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Love at First Jam: Elvis Costello on His Collaboration with The Roots (Q&A)

Elvis Costello 2013 P
Danny Clinch

"I've ended up with this strange career of basically doing what the f--- I want," Costello tells THR. His latest effort, "Wise Up Ghost," may be the musician's most rhythmic work yet.

When music fans heard that Elvis Costello was collaborating with The Roots, a few wondered if he might be making his first hip-hop album. Their recently released Wise Up Ghost does have the Rock Hall of Famer eschewing complex melodic turns for vocals that are nearly recitatives over some fairly spare, bottom-heavy beats. But he already had a history of that: You might go back and consider wordy classics like “Pump It Up,” “Tokyo Storm Warning,” and “Episode of Blonde” as closer to being rap records than this one is.

It’s hard to pin down the spirit of Wise Up Ghost, which debuted at No. 16 on the Billboard 200 chart, but it feels like it lands somewhere between Gil-Scott Heron and The Specials as much as it does in the realm of crossover between modern rock and hip-hop. Count it as another surprise from Costello, who was considered a punk progenitor 35 years ago but had his first country album in the works just four years into his wildly varied career.

And mark it down as another gold star for The Roots, whose ability to back anyone on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon certainly extended to Costello, who had no idea he was the personal hero of both Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and Steven Mandel, the new album’s co-producers and co-writers.

“Right when I was least expecting it, the invitation to do this emerges in the most enigmatic way,” Costello tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I think Ahmir would tell you it had been a dastardly scheme that they’d had cooked up from the moment I walked in the building. But I find that very charming, because I never would have imagined that they would think of me that way. I’m not thinking everybody’s queuing up to work with me. Completely on the converse, when I went in first to the Fallon show, I didn’t have any new records to present…and I said, ‘Do you think The Roots would back me if I came on the show?’ Because I didn’t know what the rules were. It seems funny to say it, now that I know they’ve said they were scheming to do this from day one.”

When he did that fateful first Fallon appearance, The Roots suggested messing with an old arrangement of “High Fidelity” they’d discovered on a bootleg, and it was love at first jam. That culminated in a new album that incorporates odd musical or lyrical allusions to more than 15 older Costello tunes, befitting the level of geekery that super-fans Thompson and Mandel brought to the table.

Costello talked to THR about the text and subtext of these new songs, along with his ongoing Spectacular Spinning Songbook tour and his recent appearance at Apple’s latest iPhone unveiling.

You said not too long ago that you might be done making albums, and that the whole business of that was too aggravating, compared to just making a reliable living touring. There’s been a great history of artists who make false threats to retire from touring -- like Sinatra and Bowie -- but you’re the guy who’s threatening to retire from recording.

I like to learn from the masters. If Frank can do it and David Bowie can do it, I guess I can do it. You know the expression “f--- off money”? Well, you don’t actually need to have it in your pocket; you just need to have the intention. It’s not more important than the well-being of those you care about to indulge yourself. And from time to time, people who think you’re just being dramatic will assume that you’re just offended by a misunderstanding of something you did or the failure of a record to set the world on fire. But in fact, it’s not having such arrogance as to think you have a natural right to carry on all the time…. I’ve had this feeling of wanting to leave a number of times -- and acted on it a number of times; phased myself out until it’s time to come back. I don’t have any problem with having said it out loud.

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Sorry for the alarm going off on my iPhone. But you know a lot about iPhones now, having just played at the launch event for the new editions.

Yeah. I’ve seen a few of them lately.

Apple was launching iTunes Radio, and I figured “Radio Radio” was probably not appropriate, so maybe that’s why you went all the way back to dig up “Radio Soul” [a more upbeat song Costello recorded in the mid-'70s but not released until decades later] to play at that event instead.

Actually, I thought “Radio Soul” was a much more subversive song in that context. You’ve got to remember that when I was siting at home [in England] in ’75, in the thrall of Bruce Springsteen, he sort of made it feel like a big dream in America where a radio was playing and it was always the perfect song. And even though there’s sadness in the song, I wanted to believe that somewhere it was like that and it wasn’t like it was in the suburbs, where you couldn’t hear any music you liked half the time. So that was a wishful song. Then, of course, you get into the business of making records and you realize what it’s really about is some guy going off with a big sack of money to give it to somebody with some hookers and cocaine so that they play your record enough times that people get batted to death with it and that makes it a hit. And stations that I encountered when I first came to America, where they’d let you roam through the record library and pull out An Evening with Groucho Marx and follow it with a Howlin’ Wolf record, they were the good guys, but they were very few and far between. By the third time I came to America, they’d been replaced by robots, computers, and consultants.... There is no radio to be on! The radio is the picture you took of me on that stage singing there. Do I agree with everything they do? Absolutely not. I’m well on record as I’ve had issues with Apple’s accounting over the years. But they have to find their road to redemption the way I did.


"I've had this feeling of wanting to leave a number of times -- and acted on it a number of times; phased myself out until it's time to come back. I don't have any problem with having said it out loud."

Do you find anything hopeful in iTunes Radio or other streaming services as far as replacing terrestrial radio?

Well, I don’t give it a lot of thought. As a matter of personal preference, I would like all of my records to arrive on shellac, let alone vinyl. I like the determination of flipping the record over to hear what’s on the B-side. And I still like a shop where you go in and there’s somebody there who’ll go, “This is actually what I think is a really great record -- why don’t you check it out?” That gets harder when it’s just big boxes, if there’s anything at all where you can still browse. But the other side of it is, you’ve got all this interconnected music that lurks out there in some tangle of wires or clouds...and you can follow them down trails at times that are magical.

With this album, do you feel like there were expectations that arose when news got out that you collaborating with The Roots?

We had almost completed the record when the word got out, so we were free to follow our instinct and the dialogue we established early on, doing it kind of in secret -- not to make it sound very mysterious, but with no record company involved. Different people showed an interest in releasing it, and Don Was and Blue Note were the most ardent suitors and made the best case for how we could present it physically…Ahmir has said a couple of times that he didn’t want to be encouraging me to make it some ill-advised rap record. That was the last thing on my mind. But anyone who thought that would just be assuming because of the billing that that must be what we were doing without actually listening to it.

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Not that there aren’t some very melodic songs on it, but it might be your most rhythmic, groove-based record yet.

Sonically it has a different resolution. The initial plan was that the dominant aspects were the beat and the words, and I was less concerned with elaborate melody. In fact, I liked the challenge of coming up with a melody like “Viceroy’s Row,” where there were only two chords in the song. As a matter of fact, in some of those verses there’s only one chord in the song, really. And some of the others are more chant-like or they can’t really claimed as sung. [On the other hand], Steven Mandel’s production is particularly exceptional in the way that he incorporated beautiful orchestrations on top of the groove.

The old songs that are revived here in bits and pieces of your new songs are, for the most part, as with “Pills and Soap,” your most politically charged or socially conscious songs.

Unfortunately, some of these songs are outward-looking to the ways of the world, and some of the things from a long while ago -- or a few years ago, even -- are things that when you write them, you’re [thinking], “I hope that won’t come true.” And it has. It got worse! So, singing it again, you approach it as a whistling-past-the-graveyard sort of thing. You know, if you sing it again, maybe on the third time it’ll go away.

You’ve always had an ear for rearranging your old material.

There have been times when I’ve rearranged songs and people have been bewildered, and then there have been times when I’ve done it and people have found it illuminating in some way. “Every Day I Write the Book” is a good example. I mean, it’s a throwaway song that I wrote in 10 minutes that became a hit. And in latter years, I've sung it more often the way Ron Sexsmith sang it to me, as a ballad, when I suddenly found something beautiful in it that I enjoyed singing much more than I’d ever enjoyed it before. And guess what, when I went back to playing it with a band, I then enjoyed playing it with a band again. I’ve been for three years working with the Spectacular Singing Songbook, which seemed like just a vaudeville trick to some people initially. But it reacquainted the Imposters and I with 150 songs that we had at our resources, and made our shows richer and more unpredictable -- both in the sense that we could play our oldest songs, which were the most anticipated ones in the show, with an element of surprise for ourselves, which hopefully really made those songs more vivid and also brought songs out of the shadows which we’d maybe let get away.

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Ahmir did an interview where he said that he basically caught onto you around the time of Goodbye Cruel World [which came out in 1984], and so he got to know your later records before he ever went back to the early ones.

Well, that’s great. If you make an impact early in your career…I’m sort of the opposite of Prince. Warner Bros. supported him for however many records that built a huge underground reputation, but he didn’t break out and have anything like a hit for like four albums or something. Whereas the very first record I made, it may not have sold a massive volume, but it definitely made a really big impact straight-out, and I was pretty well established in the first three records. And then a number of things -- my willfulness; catastrophes in your life and judgment -- take you off the track of this natural kind of trajectory toward some sort of improbable stardom that’s probably going to end up being a miserable existence of no creativity. And then I’ve ended up with this kind of strange career of basically doing what the f--- I want, you know. And sometimes doing it to the exasperation of people who love and adore that first thing and don’t want you to ever change. But it’s actually impossible to keep making the same record again with any authenticity and honesty. You can revisit some of the methods, but if you’re at a different time and place in your life, the result’s going to be quite different -- like the difference between This Year’s Model [from 1978] and Blood and Chocolate [in 1986]. Irrevocably, it’s just four guys playing in a room, but the mood is totally different. And with every record it really should be, to my mind, an advantage that it’s different. I pursued that thought pretty relentlessly in the last 30, 35 years.

Wise Up Ghost feels like a political album, but in a very impressionistic sense. It doesn’t have a lot of specific political references.

Well, it doesn’t have any slogans particularly in it. Except for, like, I suppose the vain appeal of “Will you walk us uptown?” That [represents] people always wanting somebody to come and rescue them rather than them attending to the situation themselves, so they’re subscribing to one set of false promises or one false prophet or another. And that reoccurs throughout it.

At the very end of the album, though, you do end things on a more spiritual or existential note, if not a tremendously more hopeful one, with the title track and “If I Could Believe.” These seem more about the ghost in the machine.

When we started with this group of songs, where we had fragments of things which turned into new stories, one of the most curious starting points was this orchestral sample from North that Steven Mandel [presented], and then I wrote all of the words just in relation to that one piece of music sample cycling around and around. And then The Roots went in piece by piece and scored it like it was a movie or something, and it just got more and more frightening-sounding, with all those guitars and discordant horns and Ahmir’s drums. I suppose that that song is more impressionistic than all the others. It’s where the things in the world collide with the things in your life. And I tried to keep my own very, very personal experiences out of these songs, because we were in collaboration, and more about the things we’re all sharing. But I found that was actually impossible in the end, because there are terrors in your life which are reflections or echoes of the terrors you observe. And in “Wise Up Ghost” there’s a description of the room my father ended his days in: “Sitting in a shirt of wire, howling at a wall of flowers,” which is my description of his dementia ward. It’s the same kind of dissolution of sanity and decency that’s in all the other images in that song that deal with the day-to-day stripping away of dignity. So that’s why it says “Wise up, ghost”: It’s like, come on now, we’ve got to get up over -- in spirit, at least.

And "If I Could Believe" -- do you believe?

If you were just wallowing in misery, then it would just be morbid. There’s lot of great and very fashionable courting of darkness in music, and I’m not one of those people. You want to walk right into it, and right through or above it. Otherwise you’re adding to the problems and just saying, “Well, we’re defeated,” and I don’t think we are. I can’t look at my children and say it’s not going to be better. But I don’t say it in a kind of empty-headed, if we just wish hard enough it’ll be better way. We’ve got to actually try. Some of that song is asking a question of why we give up some things so easily; sometimes it’s the wrong fight that we’re putting up. I’m not saying a bunch of songs are going to change everything. It’s just throwing out ideas that are expressed in music, and the music itself has a sense of existence and spirit because it’s literally got life in it.

Twitter: @chriswillman

Danny Clinch