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The SPIN Interview: Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello / Photo by Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He’s tackled nearly every form of contemporary music over 27 albums. Now Elvis Costello is taking his cultural ambassador skills to their logical conclusion…as a talk-show host. “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” he says. “Is that the guy with the extraordinary beard?”

In December 1977, Saturday Night Live introduced America to a man who would become one of the most iconic and enduring figures in rock history: a spindly, pissed-off-looking Brit with oversize specs and a palsied stance who (as a last-minute sub for the Sex Pistols) halted a performance of “Less Than Zero” mid-verse to instead race through the uncleared anti-censorship screed “Radio Radio” in a torrent of pressured speech and incendiary playing, winning himself the scorn of the network and a fiery rep as the new hyperverbal bard of punk.

Thirty-one years and a few string quartets and jazz suites later, Elvis Costello sits at a booth in Harlem’s Lenox Lounge, preparing to reclaim the small screen. He just finished taping the 13th episode of Spectacle, his Sundance Channel talk show, premiering in December, down the street at the Apollo Theater and is soon to board a plane to Vancouver with his wife, jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall, and their twin two-year-old sons. Though clearly exhausted, with scruff and a sleepy gap-toothed smile, the 54-year-old born Declan Patrick McManus still looks camera-ready — his trademark glasses set off by the silk scarf, black shirt, gold bracelets, and dark duster coat of an urban troubadour. He sips ice water to nurse a voice hoarsened by weeks of talking and singing and humbling himself with everyone from Tony Bennett to the Police to Lou Reed to soprano Renée Fleming to Bill Clinton. “Every show,” Costello says, “has a moment where your head nearly falls off.”

I understand you just finished interviewing James Taylor. It’s hard to imagine a starker antithesis — acid-penned terrorist versus Sweet Baby James.

We did mention [our respective reputations], of course. The curious thing for me is that I was such a fan of his; he has one of the most beautiful voices in American music. The singer-songwriter is almost back in vogue now, but it certainly wasn’t when I was coming up. Ours was the music that was going to get rid of that — along with a lot of other stuff. But it usually doesn’t work that way. After a while, everyone has to fess up to having older records in their collection. Like the Clash — “No Beatles, no Stones in 1977” — then London Calling comes out and you realize that’s Joe Strummer’s entire record collection. But I think we’re past those juvenile arguments about music, like, “Our generation, our music.” Because right now you’re living in a time when everybody you speak to can listen to everything they want to.

Introducing the episode with Smokey Robinson, you said you couldn’t be more excited if Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, or Groucho Marx were about to come out. Was Robinson the most daunting guest you’ve had?

He was pretty daunting. I wasn’t kidding when I said the first record I ever owned was With the Beatles and the first Smokey Robinson song I ever heard was [their version of] “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” And now I’m onstage at the Apollo singing it with the guy who wrote it!

From your debut album, My Aim Is True, and on, you have incorporated country, reggae, Tin Pan Alley, and scores of other styles, but you were marketed as one thing: punk.

Well, I was marketed by other people, not by me. And “punk” — what nonsense that was. Or “new wave” — even bigger nonsense. I’m just a songwriter. I knew older stuff and I knew newer stuff.

But as far as marketing goes, that was definitely some of the coolest of the 20th century. Didn’t you relish being part of it?

Yeah, but I never really went along with the philosophical background, because I never really thought it was entirely the work of the people. It was the provocateurs who had more to do with that — the Malcolms and the Bernies [Sex Pistols impresario McLaren and Clash manager Rhodes, respectively]. A lot of the lesser groups just got on the manifesto.

What about your early glaring mug shots and rock’n’roll poses?

The packages made me laugh. When we put out the reissue of My Aim Is True, they printed some of the outtakes of the cover shots. People wanted to believe that this was some sort of very aggressive image, but if you look at the outtakes, I’m laughing in almost all the shots. There was just something inherently ludicrous about that pose to me, because it was the opposite of what I felt like. I didn’t feel like a rock’n’roll star. I was just some guy working in an office who’d written some songs. And the fact that I had this absurd name and was posing like a rock’n’roller with these splayed legs — it was a satire. That’s kind of the same thing in “Pump It Up” [from This Year’s Model]: If you listen to the lyrics, it kind of goes against the grain of hedonism.

Still, your early work was fueled by a fair amount of intoxicants, no?

With “Pump It Up,” I was taking those little blue pills [amphetamines], so there were a lot more verses.

Did drug use play a big role in shaping your style of hypomanic wordplay?

I don’t think it did, actually. It just helped me stay up longer and do the stupid things that became the subject matter of certain songs. But I was always into writing a lot of words. I liked the effect of a lot of images passing by quickly.

The website suggests that people who dig “Pump It Up” also like “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “Layla,” and “I Will Survive.”

[Laughs] Maybe. “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” particularly. Who is that, Journey?

Billy Joel.

Hmm. He’s got a couple of good tunes.

Do you put any stock in music-recommendation software?

Those remind me of this toy I had when I was a kid called a Magic Robot. You asked it questions and the little robot would swivel round and, because of the magnets in it, fix on an answer. I don’t know how it worked — maybe it really was magic — but to me, the idea that your computer can recommend music for you is the same thing. It’s idiotic. What happens instead is someone you trust tells you, “I’ve got this record by people from the Romanian mountains playing hip-hop” or that one of Congolese street musicians putting kalimbas through sound systems [Konono N°1]. I was looking at that CD in a shop in Nashville and happened to be standing next to the drummer for Sonic Youth, who said, “Oh, get that. ” And I did, loved it, and recommended it to five friends, and then 15 more friends bought it. That’s how it works now.

You recently released your 27th album, Momofuku, and Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis was among the musicians. On an episode of Spectacle, you mentioned that, prior to working with Lewis on her album Acid Tongue, you had no interest in doing another record.

That’s true. Paul McCartney said something after he put out his last record [for EMI]: They always sent him to Cologne to do this press junket, and this time, EMI was gonna do it again. That’s when he realized he was just a piece of the furniture. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the smallest band starting up now or somebody like him. So I thought, “No, it’s just too boring.” I’m very glad to be doing the job I’m doing, which is playing music in front of people, and I can do that in a variety of ways. Just last year, I played MerleFest with bluegrass musicians, then I’m touring with the Police, then I’m playing in Europe with an orchestra, then I’m playing a solo show. It’s the same reason Bob Dylan is on the road — because that’s what he does. He comes from the tradition of people who just play. Making records — it used to be the thing that made the motor go round. Now I sort of just make a record and let it go.

So how did Momofuku come about?

I went down to do the [Acid Tongue] song “Carpetbaggers” with Jenny, and they were wondering how to pay me. I said, “Don’t worry about money, let’s just cut something for fun.” And we cut three songs in one afternoon. I went home with the CD, and I thought that the tracks all sounded good. I had a song I wrote with Rosanne Cash, a song I’d written with Loretta Lynn, and I wrote another eight in three weeks. And we cut the whole thing in ten days.

The album sounds like a return to the kind of raucous, socially outspoken rock you used to do with the Attractions. The song “American Gangster Time” recalls excoriations like “Pills and Soap” and “Tramp the Dirt Down” — its chorus begins, “It’s a drag / Saluting that starry rag.”

It isn’t like a political-slogan song as such. It’s more about a sense of amorality that runs through some of the decision-making now. It’s not a mystery what’s going on. But I’ve never been one for trying to write the obvious political song. My first single [“Less Than Zero”] was about a chance viewing of a 1930s Fascist, Oswald Mosley, being tolerated on late-night television. That started a way of writing about things that happen to us all. Even [Punch the Clock‘s] “Shipbuilding” [about shipyard workers during England’s Falklands War] came out of very specific events, but I still sing it, because we still make the same mistake.

Drugs just helped me stay up longer and do the stupid things that became the subject matter of certain songs.

You ended one episode of Spectacle with “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” a song Nick Lowe wrote as a tongue-in-cheek snipe at hippies. It sounds pretty irony-free when you play it, whether on your ’79 album Armed Forces or today, five years into the Iraq War.

When Nick sang it, it wasn’t long after the idealism of the late ’60s, when people were thinking, “Well, it didn’t work out, did it? We don’t have a dream world where we’re all getting along.” The only thing you can do about that is laugh. At one point we’re singing, “Everybody get together / Smile on your brother,” and the next we’re beating each other to death with billiard cues. But now it is a serious time. You can’t apologize for songs being serious. That’s not a bad thing.

For years, one of your calling cards was the bait-and-switch pop song, a sweet melody enclosing a cynical message, like “Oliver’s Army,” a twinkly Abba-esque pop tune assailing British imperialism. Can you think of other recent artists who work that kind of duality?

I think there’s a similar juxtaposition in some of the Kurt Cobain songs. You won’t find exactly the same type of juxtaposition of words and music, but there’s almost a romanticism, an extreme vulnerability, in the midst of all that distortion and aggression. And really, when [Nirvana] did Unplugged, it sort of proved that. In a funny sort of way — you talked of James Taylor being antithetical to my presumed sensibility — but really Kurt Cobain at a different time would have been a singer-songwriter, not a rock’n’roll singer.

Being such a wordsmith, are you tempted to have any rappers on Spectacle?

That was discussed, and I think it would be quite interesting. But I don’t know whether those I’ve seen interviewed are so disposed to unpacking their mechanism. But that’s true of a lot of people who work with words. You can’t necessarily get Bob Dylan to explain the mechanism of his placement of words. Whenever he’s interviewed, he says interesting things, but I don’t think he very readily submits to analysis of his own words.

You and Dylan cut similar figures early in your careers: surly, literate Angry Young Men who were rough interviews. Can you think of the meanest thing you’ve ever said to a reporter?

I don’t think I was ever particularly mean. I can certainly think of some idiotic exchanges I’ve had. I was accused of destroying pop music, like Wagner destroyed opera — a guy in Germany started ranting that at me. People tend to repeat the same quotes at me that I said when I was 23. And of course, you say things then, and sometimes they’re ill-advised.

You recently topped one of your most famous quotes — “The only things that matter to me are revenge and guilt” — with a much funnier one in a British newspaper: “Shall I tell you something? That much-repeated quote was said after 14 Pernods.”

Which it was. A lot of those very sharp quotable things were said in similar circumstances and were also said by a 23-year-old who was very insecure about what might happen next. You’re trying to create an impression and also trying to create a bit of space around yourself. People back off when you say things like that.

You certainly created an impression with your SNL debut. But some people have suggested that the pressure to perform “Less Than Zero” was coming from your record label, not the show, and that the producers were just fine with you doing “Radio Radio.” Were you actually banned, or is that a myth?

Banned? I don’t think they would ever give you the benefit of publicity by banning you; they just didn’t book us. I wasn’t on NBC again until the mid-’80s. It was seven years before I was on NBC again, 12 years before I was on SNL again.

So was the scandal contrived?

Well, they definitely chased us out of the building and said we’d never work on American television again. They definitely did that. I remember going to the SNL 25th anniversary, when we re-created the moment with the Beastie Boys, and Bill Murray saying to me, “Don’t let Lorne Michaels tell you he was in on the joke — he was giving you the finger.”

You’ve collaborated with Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney, performed songs by Roy Orbison and Richard Rogers. Do you have any favorite covers of your own work?

The ones that are most intriguing to me are things like Roy Orbison doing “The Comedians” [from Goodbye Cruel World], because I completely rewrote it to make it more suitable for him, and then to hear him actually sing it that way was thrilling. Or to hear Johnny Cash sing “Hidden Shame” [from All This Useless Beauty] was really great — I mean, to have Johnny Cash sing anything. Chet Baker singing “Almost Blue” [from Imperial Bedroom] was a realization of a dream I had for the song, even though his actual performance is incredibly fragile, because he wasn’t in the best shape when he did it. Also, my wife’s version of “Almost Blue” I like, because it has such a beautiful piano prelude. The idea that she could have imagined that in relation to the song I wrote, which is relatively harmonically simple, fascinates me.

In the mid-’80s, you distanced yourself from your stage name, even briefly assuming the persona of a cheesy nightclub MC named Napoleon Dynamite. What reaction did you have when that movie came out?

[Shakes his head] It was strange. The guy [director Jared Hess] just denies completely that I made that name up! He says that somebody came down on a…flaming pie and told him that name. But I invented it! Maybe somebody told him the name and he truly feels that he came about it by chance. But it’s two words that you’re never going to hear together. I haven’t seen the movie, by the way.

Does anybody not call you Elvis?

Oh yeah, my family calls me Declan. But most people call me E.C. I think it comes from my dad. It’s an Irish convention. You usually call the first child by the initials. So my dad would call me D.P. [for Declan Patrick]. Most people call me E.C. Anything but Gladys.

Discography: Elvis Costello
Picking a mere six albums to represent His long, varied career is a fool’s mission. As if that would stop us.

Elvis Costello
My Aim Is True
Stiff/Columbia, 1977

An acerbic love song (“Alison”), a dysfunctional sex jam (“Mystery Dance”), and a mood piece on modern amorality (“Less Than Zero”) were just three calling cards from a brilliant 23-year-old songwriter with issues.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions
This Year’s Model
Columbia, 1978

Enter the Attractions. One of the tightest-wound rock combos of all time turned the early-E.C. palette of envy and paranoia into amphetamine-charged portraits of modern lives coming apart. Sex angst never rocked harder than on “Pump It Up.”

Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Almost Blue
Columbia, 1981

Released with the warning label this album contains country & western music, this covers record (a precursor to 1995’s Kojak Variety) essayed Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, and others, marking a break with new-wave doctrine and his full-blown entry into multigenre fluency.

The Costello show
King of America
Columbia, 1986

A back-to-the-roots record, complete with original Elvis (Presley) sidemen. Stately country-folk overtones lend the heartrending songs “Brilliant Mistake,” “American Without Tears,” and “Jack of All Parades” a grandeur that feels timeless.

Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach
Painted From Memory
Mercury, 1998

Not even Paul McCartney brought such sweet yang to the E.C. yin as Bacharach, auteur of breezy martini pop, did, striking a balance between melodic sophistication and emotional direct-ness, as on the stunning “God Give Me Strength.”

Elvis Costello and the Imposters
Lost Highway, 2008

A rousing family affair, dashed off in the afterglow of working on Jenny Lewis’ solo album — she’s on this, too — and abetted by Costello satellites old and new (like drummer Pete Thomas’ daughter). A dozen tracks as sharp and lively as any he’s recorded in years.