Elvis Costello used to be disgusted. Now he seems to be bemused.
The impish pop chameleon is entirely in his element chatting to music icons and other very famous people on the upcoming television series Spectacle: Elvis Costello with.... And judging from clips of the first few episodes, Costello proves both capable and comfortable in his new TV role, though he appears to be tickled greatly by the notion that anyone might think he's turned talk-show host.
"I could never be a real TV presenter," says Costello, with a small smile. "There's no way I could feign the enthusiasm. You can tell when a talk-show host is feigning enthusiasm - 'So, you have a parakeet?' You see that all the time. It's a soul-sapping experience when the host doesn't care and the subjects aren't interesting."
Neither case is the norm on Spectacle. The 13-episode series is a Canadian-British co-production and slated to debut later this year on CTV and Bravo! in Canada, with simultaneous premieres on Britain's Channel 4 and the Sundance Channel in the United States.
Costello met with journalists at the TV-critics tour a few days back in support of the show's launch on Sundance. While commandeering the press conference, he calmly explained the show's concept and endured sophomoric queries from reporters ("How did you choose the name Elvis Costello?"). At 53, he's still terribly cool.
Sitting down shortly afterward for a less-formal chat, Costello is charming and well-spoken, if politely immovable in his insistence that Spectacle is different from other TV-interview programs. "We're not Inside the Actor's Studio, or one of those chat shows where stars come on to promote a new album or movie," he says. "Television often tends to categorize everything, which works opposite to the way I think."
The eclecticism of Spectacle is made evident by the first four guests: Elton John, Tony Bennett, Lou Reed and Bill Clinton. Costello holds the dual role of executive producer on the series - along with Elton John; John's partner, David Furnish; and several others - and begins each hour with a musical performance to set the tone.
In the case of Clinton, Costello opens with the little-known Elvis Presley song Mystery Train, with accompaniment from guitarist James Burton, a member of the King's original band. "As you know, President Clinton's nickname in the White House was Elvis, so that's how we brought him in," he says.
Costello's own versatility speaks for itself. He has demonstrated remarkable range since the release of his breakout album, My Aim Is True, in 1977. Over three decades, he's shifted effortlessly through rock, soul, blues, country, classical and latterly even jazz, in collaboration with his Canadian wife, singer Diana Krall. "I've always done what appeals to me at the moment," he says simply. "And then it's on to the next thing."
The genesis of Spectacle reaches back to 2003, when Canadian music journalist Stephen Warden, who conceived the show, was watching when Costello filled in one night as host on The Late Show with David Letterman, when Letterman was ill. "Seeing Elvis on Letterman, the light bulb came on," he says.
A noted musicologist and regular contributor to Vanity Fair magazine, Costello was, in fact, the only person considered to host the program. He's quite the bon vivant in the first few outings of Spectacle; topics vary with each guest, but the discussion invariably comes back to music, which results in fascinating conversation.
John talks of the influence Allen Toussaint exerted in his piano-playing. The famously reticent Reed demonstrates some subtle variations on the familiar chords of Sweet Jane. Bennett speaks of his admiration for the songwriting skills of Hank Williams. Clinton talks about the day he decided to give up his dream of playing saxophone for a living.
"Each show has been slightly different in structure," says Costello, "because obviously they're all such different people."
Both Costello and his creative partners in Spectacle are staying mum about the guest roster rounding out the remaining nine hours. The show's most connected producer is already putting out the feelers. "Elton has a lot of phone numbers," says Costello, "and I believe most people will take his call."
In the meantime, the beat goes on for Costello. The filming of Spectacle, scheduled to resume next month, is being worked in-between promotion for his most recent musical release, Momofuku (the title is a homage to Momofuku Ando, the man who invented dried noodles in a cup), in addition to concert dates and plans for more songs to come. Dabbling in television is a pleasant creative dalliance for Costello, but it's not his life's passion.
"It's been enjoyable so far," he says. "If viewers take to the show, and the networks want more, I supposed we'll have to see if we can come up with 13 more subjects. But I'm not trying to build a new career in television. I'm a musician."