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Elvis Costello tells us what's different about 'Look Now'— his arrangements

While he was out in Vancouver, I talked with Elvis Costello over the phone. Yes, that Elvis Costello.

Elvis Costello & The Imposters have a new album out called “Look Now.” We’ve been playing the song “Unwanted Number.” In the interview, we talked about a song he can't stop listening to from a movie that happens to be coming to the Milwaukee Film Festival this week, the song "Stripping Paper" and the overall arrangements in "Look Now." He also taught me an interesting fact about beetles (the bug, not the band).

You can listen to and read our full conversation below.
Some albums are about arrangements and some are about lyrics. I’ve been listening to "Look Now" for about a week. Is the focus on how this album is arranged? I love both on it honestly, but what do you think this album is more about—arrangement, lyrics or both?

Well I think it's one supporting another, I knew absolutely I wanted this to be a record that The Imposters got to show a little bit of everything they can do, rather than just one narrow idea of what a four-piece band could be.

I mean, we’ve had the pleasure of playing together since 2002. So

16 years since we’ve played together on and off. Honestly, the starting point was a record called "When I Was Cruel," which the band came together during the recording of that. It was a record I started recording on my own, then realized I needed some help with a rhythm section with humans in it, because up until then I was making it with some cranky old beat box.

Then we went out on the road and we, of course, had played songs that I had since the beginning of my career. Pete Thomas, Steve Nieve and I have worked together for almost 40 years in The Attractions. But listen to what this band sounds like now and tell me that that’s the same group—it's not. We’ve all had lots of experiences with music both together and independently. Crucially, Davey Faragher, who is a wonderful singer and amazing bass player, he’s a very different kind of bass player—this is the way we hear rhythm now.

At the foundation we’ve got this killer band that can play as delicately and as responsively as in "Photographs Can Lie," you know where they’re lead by the background, then to an amazing swinging band that’s playing "Mr. & Mrs. Hush."

The song that has stuck out to me and has stayed with me the most is "Stripping Paper." I think it’s because of the arrangement on that song.

I’m very proud of that song. Burt Bacharach payed me a huge compliment. We’d been working together on some songs and I sent him the draft of "Stripping Papers" that you hear now because I had the idea that maybe he might add something to it, but he told me it was finished. I took him on his word 'cause he knows what he’s talking about. I left it alone and I’m glad I did.

I was trying to give a sense of the room's breathing.

I think that the band played beautifully

and Sebastian’s recording of my voice absolutely allows me to pitch it to where I felt the song lived. I wrote the woodwind arrangement to answer Steve Nieve’s piano. You know Steve could have filled all of that space, because he’s got so much ability and imagination, but I asked him on this song to just keep it very very plain and stay just with the basic harmony because the back end of each phrase would be answered by the woodwind. And that way we create a picture of the room that we’re in. I was trying to give a sense of the room's breathing.

I know it sounds a little fantasible, but that’s what you try to do with the music sometimes—you use the music to be the architecture that all the story is taking place within. And the band of wind players you know is clarinet, french horn, an alto saxophone and alto flute. They're all instruments that I think of as having sort of a rounded edge to the timbre. They are instruments that create a very attractive blur when they're arranged like this.

Yeah, they all compliment each other so well.

It just sorta seems more human somehow. I wanted it to be like the breath of the woman singing, speaking you know?

Maybe that’s a bit wishful, but you gotta sometimes let people know what you’re thinking when you’re writing something. It isn’t just notes on a page. It represents something and that’s what it’s trying to represent.

Absolutely, I think that it really comes through with that as well.

So, I was cleaning my house the other day and I was going through my things and I was thinking I have some really great stuff here...I was wondering if you could humor me on what is an item to you that you really treasure the most in your house?

I don't know...I have my grandfather’s trumpet, I have my father’s trumpet and I can’t play the trumpet so the story varies...

I think there’s a story in all things, but you gotta be careful they don’t completely dominate your life.

My wife has her father’s Edison player from 1910 that still plays, they have those big thick disks, like the regular 78s and the thing sounds amazing. It shakes the house when it comes on.

That’s great. Maybe you should release "Look Now" on the Edison’s cylinder. That would sound great on the Edison player.

Well it’s not a cylinder its a flat, thick disk. I don’t know if anyone makes those things. I did do some of the tracks on "National Ransom" on 78s, but you can't get the beetles. Because shellac is made from crushed beetles, did you know that? That's why plastic kind of replaced it because they were faster eradicating the beetles that rendered the shellac. There’s a problem with each kind of innovation, eventually we’ll discover that MP3’s are toxic


Then I guess we'll have to move on to the next thing . Well,  I do not want to take up anymore of your time...

Well it has been a pleasure speaking with you and I look forward to being back in your neighborhood before to long.

We look forward to it too.

Buy or stream "Look Now" by Elvis Costello & The Imposters  here.