The name of Elvis Costello’s latest tour is Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers, and the intent is to present “Imperial Bedroom,” one of his most beloved and mercurial albums, in its entirety, including songs he’d never performed live.
Friday night, the tour stops at Crossroads KC, a place Costello is familiar with: He stopped there on a sweltering late-June evening in 2011.
“Crossroads is hot as can be sometimes,” he told The Star recently. “The last time we were there, it was unbelievably hot. It was 105 degrees onstage. It was crazy. Maybe in early June it won’t be so bad.”
Costello had more to talk about than the weather. He also discussed the “Imperial Bedroom” album and what it has been like to explore its music and sounds 35 years after its release.
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Q: What inspired the idea behind this tour?
A: I decided we’d take the starting point of the songs from that record and look at what it would take to play them the way we feel about them now. That includes everything.
There are four, five, six songs from the album that have stayed in our repertoire. The rest of them we found too difficult to play live. Either we didn’t have the patience for the arrangements or even the voices because a lot of them were heavily vocally arranged. Now we’ve got a great singing band member, which we didn’t have back then; nobody could sing in the Attractions. But Davey (Faragher) is a great vocalist and a really good vocal arranger. He’s worked with two other singers we’ve enlisted, so now we have four voices.
It’s by no means a recitation from cover to cover. And we interweave it with other songs that I feel have something to do with the same themes. Some of those songs are much newer, some songs preceded that album, and there’s also a space in the show for several well-known songs that sort of belong in this world, where something about the music or the lyrics makes me feel that’s the right place in the show.
And that’s an intriguing puzzle because it’s quite different from the past two visits to Kansas City, which were Detour and before that the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, which by their very nature were the opposite of this: very random.
Here we have fewer songs rehearsed, but the songs are rehearsed in a lot more detail because they are fairly complex and we want to do them the best we can.
Q: What did you discover in revisiting these songs and unpacking them?
A: Nobody thinks it’s an odd thing for jazz musicians to go back and play songs originally composed 50 years ago. There’s another version of “Stella by Starlight” to be heard. No one thought that was odd when Miles Davis did that.
You can look at all the people in the history of jazz, and for that matter in classical music: They play music that’s 200 years old, and they’ll make it work in the moment you see it. They make emotional and spiritual sense of that music right then, and that’s what we’re doing.
I’m not saying what we’ve got here is classical music, but we’re looking at these songs and asking, “How do we feel about them now?”
I’m not doing this for reasons of nostalgia. If I were looking to get a quick reaction from people, I wouldn’t have picked a record that wasn’t a hit. It has a lot of good songs that went unexplored, certainly in live performance.
From the experience we had back in October when we first did this show, singing and playing these songs was joyful, even though, as I acknowledged from the stage, I was two or three years down the road into a sort of darker romantic mood than most of my audience in 1982. That’s the reason a lot of people didn’t go with me on some of this stuff: because some of it was just sad. I’d reached that point a lot quicker than some. Then what happens is life goes on and people say, “That song is really like my life.”
Q: How are these songs treated now, 35 years later?
A: We’re not reworking to the point you won’t recognize them, with the exception of one song where the form of it is really quite changed.
Sometimes when you have a record that’s really crafted in the studio, it’s hard to play it live. Lots of bands will tell you that. Your instincts in the studio are one thing; your instincts in front of an audience are quite another.
These songs didn’t want to be sped up and made up into garage-band songs. They didn’t take to that. To some degree, you could do that with a song like “Clubland” from “Trust,” which prefigures the music of “Imperial Bedroom,” but a song like “You Little Fool” sounds wrong when you try to play it with fuzzy guitars. Like what Chuck Berry said, it lost the beauty of the melody.
There was a time when beauty and things like that were a bit unfashionable. So I suppose you can get a little embarrassed that you actually went for beauty, because heaven knows I don’t have a beautiful voice. But you can still go for beauty in the melody. And the time has come to trust it a bit more and see where it leads us.
Q: How is the show presented visually?
A: I’ve tried to have a sense of mischief about the presentation of the show visually. I really want people to remember or be confronted with the cover image, which is quite a striking painting by our friend Barney Bubbles, our art director throughout the first six or so records we made. I love that painting, so I wanted to project it on a screen.
Then I started to think that maybe the characters in that painting, like the characters in the songs, could have another life. So I got a pencil out and started to draw on all of our other album sleeves. So there’s sort of a comical monologue going on behind the music, visually, which are drawings of these characters living inside these record sleeves.
It’s got a sense of humor to it.
Q: How were the arrangements created and assembled? Was it a collaborative effort among the band members?
A: Because we live in different countries part of the time, it requires us to prepare independently. Because this record always presented a puzzle when it came to playing it live, we just didn’t have the time to work out how to do it.
All of our repertoire that comes from before 2002 as a band, it’s interesting to hear it with Davey Fargher playing it. He’ll take the motif from the original record and, because he’s got a slightly different rhythmic feel, he takes it a different way, and that affects the way Pete (Thomas) lays in the drums and how I lay in the vocal. Steve (Nieve) is doing what Steve does.
But when you come to a record like this that has quite a big blueprint of arrangement possibilities, it came to like, “OK, Pete, you play drums. Why don’t you take care of organizing the rhythmic side of this?” Davey, who in addition to playing the bass is a great vocal arranger, so he decoded all my crazy vocal overdubs and made them something you can sing every night with two vocalists.
And Steve Nieve: I remember when we tried to do “Imperial Bedroom” songs that didn’t easily fit with four instruments, Steve had some sort of early sampling keyboard that supposedly sounded like strings. It really sounded like someone rattling a suitcase filled with coat hangers. Now you can get these fantastic, beautifully recorded samples.
But you’re not hearing a prerecording of these strings, Steve is playing those things. Those are his fingers on the keys. We’ve never gone for those kinds of things before. So it’s kind of thrilling to have this technology that can set us free.
Q: What do you remember about the “Imperial Bedroom” recording sessions?
A: Every other record had been made under such a time constraint, mainly because of money. We had none when we started. I think “Armed Forces” was three weeks; “Get Happy!” was two weeks. We recorded “Trust” twice because we didn’t like the first recording.
By the time we’d been to Nashville and made another record in nine days, the idea of having 12 weeks was a temptation to go mad, but hopefully in a creative way. And that’s kind of what we did.
We said, “What did the Beatles do?” They hired an orchestra. They had a harpsichord. Let’s do that. We weren’t trying to sound like “Sgt. Pepper’s” but it was like give yourselves the space for the instrument you think you might need. OK, an accordion. “Does anyone know how to play that? No, then let’s three of us play it; that makes it better.” So there was a lot of playful stuff even though we were serving these dark songs.
It took awhile for us to burn off that nervous energy we’d brought to every record. The first 10 days we recorded flat-out, top tempo, everything sounded like we were trying to be a one-take record, like “Trust.” Then we realized we were making the same record again. So we stopped ourselves and started again. We kept little bits of the wild playing to decorate some of the other songs and started recording more methodically.
We co-produced the record, but I gave all the credit to Geoff (Emerick) because so much of it was put in order by what he did as an engineer. He doesn’t get quite the clear credit for what he did when you listen to the Beatles records, but when you’ve been in the studio with him you understand what he did to bring things into focus in the performance that otherwise could have been a little diffuse. Having been on the other side of the glass from him and understanding what he does, it was freeing. We’d come in, he’d do some adjustments and we’d hear what it could be and we’d add some parts and make that more vivid.
Q: This year is also the 40th anniversary of “My Aim Is True,” your first full-length, released in 1977 when you were 22. It started a run of seven albums in five years, ending with “Imperial Bedroom.” That was a spectacular run of albums in a short period of time. Where did you find the time to tour and write and record so prolifically?
A: Well, if you look at 2000 to 2010 you’ll find nearly the same work rate. What’s different is it wasn’t album-tour, album-tour. What’s amazing to me is the amount we played between those first three records — how in the world did we find the time to write and arrange them?
But bear in mind every show was like a group workshop on the next group of songs. We were doing songs from the second record when we first came to America. So I had a head start. I was actually one ahead. “My Aim Is True” is thought of as a 1977 record, but it was started in 1976.
I never felt like I was being rushed. I never felt an obligation to make a record until 1984. And then we made two in a year in 1986 and then took a few years out from recording and regrouped when I changed labels. I did the same thing after the Attractions disbanded the second time.
Q: You have collaborated with a diverse host of songwriters and musicians, including Burt Bacharach, the Roots. When you go into a project like that, what are the intentions? Is there a vision in mind or is it let’s toss ideas around and see what happens?
A: With that Roots record, you have to give (co-producer) Steve Mandel the credit for keeping the dialogue going. Questlove had the idea, but we never exchanged five words about that record. It was all done through the music. So that meant somebody had to sit there. That’s why you appreciate the role of the engineer/producer: somebody to decode and order the priorities.
But then you’ve got to have the musical ideas. And in that case, I had this idea of taking the bulletin aspects, the outward-looking lyrics to some of the songs I’d written, some of them I’d written over the previous five years, and saying those verses again over different music. And then we went on to write brand-new pieces of music with totally different structures, like “Wise Up Ghost” and “Viceroy’s Row.” That was more of a studio creation than any other record I’ve made since “Imperial Bedroom.”
But all the others were a combo playing in the room. “The Delivery Man” was a band playing in a room. “The River in Reverse” was a band playing in a room in New Orleans and a band in the room in Clarksdale and Oxford. “North” is a combo playing in a room in New York. And they’re pictures of those rooms.
It wasn’t all studio re-creation. We were not doing a recitation of a book or reading a catechism. We’re singing songs in the moment we’re singing them. That’s kind of what I’ve been trying to do since I unhooked myself from the album-tour, album-tour routine seven years ago. You make the show the thing. And you respect the audience by giving them the best versions of the songs that you can, then offering them something new.
Elvis Costello and the Imposters will bring their Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers tour to Crossroads KC on Friday. Show time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $81.50. crossroadskc.com.