Elvis Costello's side projects, experiments, and collaborations constitute a kind of second, shadow career. Since his 1976 debut, My Aim is True, the charismatically restless and lyrically matchless 59-year-old has joined musical wits with the diverse likes of soft-pop smoothy Burt Bacharach, Opera diva Anne Sofie von Otter, and New Orleans R&B legend Allen Toussaint, among others.
Costello has met his challenge-hungry match in the Roots. Led by drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, Costello's equal in musical geekery and creative seekery, the Philly rap gurus moonlight as shape-shifters, accommodating the myriad array of guests on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where they're the house band. That joint adaptability achieves hauntingly funky and gorgeously gritty fruition on Wise Up Ghost, an album-length meeting of the musical minds between Costello and the Roots, released September 17.
We spoke over the phone with the chatty Costello and the equally loquacious ?uestlove to discuss the musically adventurous merger.
You've talked elsewhere about the seeds of Wise Up Ghost being planted on Fallon. But what was it about those experiences that made you think the collaboration could sustain itself over the length of album?
Costello: Ahmir makes a comical story of it now, but one of the extra bonuses of taking his role on late night television was getting the opportunity to work with people that he and the band dug. I couldn't have known that I was among those people. But after three appearances on the show, over I suppose two-and-a-half years, we ended up with the toolbox to work with, and I supposed it should have been obvious to me that we were headed somewhere. I remember I proposed doing "High Fidelity" the first time I went on the show, and when I got to the studio, they had called up an arrangement from a bootleg they dug up on YouTube or something. It suited them perfectly. There were clues it could work.
?uestlove: When he came to the show, I was tormented. Like, "Don't ask some nerdy questions. Curveball that shit. Act like he's a regular dude." I didn't want to freak him out, because I knew I wanted to get this collaboration album from the gate. I knew it was going to be three appearances [on Fallon] and then he'll be like "Hey, let's do an album together." The payoff is sweet. We just let it spontaneously flow. We didn't admit to ourselves that we were making a record until the second-to-last session. Then that was like, "Hey, maybe we should play this for a few people."
There's a long tradition of singer-songwriters teaming up with high profile backing bands, like Neil Young working with Pearl Jam or Jay Z working with the Roots. Did you have any of those recordings in mind as models for what you wanted to accomplish? Or for what you didn't want to do?
Costello: Bob Dylan working with the Band is another one. Often as a songwriter you think, "I need a band that makes a sound that I hear in my head." That sort of thinking is always more remarked upon when you're thought of as a singular act. Unless you're playing solo with an acoustic guitar, everything is collaborative in a way. But when you're working with a known entity like the Roots it would have been hugely presumptuous of me to walk in there and say, "Okay, let's make a record right now." Instead, it was sort of "Where's the starting point and what's the objective?"
?uestlove: I was cautious. There's no career move I've made that didn't go through at least months and months of pondering. In this case [co-producer] Steve [Mandel] was like, "More breakbeats, more grooves, more stuff." I was like, "No, man, I want to be in the background." I didn't want people to go, "This is Elvis trying to make a rap record with the Roots." That's what I didn't want. We're not going to take "Alison" hip-hop remixes. So I was trying to get way out of my comfort zone and doing the opposite of prototypical of me: detuning the snares, fluctuating and speeding up, not using a click track.
Elvis, your lyrics are always so intricate. For a project like this, were you running things by the band to make sure you were all on the same page?
Costello: I never said out loud, "I think we're heading into these songs to some degree being outward-looking to the ways of the world." Once we'd done a song, I then did a bunch of demos where I took clips of my own records that were purely functional, to say, "It's these words, and it's this kind of music." And often Ahmir would go, "No it's not. It's this beat, this lead" and that would force me to change the harmony or change the lyrical emphasis to something that wasn't apparent from the first rock rendition of a song. When you're in this kind of collaboration there are a lot of unspoken things were you just let the process lead the way. Nobody had to say things out loud in a self-important way.
?uestlove: For him, lyrics are very therapeutic. During the recording, he was dealing with mourning his father and he did this song, "The Puppet Has Cut His Strings," that was his demo on GarageBand. He did that in his kitchen and put raw emotion into that performance. He made me take it off this record because it was so personal, but then he relented and said we could put it on the extended edition of the album. If anything, I wanted to be out of the way to give him more room to grieve. But even on a musical arrangement like [the album's] "Grenade," Brent Fischer's strings made that a cinematic experience. I thought that the more I played in the background on this record, the more Elvis' lyrics would shine.
What was the most surprising thing for you about the process of working together?
Costello: If somebody's willing to go back and listen to your rehearsals with a little bit of curiosity, you can find cells of music — two bars, 16 bars, eight bars —that can be the foundation of a new composition. It's similar with sampling, which there is on Wise Up Ghost. Though there's a little bit of suspicion about using clips of recorded music because it's somehow, "Oh, it's a trick, and you're not really playing." But when the group is working at the level the Roots are, you've nothing to fear.
?uestlove: I didn't know that we had so much in common growing up. He was a backstage kid. His father was always at the BBC singing, and at the age of 10, he was growing up seeing the Kinks and seeing the Beatles come in and out of the BBC building. He was there watching his father work. Same with me: I grew up with these Dick Clarke doo-wop extravaganza shows at Madison Square Garden at the age of five and six, and watched my dad do the oldies circuit. A lot of people in my peer groups are preacher's kids, church kids. I didn't have that experience. So it was kind of cool to finally meet someone that had the same experience as I did.