Electronic Musician: Elvis Costello and The Roots Interview Extras: Barbara Schultz: 20th August, 2013
Our October issue features a cover story on Wise Up Ghost, a collaboration between Elvis Costello and The Roots. Here, Costello tells us more about the evolution of the songs and studio sessions.
Many of us have read a little about how this collaboration came about, but could you tell in your own words how your appearances on the Fallon show led to making an album?
I’d already had a lot of fun playing with The Roots when I’d made my guest appearances. I’d made three appearances on the Fallon show, and I’d done something different each time. One time, I’d just come in to play a couple of tunes from my catalog, and in one case [a song] was radically rearranged. In fact, they made reference to an arrangement that I’d played, like, one time in 1978 and then it was realized all these years later, the way I’d heard it in my head. And then I came in to do a brand-new song, “Stations of the Cross,” and that was tremendous. Then I came in to do some Bruce Springsteen songs.
We’d covered a fair amount of musical ground, and it proceeded on from those first couple of sessions where we exchanged ideas. There was no plan. There was no obligation to any record company. There was no agenda other than to make music, which is unusually difficult to achieve. You sort of do it all the time on your own, but the decision for two recording entities to start working together can sometimes be tripped up by too many committees. So we didn’t let anybody know we were doing it.
That’s also, perhaps, because we didn’t really know where we were going. We just started to play and then we liked what we heard and it led to other things. We talked about the possibility of a starting point with some text, and then Quest would write something down, I’d respond to that with some musical ideas, and they would be expanded on by the players from The Roots. I would always lay down the vocal live according to the vocal arrangement we had, and then Steven Mandel would start cutting away. We were employing a lot of techniques which are very familiar to their way of working: looping, sampling, and heavily compressing and processing certain sounds to create space in the arrangements—negative space so the picture’s clearer.
That’s obviously what you do when you arrange anyway—whether you arrange for orchestra or you arrange for a rock ‘n’ roll band—but in the process of recording sometimes, you end up adding and adding and adding. This was more about starting and then taking away. I’m not comparing it to other ways I’ve worked, saying this is the only way to do it. Of course, that’s not so. I’ve made lots of different kinds of records, but this methodology was somewhat novel for me and therefore I suppose I found it thrilling and provocative.
I talk to a lot of artists and engineers who describe a process of adding and adding during the recording process, and then the mix being in part a process of taking away. But it doesn’t sound like those tasks were segmented on this process. It sounds like you were always considering whether or not to keep parts.
In that sense, we were mixing from the first day. I don’t ever recall a feeling that we didn’t have a mix in progress. There were no sort of tracking sessions and then overdubbing sessions and then sort of a rethink where you try and put it through some kind of filter where you then reveal the transformed mix. That can be really great when that happens, and you do something spontaneously and you add some decorative part or some illuminating part and then the mix brings it into focus. The great people I’ve worked, with whether it’s been Nick Lowe or Geoff Emerick or even Billy Sherrill, they all have their own idea of how it sounds, and quite often they’re putting that sort of filter focus. With this, though, we were sort of working towards the completed mix from the very first session. There was no tracking session. There were hardly any two instruments played simultaneously on the whole record. That in itself meant that the picture was emerging as you were making it.
How much were you all even in the same studio when you were discussing musical ideas?
At first, we weren’t. That’s what I mean that’s why it was sort of like a dialogue. I like that as well because it meant that you weren’t playing [all together] and sort of one person’s performance was really great so you settle for the other person’s performance. You really thought about what you wanted to add. I heard what the drums laid down and I knew what songs we were going to be performing. I laid down just enough instruments in order to sing. In other words, I might play a few notes on the bass and a couple of chords on the guitar, like in “Refuse [to Be Saved],” I played the bass line and the electric piano and one of the guitar parts and then sang it, and that’s the vocal that you hear.
Later on, of course, the horns came in and we replaced some of that electric piano with sousaphone. And then Mark’s bass replaced my bass, but the electric piano remains, and then Kurt put another guitar in and suddenly you’ve got a full arrangement. So that’s the dialogue, and all the time you’ve got Steven making choices about the way those things fit in relation to the sounds and filtering certain sounds. Quest and he would be getting in on the sound of the drums, to pull them right out into the foreground, and then latterly, since you’ve heard it, we’ve augmented certain songs with strings. It’s different. We’ve got to force ourselves to let go of it next week. I mean, it’s a very small but key addition: this final joining of some of these elements with the string arrangements. It’s, for me, a really fascinating process that we’ve been in, and as I said, perhaps because it’s not routine for me, I found it to be particularly—provocative is the best word I can use; provocative of the imagination.
You re-use some lyrics from your own songs in places. Were these songs you’d been wanting to revisit?
I didn’t want to do a literal remake [of any songs] because then it would function the same way as a remix, but there was a different rhythm that naturally developed. In the case of “Stick Out Your Tongue,” the juxtaposition of “Pills and Soap” with “National Ransom,” the songs are separated in time, but they’re linked in content. We didn’t really do that very often after that, but that was one of the starting points of the collaboration, and then of course I understood the possibilities of the ways we were working in dialogue musically.
And we also had things like “Cinco Minutos con Vos” and “Viceroy’s Row” where we’ve got these melodies that developed out of musical sketches that are only based on two chords; there’s no four-chord, so there’s not the natural progression of harmony that most pop songs conform to, so it means you have to stop the melody from becoming repetitive and predictable. Just the nature of those structures is good provocation, and those lyrics have no precedence. They don’t have any lines or verses that have been in other songs. They’re completely new. “Tripwire,” “Uptown”: the bulk of the record is new lyrics. There’s just a couple of reset lyrics and juxtapositions between two verses from different sources which I think have, if you listen to the content, a common thread, and the common thread is joined by the music.
One of the things I was struck by in terms of arrangements is that song “Tripwire,” where you set some really frightening lyrics in a very gentle piece of music. Can you explain the thought behind that?
Quest remarked on that as well. It’s second nature to me to juxtapose, sometimes, the beautiful or sometimes very joyful sounding melody with something very dark. If you match like with like, that can be great if you can sustain the mood that directly reflects something that’s being described in the lyrics, but the other way to go is for people to listen in because of a gentle melody. I’m singing very quietly on that track. There are some beautiful elements. There’s Diane Birch’s beautiful harmonies; we’re singing in a vocal group together, the horns are there supporting us, which sound very soulful and sort of have a warmth which you don’t associate with the lyrics about people being blown to bits.
Onstage you’re a man of many guitars. Were there certain guitars in your arsenal that sounded best with The Roots?
I didn’t really give it a lot of thought in advance, but it may be the only record where I don’t play any tremolo guitar. I don’t know if you noticed that, but there’s absolutely no tremolo guitar. I don’t know whether the key didn’t consciously keep me away from that sound, but it’s very much a signature of mine. I felt like “Watching the Detectives” was the first record where we actually got what I had in my head, and that’s really founded on a guitar figure that was tremolo guitar, you know?
If I think about it, I don’t play that much guitar [on this album]. Kurt obviously plays the bulk of the guitar. I actually play more piano than I do guitar. I play electric piano on a few tracks. But where I do play, I think I played a [Gibson] ES 300, which is a kind of a jazz guitar, on “Refuse.” I played a Kay baritone guitar on “Sugar [Won’t Work]” and another one on “Stick out Your Tongue.” But it’s sort of like the baritone registers as bass. “Sugar” was one of the few songs that was cut live and that was cut as a trio: Quest, Pino Palladino [bass] and me—more like two basses but no guitar—and Kurt added his guitar afterwards.
What was it like working with Steven Mandel?
I want Steven to get the full credit that he deserves for this record, because he has worked really tirelessly to narrow the distance between our different perspectives of music, between Quest and myself. He brought the talents of The Roots members to bear on the skeleton of ideas I may have suggested. And he kept us out of the danger that you can get into when you keep adding; you can lose intensity as you add, because the raw thing that you liked initially becomes buried. He's very good at cutting stuff away. I think he's done remarkable work.
And Steven would know when a take doesn’t fly. It’s good to work with somebody who has a good bullshit detector. You never consciously skate, but [sometimes I would ask him], ‘Will that do it?’ And he’d say, ‘No, it’s not going to do it.’ Sometimes you might try something that sounds, in isolation, berserk. Steven is good at keeping his nerve while you're going through that process of taking that berserk idea and bringing it into focus until it is actually the thing which lights up the track. I appreciate that kind of tenacity.