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Elvis Costello: “Smoke moreweed, the world is ending”

Ahead of a tour as part of A Day On The Green, Elvis Costello talks “hating” music, collaborating with Paul McCartney and discovering Pink Floyd by osmosis with ANDREW P STREET.

Elvis Costello was out here solo a couple of years back, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen him in rock mode. That’s going to change with this tour, where he’ll be backed by the Imposters – bassist Davey Farragher and his career-long sidemen (and former Attractions) Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas on keyboards and drums, respectively. They’re doing a handful of theatre shows that mark the first Australian appearance of the “Spectacular Spinning Songbook”, effectively a giant bingo wheel that determines the set, as well as the (Songbook-free) tour around our nation’s wineries at the top of the bill for Day on the Green, where he’ll be reeling out a hit-heavy festival set.

You’re an old hand at these Day On The Green shows by now, surely?
I don’t think I’ve done this before – I don’t believe I have. I might be wrong, but I don’t recall doing this particular show before – you sure about that?

Yeah – I remember seeing you in South Australia in 2004, somewhere in the Barossa…
Oh! But that wasn’t a multiple act bill like this is [Sunnyboys, Stephen Cummings and Tex Perkins are performing as well]. There was maybe us and one other act, I thought. This is like, four bands … But yeah, obviously I have played this kind of venue before.

They’re weirdly civilised, given the amount of top-quality booze. I was genuinely surprised when people danced.
Well, they’ve paid their money, they can do what they want. We play regardless of what’s going on in the audience. On the face of it you’d say it’s a recipe for open drunkenness and fornication, lots of wine and sunshine, but as you say it generally turns out to be better behaved than you’d imagine. And that’s only backstage! No, I’m sure it’ll be great.

And we’re finally getting the Spinning Songbook in Australia for the sideshows.
I’m glad we did manage to get it. It’s been on a boat for forever and a day to get there, because it’s a big piece of machinery and it doesn’t fit onto many planes. You’d need a big airbus, and there’d just be the one thing on it, just the wheel, so it would be slightly expensive. It’s an impressive piece of machinery.

Does it keep you on your toes, not knowing the set from song to song?
Well, we’ve had plenty of time to explore what happens if you change it. You can spin that wheel 25 times and it might land on the same song three times but there are some songs it’ll never bring up. There are songs that we’ve on there that we’ve never played.

Are you ready when they do come up?
Yeah, we’ve learnt them and we rehearse them. Particularly if they’re tricky and have a lot of changes in them, you’d better remind yourself of that again. On the first run in Philadelphia ‘Black and White World’ came up and we hadn’t rehearsed that for a few nights, and it hadn’t been a song that had been regularly in the repertoire, and we all had different ideas about how it went [laughs]. It was quite psychedelic for a while.

Does that sort of thing happen often?
Most nights we’ve run these songs through. We’ll diligently run through songs in the afternoon and be sure they’ll be part of the show, and they resolutely will not come up. We can’t explain it: We’ve tried all kinds of complicated analysis. The finest minds of our time have examined it – Las Vegas gamblers and nuclear physicists have examined it, and they can’t figure out why ‘Human Hands’ comes up more often than ‘Big Tears’ or whatever. Half the sport of it of course is hearing the groans when ‘Accidents Will Happen’ passes twelve o’clock and reveals that we’re going to play whatever it is that the bulk of the audience doesn’t recognise. Then again, most of the songs that we’ve ever recorded most of the audience doesn’t recognise – but obviously there are also people there that are really thrilled when something unusual comes up that they thought they would never hear.

Is it always completely random?
Well, if they’re selected from the audience people who come with an obvious desire to hear one particular song can get it. And once in a while we’ll lean on the mechanism, so if somebody happens to have the name of a song or says, “This was my first girlfriend’s favourite tune” or something like that, who would so unkind as to resist? If someone comes up on their wedding anniversary or their first date, you don’t really want to curse them with some of the songs that are up there. You have to be very careful with what you select – and give it a manly spin.

I suppose it wouldn’t be ideal to have one’s anniversary and spin up ‘Baby Plays Around’ or ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’…
Yeah, or ‘The Long Honeymoon’ or something. That actually did happen. One guy came up on his 25th wedding anniversary, I think it was in Amsterdam, and spun up ‘The Long Honeymoon’ – which we’d already played, so I said “spin it again”, and it came up again. [Laughs] It really did seem fated. I think in the end we just played whatever they felt like hearing.

So how many songs are on the wheel?
There are 30 named, and then there are numerous songs attached to the jackpots, which have words like ‘Time” or “Girl” or “I Can Sing A Rainbow”, which proposes that we do all the songs that have colours in the title, of which we have quite a few. And some that are propositions: “Aim versus Model”, so you might get a choice from My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model, or “Imperial Chocolate” which proposes that we play a couple of songs from Imperial Bedroom and Blood and Chocolate, or “King’s Ransom” which groups _King of America and National Ransom together.

So there’s a fair bit of latitude in the set, then.
Obviously it’s a game of chance and it’s a bit of fun, but obviously you don’t want to stop and start the show too many times and we like to take control of proceedings. We have hand signals and a complicated set of semaphore between ourselves so that the band knows which songs to play while people are coming up on the stage and which songs will be triggered by certain jackpots, and we have a couple of jokers which means people can choose anything from the selections on hand, and people will still ask for songs we haven’t played. They’ll ask for songs by other bands. “Can you play ‘Kashmir’,” they’ll say. Whatever that is. [Laughs]

Well, I think you’d do a killer version of ‘Call Me Maybe’.
I dunno what that is. Is it by Beyoncé?

It’s Carly Rae Jepsen. Biggest selling single of last year, I believe.
I don’t know it. You see, I hate music. [laughs]

I’m not surprised that you’ve secret on-stage semaphore going. It only dawned on me today that the Imposters are now in their 11th year, and of course you’ve been playing with Pete and Steve for well over three decades.
Yeah, that’s right. We obviously haven’t done end-on-end as many shows as the Attractions did early on, but after that when things became more related to album releases. And there was a period of time when I didn’t play at all with any of the Attractions – Pete was a small part on a couple of records and he played in the touring band I had in the ’90s – but I suppose it isn’t a band where we talk every day or see each other all the time. But it has the benefit of bringing in the experiences that we have independently: Steve’s working with other artists in France and on his own record, he’s done amazing things scoring films and writing his own opera; Pete and Davey turn up playing on all sorts of records, because they’re really good. But it’s bound to change the way that we approach things.

Davey aside, are there any huge differences between the Attractions and the Imposters? Dave and Bruce [Thomas, Attractions bassist and Costello’s bete noire] play bass differently, of course, but would most people even notice?
We had to find a way to play the older songs, and I think this band plays some of the older songs very differently. It’s subtle, the difference, but it’s a different rhythmic influence. That’s mainly because Pete’s changed the way he plays. He plays regularly with Davey – they have a band in LA together – so he’s played lots more time now with the Imposters rhythm [section] than he did with the Attractions rhythm part. So the understanding is a different one, I think.

When you say different, do you actually mean better?
I’m not making a comparison – The Attractions records were great! They are made by people of that age, and I don’t in truth … I think there are some really good songs on the two records that we made later on [1994’s Brutal Youth and 1996’s All This Useless Beauty], but I don’t think there are the same measure of band performances that were made early on. There are a few tracks I really love, but normally because of one person’s part, like the piano parts or whatever. But I like the sound of this band. And they can play expressive versions of songs they didn’t have any part in recording, or maybe had a smaller part – like, both Pete and Steve contributed to National Ransom, we all did Momofuku together, we did some records on location almost like movie actors where we went to Mississippi or New Orleans or Tucson. We’ve had some good adventures together.

It does seem that you have a very civilised approach to things these days. Since it was that particular group of players, and even though there was a great deal of scope, with the Attractions you were always going to have a particular sound, to some extent…
Well I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think that particular group covered a lot of ground – I remember feeling when we made the third record Armed Forces, 1979] that it was more lavish to us, so now I listen to it and I don’t really hear that it was so technicolour and cinemascope as when we were doing it. But it was only in comparison to what had come before, because I’d only made two records My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model. By the time we made Imperial Bedroom I’d been disenchanted to the point of wanting to just lay it aside completely a couple of times, and then we made a record where we gave ourselves license to hire harpsichords and orchestras and do the things that you read about in the Big Book of Being In a Famous Pop Group. And some of the records that we made out of it, I stand by. I don’t really have a big problem with any of them – individual songs will stand out, but I don’t know what the fuss is about any of it, really. It’s all just music. It’s for other people to get heated up about. There are more important things.

“The guy whose name gets top billing gets to say how it goes. And nobody else’s opinion actually matters.”

I appreciate that, but when you have a body of work as comprehensive as your own there must be things that you look at and think “that was pretty amazing then and it’s pretty amazing now”, and other things where you’d go, “Uuuuuuh, I’d have done this differently.”
Yeah, but it doesn’t bother me much, and I can’t do anything about the ones that you’d go “uuuuuuuh” about, because they’d probably change. Your own tastes changes as a musician, and if I think about how I’d like to approach playing certain songs I probably wouldn’t go about doing them now today the way I did certain records, but when I made them that was the way I intended them to work. And that’s something I learned really from working with other people.

As in the Attractions?
It was put more into focus I think by working with Paul McCartney. Because when I wrote songs with him [on Flowers In The Dirt and Spike] it was thrilling. We got across the room and these songs came to light. But obviously when we came to record the songs, his desire at that time was to make records that were much more decorated; something which I had just actually explored myself on my own records, so I was longing for them to sound a lot sparer. And I thought those particular songs – even when I recorded something like ’So Like Candy’ on what was otherwise a fairly heavily arranged record like Mighty Like A Rose – my version of it is pretty sparse. It’s one of the sparsest tracks on the record because that’s how the song felt to me. It was accepting that the way that Paul was hearing those songs, he had every right to make them that way and nobody – not anyone in the audience, not even the person that co-wrote the song – could tell him better about how it should go. And the only thing is that years later he did end up making some records that were very bare again, that were more the way I thought those songs should go – but that doesn’t mean I was right. He was right in the moment to make them sound exactly like he thought they should. It’s just because art isn’t a democracy.

As your own history demonstrates…
The guy whose name gets top billing gets to say how it goes. And nobody else’s opinion actually matters, because you buy it because you trust the artist. But if you don’t like it, you don’t know better – you just know differently. And that’s what I learned. And that unfortunately makes a complete nonsense of all criticism because it’s all just a matter of opinion, you know? It doesn’t really matter, because the music just goes on and on and eventually someone will hear it a long time from now and none of the manners and fashions of the time are in play. And really, how often is it that a record is discovered after 10, 15, 25 years and everybody goes, “Oh, now I get it”?

Vashti Bunyan?
Who?

She’s a British folk singer: she released Just Another Diamond Day in 1970, but wasn’t discovered until 2000 or so.
I’ll have to take your word for it. But music’s a mystery. I was at a charity concert a few weeks ago and it was the first time I’d heard Pink Floyd’s music in person, and it was only then that I realised that I knew some of their songs by osmosis, because I’d never owned a record by them, except for ‘See Emily Play’ [1967]. And I was amazed that I knew so many of the songs, because I guess they get played on the radio or television or in the background, and while I still went well, I don’t think that music’s for me, now I understand it: Here in this big gigantic arena it makes sense. So all of your hot-headed and grandiose opinions about it don’t really matter a damn. Somebody loves it. Somebody loves Liberace and thinks he’s the greatest pianist ever, that’s fine. Or Barry Manilow – who wrote some great songs, by the way. Everyone just needs to fuckin’ relax. Smoke more weed, the world is ending. That’s my opinion.

And that’s my headline.
That’s your headline, right there! I didn’t say which weeds, though. Smoke the weeds, not the food. Didn’t say “weed”, I said “the weeds”. It’s a very clear distinction.

Understood. I don’t want to get you in a whole Justin Bieber-style pot scandal thing.
I don’t know what that is [laughs].

Elvis Costello tour:

Wednesday, January 23 – PW1, Hobart
Friday, January 25 – Palais Theatre Melbourne
Saturday, January 26 – Rochford Wines, Yarra Valley
Sunday, January 27 – Leconfield Wines, McLaren Vale
Wednesday, January 30 – State Theatre Sydney
Saturday, February 2 – Bimbadgen Winery, Hunter Valley
Sunday, February 3 – Sirromet Wines, Mt Cotton
Wednesday, February 6 – Kings Park, Perth

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