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.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Twenty One Pilots' Josh Dun
MR: Josh, last time we spoke we talked about Vessel. Let's talk about the album a little more, but also let's talk about what the heck is going on since I interviewed you last. What's this year been like? You had an album, you had all these great airplay songs. What's going on in your head now after all that?
JD: It's all pretty crazy. A lot of times I think back to even as far back as the first conversation Tyler and I ever had was this interaction where before we were playing music we were discussing visions and plans and ideas that we both had for music. The first time we connected we were on the same page and everything. We talked all the time and once we started playing music together we would play in front of ten to thirty people together, and that's in our hometown. Then we tried to build the show into something people would talk about and tell their friends and bring their friends to. Now we're in Houston, Texas playing at a House of Blues with over a thousand people tonight coming to the show. We constantly look at each other like "How did these people hear about us. How do they know about us?" So it's been awesome. We've been partnering with some other people, a label and people who are professional about booking shows and working with somebody that can create this album that we have and make it sound exactly how we envisioned it from the beginning. It's such a cool thing. Now we've put together a show that I think both of us are very proud of and it's something that anyone can come to and be proud to be part of. Without people there it would be a truly embarrassing situation where Tyler and I would play our instruments in a room full of nobody. So it's been a great year.
MR: How do you look at the fans? How do you look at the people that are coming to see you now?
JD: It's interesting because I try and be very aware of other bands and how other bands are becoming known. You know, how is it that a band gets on the radio? We've learned a lot over the last year and a half about how this stuff works. Like how does this program director decide that they want to play this band? We've been traveling around the country, and we've been doing this particular tour for a few weeks now, probably like three weeks now, and there are radio people that will come to the show and if they were on the fence or didn't really want to play the song--afterwards they will come up to me and be like, "Yeah we're absolutely adding your record, we're real excited to work with you," and I think it really shows that this is all really about the experience live. Going back to what I said before, it's really accredited to the participation and involvement of anybody in the room at the same time. I say that because it's something that we've been intentional about from the beginning because the way that we look at it is that we want to do something that we would want to be a part of in the way that we would want it to be done. Whenever I go and watch shows, there's always stuff that I come away from thinking "I wish they would have done this" or "I wish I could have had a part in this" or "I wish I could've said this." So the way we think about it is, "How would we wanna see a show?" What's cool is when you're putting on a show, you can do it however you want. I think now we're in a generation that people really do want to be part of a concert and feel like they're part of the experience, so we've created an environment where people feel like they're involved and people can take ownership over it instead of sit there and spectate and watch these "rock gods". I think the era of that is coming to an end a little bit. And now you see people jumping on board and making the best of a situation or experience. That's when it becomes something, it feels a little bit magical. I don't know. There's something crazy about a room full of people that are like-minded and experiencing the same thing all at once.
MR: What is it about Twenty One Pilots that separates you from most of the bands with what you can offer your fans and that you can offer music in general?
JD: I love that you brought that up. And I think when it comes down to the very core of it, we're two guys who are just completely normal guys. There's nothing different- we go through so many of the same things that everybody else does and I think at the end of the day, some days are worse than others for all of us, and some nights are worse than others. The concept of nighttime is weird even in music--in songwriting--there's a lot of people who write about nighttime and from a perspective of really trying to mask pain, insecurity, depression. A lot of people come at songwriting with the approach of "let's stay up all night and dance the night away or get drunk. Let's fill up on, like, girls or whatever." I think that the approach in songwriting that we take is very different from the perspective of nighttime. It's acknowledging that a lot of us feel that the night is the hardest part of the day. It's when you're alone in your room and it's time to go to bed, and you're trapped in there with your thoughts and your insecurities and your depression and you have thoughts to hurt yourself. I don't think covering it up with dancing all night is going to solve your problem. When you think about that and you start to come to peace with being alone then you can start to think about and discover hurt. Then, when you get in a room full of people who think that same way and who are also aware of that, it becomes a really cool thing. The things that stand out are content and a little bit of honesty. Another thing when you get into a band is also a little bit of a level of insecurity being on stage and potentially trying to be something that they're not, and we really try to not do that. So those are just a couple things.
MR: Everything you're working on is headed in the right course, would that be an okay thing to say? What are you looking for towards in the future? What is it that you ultimately want to do?
JD: That's a really good question. I think that honesty is something vulnerable. Going back to Tyler and I's first conversation we ever had, it was crazy because we were really up all night talking about what we wanted out of music or life or whatever. It was a super vulnerable conversation, especially because we were both strangers at the time sharing these wild ideas and visions. It's hard to do sometimes, but I think to answer your question- what we really want to do is to be able to share this music and this message shamelessly with as many people as possible. So we've teamed up with people that agree with that and believe in the same thing and are working on Saturdays to do that. So as far as plans I think the best way to share this with people right now is to travel around the country and the world and simply play this show. So we've been pretty much been doing that for about a year and a half and we've already got stuff planned until winter 2014 I think. And we actually have a bus now and I get on that every day and go "wow this is awesome". The fact that the bus has a little studio that we've been working on new ideas and music. So while traveling round and playing this show, we've been focusing on new material. And whenever we get to go back to this in a professional situation where we're focused on recording music, we're both very excited about doing that. I think that through traveling and playing shows, the goal is to have people leave that show and tell their friends and their family. That's how it's been from the beginning is people telling one another and I think that's the most organic and true form of marketing there is- people turning something on to their friends and sharing it. Word of mouth is the best way to do it and that's how we've been approaching it.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
JD: There's a lot. From the very beginning, if you're a new artist... We didn't know what we were doing and I don't think there's any true formula for any specific band. But what I will say is that the very simplistic approach that we took is "let's save as much money as much as we can." So as a result, we both had full time jobs during the week and on the weekends we would go throughout our home state instead of touring and spending a bunch of money on hotels and gas. We would do that and then as far as recording we would record on a computer in Tyler's basement. So that's the advice that I would give, to try and save as much money as possible and try and make your live shows as unforgettable as possible so that people do leave and talk about it and bring their friends back in the future. That word of mouth is the most organic and true form of marketing and if you can get people to do that, that's your best bet.
MR: What are the immediate plans for Twenty One Pilots right now?
JD: Just to keep playing shows all over the place. We got shows pretty much until the end of the year and then we shut down for Christmas and then start back up in January. We're going oversees with Paramore to Australia and New Zealand and then we go to Europe to headline for three weeks to a month. We come back, we go to Mexico, and then we got stuff in the Spring. So it really is that we just continue to play and hopefully hit as many cities and places as we can.
TIME FOR THE APPLESEED COLLECTIVE'S "PUMPKIN PIE"
According to The Appleseed Collective's Katie Lee...
"We're excited to release 'Pumpkin Pie' before Thanksgiving," she says. "It's a playful song of opposites attracting and learning to love someone because of your differences, not in spite of them. I'm a huge foodie, so phrases like 'we don't match up like pumpkin and pie/but you're the apple of my eye' must have come from a growling tummy at some point. But hey, isn't that the way to someone's heart? I'm always cooking and baking for my loved ones; it's how I show affection. I give myself to them through food (and song). And Thanksgiving is about being thankful and also about giving of yourself to those you love, so the timing all seems right. I'm also excited to release this song because it's the first single The Appleseed Collective is sharing with the world that I wrote. It showcases a different side to the band that people might not have heard if they haven't yet seen us live. This new album, Young Love, is so vastly different from the first record for many reasons, and we're so happy to finally be able to share it."
Pumpkin Pie Recipe: Katie's Easy Vegan & Gluten-Free Pumpkin Pie
For the crust:
2 cups crushed gluten-free snickerdoodle or gingersnap cookies (I like WOW brand, they're soft and crumble easily)
3 Tbsp vegan shortening, melted
1/2 cup coconut sugar
Combine ingredients and press into a pie pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 5-8 minutes, just until brown.
For the filling:
2 1/4 cups canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
1/4 cup full fat coconut cream (the cream off the top of a can of coconut milk)
1/2 cup coconut sugar
1 Tbsp vegan "butter" (or coconut oil)
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
3 Tbsp tapioca starch (or cornstarch)
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
pinch of salt
Soften all liquid/oil ingredients. Mix the maple syrup and tapioca starch separately to thicken, then add them to all ingredients, adjusting spices to taste. Mix well, until fluffy and smooth. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes. You may need to cover the crust edges about half way through to avoid burning as the pie bakes for a long time and the crust is already baked. Remove from oven when the filling seems firm, and let cool on a rack. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours before serving. Enjoy with whipped coconut milk!
A Conversation with Charlie Faye
Mike Ragogna: Charlie, it seems the concept behind You Were Fine, You Weren't Even Lonely is almost like everything was fine, but then... Is that how you saw it as you were making the project?
Charlie Faye: The album title, You Were Fine, You Weren't Even Lonely, is taken from a lyric in one of the songs on the record. It says "You were fine, you weren't even lonely, til those lines snuck up on you again. A song you'd heard somewhere..." There's an overarching insistence in our culture that we're all just "fine," and we're generally reluctant to admit when we're not, or even to allow ourselves be "not fine." Then something comes along and helps us break open. A song can do that. While I was making the record, my 5-year relationship with my boyfriend and writing partner Will Sexton was slowly deteriorating. We weren't fighting or anything, we just weren't fully in it anymore. Will and I wrote a lot of the songs on the record together and it's interesting now to look back and see what we were willing to admit in our writing that we never talked about in person. We were "fine," right? There's always something more complex underneath "fine."
MR: You were American Songwriter's "Writer of the Week." How do you react when you read these positive reviews and stories?
CF: I enjoy them. I'm not someone who doesn't read their own reviews. I take it all with a grain of salt, but I'm curious to see how people react to my music - it's interesting to me.
MR: NPR's Mountain Stage is a nice gig. What other kinds of touring will there be?
CF: Shows in NYC, Austin, and Tucson are on the horizon, and a residency in L.A. for the month of January.
MR: What do you think artist's "duties" are in the studio? Live? Making videos?
CF: Our duty is to be present. The rest is up to the individual. Put too much "duty" in it, and it can kill the art.
MR: When you look at your contemporaries, are there any that you admire and would love to collaborate with?
CF: I would love to collaborate with the Dap-Kings. I've been getting pretty deep into soul music, I've got that complete Stax/Volt singles box set. It's hundreds and hundreds of amazing songs, and that's what I'm listening to constantly these days. I've been writing in that direction, and I'm pretty sure my next record is going to be a soul record. So, collaborating with the Dap-Kings would be a dream. I don't know of anyone right now who's doing it as well as they are. Also, I recently saw the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, and just fell in love with Lisa Fischer's singing, and her whole vibe. I would love to work with her someday.
MR: What do you think of You Were Fine... now that you've had some time to digest everything that went into it?
CF: I'm still very proud of it. And I don't feel that way about every record I've made. Usually, by the time all is said and done and the record has been packaged and released, I'm a little tired of it. But not this time. I feel good about the process that went into making the record too, the writing I did with Will Sexton, and the recording sessions with Jay Bellerose and Jen Condos. I still love listening to the record, and I still love singing these songs.
MR: Do you think being compared to Aimee Mann and Natalie Merchant is a solid comparison?
CF: I do. I think both of them are really honest, straightforward writers. They're both introspective, and curious about people. They explore complex themes, but in their writing, they keep it simple, and real. That's what I go for too.