery then. I hated all those bands like Yes and Caravan. I could not stand them. Nor heavy metal.
I was wondering really where you got your odd singing style from? It's very nasal and it has a lot of American inflections.
That comes from the time when most of the music I liked was either R&B or white acts influenced by R&B, like Van Morrison. But my favourite singer other than the obvious ones was Rick Danko of The Band. He was my absolute hero. I always suspected white singers that sounded like they were trying too hard to sound like soul singers. I was never that struck on Joe Cocker or the Paul Rodgers type of I'm-a-soul-singer voice. But Rick Danko had a kind of unique style. It was kind of nasal and it had a little bit of what I now realise is Country in it, but at the time it was just so unusual to me, such a lovely relaxed falsetto. At one time, when I was about 18, The Band were it for me. I though they were the best. I liked them because they had beards. They didn't look pretty. It appealed to me that they looked really ugly. And they weren't boys. They were men, and all their songs seemed to be about olden days but they weren't dressing up as cowboys or anything. It wasn't phoney.
What was your first stage appearance?
Phew!... In a folk club somewhere in London. I was about 16.
As a singer/songwriter?
Yeah. I always did my own material early on. I always tried to, no matter how dreadful the songs were. I played a few times on my own in Liverpool. Then I had a little group up there. Then I came back to London and played solo for a time. Then I had a loose kind of pub rock group called Flip City that was very badly organised. We did very few gigs and we never had any money. And then I went solo again and that's when I really started hawking songs around. I had some of the songs from the first album at that point. But I had a different attitude to writing then. I had some songs which were quite complicated, and after I signed to Stiff - on the basis of maybe just two songs - I then scrapped nearly all of the original songs and wrote nearly all of the first album in about two weeks.
When you signed to Stiff there was a premium on youth, aggression and simplicity. Along with the name, did you have to change your personality?
No. I was pretty fed up of having waited around. Once I got into the recording studio I wanted to record more direct material so I put a lot of the songs on ice - some of which have surfaced in various shapes and forms. There was no real change of personality. Not at that point anyway.
There was the famous quote of yours about understanding no emotions other than guilt or revenge. That can't have been true.
I think I said that more for effect. When you're confronted by a 35-year-old hippie asking you what the difference is between Punk and New Wave you tend to say things like that. I was just trying to irritate, you know? I said quite a lot of things - some of which I think made a pretty good impact. It's much better to have a more defined attitude even if it's somewhat negative. It works up to a point and then you just become a bit pathetic. You're yelling and screaming like an idiot after a while. It wasn't quite that calculated but looking back on it, it had a good point.
You recorded your first album with members of the American group Clover, and then you formed The Attractions. Was your keyboard player Steve Nason, or Steve Nieve as he's known, from the Royal College of Music?
Yes. He came to an audition along with Bruce Thomas. I borrowed Steve Golding and Andrew Bodnar from Graham Parker's group and during the day we saw quite a lot of people but Steve and Bruce were the ones that stuck out. I had a new number called "Watching The Detectives" and it suited Steve because he was very fond of the reggae style. Pete Thomas had already been earmarked for the drums. He was playing with John Stewart in America and Jake had had the idea of getting him back over. He clicked right away, particularly with Bruce - not so much because of sympathy but more because of the clash of their styles, in that Bruce is a very melodic bass player and Pete is a very rhythmic drummer. That meant we could almost get away with being a trio, because an awful lot of the time I didn't play, and also a lot of what I did play, particularly early on, was just like white noise! I had no idea. I wasn't very experienced at all. Rather than making a bad job of trying to play well, I was quite happy to exploit the simple things I could do.
You mentioned "Watching The Detectives". Is it true that Stevie Wonder settled out of court for stealing the first eleven bars of the song for "Masterblaster"?
No (surprised). I would have thought he should have paid Bob Marley! Is that a rumour? That's great! That's like the one about me once being a member of the Sex Pistols. I must remember that.
How do you realise your songs with the group?
Rehearsals for albums have always consisted of me playing early on just on guitar. As the songs got more complicated and my ideas of their treatment became less direct and more of an impression of what the song should be, I started to make demos by myself - playing all the instruments. I'd say 'this is the kind of mood I want' and they would all contribute their parts. Which would be quite crucial. "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea" sounded like "I Can't Explain" when I first played it. I had it in that kinda Kinks' stop-time rhythm, but Bruce's bass line transformed it from a sort of pastiche to something quite unusual. And sometimes an ordinary track would be transformed by a very telling keyboard part. I nearly left "Oliver's Army" off "Armed Forces" before Steve put the piano part on it.
There's a sort of surrealism in your songs. You like puns and word-play. Who are your favourite comedians?
...Grief! I've never really thought about it. Tony Hancock, just off the top of my head. Lenny Bruce, more from reading than listening to his records. His scripts in the book that's available are so well honed . . . James Thurber, particularly his cartoons, more the captions really, they're the funniest! They're the only things I daren't read on a train.
How would you describe your sense of humour?
I don't know. I've always thought there was more humour in our songs than people gave us credit for. Sometimes the tone of your records does a disservice to that. People got very tied up with the attitude of the first couple of records - the aggressive, angry chap - and by the time of "Get Happy" and "Trust" it was starting to work against us. Some of the songs still had that edge, but some - I was trying to get other things over but the way I was singing was defeating the object.
Do you find yourself having to resist the urge to make a pun in your lyrics?
Yeah, they do get a bit irritating. I've tried to calm them down over the last couple of records 'cause I started to feel it was getting to be a habit after a while. Sometimes I write something and think 'can I get away with that?'. There are certain lines when I look back . . . "A wave of her hand could be so tidal." It's just thrown away in the middle of one of the songs on "Armed Forces". It's a really terrible pun! There's other ones that people criticise - like the one in "Possession" that goes "You lack lust/You're so lacklustre." What's wrong with that? It makes sense. It makes a point.
Your career took off spectacularly in 1978. You subsequently left your wife and took up with the American model Bebe Buell -
I don't want to talk about that.
Well, it was a period that seemed to culminate in the notorious slanging match between you and Bonnie Bramlett in an Ohio bar -
I don't want to talk about that either. I talked about that in Rolling Stone. I can't go on right through my life constantly explaining that incident. I think there's a period of time there - the period of time that we're about to not talk about - that I'm not very fond of. I think I pretty much covered the motives and the incidents and the consequences in Rolling Stone last year.
I wasn't actually going to ask you to go over it. My point was that since then, your career in America - and to some extent here, though perhaps for different reasons - seems to have lost its momentum.
No, that's not true. Not in America. The only time it lost any momentum in America is when we released Almost Blue because they didn't understand the motives behind it and they sort of resented us playing their music.
But Get Happy wasn't a popular record there either.
No - to be honest I think Get Happy suffered largely from the delay in time we took to release it, which I think minimised its commercial punch, aside from its contrast to the record that it followed up. I had a very radical change of attitude after Armed Forces - and all of the surrounding events, personal and professional. It's my least favourite record that we've made.
For those reasons?
I suppose that's part of the reason. It's got good songs on it, but overall it's got a sort of glib tone to it. I thought I knew better than anybody else, and time has proved that I obviously didn't. I liked "Get Happy" much more. It's probably my favourite album apart from the one we've just made and the last one.
But you must agree that you were knocked off your trajectory at that time -
Obviously. We didn't go back to America for 18 months in the aftermath of the Columbus incident. So we had a lot of ground to make up. Perhaps what happened was we haven't had the massive commercial breakthrough that was predicted for us. Our sales have gone down but sales have gone down generally.
The question is: do you regret this episode in your life?
No. I make better records now. I think you learn from your mistakes and I made lots of mistakes in 1978/79. I think I'm a better person for it and I definitely make better records. Get Happy is five times the record Armed Forces was even though it was made under extreme self-inflicted emotional stress. It was a very extreme record from the point of view of the condition that I and the rest of the band were in ... the aftermath of what happened in America and just generally very emotional, you know, shattered nerves. Too much drinking. That's why it sounds unfinished - because it's about all we were capable of doing.
The story is that you went into Rock On before Get Happy was made and bought £50 worth of old Motown, Stax and Atlantic singles.
Yeah, I did. They were to refresh my memory about what I was trying to do: where the idea was stemming from. I had no intention of making a carbon copy of a Motown record, but I was re-immersing myself in the simplicity of it because you've got to understand . .. One thing I'll say about the Armed Forces thing is that from going over to America as a kind of quasi-punk group - at least in their eyes - we then tended to immerse ourselves in Abba and Low and Heroes Bowie; they were our major influences. We had worked our sound - with the organ to the front and lots of tremelo guitar - to death, and there were other groups coming up using that sound; some actually carbon copies. It got to the point where I felt the next record we made would end up sounding like a parody of ourselves. On the Armed Forces tour of America we had arrangements of half the songs on Get Happy in our old style. We went in to start recording and the result did sound like cliched new wave music. It would have come out sounding like a cross between Armed Forces and This Year's Model. It would have been less well arranged than Armed Forces and slightly more maniacal, more out of control, because we were out of control by that point. I felt it wasn't right and I had the idea of taking a kind of soul base; literally taking the songs and saying 'okay, what song are we going to play this like? Let's play it like, say, "Time Is Tight".' On "Temptation" we actually used a rift that's very close to "Time Is Tight". Each song, I could go through and tell you which band we were being. Al Green on one, The Four Tops on another.
What about "Black And White World"? Was that dealing with the experiences you'd just had?
No. It stemmed from watching old films. I suppose it came from watching a lot of TV on tour. I think I wrote it after seeing Ball Of Fire with Barbara Stanwyck. I probably wrote more obliquely about what happened in America. I didn't write any specific song about that. That's true. "Riot Act" was probably the closest one, 'cause actually when we made "Get Happy" I had no intention of making any more records. That was the last record.
What did you think you'd go and do?
I had no idea. I wasn't that in charge (laughs).
Were you taking a lot of drugs?
I was taking enough drugs. Too many. Any is too many.
Would you have been prepared to give up music like that?
I don't know. I did quit. Just after "Get Happy" came out we did a tour of England and I decided that I didn't want to go on any more and left the group. I just didn't see any point to it any more.
This would have been just before you recorded the "New Amsterdam" EP, which was at the time a marked departure in style.
Yeah, you see, "New Amsterdam" was a solo single in a sense. It was a demo that proved impossible to recapture. It was a freak, really. I did it in a £5-an-hour demo studio in Pimlico. I had this idea of recording songs that didn't have a beat in them at all, that were just a conglomeration of instruments that weren't played with the usual techniques. That's why I played all the instruments myself, basically. They weren't songs you could really play with a group. They were just like pictures, doodles. I like that EP a lot, because it just sounds like what it is.
Your country album, "Almost Blue", if it had been a major commercial success, would have established you with a large and potentially lifelong audience - that very loyal country music following. Did you have that in mind when you made it?
I had in mind that it would probably reach a lot of people that don't buy our records normally, and also a lot of people who never listen to country records. Both things appealed to me quite a lot, apart from the fact that I was also totally bored with my own music and I wanted just to sing other people's songs. I was completely obsessed with country music at the time, although I hardly ever play country records now. I've exhausted that love - though I still have my particular favourites. There are other, darker things involved in that. It's a rather fatalistic type of music. I listen to that record now and think 'God! I was never this depressed, was I?' It is a very depressed sounding record. So maybe that was the aftermath of 1979, maybe that was the final exorcism of all the unhappiness. Not "Get Happy" - that was the reaction. And up to a point, "Get Happy" was very positive. The only record I really don't like from that time is "Trust" because I feel it's under-realised. There were some very good songs on it and some very bad songs, but overall we didn't follow it through to anything definite enough. What I like about "Get Happy" is that it's got a very radical attitude to the playing and to the production, whereas both those things were lacking in "Trust".
What I was getting at about "Almost Blue" was -
The lifelong audience thing. Yeah sure. But I never think about those things. There were all these critiques of the audience when we last toured England. He's got this terrible, smug audience, they were saying. How bloody insulting! These people come along, they pay their money to see us; I'm sure they pay to see other groups too, they don't all sit around obsessed with our music. I'm sure it's a really small part of their lives. The fact that they like us in a period when we weren't having very much popular success doesn't make them wrong.
You find yourself swimming against the commercial tide at the moment. You don't make pop records, you're not a pin-up. But making music is obviously not something you are prepared to give up lightly, even though you say you considered it.
Yeah, only when I figured that it was getting futile, personally speaking. Not for lack of commercial success.
No, but you must have wondered where your audience is. You presumably want to write songs and play music for a good few years to come. At the moment, though, the arena that you're in isn't condusive to that approach. It has a high turnover of superficial noise and glamour.
I don't think there's anything wrong with that. It was always going on and we were very briefly part of that.
Is there an audience apart from that?
Of course there is! Who buys Johnny Mathis records, that's what I'd like to know? Where do you meet them? There are millions of people out there. Even if your record gets to number one, even if you are KajaGooGoo, there's still something like 70 percent of the population who have never heard of you. People overestimate the power ... And there is always an audience out there, even if it's quite small. I mean we toured last year having watched at that point four, maybe five singles fail to make the Top 40. And yet at a time when bands that had had hits were having to cancel, we were still doing 75 percent to capacity audiences all over the country. If you sell 100,000 records, maybe they're the only 100,000 people in the country that like you, but that's still a lot of people. 20,000 is still a lot of people. It's a damn sight more than you reach playing your songs in your bedroom. You can get very spoilt by success, not least in that you think you have a God given right to an audience. If I really felt that there was someone doing what I do better than me, then I'd be worried.
Who is your biggest rival then? Who do you pace yourself against?
Er... Roddy Frame. If I was to take the idea of competition seriously like B.B. King said of Peter Green that he was the only guy who really made him sweat, then I would say it of him.
I don't believe you.
I do. I think he's really very good! I like his songs and that Aztec Camera album is my favourite record that's come out this year! He's also very young. If he's that good at 19, imagine how good he's going to be when he's 25! I wasn't that good at 19. I wish I was writing songs then as well as him. You won't be able to listen to him by the time he's 25 if he's that good now. That's when you start to feel nervous.
If you did something that no one around you liked, no one around you understood, who is the one person you would like to appreciate it?
Me. Because if everybody else hated it I'd have to re-assess it, but if I did genuinely believe in it then I'd have to go ahead with it. I have held out on things . . . ideas about the direction of a track, particularly on "Imperial Bedroom" - where I was making all the production decisions. It's very hard when you're judging your own work. Some of the things that I held out for - when everyone said I was wrong - six months later I found I was wrong! There's that song "Kid About It", which I insisted on singing in an entirely unsuitable octave. I was trying to get away from having one vocal feel throughout, the sort of one-man-tortured-by-his-art thing, so I went completely the other way and used overlapping vocals and conflicting styles to suggest there was more than one attitude going on inside the songs. Some of it worked perfectly well, a rather more theatrical way of singing, if you like, because I wanted to get away from that sort of soul singing and do something cooler, in the old-fashioined sense.
You must have written around 200 or so songs by now. Which were the most personal?
They're all personal, really. They're all from a personal point of view. I very rarely write songs in a hackish kind of way - just toss them off like that. There are more of them that are personal than are not, so it's hard to pick out one. They're all from a personal point of view, that's why I never, ever said I'm a spokesman for a generation. I never said that - thank God! I never said I'm speaking for anybody else but myself. And if you disagree, you don't like what I say or you don't like the way I say it, there's plenty of other records to buy.
Picking out a certain theme in your songs "Oliver's Army", "Shipbuilding".. . Would you fight for your country?
No. I'd fight for myself maybe, but I wouldn't fight for my country.
Where's your home?
Just around here.
Can you describe it?
It's a house (chuckles). It's a detached house. It's very crowded. It's got lots of records in it. I buy a lot of records! I'm personally keeping the record industry afloat! I try to listen very widely and to get over the sort of blind spots that you have, particularly as I'm a word fan. It took me a long time to get to grips with any instrumental music.
What do you treasure most in your home?
My wife and child.
How do you relax?
I suppose I listen to music, really.
What do you do to get away from music?
I've no desire to get away from music.
Do you play sports?
I swim. And I play tennis if it's more convenient.
Do you have any interests other than music?
Not really. I don't have the time. I figure this as a job. And I think too many people that do this job just sit around waiting for the next compliment. And I like to be involved. I like to be active all the time. I like work.
What sort of things do you read?
I used to read a lot of biographies. Quite often I'd read literary biographies before I read the person's books, rather than the other way around.
Whose life do you admire?
Nobody in particular. Most of the people that I like whose lives I've read about have usually had pretty tragic lives that I wouldn't envy in any way. They've either turned out to be pretty horrible or had such tragic lives that it makes you wonder whether what they did was worth their pain and suffering.
Do you get many ideas from dreams?
Not very often. Sometimes ideas, strange titles and things, just pop into my head. I woke up one night about six months ago and I had what sounded like the opening line of a Raymond Chandler book. "I had forgotten all about the case of the three pins until the brown paper parcel landed on my welcome mat." I wrote that down and went back to sleep. There's a song called "King Of Thieves" on the new album that came from that.
Do you believe in the supernatural?
Er... I once saw Al Green. That was pretty close to it.
What do you feel is the worst crime?
There can't be a worse crime then taking away someone's life. Except perhaps taking away someone's hope.