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Elvis Costello By Steve Nieve: “We Called Him The Reverend”
Celebrating the US onsale of MOJO’s Elvis Costello issue, the Attractions’ keyboard maestro reflects on life with his “astonishing” bandmate. Cue: weird chords, strong cider, and beating up Sting…
Elvis Costello, who graces the cover of the MOJO magazine currently on sale in the US, once played opposite Sting in an operatic piece (Welcome To The Voice) penned by Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve (pictured above, second from left) and his partner, Muriel Teodori. The part of a police chief obliged Costello to rough the Geordie singer up a tad, but Nieve grew slightly concerned that his bandmate might be enjoying the role slightly too much.
“We did the show with a 35-piece orchestra in Paris, with costumes and everything, and there was a weird rivalry between Elvis and Sting,” Nieve tells MOJO. “In the story he gets to stick it to the character that Sting was playing. Beating up Sting basically. But I think occasionally he was sticking the boot in a little too hard. We did six performances of it, and thankfully Sting didn’t get his ribs broken.”
Nieve cites the performance as evidence of Costello’s willingness to take a risk and his talent for throwing himself wholeheartedly into his work, qualities the keyboard player has had ample opportunity to observe over five decades of regular collaboration.
“He always seems to be extraordinarily alert,” says Nieve of the singer. “Something might happen that’s got nothing to do with the music, maybe someone has a problem of a completely non-musical nature, and he’ll get on it and get all the details of what could be a solution. Everything he tackles he does so in a very detailed way. It might be something completely frivolous, like football, but he’ll know all the details of a particular player in a team that he doesn’t even seem to be interested in. I know he’s a Liverpool fan but he seems to know all about the other teams as well.”
In the following Q&A interview, Nieve pays tribute to the MOJO cover star on the occasion of the publication of his revealing memoir and attendant compilation album. It shines a fascinating light on the singer’s musical universe, which can be further investigated in the in-depth Costello feature in MOJO 265…
MOJO: First things first: what do you remember of your first meeting?
Steve Nieve: I’d answered an advertisement for a keyboardist for ‘a rocking pop combo on Stiff Records’. I knew a bit about Stiff Records, but that was about it. The audition was the first time I met him, and they were just there in this rehearsal room. I think he had a couple of members of The Rumour in there with him and we played through two or three songs, and I said, ‘Do you mind if I hang around? I’d like to hear the other guys.’ I ended up sitting in the back of the room, listening to these two or three songs over and over with different people playing them, and for some reason there was a large keg of cider at the back of the room which I managed to get through. So at the end of the evening I was feeling rather jolly, and then I went out for dinner with them. I seem to remember that even at that point he was constantly talking about music. The whole evening was spent talking about music, which was great. I lost track of time and nearly missed the last train back to the deep dark suburbs of Dartford.
In the beginning, what were your shared reference points?
My tastes in music were not really the same as his at all, but it wasn’t really about that; it was more about how passionate he was about it. In those days we used to make up cassettes with our favourite bits of music for playing in the car. It’s different nowadays – everyone’s got those headphones on. So you would share things. It was good for that.
Then you went out on the Live Stiffs tour, with Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric, Nick Lowe, Larry Wallis. That must have been an eye-opener…
Yes, for me it was a little strange because I didn’t know anything about anything. The other guys had all been in other bands, they knew what was going on. But right up until the time I met Elvis I was a choirmaster and organ-master at my local church.
You got your nickname – ‘Naive/Nieve’ – from Dury: is that true?
It’s often been claimed. I can’t remember who started calling me Nieve. Maybe it was him. But it’s a nice name, I’m very happy to have it.
The Attractions were, if I may blow your trumpet for a minute, one of the great rock’n’roll bands. More than that, you seemed to have a way of building a completely unique mood for every song you played…
Well we did seem to click, and if a song started off in a totally different tempo and feel – which it usually did – we were able to lock onto it and make something of it. Most groups now play with a click in their heads to make sure they all play at the same speed, but quite a few of the early Attractions numbers had to accommodate a certain amount of spontaneity. In the early days Elvis would walk off into the audience and deliver his sermons – we called him ‘The Reverend’. Certain numbers like (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea would have these extended middle sections. It was also fairly simple: there were just the four of us and it was complete in itself. But I noticed the other day that the keyboards I had in the early days were the same I had in a covers band aged 15. They must have sounded terrible!
What are your favourite Elvis Costello songs to play?
It’s a good question. I’ve been touring a set of his songs that I play solo on the piano. I love playing his music. He’s often cited as being a fantastic lyric writer and no-one talks about his music, but the melodies of those songs are incredible. They go to places you don’t expect them to go.
What’s an example of a song that goes somewhere odd?
There’s a song on North, called Still. Halfway through it, there’s a chord change that is so delightful, and so out of the ordinary. I think almost every song that he’s written has this aspect to it. He’s constantly trying to challenge his voice and put things into his songs that are challenging and interesting for him to sing.
What’s the chord change? Indulge us!
Where’s my piano? (Has a tinkle) It is a really unusual piece of harmony. You’re in the key of E most of the time, but you go to A and then C#minor and F#minor, then to an Fminor7. Then it’s like the F is the 3rd of C#, so it’s really doing what Schoenberg was doing, going from a very sharp key to a very flat key. That kind of change is really emotional and amazing, I think. You don’t normally encounter that in a pop song.
Has he written a lot of songs on the piano?
Yeah, quite a lot. And because he’s self-taught, he’ll find something that’s unusual. In his song Pills And Soap it sounds like there’s a kind of R&B trick to it that someone like myself who’s been taught to play the piano might not think of. It’s got a bass note that would normally go a semitone higher, but that’s what gives it its uniqueness.
What’s the strangest Attractions or Imposters song? Bedlam – from The Delivery Man – is pretty bananas.
That whole album was quite interesting. It was done in a town called Oxford, Mississippi. It’s near Clarksdale, where Robert Johnson was meant to have met the devil. So when we finished recording in Oxford we went to Clarksdale, and we found a little 8-track studio there and just banged through some tracks in half a day. A couple of them were keepers, just because we went into a slightly less sophisticated place. When we did Bedlam, I didn’t really know what to play because it sounded so good without keyboards, so I just got this whistley thing that just carried on through the second verse. That got quite out of control.
When you connect with American roots music it’s always really rich.
As a unit we can still discover some new things. When we did The River In Reverse with Allen Toussaint it was great, because it was a real collaboration. We had a link with him previously. He produced our recording of Walking On Thin Ice for a Yoko Ono tribute album, which was an astounding moment for The Attractions. Here was a producer who could play all of our instruments, who knew exactly what we needed to do. He came around the room, took the bass and said, This is the kind of bass line we’re after; went to the drums, did the same; then he came to the keyboard… So for The River In Reverse we went back to that. We did a bit of touring with him after that, and he brought the horn section with him, a fantastic horn section from New Orleans. On stage I had my organ on a riser so I was right above him; I could look down on him playing the piano, and I picked up quite a few tips.
I was going to ask what you learned from Allen Toussaint…
He’s one of the masters of that style. One of the songs on River, Ascension Day, was Allen’s minor key version of Tipitina, the Professor Longhair song, and Elvis put some words to it. The thing I noticed listening to him do that was how much Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue came from that feel. A lot of the flourishes Allen did on the piano were very similar to Gershwin, except more interesting. I tried to analyse it; it’s like this tri-tone discord in there, this spice that the music was otherwise missing.
You must have a favourite Costello lyric, having worked with him for a long time?
I’m always astonished by his lyrics. Someone on Facebook the other day posted the lyrics to a song of his called Poison Moon [from My Aim Is True] which is not a song of his that I’ve had much to do with. It just astonished me that something he’d written could astonish me like that, even now. Almost all of his lyrics astonish me. We’d have to go through all of them if you wanted one!
When you add a mood to a song, you must be responding to the lyrics?
Well, even though he writes interesting, amazing lyrics, sometimes you don’t really understand what he’s on about but they still make you think and inspire you. He did that album North, and it was just totally not like him. Suddenly he was writing fairly understandable romantic songs. So he’s always doing something new. So far, I don’t think he’s written a song like Brian Eno, for example, like minimalist science fiction. But I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point along the line in about 15 years, he makes an album like that, because he’s always making something else.
As an Attraction or an Imposter, you’ve played on something like 18, 19 albums with Elvis Costello. Why does it work so well between you and him?
That’s an interesting question. I genuinely love his music and love working with him. I’ve worked with a lot of different people, and he’s one of the few who’s prepared to take a bit of a risk. Nothing is ever the same, he doesn’t like doing the same set twice. Quite often we go out onstage to play he’ll do the first three things on the set list and then… off he goes. It’s all in the wrong order and we don’t know what’s coming up next. I think he takes risks, and he’s prepared to go searching for something, and I think if I can follow him on some of those adventures I’m very happy.
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