Elvis Costello 26.11.98

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 negatively as a result of this, coming across 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 refused, however, to return to NZ for 15 years, 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 Declan

I think it might be less confusing if you called me Elvis for the purpose of this interview

The Bacharach collaboration, how did it come about

Well, we were both approached by Alison Anders and Karen Rachman who were respectively, the director and music supervisor for a movie called “Grace of My Heart”, in 1995, and, uh, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Karen’s name, but she’s been the music supervisor on a number of films such as “Pulp Fiction”; the new “Rugrats” movie and “Boogie Nights”, so she has quite a lot of xperience of putting together people from different worlds and from different generations even. I had even been approached a little earlier than Burt to write one song for the film and it’s the story of a fictional songwriter and her personal life...

..I’ve seen the film.

Oh you’ve seen it, so you know the story of how she gets to this dramatic point in her life and they needed this big, big, sort of ballad.

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..

You know writing a song which might have been something of a tentative thing, actually was a very smooth process. We trusted one another. Burt was doing something unusual and he continued to do that throughout the project, which was giving up the sole responsibility for writing the music. I mean he normally collaborates with lyricists, he doesn’t work with a composer, but obviously I want to have a say in the musical side of things, being as that’s the way I write and he accepted that so that in itself made this collaboration different from any he’d engaged in, and it affected the kind of detail and the objective of his writing-to try and sustain the mood of the first song in some way through the other songs and use the sound which I think is rather timeless which you find in a pop orchestra as opposed to self-consciously looking for something to modernise our music, and use a breakbeat or something.

“Toledo” seems reminiscent of “Do You Know The Way to San Jose”, especially the brass.

Well it mention’s the town’s name for a start. But funnily enough the brass sound is a colour I had to persuade Burt to use-I said we shouldn’t be afraid to use things just because they’d been associated with you because there’s a real charm to them and a beauty in the way he does them.

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 feel?

No, I think it just came out. I think what’s happened is that our collaboration is quite seamless and we were able to have a dialogue and we’re not necessarily jabbing the listener in the ribs and saying “this is me”.

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.

I hope so, because we want to write something that’s of today and draws on the strengths of everything could possibly draw from.

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?

Well obviously it’s in the back of your mind, and different times I questioned myself when things were not going that well. But when we finally got to work in a room together which wasn’t until early 1997 because of all the other things we were involved with, we started getting together for about five days at a time, each of us would prepare passages of music, maybe the opening of a song, sometimes something that looked like a chorus or a bridge and then examine it together and try and create a dialogue between our compositions, complete the composition in sketch form and then I’d take the music home to Dublin to try and work on the words and I found that very exacting because the words and the music were shaped quite differently.

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.

Yeah, I tried to do that consciously, to reflect... well I tried to make them quite universal and to make them so we could both identify with them, even though I’m the only one who has to sing them and it was quite important that there were no ambiguities in the text. Those things can be very appealing in a different kind of song. I written lots of songs where the lyrics are wilfully opaque, but I feel that they’re there to create an impression rather than fill in all the details.

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?

Well we’ve just done another track together for a film, and these things come up and it all leads us on to more collaborative work. Right at the moment we’re still absorbed in the process of presenting this music we spend two years writing and recording, to the public and we’re only in the very early days of it.

We’ve done a short tour which was very enjoyable and we’re trying to plan a longer tour an 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” .

Well that’s a very, very high compliment – to get anywhere near that standard. When we were planning this album that was the benchmark. Well obviously the comparison is more in the atmosphere and mood than in the actual execution, I think. If you could summon up the spirit that was intended in a record like that then I would feel I’d achieved my aim. So you hit the nail on the head really.

Do you ever consciously decide to write a hit single?

I don’t think so, take two hits, “Oliver’s Army” was very nearly put on a b side until Steve put his piano part on it and it took on a much brighter lighter feel. I didn’t feel the rhythm track we’d come up with on its own, with organ and guitar, had what it took to hold its own against some of the more driving tracks from that time like “Radio Radio”. Until we put piano on it... something like that can transform what had until then been something of a difficult song to record and it the same thing with “Everyday I Write The Book”. It was a song I wrote in ten minutes almost as a challenge to myself. I though, maybe I could write just a simple, almost formula song and make it mean something. I was quite happy with it and I tried to do it in a kind of lovers-rock type arrangement and I wasn’t happy with it and then ended up putting this other kind of rhythm to the song, which was written originally as a kind of merseybeat knock off.

And of course you’ve done it live that way.

Yeah, and it's funny how those songs ended up being big calling cards for me. Certainly with “Everyday I Write The Book” I invested less emotionally in it than any other songs from that time yet it's the one that everyone warmed to, so you can never tell and I said I’ll write another one like that, I don’t think I could.

In the liner notes to the reissue of “Goodbye Cruel World”, you said it was your worst album.

It was our worst album of our songs that could otherwise have been good. I don’t think I’ve ever really delivered an album to the public a collection of inferior songs, it’s just at times they’ve been mishandled. Really only once in my opinion.

Do you listen to your own catalogue much?

Not very much, but if I stumble upon it inevitably your opinions change. Records I really liked I can find fault with and records I didn’t like I find I like better.

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?

I came very close to releasing an album and a half, or at least a good albums worth of materiel that came prior to “My Aim is True” last year and then I thought better of it, these being a bunch of tapes which I thought had been lost but came to light unexpectedly. I’m in two minds as to the quality of it. Some of it's incredibly precocious. I’m talking about stuff that goes right back to 1977 and even 1975 so whether or not anyone would interested in it, I don’t know.

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?

I just never really had the patience to go through it, I mean I know we have a lot of good stuff. I also know realistically that some of the nights we put the mobile recorder outside the hall, they just happened to be the worst nights. But, you know, I acknowledged it at the time and I always thought I could never use those in total, unless we were looking for an extra B side or something and we did put a few of those out early on.

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.

I think they now might be surprised if I did two things the same in succession.

How do you react to the Guardian calling you a “genre tourist”?

Well what would they know? What does that mean, I mean it’s just a clever phrase that doesn’t mean anything in itself. I do everything that I do wholeheartedly but that slightly patronising comment would not be that surprising for that newspaper. That’s just a flippant thing to say but you can look at the evidence and if you looked superficially and come up with that.

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”.

Well you’re one of the people that I knew would understand because you have been listening to those other records, but I’m also aware that there are other people who still have an impression of me via “Oliver’s Army” or “Pump it Up” or “Everyday I Write The Book” or “Veronica”. And not everyone who liked “Veronica” listened with the same interest to everything else that was on “Spike” which would give you a clue that my range of musical interests was greater than just the occasional record on the radio.

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...

Well they’re just one example or June Tabor. To write for somebody with that kind of voice is just the greatest calling you can have in song writing.

Do you plan another Brodsky Quartet album.

Well certainly we’ve talked about trying to expand on that, we have done concerts and that record has had an independent life, separate to the fate of most pop records, you know, it comes out, it has its moment of fame and dies, even if it's a big seller, eventually it just becomes a reissue record. Whereas, “The Juliet Letters” is something that has just grown and grown and has outsold certain pop records I’ve released. I’ve a real feeling that “Painted From Memory” will continue in a similar profile.

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?

Well mainly because Danny is someone who draws media attention, because it wasn’t actually his idea. I was actually taken to the label by Chris Roberts, the head of classics and jazz, and introduced. I already knew Danny’s boss, Roger Ames, who I knew as an A&R man from London when I was producing in the Eighties, so the relationship I had with some of the main people there pre-dated me even being introduced to Danny Goldberg. He was briefly the chairman of Warner Brothers and introduced himself to me on that occasion only to be removed a few weeks later so I have this funny relationship with Danny. He’s temporally at the helm of the company that I’m with only to be removed shortly after I release an album.

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.

Great. That seems to be the fate of it and that side of it mitigates the uncertainty at the record company. I can only hope that, along with everyone else who works for the company, well I kind of work for the company although I’m not actually employed by them in strict sense, that those who are coming in to do whatever they’re going to do, do it solidly so we can get back to work and if they change it and they don’t want me around then that’s fine, I’ll go somewhere else.

So is the Verve album “The Sweetest Punch” still scheduled for next year?

As far as I know, that’s the million-dollar question. Ask Edgar Bronfman, he’s the man who knows. I can’t worry about it because I’ve been caught in the Sony take-over of Columbia, I was there for the disastrous Time-Warner merger, disastrous in terms of the affect it had on the Warner Brothers as I knew it and I’m in the middle of this one. So I’m kind of getting used to it and it took a tremendous toll on my morale at the time Time-Warner thing and allowed it to get under my skin.

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 bout 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?

We discovered we didn’t have the rights to that name. There was a label that had had that particular name under copyright since the fifties and they’ve been inactive for many years and when we suddenly started using, quite coincidentally that same name, they took an action against us, so it had to be folded back into Demon. It was all an offshoot of Demon, a little imprint. Since then, I sold my interest in Demon, and I wasn’t interested in being in that area of music anymore. I didn’t want to have a stake in an independent company and just grinding to a halt and therefore I got out. It doesn’t mean I’d never start another company again if it was a way to do some work but it was just one of those things that was right for a few years.

You flirted with drum loops and electronica a while back...

Well it's like anything, it's just an interest I had in that. I had this record “All This Useless Beauty” and I had this idea of kind of defacing it in some way. I had these people do these... I commissioned unedited covers and the boldest one I got back was Tricky where he more or less erased the original and did this whole other thing. That was what I wanted. I actually wanted the other groups who contributed... as fine as the other versions were I actually wanted them to be a lot bolder. And I went on then and completed my Warner contract with a track that I did myself and it's an area that I’m very interested in.

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?

A rock record, not really no. I think making a rhythmic record is a different thing, but it wouldn’t be like any rock record I’ve made. I don’t think I’ve ever made a rock record, but a rock’n’roll record. I never really liked rock and most of the rock records today seem to be like remakes of “I am The Walrus” anyway. The sort of ploddy britpop beat which doesn’t do it for me. It isn’t sexy.

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 hom 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?

Most of the versions I pretty much... an early one I wasn’t particularly polite about, Linda Ronstadt, but I didn’t mind spending the money that she earned me, and most of the versions since the... an awful lot of them have been commissions anyway, requests from artist to write a song so I’m always pleased to see it through.

And of course there is the Rhino compilation...

And that’s an interesting listen for people, that’s another view of what I do. There’s a couple of versions where they really shed an utterly different light on the song than I could’ve done so. I’m glad it exists and it certainly saves a lot of time searching them down in the record shop for those that are interested in them. So I’m very pleased that Rhino did that.

I’m going to have head off, it's been a pleasure talking.

Thanks for your time Elvis.

©1998 Simon Grigg