October 8, 2013 by Simon SweetmanWising Up: A chat with Elvis Costello about his new album with The Roots
Elvis Costello is on the phone from New York; instantly he remembers talking to me about three years ago.
I trigger the memory with a line about the ill-fated Sweetwaters Festival and our discussion around him keen to return to New Zealand, not the bad guy the press decided would never return.
“That’s right. I remember that conversation. I do. And I told you I was going to come back to New Zealand and you know what happened don’t you: we did. We played there at the start of the year. And it was fantastic. Were you there?’
I then have to say, sheepishly of course, that I wasn’t.
“Well, it was great. A really great show. But it’s been a blast doing the Spinning Songbook shows; such a lot of fun. But I do remember that show being a good one. And I do remember talking to you about National Ransom”.
Costello is on the phone to talk about his first album since then, Wise Up Ghost, his collaboration with The Roots.
“My appearances on the Fallon show are what gave us”, he pauses to set up the jargon, “…gave us ‘The Toolbox’ if you like. And from there a dialogue opened up and we discussed originally the idea of new arrangements for old songs of mine; that’s what Questlove wanted to do. Slowly but surely it moved away from that to what I consider a new album, new songs that reference some of the old works”.
So Costello is entering the hip-hop world by essentially sampling himself then?
“Yeah, there’s an element of that, I guess. But I wouldn’t get too hung up on the song links and references, they’re there, but these are legitimate new songs, new pieces of music – I see it as a new album; the song people will focus on in terms of the reworking, the most obvious, is Pills & Soap [it’s reworked with lyrics also from The National Ransom and Hurry Down Doomsday as Stick Out Your Tongue]
but there are a lot of other references there. Some people will spot straight away. Some might just be for me I guess. Things we thought worked. Like Sugar Won’t Work which opens with a string sample from the album North”.
I suggest that he’s leaving little crumbs too – lesser or even non-Costello fans who may come to this project, that is fans, primarily, of The Roots, will have cause to follow the trail back to his earlier recordings.
“Well that’s possible. But I couldn’t ever tell you that was the intention. It just started to make sense, rather quickly as it happened, to approach the record this way. Certain things I said in certain songs – like Pills & Soap – seemed relevant still today. And worth saying again in a new way.
The death of Margaret Thatcher was something of a trigger then?
“Well the impact of her terrible time is still noticeable, yes. It informed some of my songs of that time and there’s a connect in me revisiting the songs now, yes. Sure”.
Costello is a wizard not just at crafting perfect pop songs, he knows the PR drill far too well; as an experienced interviewer he knows how to own the process as interviwee.
“Walk Us Uptown opens the record and that is the most logical meeting of the worlds, of what I do and what The Roots do; that’s about as near to a combination of us, our worlds meeting. From there it takes its time to examine both sides of what we do”.
But this is an Elvis Costello album, more than a Roots album, I (almost foolishly) decide to interject. This is The Roots in backing-band mode is it not?
“Yes, that’s true, and certainly so of the first half. I definitely see this as a record, a two-sider. The first side ends with Tripwire, another rewrite, a sort of doo-wop, very-50s ballad kind of feel. And then Stick Out Your Tongue. And the second side opens with Come The Meantimes which, to me, is where The Roots really start to announce themselves”.
As the album plays to conclusion we start to feel more ideas coming from The Roots, the string arrangements mirror ideas from their most recent album, undun; the loping grooves have even more of an obvious soul/R’n’B feel and impact.
Costello picks up on this. “Yes, I think what they did so well here was just bide their time, they are such a great band, such great musicians and they never dominate at all, they are there for the songs but you take a track like Viceroy’s Row and it’s perhaps closer to the sound of The Roots for people than it might be my sound. I don’t know”. He breaks off to chuckle slightly. “But it feels that way for me”.
The record was built from ideas that Questlove locked down with his crew and sent to Costello. At the same time Costello was writing new material, reshaping his old songs and contributing to the musical ideas. But the impetus for the record came from The Roots – in terms of the project occurring. Costello drove the compositions but only after he’d been pinned down to record with them.
After an album a year, or seemingly so, since the late-1970s, Costello took a break from recording about three years ago. He’d been working hard. Was it time to kick back?
“I certainly wasn’t thinking I would make another record but I would say that the last three years I’ve worked harder, if anything. I’ve always been someone to work. I think the secret to my success – if you call it success anyway – is that I turn up and work. Every day of my life I’ve worked and I’m proud of that. The last couple of years the focus has been touring and it’s been a lot of fun. Hitting all the old songs and playing some surprises along the way and I’ve been blessed to always work with incredible bands. The Roots are certainly one of the great bands I’ve worked with. But also The Imposters, which I guess is my regular band, is just such a great unit now. And The Attractions were a great band. A really great band. But touring was certainly of more interest than recording and then this project presented itself. And it arrived at a good time, I had returned to England for the first time in a while, and I found myself in a reflective mood. My father passed away and it gave me reason to take stock, that’s very much what the title track is about, an attempt to be empathic, standing there with the world falling in on you and how we all have those moments, all have to deal with them”.
And the sonic that is achieved on the title track is again more about The Roots than Costello.
“Yes, they really do own the end of the record – but it fits in with where I’ve been heading. I think for the last few years I’ve been hearing music – and writing music – a lot more rhythmically. It might sound like an obvious thing to say but as someone who is often talked about for collaborating – and people always have their agendas, bless ‘em – it’s important for me to state that I couldn’t make the records I make without the people on them. And that’s going back to The Attractions. Those records sound they way they do because of who is on them. I’m writing the songs but the songs take shape in performance and arrangement and I know I’m thought of predominately as a lyrics-guy, I don’t know why, but even when I’m coming up with music ideas they only work with other people to play off them, to work with you. That is the point in seeking out collaboration, in agreeing to work with different people”.
He’s pretty sure, also, that within these great bands and collections of studio players he has been lucky to work with “two of the best drummers; the best of their respective generations I think. It’s certainly no question to me that Pete Thomas was the great drummer of the 1970s, there was no one playing like him, no one better. And now we have that with Questlove, he is the known drummer of this time, of his era. And that’s been great to be part of that, the pulse, the groove, the feel is shaped in so many ways by the drummer and I just have to say I’ve been very lucky there”.
Wise Up Ghost finishes with a hint, a wee clue, of what is to come next from Costello. Already he’s been working on songs with Burt Bacharach – new songs, as the pair rekindles their earlier partnership to augment the Painted From Memory album; it’s being turned into a stage version.
Ghost’s final song, If I Could Believe, shows hints of that Costello/Bacharach sound. He agrees. But this also gets him reiterating his chops as musical writer, not merely the lyricist.
“There are things on that album – which I’m immensely proud of – that people can’t tell were written by me, they assume it was Burt but 90% of the music on that album was co-created, he would have a motif I’d work on, or I’d state the melody that he would embellish. But it’s a great joy working with Burt and he’s in good form, it’s been wonderful to reconnect”.
The other big piece of work for Costello is his memoir.
“It’s been something that I wasn’t interested in for a while and then I got very interested – I realised that there are things I can say that no one else knows. So it won’t be an autobiography as such, a full and complete timeline that treads over so many of the stories already told; it will be about what I can say that no one else knows, that people have only guessed at. And like I said with the songwriting, the same is true with this memoir, the death of my father certainly gave me reason to take stock”, he laughs very softly. “I guess I’m of an age where it’s natural now to start to look back”.
And it’s interesting, I suggest, that his two most recent collaborators are newly published authors, with recent memoirs from Questlove and Burt Bacharach.
“Yes, that’s true! And they’re great books, have you read ‘em?”
I tell him I have. Costello of course even contributed to Bacharach’s book.
“Yes, it’s been interesting seeing how memoir has changed, this idea of bringing in other voices to help tell the story, to shape the memories and ideas and I like that; it was a great pleasure of course to contribute to Burt’s book and I loved reading Quest’s. Both are very interesting books. Both do it well where they share the narrative across more than one voice. I liked that”.
He hasn’t got a date for his yet – but it will arrive “sometime next year”.
There’s only been the one show with The Roots since the album was released and an appearance back on the Fallon show; The Roots’ home.
“It’s not for any reason other than logistics, they’re hard to pin down with the show, I’m busy too and if we can make schedules work I think we’ll play some more. But they’re off to the Holy Grail next year with The Tonight Show and that’s wonderful of course. But they will be even busier! Questlove was really excited the other week before the show emailing and asking me for rare Japanese b-sides, wanting to know what we could all play together from my back-catalogue that had never been played. And I had to tell him that there’s really not much left. The Spectacular Spinning Songbook Tour has had us working through hundreds of songs – but he found something! That’s Questlove. That’s how he works. He knows stuff other people don’t, he finds things out. And he’s such a fan – there’s been a nice connection there, we’re both very much interested in music, really driven by it, we get into researching it. So the show we would do would mostly be the album and a couple of older things of mine, maybe one or two things from them. But in a perfect world I’d love to play more shows with them, a world tour, sure! We’d come to New Zealand again. Definitely”. He’s enjoying a chuckle now.
There’s time only for a quick mention of his current solo tour.
“I did some solo shows around America the other year and I’m doing a few more in November and that’s a blast. I really enjoy that. It’s something different. And then it’s on to the work with Burt”.
“But who knows, I might do some more solo touring too, might even bring the show to New Zealand. That was so great earlier on that I really do want to come back. Anytime you’ll have me…”
And that’s it. Somehow we’d stretched a 15-minute interview out to half an hour and yet it felt like he’s crammed in even more within that time.
I come away with the feeling that another album with The Roots could happen. And happen just like that. Just like this one did. A part two, every bit as good, and all new ideas. But I also get the feeling that, just as easily, that is it. No more. The odd show and catch-up between these artists but off they’ll go to live in their own worlds again.
I’m certainly glad they found the time.
And Wise Up Ghost is worth your time - here’s my review of the album
. It’s a grower. A wonderful record that highlights both the band and Costello; both serving the songs. It’s his strongest album in years and a further reminder/another showcase of the skill of The Roots, about the best band you could ever hope to have or hear.