Elvis Costello on His 'Joyful' Summer Tour, Broadway Plans and New Music

Costello talks reinventing 'Imperial Bedroom' live, and why making a musical is like trying to book "Beyoncé and Adele and Bono" all at once

Elvis Costello discusses his current onstage revival of 'Imperial Bedroom,' and walks us through the challenges of creating a musical. Credit: James O'Mara

Elvis Costello named his current tour "Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers," but he and the Impostors definitely aren't performing his 1982 masterpiece in sequence. And they're not sticking to the original arrangements, either. "We're not playing it the way it was originally written or heard," says Costello. "We're going back and listening and saying, 'What's good on those recordings? What isn't so good? What can we do better? And more importantly, what do I feel about the songs, and how do I want them to feel for the people who are listening to us sing them?" He spoke to Rolling Stone about the tour, the musical he's writing and other future plans.

What was it like when you first tried to play the Imperial Bedroom songs with the Attractions in the early Eighties?
One of the things that I think recordings of the original band trying to play this music reveal is that it was challenging when we got out in front of an audience who were expecting the songs from Get Happy. And we just couldn't play them at the right tempo or the right dynamic. We just rushed through them or we brutalized elements of the arrangement. Probably partly because we were so full of vodka or something. Now, it's by no means sedated, but we've certainly worked out how to set it up so that we can just go out there and just be joyful in playing. And it's a very odd contradiction that some of the saddest songs on this record can be joyful to play, because you're being true to the songs and you're not making them sound more cheerful than they are. Quite the opposite.

The Impostors, of course, have the same line-up as the Attractions, save for the bass player. How does Davey Faragher's presence change things when it comes to these songs?
We've got one thing we didn't have when the Attractions tried to play those songs originally. We didn't have any singers. Nobody in that band could sing a lick. Now we have a wonderful singing bass player in Davey, who's also got a terrific vocal range, and we also have two really wonderful [backing vocalists]. And now suddenly we have four voices where we only had one, and we can make sense of all these crazy vocal overdubs that I did on the original recording. That means that [keyboardist] Steve Nieve can really work out what his parts are because he's not having to make up for the fact there were no vocals. And these days you're able to switch the sound of your keyboard to replicate a sound that you might have taken a week getting in the studio. When you hear a string thing in our show, that's not sequenced or anything. That's Steve playing. Sometimes it just takes my breath away, the things that he can do. It's wonderful to be playing with someone for 40 years and have them still completely flabbergast you. And of course, then we're just trying to put it together in a rhythmic flow, which is where [drummer] Pete [Thomas] comes in. If you listen to the record, it's pretty intricate. We know now, because we've actually tried to work out how to play the stuff. There's some very good playing from everybody on the record. So, I've gotta give credit to Bruce Thomas who played the bass on the original recording.

So why not just play the album in order?
It's not any use to me to just come out and just do a recitation of it from cover to cover. Because what I want it to do is open the door to the other rooms, the other chambers that are mentioned in the playbill. And in those rooms are these other songs, some of which kind of have some of the same lyrical themes, and some of them have some musical connection that makes sense to me. Might be obscure to other people, but I can feel it. Therefore, we can build it into a show. And that's a pretty fascinating thing to do.

This was the album where you really started composing on piano, right?
I'd been composing on piano really from the album before [Trust], like "Shot With His Own Gun." That's one of the reasons that song appears some nights in this show. Because it seems like that's the key into this room. That's what I'm looking for in the songs that come from previous records. None of this is nostalgic. I'm not in the slightest looking to go back to there. I want these songs to be happening now. I chose this moment to do them, because I think I've got a clear sight of what they are as well, and some of them I didn't have the patience for working out how to play or sing them. And now I do. I don't like to quote myself, but I once said, "Armed Forces was trying to find the link between the war room and the bedroom." [Laughs] And I think that all records to some degree have a bit of that about them. You've got your feelings and your emotions and your desires – and the world keeps breaking in through the television or through the window. Every time the phone rings, or these days, every time you look at a screen, you get all of the chaos of the world coming in.

The opening lines of "Beyond Belief" – "History repeats the old conceits/The glib replies/The same defeats" – that's a good example of something that could be both personal and much broader. I don't know how deliberate the double meaning was when you wrote it, but it's certainly in there.
I never really calculated how other people would regard the lines. I was very fond of double meanings, perhaps more so when I wrote these songs. So it's quite interesting to try to sing some of them now because not all of the turns of phrase are the way I would say a thing now. But just like anybody going back ... If you're an actor and you say, "Oh, Shakespeare, he wrote a couple of lines that weren't so good." [Laughs] Think about all the ones he wrote that were really good. You don't start changing it because you maybe think that if he'd given it another day, he might have changed that line. I like that the song can mean different things in the moment that you sing it, or depending on how you inflect it. A good example is, "To murder my love is a crime/Will you still love a man out of time?" But I don't think about those things when I'm singing. I thought about them when I wrote them down and I think about them when I'm thinking about how the story of the show goes over three or four songs. You want this song to speak to this one.

There's an elaborate visual element to this tour, which is fairly unusual for you.
The starting point of that was [graphic artist] Barney Bubbles' visual painting [that became the album cover], which was such a shock to me when I first saw it, because it was so much more carnal than I thought the record was. I thought the record was full of bright, summery sounds, because we'd spent a good while doing all these airy background vocals, and putting harpsichords and orchestras on it. And I was so close to the picture that I couldn't hear that those decorations are only serving some pretty tortured songs.

And then you hung that painting up in your apartment, right?
Now I love it. So on the tour, I wanted to put the artwork up on a screen so people knew where we were departing from, and then I found that I could take the little motifs from Barney's painting and kind of put the little characters, the little snake-charmer character and the woman reclining, into some of our other album sleeves. So I did 30 illustrations based on that idea, subverting my own record jackets and some other things I found around, like old magazines and movie posters. The humor of that appealed to me, because I didn't want people to think that this was a grandiose return to the past. They saw that I was busy defacing my own past, and they would get the idea of what this is about.

"Onstage I'm proving that the past is not dead and buried, but actually the songs are alive at the moment."

It's coming up on four years since your last album.
And it's coming up on eight years since my last record with my name on it, alone – you know, my last record where I didn't collaborate in some way. It was great to be a part of [2014's] The New Basement Tapes [with Jim James, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith and Rhiannon Giddens]. And there's 20 more of those songs in the can that never came out. Some of the best stuff just didn't fit in the shape of the record. I totally agreed with the sequencing of the record, but there were some really wild tracks that just couldn't be made to fit on that album.

But are you thinking about your own next album yet?
I've taken a step outside of the routine of putting out a record and then going on the road – and then it's time to make another record, whether or not you're ready for it. Some people will say that's their big problem: They never had time to write. I never had that problem. I always had more material than I knew what to do with. But that's not to say that I think that every record needed to come out when it did. So just stepping off that train for a few years has been very, very liberating for me. And onstage I'm proving that the past is not dead and buried, but actually the songs are alive at the moment. It's always all about songs, not about my picture in a magazine, not about whether I was in the charts or what award I got given. All that's very nice, people want to give you credit. But that's not actually what I do for a living. That's a side issue.

You're working on a musical version of A Face in the Crowd, and playing some of those songs live. Could that end up as an Elvis Costello album as well?
I couldn't say it hadn't crossed my mind that I might sing these songs and put 'em down in some way. But, you know, the show is moving along at such a speed now. It's a different process than anything I've ever done. It's somewhere between making an album and making a big movie. In terms of people pooling their resources, their schedules, it'd be like if you were trying to cut The New Basement Tapes, except you only wanted to have Beyoncé and Adele and Bono on it. Then you might have had a bit more difficulty getting the studio time!