Elvis Costello at 55: his face still framed by black plastic specs, this season he has turned to a late-period-Dylan moustache and a series of wide-brimmed hats. In his albums, concerts and Sundance Channel chat-and-music show “Spectacle,” he continues to indulge, celebrate and expand his encyclopedic knowledge of music. He’s the Englishman who knows more about America’s musical culture than we do. In interview, he seizes the question and tussles with it for minutes, though at the end, he admits to being distracted. Costello had just got off the phone, having heard that John Ciambotti, the bass player from Clover — who backed Costello on his 1977 debut LP — had passed away. The interview went ahead, with Costello covering everything from his show and resurrecting old tunes to his thoughts on the latest “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movie.
There have now been two seasons of “Spectacle.” Did being the interviewee for so many years help in becoming an interviewer?
No, I think it helped to be truthful, to be in the same location as the subjects. I really think that the success or otherwise of the conversations hinged largely on the fact that the people had a degree of trust simply because they knew that I knew what they do, even if our methodologies turned out to be different. The other (thing about the show is) they are not set up to really promote a new product the way a chat show is. Because the host in this case is not a comedian but somebody who … I mean, I can appreciate the humor in certain situations as much as the next person; but it doesn’t matter to me if the conversation becomes serious or reflective or emotional. And we get to also speak for a fairly long period of time and then try and edit the best bits into something like an hour. And all of those things put us, I would say, at some advantage to most of the discourse on television. So I don’t put too much thought into my own technique.
Out of your two seasons of guests, do you have a favorite?
I think it would be disrespectful to put it in a hierarchy. I mean, I was very thrilled to speak to Smokey Robinson and somewhat kind of shocked to find myself on the stage with Herbie Hancock, particularly singing with him. But I think in the last season you couldn’t really ask for anything more than Bruce Springsteen staying with the show for hours. And somebody who I’d always admired and whose records I’d always recommended to people: Jesse Winchester was on the show. And having waited 40 years to see him on television, that he was as good as he was and just to the point that it completely stopped the show and everybody became very emotional just at the sound of his voice … If I only had to think of one performance to justify the existence of the show, it would be that performance.
Is this still a tour to promote the last album?
It depends on which album you are talking about, the one that came out last year (“Secret, Profane and Sugarcane”) or the one we just made? I mean, when I come to play at the Arlington, which I think I played a good number of years ago, that album is just part of the mix for that evening. There’s one or two songs I’m playing in a solo performance, so I’ve got a huge amount of freedom. I was at a show up in Edmonton in January, which was a solo show, and I think I did five unreleased songs. … I have no idea whether I’ll play as many brand-new unreleased songs at the coming concert, but you have the freedom to do that and have a good chance that people can really hear the songs, because there’s nothing distracting them from the content.
And playing solo allows you to change your set list on a whim…and take requests.
Well, I think requests get a little tricky, because you get two types of requests: you get people who are wanting something that’s obscure to everybody else; and then you sometimes get that nervous, relentless request for a song, which there’s a pretty good chance you’re gonna play because it’s a really well-known tune, but for some reason people want to hear it second in the show and never let up. Well, that’s almost guaranteed to make you not want to play it at all.
Before “My Aim Is True,” when you were playing solo, how big was your repertoire? Were you carting about a lot of cover tunes?
Well, I’d written quite a lot of songs before I even started recording, one or two of which I revisited over the years; but I suppose the fact that I had a whole album’s worth of material recorded before I became a professional musician, and the album came out after several singles had been released, I have to say unsuccessfully. But they nevertheless went ahead and released my first album, and I immediately formed a band and had the bulk of a second record already written. So by the time we had done our first go around the English club scene and before we even came to America for the first time, we had half of the second record in the can, and that half-an-album advantage sustained for the next five years. So I have always felt like I had more material in hand than the next person. And perhaps because I’ve continued to write a lot of material and I’ve had the great luxury, or the great good fortune, to have so many experiences with working with different types of musicians, which has stopped anything from becoming too routine. Nothing is predictable, because you take a little shot in the dark going in and working with somebody you would never have originally anticipated ever hearing yourself with, and something comes with it.
It doesn’t have to be a change of religion or it doesn’t have to sort of be … certainly it isn’t supposed to deny everything that went before. Sometimes people are slightly horrified when they hear you in a new context and they don’t quite understand why you’re doing it; but by the time you have had that experience and maybe you returned to a form that they more readily accept you in, that form itself has changed slightly and it becomes fresh again. To play the electric guitar and shout your head off suddenly becomes novel again if you’ve been doing something more with a totally different methodology, like working with the string quartet. I mean, and it’s actually what my career has seemed like … to me anyway, it hasn’t ever felt like I’ve been in a rut.
You’ve never seemed too worried about alienating or losing fans, have you?
I’ve been aware of the fact that people haven’t always followed my line of thinking. I haven’t always completely persuaded everybody to come along with me, however. But that doesn’t bother me. You can’t expect everybody to think the same way, because otherwise they’d be me, wouldn’t they? They’d be writing the songs, and I wouldn’t be doing this. Anyway, there’s nothing at all that I deny or regret. There are some songs that I like better than others and there are some records I like better than others; but even they change, just as my favorite records by other people change depending on where I am in my life and what I need and what I want and how I’m feeling and which way the wind is blowing.
You’ve spoken critically about some of your ’80s records, but I guess I’m one of those fans who like a lot of the songs. I like quite a lot of songs off of “Goodbye Cruel World,” for example.
Actually, I don’t like the sound of the record very much. Sometimes you do something which almost fatally compromises the heart of the song, but undeniably makes it really accessible to a lot of people.
Do the songs have to stand up as solo guitar songs to be successful to you?
I don’t think it harms a song to be able to understand it on one instrument. I mean, honestly, you can pick out the theme of a symphony on the piano, the essential thing; but then it’s all those other things that go on that make it interesting. So just the same way it would with a full band arrangement, there are things that I wouldn’t have missed adding or putting in place in recordings of certain songs. I mean, even if I play them differently from night to night, I know there’s a certain austerity and, some people would say, purity to the work, the performance, when it doesn’t have those component parts.
Has your guitar technique improved after all these years?
(Laughs) I don’t know. I mean, it depends on what you are trying to do. I mean, I haven’t really thought about improving it in the sense in that I have an approach to it, which I think I’ve kept deliberately untutored. And I get ideas from other people, just like when I sing I get ideas of other people singing and I try to think about how I would phrase like that. Of course, it comes out of my own mouth sounding like me, but I know it’s informed by a certain thing. So whatever it is that I like they’re playing, I might think I’m playing along those same lines, but I’m probably not. Recently I’ve been playing a lot of acoustic guitar and even playing without a pick, which I haven’t done in 30 years or more, 35 years, maybe. So it just happened to be some of the songs I wrote were just to be played with the fingers, so that’s a different sound. Now, does that make me the sort of great finger-picking guitar player? Of course not, because I’ve not honed it for 30 years; but it serves the needs of the songs that I’ve written just the same way as if I pick up the electric guitar and start thrashing away, there’s a certain thing that happens that other people don’t have.
I didn’t mean to criticize your guitar playing. It was more a comparison to how you really expanded your vocal style in the ’90s. Didn’t you take some vocal training?
I don’t think I actually did do that; there’s a perception that I did. I read that before, but I don’t agree with that. I wrote songs that demanded more of the voice and sometimes to the edge of what I’m capable of doing; but sometimes the strain of going to the edge of your ability is attractive to somebody and to other people it’s not, it just sounds like strain. And the same is true, I tend to like guitar players that sound like they’re painting themselves into a corner, and drummers, too. I love Levon Helm, because he sounds like he’s gonna turn the beat around all the time, but somehow he skitters out of it. And it’s one of the things that creates tension.
I love Hubert Sumlin for the same reason: that it sounds like the whole thing is about to come unglued, and just at the moment that it doesn’t is where the brilliance lies. Now, they are not people that I can say I play equally to; but it’s what I like is that feeling it’s the high wire —?not super-virtuosity, but just some kind of danger that comes from maybe just not being certain where it’s landing next and not being so pleased with yourself that you know what you’re doing.
You interviewed one of the Jonas Brothers in Rolling Stone. He struck me as someone who was already thinking of what he was going to do outside the commercial side of things.
That’s the impression I got. I think you’ve got to remember that when you’re in the machine, it’s quite a bit like the Hollywood days when people were contracted actors to the major studios who very carefully manicured their images, and their biographies were sometimes completely invented. And then they would surprise you by being loaned out to another studio and doing some art picture where they showed like all kinds of dimensions you could never have guessed. Now, I’m not saying that that kid is one of those. But, I mean, I was watching this benefit show, Justin Timberlake was on singing “Hallelujah,” which seems to have become a hit of sorts … I won’t say a secular hymn, but it seems to be sung in the way that hymns used to be sung now on occasions. And he sang the song very beautifully. So who’s to say just because somebody’s gone down that route and they maybe have the physical appearance to exist in that world, well, you don’t want to necessarily write them off. That’s very snobbish. … There’s all sorts of anomalies in the history of music that don’t fit in with the romantic legends. Like people were thinking Robert Johnson was a blues man, but who also knew, by all accounts, lots of songs in different styles; he just only recorded in blues. If you would have happened to have seen him playing, he would have been playing vaudeville songs and comic songs and things we’d probably call country. But it’s just the interest was in recording people of his background in blues, so that’s what he did. And because he died young, the legend grew up around him.
It comes back to what you say about the sound of the records. Justin Timberlake may have a great voice, but the production is hiding those extra dimensions in his voice.
It’s like if he’d started out recording in 1957 when everybody had gales of plate reverb on the voice. I suppose that’s one of the reasons Bob Dylan’s voice was so shocking: one, he had the nasal quality and his emphasis all on different syllables than most people stressed; but those things really sound very dry on records. There’s no reverb on any of his. And that’s what makes it shoot forward, ’cause the words are very comprehensible. And I suppose that was appropriate, given his ability, as well. And there were other singers who might have been different singers when you strip that out of the way.
Autotune is just the same, isn’t it? Now, I took our boys one afternoon to this Chipmunks’ movie; and, yeah, they think it’s funny and it’s kind of maddening, but it’s harmless. But I thought the difference between the Chipmunks’ renditions of the songs that they’re parodying and the actual records is negligible; it’s just an octave or two. The sonics of the records, they’re identical, including the vocal sound; it’s just higher, it’s not better and more truthful on the original version. Even people that apparently can sing are still being put through those machines to make them sound like robots. So they might as well be little animatronics or whatever they are, CGI Chipmunks. That’s how human they sound.
Auto-tune is everywhere!
Yeah, well, and you know what? There’s no point in getting upset about it, because it will be gone next year; it will be something else. Remember Aural Exciters? Now it sounds like something you have to buy in the sex shop, but it used to be a kind of subliminal thing that you couldn’t detect but it made you like Eagles records. (laughs)
But do you have favorite pedals and effects?
When I play solo, I don’t limit myself to just acoustic guitar. So, I mean, I do use effects on my guitar that I change up from time to time. And when I play acoustically and when I play solo, I like to bring a couple of different acoustic guitars that have served different purposes. I mean, on the show there’s some reason I played some songs on the guitar, really old guitar, onto a microphone without any pickup on the guitar, even one of those naturalistic kind of acoustic guitar pickups. So it was literally just the sound of the instrument on a mic, which in itself changes the dynamic ’cause there’s only so loud it’ll go. So it means that those songs are very quiet, and that makes everybody lean forward a little bit, including me. So that’s different. And at the other end I’ve got like a Super 400, which sounds like a baritone guitar even though it isn’t because it has such low-end resonance, and a bunch of pedals, which I can make quite attractive noise with, which can create a nice degree of chaos on a song that I play even when it’s solo. So then in between, you just have like one song that’s one guitar that may be good for strumming and another that’s good more for the richness of ballad accompaniment, and that’s all you need.
At the time of “Momofuku” (2008) you were debating whether it was worth releasing albums at all.
Well, I think I got very disenchanted with the mechanism, the process of trying to engage with the record-company structure. Their thinking was so old-fashioned, so limited, so timid, so mealy-mouthed. All the people of flair and panache and creativity that remained were being squeezed from above by the corporate superstructure that is trying to make music and even the business of performing and releasing and recording and disseminating recorded music a business model that it will never be. And they’re sort of learning this the hard way by going out of business, and they’re all converting their business into another one.
And meanwhile I just detached from it, and the minute I stopped caring a damn what they thought, I just started making records again with a sense of joy and purpose, and I ended up making two in a couple of months and they came out a year apart. “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane” was made in three days after meeting those guys for the first time, and then I went on the road with them and I realized there’s loads more possibilities suggested by the lineup that we achieved with that record. And so there’s always something around the corner to move you on.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Arlington Theatre, 1317 State St.
Cost: $42 to $89 ($28 students)
Information: artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu or (805) 893-3535