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Somewhere An Orchestra Is Playing: Elvis Costello And Questlove Conspire To Change The Subject

By Gregg LaGambina; photos by Danny Clinch on September 12, 2013

 

Somewhere An Orchestra Is Playing: Elvis Costello And Questlove Conspire To Change The Subject

 


“What are you talking about,” he says. “That’s not true!”


It appears this warmhearted affair has turned sour before it’s barely begun. 

 

The sun is falling behind the Houses of Parliament. Londoners, at this hour, on this Tuesday, don’t so much scurry (the English don’t scurry) as move in efficient streams beneath the streets and into the proper trains to carry them off to farther points on the map, some in the mind for a pint (or two).


In a room somewhere above this crawling city, a lamp likely lit against the waning day, sits a fiery 58-year-old musician named Elvis Costello. He’s mid-argument with a writer who has just uttered to him something lazy, like, “The world doesn’t seem so kind to singer-songwriters anymore.”


We’ll pick it up again from there. Mr. Costello is speaking.


“The world’s not full of singer-songwriters? I think we’re rotten with them! You can’t cross the road without tripping over one of them. Guys with three-button vests and a beard! What are you talking about? There’s loads of ’em!”



“Jeff Bridges won’t be here for another five hours. We’ll steal his room,” he says. “I might steal his Diet Coke, too.”


Ahmir Khalib Thompson, better known as Questlove, drummer and leader of storied Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots (and current musical director of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) has navigated his way down a brightly lit hallway (crowded with pages and interns and production assistants) inside NBC Studios. He’s searching for a room to sit and talk about Elvis.


“This is ridiculous,” he says.


Turning to someone passing by, he asks, “Are the Stamos people still here, or can I use one of these rooms?”


“John Stamos’ band from Full House, Jesse and The Rippers, are reuniting tonight,” he says, turning back to me. “We’re actually treating this with the same energy as if Beyoncé or Eminem were here. You can tell when it’s a certain caliber artist when you walk down this hallway. Eminem’s wardrobe needed its own dressing room. He’s one of those people that travel with nine racks of clothes. He’ll wear the same jeans and T-shirt, but the racks go wherever he goes.”


Quest sits and cracks the top of a Coke can pilfered from the Dude.



The idea was to narrow it all down to a year or two. Of course, we’d get around to Wise Up Ghost, the collaboration between Elvis Costello and The Roots, a pairing called “unlikely” by some, but according to Quest: “This is probably the most predictable thing I could have ever done. If I made a record with Ciara or 2 Chainz, that would be some shocking shit.”


By now, you’ve heard it, or you’ve seen the first video for the album’s opener, “Walk Us Uptown.” And you can see Quest has a point: Elvis Costello and The Roots are entirely complimentary, each bringing something out of the other, a push-and-pull affair where the last big tug of the rope reels in the biggest beautiful fish from a sea they’ve both been navigating separately for years. Now, they’re just in the same boat.


They both possess meandering musical minds that refuse to settle for the benefit of anyone, least of all a record label (Blue Note, this time), or some expectation put upon them by a journalist, a fan or perhaps even themselves. Push and pull. And do it again, another way. (This is the motor that drives this metaphorical vessel we’ve just now christened Costello Quest.)


The album cover is a nod to the book jacket for Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” While these two have little-to-nothing in common with the jittery junkies that people Ginsberg’s poem, Wise Up Ghost just might be dressed in “the ghostly clothes of jazz” and be the thing that “shivered the cities down to the last radio,” to paraphrase the beardy Beat. 


But, here, the author might be stretching this thing to snapping.


So, let’s get back to it.


The gentlemen who triumphed on record have conspired to fuck up this article. As I said, there was an idea. It was simple. A Year of Elvis, a favorite, just pick one and ride it out and see where it takes us.


Mine? 1986: King of America and Blood & Chocolate, also around the time he introduced the Spinning Songbook (a popular feature he’s brought out again this year, where a spin of a giant game-show-styled wheel emblazoned with song titles, some by Costello, some by others, determines the set list in real time). 


Quest? He took 1984 and Goodbye Cruel World, an album for which Costello infamously wrote in the reissue’s liner notes, “Congratulations! You’ve just bought our worst record!” In other words: not a promising start. A flightless bird. Dead on arrival.


For Mr. Costello’s part, he sounded daunted by the premise.


“I honestly thought I had too much material,” he said, as he mulled the thing over early on. “I was aware of the problem of where to place the emphasis.”


Before settling on Costello’s “worst record,” Quest, in fact, shared a similar sentiment.


“He has too many phases in his career,” he pleaded. “Where do you even start?”


Start. Now there is an idea. We’ve gone and left these two men alone in their separate rooms with an ocean between them. It’s about time we got back to find out what they did say. Without further interruption. Promise.




Questlove: Blood & Chocolate is probably your favorite, right? 


I think so.


My engineer, Steve [Mandel, Wise Up Ghost co-producer], he’s been advocating Blood & Chocolate for the longest time. It’s weird. I kind of go over this in my memoir [Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove]. I talk about how people tease me because I always pick the “wrong” album to embrace. I loved Emotional Rescue and Their Satanic Majesties Request by the Stones. The first U2 album I really got into was Rattle and Hum. My favorite Springsteen album is Nebraska. It’s never the obvious, iconic choice. 


Why Goodbye Cruel World, even with this tendency of yours to start in the “wrong” place?


I got on board for Goodbye Cruel World simply because I was a 12-year-old, discovering MTV. I sat there for three hours waiting for them to play “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” and “All Night Long” and “Little Red Corvette”—those four videos. At the time, “All Night Long” was really the only the video that had break-dancing in it. I was not a New Yorker, so we didn’t have New York Hot Tracks or any of those urban public-access shows. We didn’t have those in Philadelphia. So, as a result, you’d just sit. You’d have to clock in somewhere between four to six hours of watching MTV every day. So, as far as Elvis was concerned, “Every Day I Write the Book” was my song of 1984, that video. Later on, my mom let me join Columbia House and I bought Goodbye Cruel World. Steve laughs at me because he feels as though Goodbye Cruel World is like the end of Phase One of Elvis. But I became a legit fan. I bought everything after Goodbye Cruel World. It wasn’t until I started working on this record that Steve was like, “Dude, you gotta go back to My Aim Is True and do your homework!” I am now an Elvis expert [laughs]. 


Elvis himself wrote in the liner notes to a reissue of Goodbye Cruel World that it was his worst album.


I know, I know, I know! That’s the thing! Why do I embrace it? I wasn’t paying attention between ’77 and ’83. “The Only Flame in Town,” “Worthless Thing”—I love that stuff. I don’t know why.


How did Wise Up Ghost end up happening? 


The legend goes: I was preparing for stage three of my life. Stage one being the education of a kid on the road under my father’s tutelage. Stage two being my own man in The Roots. Now, stage three is being at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Once we got to 30 Rock, we got them to build us a studio inside of our very small dressing room. It’s where I recorded Booker T. and John Legend and a few other albums.


On the down time, Steve and I, just out of boredom, decided to construct a Squeeze tribute album. At first, it was just friends of ours. Like a karaoke thing, recording it but knowing it would never get out to the public. But suddenly Erykah Badu hears about it and wants to do “Tempted.” Edie Brickell wants to do “What the Butler Saw.” All of these songs and eventually, because of Elvis’ history with Squeeze, we just brought it up to him. I forgot what cut from East Side Story we did, but we did it.


Subsequently, he came back two more times for the show and each appearance he gave us total liberty with his music and let us do what we wanted with it. After a while, it’s kind of like when two people start courting and after the third or fourth date, the girl is like, “OK, so what are we?” That’s kind of what happened [with Elvis]. We’d see each other on TV and email each other. After the seventh time, it was like, “Who are we kidding? Let’s get married.” [Laughs.] He was like, “I’ve got three months off. I’m in town. Should I come around?” 


Was the idea to make an entire album?


We were in total denial about it for a while. About a month into it, I kept asking Steve, “Are we making a record?” And he’s just like, “I don’t know.” I was like, “No, seriously, is this going to be a thing where for Christmas we just give this out to friends? Because if this is a record, I want to be in the mind frame for that.”


The first three or four songs we did were extremely experimental, to the point where I was like, “Yo, I don’t know if I want to be left holding the ball when the Elvis fan base forms a lynch mob and wants to know if I am contributing to the long list of crazy experimental projects he’s been doing as of late." I started to get real paranoid.


Elvis just wanted to do something crazy and different. He wanted to find his mojo. Me, I wanted to just reel it in as normal as we could without it being “Elvis makes his rap record.” I don’t know if you recall the disastrous Brian Wilson, Dust Brothers, post–Paul’s Boutique experimental rap album. Do you remember that?


No.


I want you to Google “MC Brian Wilson. It’s a song called “Smart Girls.” Brian Wilson is rapping. It’s just as crazy as it sounds. I’ll give him props on one thing: Whenever the awkward white guy starts rapping, the second line is always, “And I’m here to say.” I’m proud of the fact that he did not start the rhyme, “Well my name’s MC Brian/And I’m here to say…” He did not do that. That, to me, is a miracle


Not to get off track… 


Basically, I didn’t want to be accused of giving Elvis his “rap” album. It wasn’t until we got the 15th track, that’s when we ate up the apple and it was like the Garden of Eden. “Oh, god, this is a record, isn’t it?” Next thing I know, we have deadlines. “We played it for Don Was! He loves it! He wants it now!” I was like, “No!” If we didn’t get so eager that by song 15 we started playing it for people, I’m certain this would now be a 40-song collection. It’s like a boy’s club thing. We just wanted to hang with each other from seven at night till ten in the morning.


Elvis has a very jealously guarded fan base. Seriously. Those who are professionals now, those were teenagers that he spoke to in 1977 who are now in their late 40s, early 50s. He spoke to them. He spoke to a level of really smart, powerful people. Elvis has a pedigree, a very smart fan base. I’ve never met an Elvis slouch, like an Elvis fan that’s a slouch. That kind of gave me pause for a second. 


My first indication that everything was right with this world was three days ago, David Cross and I went to a baseball game. I had no idea he was an Elvis fan, but that sort of makes sense, in the way that brilliant people have him as a muse. But, I mean, he is really an Elvis fan. Like, more than the president of VH1. More than Tina Fey. More than all of these other people I know who are Elvis fans. I knew of [Wise Up Ghost’s] “Stick Out Your Tongue” being a referential derivative of [Costello's 1983 song] “Pills and Soap,” but I didn’t know how deep it was. When Cross heard “Stick Out Your Tongue,” he instantly started singing with it. That to me was worth it. Then I felt like, “Great, no one’s going to stone me. They like it.” 




You may or may not have noticed that I haven’t said anything since that “no” back there, when Quest asked me about that Brian Wilson rap number. You’ll see a similar thing going on when we get back to London and Mr. Costello. These two do not need me. I don’t have to ask a question for them to fly off into tangential recollections, anecdotes or asides. This is not to say either of them talks too much. On the contrary, they are a gift. They tell stories. They run on internal combustion engines fueled by endless curiosity. If they agree to sit down and talk, they will talk and do it better than anyone else. This, as you may have guessed, is another indication of why Wise Up Ghost is such a fruitful thing, a promise to “stop by” turned into a year-and-a-half of writing and recording. When these two decide to do something, they do it, these interviews not excluded. If they say yes to a conversation, they are going to lay down some tales and get shit done.


That said, we’re all so busy these days, what with our tweets and status updates and such things. We shouldn’t keep Mr. Costello waiting much longer. And you have places to go. So, what we’ll do is we’ll collect, say, five of Questlove’s best thoughts from the rest of our conversation, print them entirely without context, and give it a clever title, say, something like “Questlove in Fragments.”


Sorry again for the interruption. Last one. Scout’s honor.



1) It’s almost like Run–DMC’s first record. Drums and voice. It’s sparse. It’s melodic and dark. I was paranoid about that.


2) Only the most powerful albums in the world ever start with a ballad. Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life comes to mind, but people rarely start with a ballad.


3) That’s all I need is to get kicked out of the building for a show that’s not even my show.


4) I know there’s gonna be another album, but can we do it the same? Can we do it like the boy’s club thing we were doing? It didn’t feel like we were making a record. We spent more time asking about what life was like in 1977 than I think we did recording. I can’t wait to do it again. 


5) Let’s trim the fat and bash them on the head with a sledgehammer.



Costello: I would say ’86 was a pretty good year musically [laughs]. [Ed. Costello was having conflicts with The Attractions, particularly with bassist Bruce Thomas, and also filed for divorce from his first wife around this time.] I don’t know if they were both made inside of that year. I know they were made six months apart—King of America and Blood & Chocolate. I know we were certainly on the road with the two bands and the Spinning Songbook in ’86. I don’t remember the chronology of it exactly and some of the songs were written prior to both of the records being recorded. There were some songs I carried into the first record, which was King of America. I had imagined they would be a part of that record and they didn’t end up there. But they did appear on Blood & Chocolate. And there were some songs I imagined differently, musically, that appeared on King of America. The opening song, “Brilliant Mistake,” is one of the more enduring songs from that record, along with “Suit of Lights.” It’s in our show on quite a lot of nights now, withstanding the chance elements of the wheel.



By now you should be able to see how this whole idea of recalling “My Favorite Year with Elvis” is turning out. He’s being quite polite, playing along, but if you could hear his voice right now, you’d hear the sound of gracious boredom. It has become immediately clear to me that parameters are not a thing you set for Mr. Costello. He doesn’t set them for himself, so who the fuck’s bright idea was this? Mine. (But in the interest of fairness, FILTER Editor-In-Chief Pat McGuire gave it the green light and should bear some of the blame here. But he will likely remove this entire parenthetical. He can do that. He has that power.) 


If you recall, this entire piece began with a somewhat agitated (albeit, playfully agitated) Costello shouting about singer-songwriters. It might behoove us all if we skip ahead a bit and pick things up there. Shall we? Truly sorry. We all do our best in this life.



The world doesn’t seem so kind to singer-songwriters anymore.


I think we’re rotten with them! What are you talking about? The world’s not full of singer-songwriters? That’s not true! You can’t cross the road without tripping over one of them. Guys with three-button vests and a beard. What are you talking about? There’s loads of ’em!


Well, they’re not making as much money as they used to.


Oh, well that’s different. You know how much Lightnin’ Hopkins got paid? You know what I mean? I think maybe the anomaly was the little bit of time where any of us made any money. There was Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd and then the rest of us. Obviously, if I’m being very cynical, I could have made a fortune and of course I didn’t realize it and I was deeply ungrateful for the opportunity to make a fortune. But, I made enough money to make all the records that I made willfully—some of them extremely willfully—and was able to do that because I worked very hard. I can’t pretend that I have to tie broken shoelaces together or anything. I’m very fortunate for the life I have. But I’m not, by any means, in a position to stop work tomorrow and float away to my own private island. I just did five hours on stage in the last two days. You don’t do that when you’ve got a beautiful family you could be with, unless that is your job. It is my job. This record-making is the fantastic, luxurious thing…


Haven’t any of the shifts in technology over the years taken a toll on the making of records?


That’s all bullshit. There’s always been shifting technology. What shift in technology do you want to talk about? Radio? You know, when radio came in first and took over, it killed records, initially. It killed them. Then, the Depression killed records. Records came first, then radio, and then records came again. Then the movies and people heard a song playing and they wanted those. There was sheet music and people with a piano or a ukulele. Each new thing, all of those—and you don’t need me to tell you this—but all of those things have been technological innovations. It’s the arrogance of the… Not of youth, but of the current—the people who feel they’ve got possession or ownership of this new, kind of crazy, world. Let’s just get over ourselves. 


Arguably, the Internet has made it both easier and more difficult for musicians.


What kind of music didn’t exist until the Internet? We can’t all be invested in the same culture. That’s even more so now that we’ve got the Internet. But there’s no kind of music that exists because of the Internet. That’s nonsense.


But music has borne much of the brunt of technology, no? It’s only because a file of recorded music is so small, compared to a film, let’s say, that it can be shared and sent so easily, that the actual price, the value of a song, is now zero. People expect music to be free.


Well, it’s changed the commerce of music. It’s changed the business of making money out of recordings of music. That’s changed forever. But the middleman has been cut out, too. Record companies, with a few noble exceptions, are staffed with interns and super-executives. The executives report to shareholders who have no emotional or creative or personal investment in the commodity they’ve invested in. It’s just an investment they’ve made like they bought stocks in some company. They have no idea what the company does, it’s just a name. What does GE hold? What do they make? They make toasters. They make missile-guided systems. Who knows what they make? Do you care when you’re investing in that stock? You just know it’s good stock because you look at what it says on the stock market. The record companies and the film companies, they don’t give a shit what people are making. They don’t care! They just care if it’s making a profit. The people who report to them and the super-executives of all these corporations—they can’t care what the people who are making this stuff are doing, unless the numbers say that they care. The noble exceptions are the people who have still found a way to make a model that still makes sense for physical records, or for downloads. 


The thing that I do find reprehensible is young artists being asked to give up a piece of everything they do, whether it’s playing a show, making a record, selling a T-shirt, and being asked to give some of that to somebody for the privilege of doing any of those things. That’s absolutely as dishonest as somebody buying your song and putting their name on it even though they didn’t write it. It’s being on one of those game shows—one of those talent shows—and winning it so long as you give all of your royalties to the judge. What’s the fucking difference? 


It’s what matters in your heart. It never mattered what money it made. It only mattered when you got the check, if you got the check. It didn’t make it a better song because it sold a million copies. A terrible song sold a million copies, great songs didn’t make Number One, they made Number Twelve or they made One-Hundred-and-Thirty-Five, but somebody took it into their heart and it mattered. Don’t you have a record that you’ve played for a friend and been like, “Have you heard this? Isn’t this great?” 


Of course.


Isn’t that really what makes us do this? Isn’t that why Quest is like he is? It’s not like we’ve had any deep philosophical talk about this, we just started making a record together because there is some common thought about the value of the hidden thing. That hidden thing is a motor and it’s a provocation to new imagining. It’s the same as picking up an instrument and writing a song for the first time, like I did when I first learned how to do this. I’ve really been fortunate. You know where the real money is? 


Where?


Porn. Instead of getting hot under the collar about this, hunt those motherfuckers down. Seriously. Let’s do that. Let’s you and me go get them. Let’s go get those people that are actually exploiting children and women to do this shit. Don’t worry about the statute of limitations or any of that shit. Let’s go get them now! Don’t go worrying about if our songs are selling. Who cares? We’ll write more fucking songs. Go and play them somewhere where they can’t be heard. Write them on sheet music. Then no one can steal ’em. Write them with a stick in the dirt. Then nobody can hear them! Go into a cave and throw them on the wall. There’s got to be some way to confound these damn pirates! [Laughs.]


I think it’s a little early in the game for the technical aspect of the innovation—if that’s the right word—of the Internet, to really have had such a profound change on the fabric of music, so much as the commerce of music. We’re maybe a generation away from the profound revolution—a positive one—in the musical content. If people still care enough. I think it will be possible to get somewhere. When electronic music became voguish first—I suppose in the late ’60s—there were people that thought we’d put musicians out of work because we’d got the Mellotron. It was said again in the mid ’80s. Now it’s something else that’s gonna supplant everything. It’s actually not going to supplant anything. It’s all just music that’s happening somewhere. Somewhere else an orchestra is playing. It’s actually not going to happen. Just because it’s ubiquitous to you, it doesn’t mean it’s the only world there is. Somewhere, there’s no electricity and they don’t give a shit.


Actually, I think it was a show of yours where you turned off the microphone and sang at the edge of the stage, no electricity—


That’s how everybody sang before there were actual microphones. Even with microphones, early on, they just learnt how to lean in, then some girl thinks that’s him whispering in her ear. That’s as sexy as music got.



The first time I heard “I Want You” [from Blood & Chocolate] it actually frightened me. I was quite young and hadn’t heard anything like it before. It was unnerving. It was like I was hearing dirty words, but there weren’t any. Even that brief guitar “solo,” it sounded so wrong at the time. It taught me how to hear music, because those notes now, of course, sound perfect


There’s a whole bunch of things you’ve raised up there, which is really interesting and I can kind of understand. I had that exact same experience you’re describing of being too young to hear the song “Anyone Who Had a Heart” [written by Burt Bacharach, originally performed by Dionne Warwick]. It’s a strange, traumatic song, with very uneven time signatures. I didn’t know any of that then; I just heard the song and didn’t realize there were all these odd bars. It just felt unsettling. I certainly didn’t know what the hell the lyrics were saying. I was 9 or 10 when I first heard it. But it sort of had a sexual thrill to it, I realize now, ’cause it’s carnal music. “I Want You” is definitely a carnal song. And I suppose if you were younger when you heard it, it would make you feel uneasy because it’s something that’s just slightly beyond your experience. 


“Norwegian Wood” made me feel that way when I first heard it. “Girl” made me feel that way when I first heard it. All of these songs that you encounter just before that becomes your reality and probably your every waking thought when you’re 13 or 14 [laughs], you know? When you might actually be titillated by some music with, as you say, dirty words or something. The specifics are pretty much there in “I Want You.” It is curious because it’s become a song I can’t leave the stage without singing in places like Holland, Belgium, Turkey…


I think in terms of the other things you’ve mentioned... I would play a solo as eloquent as “Shoot Out the Lights” by Richard Thompson if I could play that. But I can’t. I can only play where my fingers will go. And, I suppose then it’s just a choice of a couple of notes that sit at odds with everything else around it. It can be just the right thing to play. It obviously was in this case.


Some of the lyrical content on Wise Up Ghost is dark, even political. Back in ’86, you had Reagan and Thatcher to rail against—


I think we’re still living in that. You know what the problem is? It’s the same lies that have been told and it’s the same lie that is being told over and over again. There’s some commonality between lyrics that were written last week versus some that were written 30 years ago because the same things are happening. I want there to be something better. When I listen back to what we’ve just made, I say, “Well, should we have made something brighter?” Well, yeah, but you have to consider the darkness to understand where the light is. We’re making it obviously with the understanding that we wish it were better, rather than singing mindlessly, “Oh, it’s all going to be a better day.” Actually, it isn’t. If we don’t try, it’s going to get worse.


People will take out of it whatever they want. We can write about things that are bleak sometimes and write sad stories that have humor within them. There was the joy of making this. I like recording. But I do have to sometimes think about the impulse, or even the intention, to walk away. Right before I made those two records, where you started this conversation—King of America and Blood & Chocolate. I was right at that point again when I made National Ransom as a double album [in 2010]. That was a pretty good way to kind of put aside this thing that has been the motor of my work in life for 35 years. I’ve got plenty of time left to do other things. I was really thinking it was more important to play music and make my living doing that than making more recordings, because I do want to be with my family.


And then this thing with The Roots… To say it was effortless makes it sound lazy, but there was no neurosis about it. I know Steven worries about things, about getting it right, shaping it and doing it justice. Quest has got great ideas and I really appreciate the fact that they opened the door. Whatever people make of it beyond that, that’ll be it. I’ve really got nothing else to say about it.  F

This article is from FILTER Issue 53