Wise Up Ghost: A Conversation with Elvis Costello

Huffington Post: Mike Ragogna: 25th November 2013.

A Conversation with Elvis Costello

Mike Ragogna: Hello Elvis, how are you?

Elvis Costello: I'm doing well, thank you very, very much.

MR: You took a different approach with Wise Up Ghost than most others have with their albums. What was the mission?

EC: It's the result of our informal collaborations or collaborations with a different agenda. The Roots role as the house band on the Fallon show, I saw it as the toolbox for something more enduring than a television appearance. You try to make the television appearance the best it can be, but what I loved about my first encounter with The Roots was I watched them work with other people, but I didn't know what the protocols were or how many people on the show were already friends of theirs. I ended up calling my wife's drummer who's a pal of ?uest's, asking, "Do you think they'd play with me?" to get into the studio and lock the door until I made a record with them. So I suppose we were both looking at it the same in slightly different perspectives. If we had the opportunity to play together, it seemed like there would be a lot of possibilities. The way they approached playing the songs, whether they were old or new, and each time I went to the show, it was a different agenda.

MR: One reason why I said this was a different approach is because you revisit some of your older material with an upgrade of arrangement, sound and intention.

EC: That applies to only a handful of songs on the record. It was one of the starting points for the collaboration. We didn't really know we were making a record, we were just making some tracks. Initially, we thought we might be making an EP or even just one song. We didn't really have a plan for anybody, we didn't tell anybody, including ourselves what we were doing. We certainly didn't tell a record company. No record company was involved until the record was practically made. I think that took a lot of the pressure off. With the different working methods--Steven Mandel deserves a lot of credit for standing in the middle ground between ?uest and myself--we had no theoretical conversations about the music, we just started to play. One of the initial ideas was to revisit some of my songs in a quite literal form and simply rearrange them. I felt it was my decision to go further with that and dismantle the songs and reassemble them into new maps that led the way, then, to taking the foundation of some rehearsal jams, using those sequences of music in the same way that you might use a sequence of chords on the acoustic guitar. There's very little difference. By taking a clip of the band playing live in a rehearsal studio and using that interesting little sequence of music as your musical foundation for a whole new musical adventure is just a question of recognizing the value of something you've played, some little quirk of the way the band turns around in the rhythm or the way it's looped, you know? This isn't opening your mind up to unconventional methods of recording, it's not that we're doing something unprecedented, I just haven't used these methods in such an overt way before. They're not even the first time I've used these methods before. "Green Shirt" on Armed Forces, there's a sequenced Mini-Moog running right through that track. Obviously, if we had played everything as an expression of that rhythm. it would have been a very different record from the one that we made. It had a sea-like element, which, at the time, was our reference to Kraftwerk. It seems funny to say it now, but we had heard Kraftwerk and that's what we took out of Kraftwerk, that little Mini-Moog kind of juttering away in the background of that record.
Other records, you want the breath of what people call--it's a really weird word--"Organic" the wooden instruments, back in the mid-eighties in the making of King Of America. It was very attractive to me to hear the sound of the brushes on the snares and the double bass. These were people that placed the groove in a different place than I'd been used to. We had all these records with the combo band and we were a very tight and cohesive band. We could play quite a lot better than many of our contemporaries, and it wasn't about philosophy, it was about intensity. Then you realize there's another story where you need to let the music breathe and the musicians need to stand back from the song and not be in the foreground all the time. Every combination of instruments and instrumentalists that you might get the opportunity to play with offers you different virtues and different pitfalls, as well, if you allow different things to dominate. If you ask ?uest about it, he was very conscious that we were not making something that would be perceived as my "hip-hop" record, whatever the hell that would mean. I wouldn't have any problem with that. It's just a word. But it was something where we were trying to do something effective. That's what he was concerned about. I've always had songs in my repertoire that people call "political"; they're the sort of reporting of something as you see it, your particular view in the ways of the world or things that we're all sharing. Sometimes, a melody serves that very well, other times, not. It's more important than the rhythm of the words take. Once you say that the distance between what the most inventive people in hip-hop do and what the lineage that leads to Bob Dylan doing "It's All Right, Ma"... I don't know what you call it, but if the song expresses what the singer's intending, right back to songs in the twenties right up to the latest band, they're just words attached to something which is elusive, a work of imagination.

MR: As much as this might have been an experiment, this album also does seem more pointed or focused than that, at least to this listener.

EC: We just wanted to make a record as good as it could sound. Obviously, I'm not going to subscribe to the lazy praise of this record to the extent of other things. I know that the other records have different methodology and different intentions and if they try the patience or are beyond the comprehension of some people, that's fine. I don't see it as a competition of one approach or another, I think the approach that you take on one record is valid for that material and obviously if you kept repeating that performance, you'll end up with a very dull result. A lot's made of my intent when I'm collaborating. All music is collaborative. All music's collaborative because you're playing with other people. It's only notable when it's the result of an extreme contrast, like if I worked with Burt Bacharach, then people were really curious. People were like, "Well, how does that work," because they see it as two totally different worlds. Believe me, I've recently been writing with him again, and when we're in a room together within the fabric of a song, within the actual workings of a song, it doesn't feel at all like we're from different worlds. Obviously we have different experiences and different strengths and it's so wonderful to actually be watching him move a note up a semitone or stretch a phrase by a couple of beats to achieve an effect. That's no different than what we're doing in Wise Up Ghost. I would come in and Steven would drop a beat down and we'd create this little hole or a delay. If you take the title track "Wise Up Ghost," it was recorded against a sample of string orchestration I had recorded for the record North, but everything that The Roots contributed to the record was scored like a movie score. So there's no one way, as they say, to skin a cat. There's no one methodology, which is superior to the others, it's what's needed to tell the story in that moment.

MR: Do you think you came out of this collaboration changed in any way?

EC: I tend to think that the lessons that you learn from each experience tend to reveal themselves later. It's not like school where you get the diploma at the end of the term. You tend to notice that a new song, a couple of years down the road, will be a new shape that you never considered. I know when I worked for a couple of years with The Boston Quartet, we wrote this piece together without any reference to drums or any of the beats that most of my records had had. Although I'd worked with a lot of musicians, it was the first time I hadn't had even the insistent rhythm of an acoustic guitar keeping the thing moving forward. It was just different, you know? Then when I went to write my next record, there were a few songs on that album that I never would've written without that other experience, just the shape of the songs, musically, never would've occurred to me. But I didn't have a self-consciousness about having learned anything, that was just suddenly at my disposal. I don't really sit there and analyze what I'm getting out of it. But you asked me that question with regards to Wise Up Ghost; I have no self-consciousness about what I've learned or gained, I just wrote the record and I think it's effective, I think it tells the story. Somewhere along the way, it became apparent that it was predominantly a bulletin record and there were one or two moments with more personal reflection. They seem less appropriate when you're in a cooperative endeavor like this, to be speaking of the deeply personal, but in the end, I felt like the confidence to that was being created. I think it illustrated a degree of development of the collaboration over the six months that we worked on this. We started in about August of last year. We were putting strings on it when we were about to master and brought Brent Fischer in to do the orchestration; I thought that was a very inspired choice. I would've delivered the record without those elements, now I couldn't imagine the record without it. He had a very good vision about that and that's why we all work well as a team, we all have things to bring in.

MR: Elvis, what advice do you have for new artists?

EC: I wouldn't really presume to tell them anything. I think that their experience has got to be very different from the one that I had. I look at my beginnings. I ended up having myself come from just working out of one shop front, and it seemed that we knew everybody who was working there, from the designer to the people that put up the posters around town. It was really a cottage industry, and I think the company seems much more a face in which you could hide. But compare them to the modern corporations, impersonal multi-product corporations that doesn't have music as its main purpose, it can be intimidating for young musicians. I think that's why you see so many people taking the direct route to the public. I have no smart advice, but don't give up anything for a short-term gain. People give up the rights to the tour and the t-shirts for the privilege of recording and it's no different than becoming a prostitute. People have bought the copyrights to songs for sixty dollars and then the people who had nothing to do with writing the songs put their names on the song credit. That went on from the forties to the fifties and then it died out a little, but you see a similar kind of impulse because it's so difficult for people to make the volume of profit that they saw their predecessors make. It's changed, and there's nothing that's going to change it back. If you really believe in what you're doing, you have to really remain resolute about it and think of the way to get to people. Think of a show that nobody else can copy. If anything, it encourages originality and that's what I see in the best of it. That's an argument for the young artist, not for the music player. I have no smart solution. I don't think anybody does. The worst mistake made was to let the industry standards drop, that was the crucial mistake. I think sonically, it will be judged that way. From 78s to 45s to long play, radio over records, film over radio, television over film, they've all offered different possibilities for music and musical comedy and it was covered really well with that, but it was inevitable that it would eventually have a new easily transmittable form of music--digital. And at the same time as it opened it up, you literally couldn't basically protect the copyright anymore. I think that was the mistake. I think a lot of people will accept the fact that it was a mistake, and whatever benefits it brought... Those who actually make the content of the Apples and the Spotifys and subscriptions... Obviously, the deal's done with the copyright holders who are the record companies and sometimes, they're not paying the artists and sometimes, they need an income just to keep the band going. Think about being a young artist trying to start on that foundation. How are they supposed to do that? That's why so many people make music and stick it on YouTube or Facebook. It's the only way they can try to have a music career.

MR: So true. Elvis, thank you so much for your time. All the best with the new record.

EC: Thank you.