Toronto Star, June 2, 1994

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Costello explains his latest Attractions

Peter Howell

Don't bother trying to figure out Elvis Costello's latest move.

He's already done it for you, and he's got your number, too.

"Mr. Revenge And Guilt" (his words) is even happy to provide the angle for this story, which he offers over the telephone from London.

"When people are trying to make a story about me, the story is, 'Well, yes, he shaved off his beard, came to his senses, got the old band together and started making the stuff we really love.' "

Well, er, yes, although maybe we wouldn't say it quite so boldly.

But that, indeed, is why the Kingswood Concert Theatre at Canada's Wonderland will be packed out tomorrow night, as Costello, 38, is reunited with the Attractions, his favored band of the good ol' days of "new wave" rock.

Favored by critics and fans, that is, though not necessarily by the participants in what was originally simply a marriage of convenience.

Prior to last month's tour kick-off in Vancouver, Costello and Attractions Pete Thomas (drums), Bruce Thomas (bass) and Steve Nieve (keyboards) hadn't been seen in public together for some eight years and there was little to indicate they'd ever again be on the same stage.

They rejoined forces for this tour and new album Brutal Youth, the first Costello & Attractions talent pool since the Blood And Chocolate album of 1986.

That itself was only a half-hearted reunion, following years of Costello solo excursions into country music (Almost Blue, 1981), twisted romanticism (Imperial Bedroom, 1982), roots rock (King Of America, 1986) and numerous other projects as both performer and producer.

Costello headed solo again in the '90s without looking over his shoulder, offering up eclectic pop brilliance (Spike, 1989), cranky-bearded-guy angst (Mighty Like A Rose, 1991) and genre-crossing pop classicism (The Juliet Letters, 1993), again while exercising his muse doing the likes of TV soundtracks (the G.B.H. drama series), writing tunes with Paul McCartney and supplying ill-fated songwriter Svengali work for pop tart Wendy James.

Which leads us to the fateful questions — Why? And why now? — for the Costello/Attractions reunion.

Most people assume he finally has yielded to public demand that he get back to the killer nerd look and tuneful cynicism that set his image when he exploded onto the punk/new wave scene in 1977.

That was on debut album My Aim Is True (which the Attractions didn't help record but did perform live), recorded for $ 5,000 in a hole-in-the-wall called Pathway Studios, on sick days and holidays from his computer programmer day job.

Writing lines like "Sometimes I wonder if we're living in the same land / Glad you wanna be my friend" ("Welcome To The Working Week") and "I used to be disgusted / Now I try to be amused" ("(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes"), Costello had a way of both charming and scaring at the same time, sort of like seeing your beloved granny brandishing a baseball bat.

He continued in this vein for four more albums — all of which, along with My Aim Is True, were recently given a big-budget Ryko CD reissue — before dumping the Attractions and making the fan-befuddling left turn that was Almost Blue.

Costello interrupts this career summary for a cheerful, yet always dyspeptic, alternative view.

"The real truth is the biggest-selling record I ever had was Spike and the second-biggest-selling record was Mighty Like A Rose," he says.

"So where's the logic there? All these other albums that were supposed to be so successful made a lot of noise, but they didn't sell a lot of copies."

So you can rule out money as the motivation for the reunion. You can also rule out nostalgia, because Costello insists it just sort of happened and it was all driven by the type of songs he was writing last year.

Costello and drummer Pete Thomas, the one Attraction he'd continued to work with over the years, had returned to Pathway Studios to work up the rough demos of the non-hits that ex-Transvision Vamp singer Wendy James recorded for her Now Ain't The Time For Your Tears album.

Tears was a failed exercise in career resuscitation for James — no sooner off the trucks than straight to delete bins — and it had critics openly questioning Costello's sanity for his involvement.

But it did serve the purpose of juicing Costello's songwriting — and reawakening the desire to return to his earlier, rawer sound — with Mighty Like A Rose producer Mitchell Froom at the control room helm.

And, with Pete Thomas already signed on, who better to help restore that original sound than the rest of the Attractions, including honorary member Nick Lowe?

"I couldn't do everything by myself, so it came about that we had the other people's involvement," Costello understates.

"First Mitchell, then, one by one, Nick Lowe and the guys in the Attractions."

Record company hoo-hah strongly implies all 15 tracks on Brutal Youth were recorded in cramped Pathway Studios, as if returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak, was necessary for a truly spiritual reunion.

"If in doubt, print the legend," says Costello of the erroneous PR bumpf.

In fact, only two of the songs on Brutal Youth were recorded at Pathway, "Kinder Murder" and "20% Amnesia." The rest were laid down at London's Olympic Studios, where Led Zeppelin and others made big rock statements.

"It doesn't really matter," Costello interjects.

"To be honest, I don't think we could have done the whole record at Pathway, because the technical resources there are not the greatest."

Only at Olympia could the band do justice to Brutal Youth's more complex works, such as "This Is Hell" and "London's Brilliant Parade," two songs that show a mature side of Costello's songwriting that has been eclipsed by the screaming headlines about the return of the Attractions.

Does Costello think the angry 21-year-old he was in 1977 could have written a song as walk-in-the-park sentimental as "London's Brilliant Parade" ("Just look at me, I'm having the time of my life / Or something quite like it")?

"Probably not, no," he reflects. "But that isn't necessarily to say I would have found it an unforgivable song to record. It just may be it wouldn't have occurred to me to write the song.

"'London's Brilliant Parade' is a little bit more ambivalent in its feelings towards London, than, say, 'Welcome To The Working Week,' which is very unforgiving. Maybe, as you get older, you see the two sides of it."

As Costello gets older, he's also learned to be amused rather than disgusted by critical assessments of his work — although he enjoys sending off stinging rejoinders to music rags, especially the British ones.

He understands better than most artists how the music game works, and how the Attractions reunion angle is the big news hook for Brutal Youth, although he laments the lack of attention being paid to Lowe, his friend and fellow Brit rock icon.

Costello insists his return to form isn't a response to public demand, although he's happy to recreate his past hits on stage.

"I wrote the songs, didn't I?" he says.

"I find it kind of funny. I don't think of the people who listen to my music as 'fans,' because 'fans' suggest people who have your picture on their wall. I think the people who buy my records have a little less of a fantasy image of me, and I don't think of myself and the Attractions as the stuff of dreams the way the Beatles were."

Costello has grown used to be being in and out of style.

"Some follow you through some of the more unusual changes and paths of music and other people obviously lost patience with what I was doing quite a long time ago. They maybe only got just the first two or three records, and then the minute I started to diversify they couldn't understand it.

"Not everybody is paying such obsessive attention to everything I do," he adds, aiming his lance at his loyal critics.

"I'm aware of that, but the critics don't appear to be .... The truth of it is, I couldn't give a damn."

All of which is not to say that he isn't having the time of his life on tour, or something quite like it. He and the Attractions are even speaking to one another.

"We never were mates, any of us really," says Costello, exploding another myth.

"Not in the really 'pally' sort of sense, because we didn't grow up together; the band was sort of found through auditions.

"We get along; we have a pretty good sense of humor. Having spent a little time away from one another, I think we can get along just fine. The whole thing has a air of mad humor, being together again."

Contents copyright 1994, The Toronto Star.

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Toronto Star, June 2, 1994

Peter Howell interviews Elvis Costello ahead of his concert with The Attractions, Friday, June 3, 1994, Kingswood Music Theatre, Toronto, Canada.


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