This interview first featured on Blog on the Tracks on Stuff here
A chat with Elvis Costello could be about so many things. And there could be so many ways to start it. I decide to open with a question about his prolific writing, about his work ethic.
National Ransom, out this week, is this third album in as many years – a time when Costello and his wife have twin boys about to turn four. I suggest it’s a ridiculously busy streak to be on. Costello, on the line from New York, sings back to me, “I drink a little beer in a tavern/Sing a bit of these working man blues,” and chuckles.
“Do you know that song?” he asks me. I tell him I do – I can tell he doesn’t believe me. I don’t think he’s aiming to live out the whole of Merle Haggard’s Workin’ Man Blues, presumably not the part about being married with nine children. But certainly the line about being a workin’ man dang near all my life/I’ll be working long as my two hands are fit to use seems apt. As does this set of lines: I keep my nose on the grindstone, I work hard every day/Might get a little tired on the weekend, after I draw my pay/But I’ll go back workin’, come Monday morning I’m right back with the crew/I’ll drink a little beer that evening, Sing a little bit of these working man blues.”
And right there, right at the start of the Elvis Costello interview we have, simultaneously, a glimpse into Costello’s encyclopaedic knowledge of music, of songs, and a glimpse into why some people find that aspect of him annoying. His decision to answer me back, in song, to test whether I knew the song, is part acerbic humour and part look-what-I-know showboating.
But, importantly, we’re off. We’re away.
And as it crosses my mind that every single question will be answered with a song, every anecdote laced with obscure references, Costello states in a matter of fact but relaxed fashion, “it’s what I do. I don’t deserve any awards for this, it’s just music. It’s just writing songs. You sit down, you write a song, you record it. You tour and play the songs live, dress them up a bit differently, or dress them down…”
But why the reliance on the album format? Isn’t it dead? Why the need to pump out the records?
“A few years ago,” the man born Declan Patrick McManus tells me, “you would do an album then do the tour – and work the record for maybe two or three years. It’s not like that now. Maybe it hasn’t been like that for a while but the thing is, the records just don’t have the same impact, or even in some cases the likelihood of even happening, of getting out there and meaning something. I guess I like to put the records out still, when I can,” and there’s a sly chuckle to finish off that thought.
So to National Ransom – the title track showing that if this man of the arts has now mellowed, he still has a sense of outrage, if not full-blown anger.
“Well, this album follows Secret, Profane & Sugarcane from last year. That was, for the majority of the musicians, a first meeting, a rather austere working environment. There was some press at the time talking of all the people that played on that record like Jerry Douglasbut the truth is many of them only worked a day or two, there were comings and goings and many of them didn’t meet each other, or only met briefly. So the record was created but then,” there’s a beat, “then – we took that record out on the road and it exploded!”
“So,” he’s on a roll now, “it became this really swingin’ band, I thought, and now we get to National Ransom which combines players from my other group, The Imposters and from the Secret, Profane & Sugarcane lineup, but again, many of them were playing on sessions at different times, so this’ll be a different thing again when we take it out on the road. We’ll have to see. I’m not really sure quite how we’ll approach this one yet, but there are always shows to do.”
Costello’s desire to create, his interest in moving off to explore different areas is, he is sure, “dictated by what is going on in the song” but it can be a source of frustration for fans. Many will tell you that he could not put a foot wrong for most of the first decade of his career, an incredible run of albums from 1977-1986. Some will suggest that he’s barely put a foot right since, wobbling and weaving between genres in shoes that he finds far too comfortable.
Just don’t suggest that anything he has made is a “genre exercise”.
“Well I get very frustrated by this term ‘genre exercise’, I mean what exactly is that? Genre is not really relevant when you are writing a song, hopefully you are doing it to explore something, to create something and I don’t agree that any of my albums are genre exercises.”
The suggestion pre-empting this mini-outburst was that National Ransom is more an exercise in genre-hopping than the genre-exercises of the past: the excursions into opera and ballet, the solo piano jazz-noir, collaborations with Burt Bacharach, Bill Frissell and Allen Toussaint…the return to a country-folk album with last year’s Secret, Profane…
“Well, people called Secret, Profane & Sugarcane a genre-exercise, they called it a country album, a folk album, but really it’s an Elvis Costello record. And I thought it was a good album actually. And the new album takes some of those players and lets them loose on a whole new set of ideas. The new album has many layers; there is a lot of depth to this. There’s a lot happening, but I stress that it is always dictated by what is going on in the song – that is how these musicians were able to work. And that’s good, because that’s what I want from them.”
So, if Elvis Costello makes Elvis Costello Records it would seem right to compare them with each other, then?
“You know I find it to be the ultimate backhanded compliment when you are compared against yourself.”Costello’s anger is measured these days, still palpable though. He reacts. He’s articulate, verbose in fact. But it’s very easy to get him to react to something – he engages quickly, confidently.
“What you are doing,” he goes on to explain, “and anyone who does compare someone’s newer work to their earlier material is, as far as I’m concerned, not telling the full story…what you’re doing is you’re not telling someone what it is – in any way at all. You are only telling people what it is not. If your aim is to suggest that North is not My Aim Is True then you haven’t done your job as far as I’m concerned. You have not in any way said what North is. You have only said that it’s not My Aim Is True. Which it is not. But it’s also not Armed Forces or Imperial Bedroom. They are all different. Well, hopefully,” and here he does slow down for a self-aware chortle, “hopefully they are all different from one another with the real link being that the same person made them”.
“I think the important point to stress is that I don’t want to be held to what I said 30 years ago. We change as people. You’re not going to want to be remembered for what you said in a bar 30 years ago, are you?” I want to tell him that I generally don’t want to be remembered for what I said in a bar 30 minutes after I say it. But Elvis Costello is holding court still.
“So, you know, I just find it all really redundant that these records come out and get compared to one another, I mean they’re not competing. And I don’t know that people should see it that way. They exist. I make them. And they exist – as their own thing and when a critic tells you that it is, in their words, not as good as something from earlier, well they’re not really doing their job at all.
“And you must remember,” he tells me, suddenly happier, friendlier, “that the beautiful thing about music, really, is that it can often pull in a different direction from the lyric. And I like that – I like the clashes and twists and turns that music and words can take, working with each other and against. Music is full of wonderful surprises. The songs I like often have a nice surprise about them.”
It is at this point that I’m told I’ve got one more question. I want to ask Elvis about the infamous Ray Charles incident (which I referenced a couple of weeks ago here). But given his reaction to the suggestion that National Ransom has notes of other albums he’s made, particularly his comment about not wanting to be held to something he said 30 years ago, I opt for something safer, still hoping to get a reaction.
So it’s to Sweetwaters – specifically the 1999 reunion where Costello was headlining the anniversary show. He ended up performing a disjointed set, appearing frazzled and wound up, announcing with a sneer that he would open with The Beatles’ You Never Give Me Your Money, dedicating it to festival organiser Daniel Keighley. For many in the audience, word was only just getting out that the festival had gone bust, that people were not getting paid.
It guarantees me another 10 minutes on the phone with Costello. He had been quoted as saying he would never return to New Zealand.
“Well it was not a nice experience at all. But you know what, the thing is, thinking back now, I mean that guy that stuffed it up, I believe he spent some time in jail or whatever, but at the end of the day, he’s probably not a bad man. I mean he just didn’t do a good job, did he? And while it was not a nice experience I can’t say he is the worst promoter or most crooked person I’ve met in this industry.” A big laugh to finish this line off.
“I think the thing that I got frustrated with, really, was that people saw me as this guy leading the charge and figured that really it shouldn’t bother me all that much about not getting paid, you know like I could afford it. But, correct me if I’m wrong, people went out of business because of that, some of the smaller bands couldn’t afford to get back home. Am I right?” He is right. And he knows it. So he continues. “I was the one that went to the press, I actually rang The Herald, and I told them that it was not right, because I was trying to get the message out. I think I thought that I could probably create some urgency or highlight it as an issue, but it was very unfortunate that I came across like the guy that could afford to take this on the chin and should have kept out of it. That’s not what I wanted and it’s not what I was trying to do.”
Costello was chased through the airport on his way out of the country, refusing to comment. He had already commented – at the event, to the papers, even appearing on TV.
“I went on one of your national TV shows, and I did that to try and clear the air. So I don’t know if that worked,” he breaks off for a laugh, “it probably made it worse…”
But what about the stories of him refusing to play here?
“Well that’s ridiculous. I mean, I have never been invited back. I would love to come back. Let me tell you something, an artist doesn’t go to countries and decide to play. Someone has to come and ask you to play so, yeah, if the offer was there of course I would consider it.”
It’s here that I tell Costello that I interviewed Daniel Keighley, when his book about Sweetwaters was released. I suggested to Keighley that he was probably not on Costello’s Christmas card list (there’s a huge laugh from EC when I tell him this). Keighley tried to tell me that he was sure Costello had been back to play in New Zealand, at least twice, since the ill-fated Sweetwaters of 1999.
“That is hilarious!” Costello roars with laughter. “That is just too good. But you know, I never had an issue with New Zealand. I love the place, I’d love to be able to tour down there – I really would. You know I’m really glad you brought this up, it feels like a clearing of the air, a little,” and it falls away into laughter.
The interview now feels like I’m reconnecting with a mate after a night out, each of us with a slightly different memory of how the evening panned out.
“The way I was pursued through the airport, the way it all ended there – I’ve gotta say, I thought you guys hated me! And you obviously all thought I hated you! This is just so funny, because I’d love to play there. I remember thinking when I was playing in Australia recently that we should really go over and do a show in New Zealand. I had always loved playing there. And I did a whole bunch of shows at an arts festival in Sydney recently, where we did a night of piano tunes and a night with the band and it would have been great to bring that over.”
So Elvis Costello would be happy to play here again. All we need to do is make the offer, right?
“I mean, this is just so funny to talk about because I have friends from New Zealand. I was speaking with Neil Finn recently, he’s a friend, and he had asked me about playing in New Zealand. And the thing is, you know, until now I’ve never even had a request for an interview…I mean every album I’ve done I’ve never been asked for interviews in New Zealand. So I thought you hated me.”
So did he know that he was advertised as playing Napier’s Mission Concert in 2008, opening for John Mellencamp?
“No! Really? Oh that’s funny – you see I did not know about that at all! Maybe if they’d actually asked it might have happened. I think I remember something about a poster being put together for that before any actual shows. Hey, the funny thing is I’m doing some shows with John [Mellencamp] now and with Elton John and Leon Russell and a whole bunch of amazing people. Imagine if we could bring that down to New Zealand? That’s something I think everyone deserves to see, right?”
And with that there is someone on Elvis’s end of the phone telling him to wrap it up. And someone at my end telling me to wrap it up. My one final question has doubled the length of the interview.
We didn’t get to talk about Spectacle – the show that Elvis hosts – but I got to hear, clearly, that interviewee-turned-interviewer can easily revert to being the interviewee again, to getting riled, to being thoughtful, to feeling challenged. We didn’t really get to talk about how he fits his work in around family, but he did sing me an ole country tune.
And apparently we could have him playing here. It’s just as easy as asking.
“Thanks for clearing that all up,” Costello calls down the line as we are both urged, again, to stop talking. And you know he has banked this story for recall, as effortlessly as he quotes Merle Haggard lyrics; as easily as he recalls the name of an Auckland newspaper over a decade since his last appearance in the country.
And despite his protestations you can hear bits of other Costello records in National Ransom. And it is a better record than Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. If it’s not quite as ragged and rambling as The Delivery Man it still has some of that feel. There are traces of Brutal Youth and When I Was Cruel also. And if it suffers a little from having far too much thrown at the canvas – it’s almost every type of Costello song from the last 30 years on display, all mingling and arguing – then it also needs to be celebrated for that fact too.
Postscript: It was fairly recently that I offered some of my thoughts on Elvis Costello’s career here at Blog on the Tracks – see here if you missed that discussion the first time.