This is the text, verbatim, of an interview with Elvis Costello conducted over the phone by me. It was intended to coincide with the performance by Elvis at The Sweetwaters Festival near Auckland, NZ.
The festival itself was a disaster and Elvis himself was a key figure in the debacle, in that he repeatedly appeared on TV and in the media in New Zealand around the time of the show complaining that he had not been paid. He, sadly, was seen by the NZ public a little negatively as a result of this, coming across, perhaps a little unfairly, as arrogant and greedy when it was discovered that, unlike other acts who performed free, he had actually been paid something.
His refusal to play at all for the people who had bought tickets did him no favours but he relented and did in fact perform a rather wonderful set. He has never, however, returned to NZ, a country which which supported his music rather more than many other countries, at the beginning of his career.
Would you rather I called you Elvis or
The Bacharach collaboration, how did
it come about
..I’ve seen the film..
So it put us in a situation of having, like, something to shoot for, you know. And if had just been a theoretical thing-shall we try and write a song, well it just have been about pomegranates, or aardvarks or something. You know it could have a very abstract idea to write about, instead of which we had a very definite thing and schedule which was a matter of days in order to turn the song around.
We live on different sides of the world, you know-I live in Dublin, Burt lives in Los Angeles and we ended up writing the song over the telephone and a little while later we were asked to take the song into the studio and do a version for the end titles and after we had that experience I think it was fairly inevitable that we would want to go on and do some more because it just felt right
So there was some sort of chemistry
happening between the two of you..
“Toledo” seems reminiscent of “Do You
Know The Way to San Jose”, especially the brass
Funnily enough that’s a songs that a lot of people have picked out as being really Bacharach in characteristic but I actually wrote a larger share of “Toledo” than Burt.
Were you trying to evoke his earlier
We had to find a compatible language that we can share and to be perfectly honest, I think Burt would probably disagree, but there might be some gestures that these songs share with older songs of his but I think, structurally and harmonically, and certainly emotionally, they’re quite different from any songs he’s done before.
They’re certainly a long way from his
output over the last fifteen or so years
You are obviously a fan of Burt’s-Back
in ’77 you covered “I Just Don’t Know What To do With Myself”,
and you’ve done it since, did this affect your approach?
Even the compositions that I had a big part in took shape in a different way and they make different demands on the lyricist. And I particularly wanted to make the text very clear.
The lyrics are a lot less elaborate
than your previous work
I know from people’s responses, critics take me to task for being vague or obscure sometimes but that’s far outweighed by somebody coming up to me privately and saying “that song of yours, I pondered it and it meant this to me”, so you see I think there’s a virtue in that more impressionistic use of words, and sound, but that wouldn’t work for these songs. So I left that device at home, but I left a lot of things aside. I left the harsher sounds that I favour sometimes, the big beat doesn’t feature very much in this record, electric guitars only feature in decorative manner and I’m happy enough to do that because there’s plenty to play with in the things we do have-the things that remain mean that we have a stronger clearer palette to work with, particularly musically.
Do you plan to work together again?
We’ve done a short tour which was very enjoyable and we’re trying to plan a longer tour and we’re trying to hear from all corners of the earth as to who wants to hear from us. If there’s a promoter somewhere with a credible offer we’ll do that territory. It’s a very difficult thing to plan because it involves certain musicians so we have plan a realistic economy
You wrote a wonderful Sinatra tribute
in Mojo, and it seems particularly apt right now to release an
album which reminds me in spirit of “Only For The Lonely” and
“No One Cares”
Do you ever consciously decide to
write a hit single?
And of course you’ve done it live that
In the liner notes to the reissue of
“Goodbye Cruel World”, you said it was your worst album
Do you listen to your own catalogue
I’ve been called by the movies quite a bit recently and I’ve just done a cameo in another film. I guess I’m getting that age where people who like my music are in a position to grant wishes to themselves and, much as they’ve done with Burt recently, invite you to play some part in the film.
Burt and I have done a track for the second Austin Powers which was a gas. You can imagine how madcap that was. And we’ve got a movie coming out in the New Year called “200 Cigarettes” which is based around the romantic tribulations of some friends around 1981 on New Years Eve and myself and other musicians are featured in it rather heavily and I’m actually featured in a cameo role and in the course of the filming, I spent one day on the set and one of the actors in it came up to me and she said “will you sign this record, my favourite record of yours?” and she pulled out this dog-eared record from her bag, a vinyl album, and it was “Goodbye Cruel World” and it obviously a well loved teddy bear and I thought, I’m not going to tell her I thought it was my worst album because it means something to her. Some... maybe the songs have the power to communicate beyond my reservations about the production. And when I look back at other records that I may have been critical of I can find something in them of worth and there are other things I used to value will diminish slightly but that’s only natural.
When you look back at anyone’s music it's only personal, it just that this is your own stuff. But I haven’t spent a lot of time pondering it. Obviously when I was doing the reissue sequence I wanted to do it well and I wanted to make it personal so I listened to them then, examined the material that we had in addition to the original albums and tried to make the best stuff available for the audience that I could, which is what I always try and do.
Any plans for another collection of
B-sides and rarities-you’ve got enough for several volumes?
What I feel about it changes-I nearly released it but the time wasn’t right.. This has never been bootlegged as this has been sitting in cupboards and not been seen by anybody until very very recently. Some of it goes right up to crossing over with stuff which was released on my reissues. But some things which I noted as being missing like stuff recorded at the time of “Watching The Detectives” has come to light too. And there’s about 300 hours of live recordings
So why, apart from the limited box
set, have you never put out a live album?
We seem to have a lot of bad luck with live recordings and did start a process of somebody going through them, trying to distil it down to the best of the seventeen versions of “Watching The Detectives”. Sooner or later you have to make some sort of executive decision, but right at the moment I don’t have the patience to listen to music that’s that old, not when I’ve got so much on my plate going forward.
There’s so much to do and so much I’m interested in, I really don’t want to flood the market and exhaust the listeners who are listening to me. I’m very glad there are people who have followed a lot of the things I’ve done. I’m aware of the fact that every time I take a change in the scenery, inevitably it's going to mean that you loose some of the listeners and gain some others
I think the changes fascinate some
people that have followed you for a long time
How do you react to the Guardian
calling you a “genre tourist”?
A lot of the time with this record the line “odd-couple” has been used a lot, because it's an easy way to describe Burt and I-a most unlikely pairing on the face of it, but if you look below the superficial idea of who I am or who Burt is, I mean we share a lot of the same experiences. Burt’s a very celebrated soundtrack composer; I’ve done film music. So we both know what it is to do that. He has an understanding, he’s trained as a classical musician originally and at the same time as he was writing the biggest pop hits, had an experience with European theatrical music which I in a different way had a relationship with through my upbringing and I studied classical music in recent years, not in great depth but to allow me to communicate coherently. So it’s not as if we speak utterly different languages. The schedule of these similarities is very spread over our lives, but we have a lot of experiences in common, a lot more than people would imagine
The current album isn’t one which
leaps out as something that is a radical turn, I can hear
“Almost Blue” and “Imperial Bedroom”
That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with getting a record on the radio, I’m all for that but I don’t want to just do one thing and I don’t want just stay with one idea of how you can stretch yourself, there’s just two much interesting stuff and I’ve had a wonderful time for the last five or ten years, with all manner of people, some of whom, like McCartney, and Burt Bacharach, are very famous and some who are equally celebrated in their own field but it's a much smaller field, that the general public who buys pop music has absolutely no idea
Such as The Brodsky’s...
Do you plan another Brodsky Quartet
Because of the upheavals we’ve been experiencing, particularly in America in the record company, through this period of releasing. They’ve been taken over by Seagrams, and this is always a disastrous thing for any new record coming out. Everyone’s very, very afraid of the future. The record hasn’t leapt up into the chart, not that it’s a record that would necessarily leap up into the chart. But it hasn’t reached its full potential yet, but provided everybody keeps their nerve, I believe it will eventually because it's that kind of record, and very much like “The Juliet Letters”, a lot of it is to do with somebody giving it to somebody as a present, saying “hey, have you heard this?”, and it's less to do with being on radio. It would be great to think that there would be a radio station that would play both “Juliet Letters” and “Painted From Memory”, but, in truth, they’re few and far between
Rightly or wrongly, your deal with
Mercury was seen as a pet project of Danny Goldberg’s. How does
his departure affect you?
If you ask me what’s going to happen I have no idea. It’s very bad for every record that’s out at the moment. To be perfectly honest, I have a job, don’t I. Whatever happens, I have a job, I can go out on the road. It would be tremendously disappointing if this record didn’t reach everybody that might like it because the company is in that kind of disarray that everyone doesn’t do the best of their job because they don’t know if they’ve got a job next week. I do feel bad for those people and I know a lot of them are trying to do the best that they can under trying circumstances and I have to be patient. Because it isn’t a record that needs to perform in the first four weeks other wise it's all over, it's not like the shinier end of pop music, it's something of real substance that people can recognise, that if we were to begin again in the New Year effectively, which of course in terms of me coming to your country, it will be, because the first time I can get there is at the end of January.
If I begin introducing some of this music to people at Sweetwaters, I’m not saying that I’m not necessarily going to lay the entire album but if I was to do one or two songs from this album along with all the other things I’m going to play then that might be some sort of invitation. I don’t know whether people are aware of the record or if it's been well received or whether it's been played on the radio over there or whether it's just something that’s only just come out there
There’s not been much radio play but
there has been a lot of retail support and a lot of people are
talking about it.
So is the Verve album “The Sweetest
Punch” still scheduled for next year.
It really did demoralise me and I made me doubt myself and I don’t doubt anything about this record. I know it’s really good and I really enjoyed playing the music, it’s been the greatest, one of the greatest occasions in my career to work with Burt, in every respect. I couldn’t wish for it to be any other way, and if it sells not one more copy from today, it's been enough to write it and have the experience of making the record, but I would always regret that it didn’t reach more people because I know people hear it, they really like it but there is a problem getting it visible at the moment because there’s an unwillingness, not from a lack of respect for the music but just a lack of budget, that people have been told that they can only spend that much money. And that’s the reality and I’m being very honest about it and the reality of this company. But I’ve made nineteen records so this is not the first time it’s happened to me and I’ve also had lots of big successes in my career. Who I wouldn’t want to be is a new act coming with their first record and all your expectations are riding on it. It’s not to say that I don’t care about what happens, quite the opposite but that’s the breaks. I can’t do anything about it as it's happening so far above my head so there’s no point in me having a tantrum about it
What happened to your Imp label?
You flirted with drum loops and
electronica a while back..
I think it's much more....there’s much more imagination and daring in that area of music. That is to say, trying to paint pictures and tell stories with layered sound rather than trying to find yet another accommodation of four instruments, four guys playing bass, guitar and drums...I think it's kind of worn itself out. I haven’t heard a new record that thrilled me for a number of years coming from that basic foundation.
So you have no inclination right now
to make another record along those lines
The one thing about rock’n’roll is it swings and I like records which swing or has unusual chords in it which is why I’m attracted to jazz and certain areas of classical music. Quite apart from the melodic element in classical music, I’m interested in textural thing which happens through the laying of instruments and that’s what you get in, not so much frenetic dance music which doesn’t interest me much either, but in the spookier side of dance music, the chill out music, of whom Tricky is only one person. I have a lot of time for Portishead, a lot of time for Bjork. I’m hearing a lot more intriguing things there, but it's not like I’m wanting to do what they want to do, I want to do what I want to do, but using some of the same tool they use and it would come out as different as all those people do, because I’m me and they’re them and we can’t be the same. We shouldn’t want to be
You’ve been covered by a huge variety
of artists. Is there anyone you particular like or dislike
And of course there is the Rhino
©1998 Simon Grigg