The Word, April 2008

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The Word


The Honest Truth

David Hepworth

How is life for a gentleman musician in the post-record company era? And what has he learned from the past? Ever-bookable troubadour, car advertiser, Dylan supporter and born-again father, Elvis Costello talks to David Hepworth.

I never thought anyone would pay me to sit in the back of a car and talk bollocks,” says Elvis Costello of his most recent professional tangent, an American TV ad for Lexus, in which he listens to Beethoven on the car’s superior sound-system. “They said talk about music that you like. My other suggestion was Harry J’s Liquidator, but I think the guy who owned it wanted too much money.”

Costello who will be 54 in August, now lives in the United States. He married Diana Krall in 2003 and two years ago they had twin sons. Their base is New York but they also have a home on Vancouver Island, near where Krall grew up. If Costello’s career had phases, his early chart-bothering era could fairly be described as the pop star years, the ‘90s as the time of the rock legend and the new century as the gentleman musician years. He has no immediate plans for a new album, which means he’s off the record company-dictated treadmill. Plans for 2008 include the scoring of a ballet for Twyla Tharp, continuing work on his book, some concerts with an orchestra in the UK and a tour of major venues with another act who have their roots in the same era, The Police. Plus whatever other car commercials happen to come his way.

What do you think of the massive business that live music has become?

Well, it depends on who you are. There’s somebody playing music somewhere tonight with a tip jar on a piano. Just as surely there’s somebody playing in an underground station with a hat. And then there’s people that are on massive tours that are like Napoleon’s invasion of Russia – huge logistical disasters and triumphs. And they are very big money, but there’s a lot in-between. I work in lots of different ways myself. Sometimes you go out there and there’s a definite plan of how to get through a number of dates; other times the shows are one-offs. Festivals are one-offs, usually, but some of those are highly organised now by these big conglomerates and others are much more spontaneous like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco, which is basically the gift of one man to the city. It nominally is a bluegrass festival, because Warren Hellman, the man who funds it, he’s a financier of some kind, he bankrolls the entire festival every year and they have it in Golden Gate Park. It’s the same sort of place where the Dead did their shows in the ‘60s, just a dell in this park and then just a festival stage. It was just a very, very good atmosphere last year and Richard Thompson played it, Steve Earle was there, Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, a lot of people that I like and a lot of people that are friends of mine. It was uncharacteristically relaxed. It wasn't a big hyped-up atmosphere there.

You toured with Bob Dylan recently.

I did five weeks. I was playing solo between Amos Lee and his band and Bob and his band. And he plays quite big places. The thing that people don’t know is that Bob has quite a considerable young audience these days. I don’t know whether it’s because he had a number one record and he also had this crazy iPod commercial and that’s piqued some people’s interest maybe for the first time. And he’s just one of those figures that you can read about in a history book, so of course, some younger people are going to become curious about him. They had absolutely no clue who I was, except maybe one or two songs. I could play brand-new-songs. And I only had a 45 minute set anyway, so I’d open with something vaguely familiar, close with something familiar and do whatever I wanted in the middle. That’s pretty much what I’m planning to do with The Police as well, because their audience won’t know us either. They’ll know the obvious songs, but they’re not going to know every tune of mine, because they’re Police fans.

Did you learn anything about Dylan by doing that tour?

The obvious thing is that he’s unpredictable and that’s one of the things that makes him great. You really can’t pin him down. We did play together on the tour, we did a number together on one of the shows, and we sang "Tears Of Rage" together with just two acoustic guitars. And on the closing night we had Amos and I go out and sing "I Shall Be Released" with him. We spent a little time together, but the days are long when you’re travelling and sometimes you arrive at different times. You might go several days on a major tour like that and never see the other artist on the bill. I didn't go on the tour with the idea of unravelling some puzzle about him. I was curious to see him play as much as I could. I usually watched his show for a good part of it, because he would always end up doing different songs and there would be new arrangements and it was very interesting. I really enjoyed that, I had a great time on the tour.

He’s not afraid to take risks that often go wrong, which most performers will insure against. Do you admire that?

I saw Bill Monroe just before he died and Dylan has a quality of people that are in that tradition, much more than people who are in that tradition of the large stadium-rock bands like the Stones, who I've played with a couple of times over the last couple of years. And although they've very good and for the people that want to go to see them, they don don’t let you them down. The last show I did with the Stones was in Soldier Field in Chicago in October , which is quite late to play outside in Chicago, and it was 35 degrees on stage the night of the show. And you had to say that Mick Jagger was absolutely amazing – he wasn't going to let the audience feel as if they’d wasted their money. The band itself was huddled together around heaters in the centre of the stage playing the best they could, because you literally couldn't feel your hands and Mick is at the front of the stage, being a super showman. But you never feel it’s going to go anywhere that you can’t guess. With Dylan that’s not so much the case. He might sing in an unintelligible way for three numbers and suddenly becomes clear. And he might suddenly do a song he’s not done in ten years. There’s an element of risk with that. And I know which disposition I lean to myself, so of course I’m more inclined to be intrigued by the person that takes that risk.

How much risk can you take yourself with your own live shows nowadays?

Well I do it in a different way. I did the solo shows with Dylan and then I played some shows with a symphony orchestra. People who are prejudiced against hearing me sing with an orchestra, they’re theorising about the idea of that show, not the reality of it. There’s nothing particularly safe about that because you get one rehearsal and you've got to make a credible, comprehensible picture out of as little as three hours’ rehearsal for a two-hour show. If that isn't a high-wire act, I don’t know what is. But the fact that it doesn't have drums and snarling vocals and electric guitars, to some people’s minds, makes it safer.

What’s going through your head when you’re on stage in front of a large crowd?

It clearly depends on what the circumstances are. It’s like that thing they say about radio: you shouldn't talk as if you’re talking to millions of people, you talk as if you’re talking to one person. I don’t really think there’s much difference. The only time it’s different is if you play a festival where the audience may not have an interest in you. But most times you’re playing a show where people have bought a ticket; they presumably came along with the idea that they wanted to see you. We won’t play very long on The Police Tour; I don’t know how long they’ll want us to play for – I can’t imagine more than 45-50 minutes.

Do you look for things in the audience? Do you look for people or reactions?

Obviously it would be good if somebody’s flinging themselves around, it looks like they’re having some sort of time. But people who push their way down to the front of shows quite often don’t know why they’re there, or they do know why they’re there but you’d rather they weren't. You know, like the people that are standing there stock-still, dressed like you were 20 years ago or something like that and who try to get a reaction. I glanced at Bob’s audience when I went out to duet with him and the whole front row had Venetian carnival masks on. I thought, “No wonder he sets up away from the edge of the stage.” I sat in the audience a lot of nights and the people back in the audience weren't weird, it was just those few overwrought people down there that felt they were the show. But you shouldn't take anything from just a handful of obsessives. God bless them, there’s a degree of illness to that, I think, to come along like that. You know there’s 50,000 people in a football stadium cheering up one side or the other, and then there are the people who believe they have mental powers that can make the ball go into the goal.

You don’t find your attention wandering occasionally?


Not ever?

My attention does not wander.

Do you ever get stage fright?

Not really stage fright, no, I mean, I think it’s good to get nervous. It comes out in some sort of way like you start worrying about some really irrational thing like the colour of your socks and that's your mind deflecting the nerves to something irrelevant, rather than letting it affect the thing you’re really worried about.

Have you been asked to write an autobiography?

Since 1978. So obviously I thought that was a fairly ludicrous request as I hadn't lived any life. I am under contract to Simon and Schuster to write a book, which is quite late now. But an autobiography as such, I just thought that was perhaps a slightly less self-regarding way of writing about some things that matter to me, but just not like every detail of my life, because I just don't think it's that interesting.

But it's supposed to be an autobiography – is that the plan?

No. I said I wanted to write narratives that took as a starting point the scenarios of particular songs that I selected of mine. Because sometimes, obviously, there's more of a story than you can fit in a three-minute song or even a five-minute song. And I thought it might be more entertaining to read the full story, the beginning, what went before, what went after, because I deliberately chose ones, obviously ones that were either… I wouldn't say more personal, but ones that had particular significance to me. That's the best way I can explain it without it sounding very impenetrable.

What music have you been listening to recently, for yourself? How do you use music?

Well, it depends where I am. I spent all of last year on the road, from about April to November, with a couple of breaks, because Diana and I have our twin boys, Frank and Dexter were born the December before, so at six months they went on the road with their mum. And I went along too, because I was obviously anxious that family life on the road was going to be good for them. But it was also peace of mind for me to go along for the first couple of trips, so I spent the time that I wasn't on my own tours on her tours, just being Dad.

Remainder of text to come...

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The Word, No. 62, April 2008

David Hepworth interviews Elvis Costello.


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Photos by Zac Cordner.

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Page scans.

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Photo by Zac Cordner.


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