Music Interviews
11:17 am
Sun September 22, 2013

?uestlove And Elvis Costello On Writing Together

Originally published on Mon September 23, 2013 6:34 am

Since NBC's Late Night with Jimmy Fallon launched in 2009, Elvis Costello has been a frequent guest. There, Costello got to work with the show's in-house band, The Roots, and he struck up a professional relationship with the its leader, Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson.

That became a friendship — and that friendship eventually blossomed into a collaboration. But as ?uestlove tells it, the story behind Wise Up Ghost, a new album on which The Roots play backing band to Costello, is a little more sinister.

"Me and Steve Mandel did everything but plot a kidnapping and torture this record out of him," ?uestlove says, noting that he and Mandel — the band's recording engineer — had coveted working with Costello for years, but needed a way to catch his ear.

"When I did my initial interview with Lorne Michaels and Jimmy Fallon, and they were giving me scenarios of how this could be a good look for The Roots to take this late-night gig, one of the examples was, 'And Thursday nights, someone like Elvis Costello could come sit in.' So when I quoted that to Steve, the light bulb went off: 'Bing!'" ?uestlove says. "Once we got him on the radar, we had to reprogram ourselves to not geek out. ... We maintained our composure three times in a row, and then after the third appearance it was like, "OK. We got him."

Costello and ?uestlove both recently joined NPR's Arun Rath to discuss making Wise Up Ghost off the cuff — without even alerting a record label first — and the possibilities that emerge when songs are written in rehearsal. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Once again, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Now, if I'm allowed to make the call, check out the coolest musical partnership of the year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK US UPTOWN")

RATH: Musician Elvis Costello has been a frequent guest on NBC's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." There, Costello got to work with "Late Night's" in-house band, The Roots. And he struck up a working relationship with the band's leader, Ahmir Thompson, also known as ?uestlove. That became a friendship, and that friendship, a collaboration. Elvis Costello and The Roots have just released a new album. It's called "Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INVASION HIT PARADE")

ELVIS COSTELLO: (Singing) I can tell the time by the color of my skin, and I know my neighbor 'cause he's the one...

RATH: Now, the way I tell the story about the collaboration is the nice version. The way ?uestlove tells it is a bit more sinister.

?UESTLOVE: Me and Steve Mandel did everything but plot a kidnapping and tortured this record out of him.

RATH: Steve Mandel is The Roots' recording engineer.

?UESTLOVE: He declared to me that Elvis Costello is the greatest living artist ever. So when I did my initial interview with Lorne Michaels and Jimmy Fallon, and they were giving me scenarios of how this could be a good look for The Roots to take this late night gig, one of the examples was, quote, "And Thursday nights, you know, like, someone like Elvis Costello can come in and sit in." So when I quoted that to Steve, then the light bulb, bing, went off, and he's like, dude, we can get to Elvis this way.

And then once we got him on the radar, we had to reprogram ourselves to not geek out. You know, I have Japanese imports of "Imperial Bedroom" and, you know, like, none of that stuff, like, nothing. And we maintained our composure three times in a row. And then after the third appearance, then it was like, OK, we got him. Let's get him.

RATH: So, Elvis, when did you become aware of the conspiracy to kidnap you?

COSTELLO: I never...

?UESTLOVE: He's just finding out now.

COSTELLO: Yeah. We're - yeah, yeah.

?UESTLOVE: We're just coming out...

COSTELLO: The room is locked, and I can't get out.

?UESTLOVE: Yeah.

COSTELLO: No, but here's the other way around of it. You know, when I first came into the show, I said to Karriem Riggins, who is a friend of Ahmir's, who plays drums with my wife, Diana Krall. Do you think those guys would play with me if I went on the show? I know they back people sometimes. And so we started having a dialogue about what the song would be. And I thought, well, I made this record with a lot of references to '60s R&B called "Get Happy." And I thought this song, "High Fidelity," maybe would be a good one. And then they said, yeah, we want to do it in the arrangement from 1979 where it was all slowed down and sounded like "Station to Station" by Eddie Bauer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGH FIDELITY")

COSTELLO: (Singing) Some things you never get used to, even though you're feeling like another man...

?UESTLOVE: That should have been warning right then...

COSTELLO: That should have been a red flag.

?UESTLOVE: ...that it was trouble Yeah. It was instant red flag that we referred to a one-time-only performance from, like...

COSTELLO: '79.

?UESTLOVE: ...a concert, like, 30 years ago. So...

COSTELLO: But, you know, in going in the room right there and playing them together, I mean, the good thing about the way The Roots work day-to-day for the Fallon show is they're not learning the music two seconds before performance. They're going in and working on the music for the show and their music in an environment where there's no escape from music. It's a tiny - it's like the tech cupboard in most studios that's been converted into a workroom.

So I go in there, and there's literally, you know, we're standing shoulder to shoulder in the best possible sense and learning this song. What I didn't know is that everything is recorded in that room. It's running the whole time. What I now realize was a master plan or dastardly scheme that were these little cells of music, which are no less authentic the foundation of a song than me picking up an acoustic guitar and saying, here's the chords, this is how it goes, let's make it, you know?

RATH: Wow. So clearly, you guys were - are in synch musically. But did you have, like, a master plan, a mission statement when you came - went into this?

COSTELLO: The way we did it there was we started playing without any fear, any prior consultation. And we didn't really make any prior plans between ourselves. We just started playing and reacting to what we heard. And if it was good, it stayed on. If it wasn't, it got erased.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK US UPTOWN")

COSTELLO: (Singing) Will you walk us uptown and wherever you go you know we will follow. Will you walk us uptown and we'll stand in the light...

RATH: This first song in the new album, "Walk Us Uptown," you know, it's got kind of a rhythmic vibe that reminds me of some of your earlier work, Elvis. It's got kind of like almost like a reggae punch to it. And, ?uestlove, did you have that in mind? Were you a fan of those early records?

?UESTLOVE: Absolutely. You know, it's funny because when we started this record, I had initial fear. I really wanted to sort of suppress what I was known for. I didn't want it be that groove heavy. But then, you know, I sort of realized, like, you know, a lot of his earlier work, I mean, half that stuff could have been break beats in hip-hop circles, you know what I mean?

RATH: Right.

?UESTLOVE: Pretty much, I wanted to channel in the spirit of it. I didn't want this to be a footnote in his history. I wanted this to be as an important of a statement as "Trust" was or as "This Year's Model" or, you know, any of his records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK US UPTOWN")

COSTELLO: (Singing) Will you hail down that flag and dishonor that vow 'cause we must not change its color now. Could you walk us uptown...

?UESTLOVE: "Walk Us Uptown" wasn't my personal intention for starting off the record. Initially, I wanted to take a super risk and start the album off with a slow song. It's like one of the last songs that we cut, a song very deep and personal to him, a little too personal.

COSTELLO: It's a song that's called "The Puppet Has Cut His Strings," and it only appears on the...

?UESTLOVE: The deluxe version.

COSTELLO: ...on the deluxe version. And it's not just - if you're going to call it deluxe, it better be that. And "Puppet" was a beautiful piece that Ahmir and Ray Angry conceived. And I sat at home and wrote one draft of the lyrics, and I actually recorded the vocals sitting on my kitchen counter on my computer. And then Ahmir wouldn't let me re-record that vocal because it was...

?UESTLOVE: Hell no.

COSTELLO: ...very to the point.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PUPPET HAS CUT HIS STRINGS")

COSTELLO: (Singing) Why is your face drawn on so glum, old chum?

That last piece of music just was moving to me. Then I couldn't do anything else that confront this one subject. That occurred to me while I was returning to England for the first time since my father passed. And it was like all of the chaos of the world as we were living through in that moment was, you know, contained also in the chaos of his mind in the last months, something that many people experienced looking at a loved one in the last stages of a dementia-related illness. Before I could stop myself, I'd written the last hours and days, a description, a literal description.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PUPPET HAS CUT HIS STRINGS")

COSTELLO: (Singing) Time is meaningless. We carried you on buckled limbs through mournful airs and martyrs hymns then one blue and one more yellow pill...

You try to not to be too selfish when you're working with people for the first time. You're not telling all your stories. So to write a song that was deeply personal seemed like a selfishness to me in this context. But it came out before I could stop it. And then Ahmir wanted to open the record with it.

?UESTLOVE: But for me, I feel like an artist of your caliber, songs are very therapeutic. And, you know, I kind of expected you to use this open canvas as your playground.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PUPPET HAS CUT HIS STRINGS")

COSTELLO: (Singing) The puppet has cut his strings.

RATH: Is there any chance that - I imagine the late night schedule makes things tough - any chance that you guys would - can tour together?

?UESTLOVE: Elvis is the one that's busy.

(LAUGHTER)

?UESTLOVE: Ball in your court. But, no, you know, the information's not going to leave my head ever. So, I mean, if ever there's time for us to do anything together, yeah, absolutely. I welcome it.

COSTELLO: You know, it's been a great joy to do it, even though there's so many dark and kind of sometimes, you know, horrifying images in this record. It would be a pleasure.

RATH: Gentlemen, thank you so much. This has been a real pleasure.

?UESTLOVE: Thank you.

COSTELLO: Really, the pleasure's mine.

RATH: That's Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson and Elvis Costello. Their album together, with The Roots, is called "Wise Up Ghost."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE'S PULLING OUT THE PIN")

COSTELLO: (Singing) She's pulling out the pin that lets her hair fall down...

RATH: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Thanks for joining us from our new home at NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on Programs and scroll down. We're back with more next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.