Being the Elvis Costello nerd that I am, over the years I’ve seen Steve Nieve many times. I’ve seen him & Elvis play with The Attractions, The Imposters, The Brodsky Quartet, with Allen Toussaint’s band, the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and possibly my favourite of all, just Steve and Elvis.
But this weekend I’m thrilled to be going to see Steve Nieve play his own gig in Liverpool. That gig is the start of a small tour that also takes in Bristol and London. Click below for details and tickets.
- Saturday 10th October: LIVERPOOL, Music Room at The Philharmonic
- Sunday 11th October: BRISTOL, The Lantern
- Monday 12th October: LONDON, St James Theatre
Trust the Wizards are extremely grateful to Steve for answering our questions.
What can people expect from the shows?
People can expect some surprises – I’m introducing them to Elvis’ music without Elvis’ texts, this won’t be a surprise to everyone in the room of course, just how great his melodies are on their own, some of us already know it. Second surprise will be a few stories and anecdotes about our musical adventures. And a third surprise, I have some young friends, wonderful musicians, who love Elvis’ songs as much as I do, and they put in a lot of work, learning some of the more demanding and rare songs and they will be joining me in these concerts – Tall Ulysse, a Paris based singer-songwriter, film composer, the man who played drums on every track of my record “Together”, and sang the lead vocal on “Save the World”. I love Tall’s music, I’ve played on many of his recordings, and we have shared many adventures playing live in a small club like Largo in LA or on a giant stage like Fuji Rock in Japan. And also Alex Cornish, who lives near Edinburgh, and has some beautiful songs and a beautiful singing voice on his many records. Alex wrote to me and told me he had figured out and was playing my piano composition “Muriel on the Beach” in his live show, so I just had to invite him along…
Are you bringing the theremin / organ / melodica?
My initial thought was to limit myself to the piano, but as the rehearsals are going down, I am starting to have ideas that might require the use of a couple of extra colours, so maybe a synthesiser, maybe a theremin, let’s see.
Surprise #4 either way!
With such a massive back catalogue, how do you even begin to choose which songs you want to play?
I thought the choice would be easy, almost every song I’ve thought about doing seems to work beautifully on the piano. The harmony and melody of Elvis’ songs often suggests something new to me, each time I play them. So the songs can be like a musical springboard and launch me off into something new. For example “All Grown Up” tends to propel me into unknown territory. Even when I play with the Attractions or the Imposters, backing up Elvis, new musical thoughts spring to mind. I also have a lot of fun tackling the few songs that Elvis has composed and recorded without me. So Spike and Mighty Like A Rose are a spring or source as my French friends say, a sauce of wonder. I’m playing “The Birds Will Still be Singing” from the Juliet Letters which was originally conceived as a vocal and string quartet number. It’s one of my favourite Costello songs, and I took the string quartet score, to understand perfectly all the very intricate details of harmony, then rearranged it for piano. I’ve worked on a couple of the more melodic songs from Wise Up Ghost too you know. So, having played the mighty Spinning Songbook show, I’m even tempted to play songs at random or ask the folk in the audience a song they’d like to hear. Anything is possible.
After nearly 40 years as an Attraction / Imposter, are there any songs that you’ve got fed up of playing that you definitely won’t be playing now the setlist is completely in your control?
It’s really a great question because I honestly search, and I cannot find a tune of Elvis’ that’s not a challenge for me. A song like Uncomplicated with just one chord in it, might become complicated to play over and over for many years, I mean it’s also a song designed for the guitar or the drums, but I always find pleasure playing these kind of songs, there’s always a line I can add somewhere in the song that makes it interesting for me.
Conversely are there any songs that Elvis or the other Imposters are reluctant to play live that you can’t wait to play on this tour?
Songs that I have composed with Elvis, of course he doesn’t put them up on the Big Wheel “Spinning Songbook” for the Imposters, but Tall Ulysse sings them extraordinarilly well, like “Passionate Fight” recorded by Ute Lemper, or “You Lie Sweetly” recorded by Sting. “Can You Be True” is a killer piece of music, ‘Schubertian’ and my piano intro was actually sampled by the Roots for Wise Up Ghost, so if I play that song, it kind of covers two albums…
I don’t think people give Elvis enough credit for writing music. Very often fans and critics talk a lot about the lyrics and the vocals but I think his melodies have just got better and better. What in your opinion are the most under-rated melodies?
The songs on the North album a lot of rock fans tend to under rate. Having said that, a lot of people I’ve spoken to consider North Elvis’ greatest album, full of extraordinary ballads unlike anything else he has composed. I can understand why Elvis likes to explore distant musical planets, because Rock is probably the tinniest and least hospitable planet in the musical solar system.
Which records have been the most enjoyable to make and why?
Brutal Youth is high up there for a very unfair reason, it’s the period where I met Muriel and we started out love affair. We lived in Rye for a while, I love to take her to places she’s never been. We started writing Welcome to the Voice back then. It was still a time where musicians could be in the studio for a month to create an album. And it was the second coming of the Attractions, it surprised all of us just how powerful that combination was. And Nick Lowe was there too, also the man who played the keys on the albums I missed, Mitchell Froom, producing the producers, it was an amazing album in many respects. After, When I was Cruel, the first record we made with the Imposters, was also fun, creative work. We experimented a lot with some of those songs, with effects pedals and strange gadgets. We recorded in Dublin, and we worked with some younger talented engineers, recording tape becoming so rare, you reused it, copying master takes onto Protools and then going over them with the next song. The production became very much a team effort.
Which records have been the least enjoyable to make and why?
The least enjoyable album to make, for me, was “Wise Up Ghost’ by this I mean: I have, for a number of years been wanting to work a new moment of creation in the studio with E.C. When I first heard this record, produced secretly, and using some of my trademark sounds and even samples of myself, so I’m there on the record but not in anyway involved in the process, has to be my ‘least favourite’ . Other side of the coin, I’m happy we get to play some of those songs in our latest live sets.
Have you ever been onstage with Elvis when he starts playing a song and you suddenly think “oh no, I can’t remember how this one goes”? If yes, when was the last time that happened.
That never happened, but on the Spectacle show, I got to accompany Smokey Robinson on Tracks of My Tears, vocal and piano. The producer said we only have time for a verse and a chorus, so we only rehearsed that much of it. Just as the time came, live to perform the song, it suddenly occurred to me, that perhaps we might do the whole song for the studio audience, after all it’s such a killer song. Obviously I know that song, but the fact we hadn’t even tried the whole thing, gave the performance a certain edge! I was playing and at the same time going over how the song continues.
Speaking of memory, I lost my father to Alzheimers such a slow horrible process, as anyone who’s been through it with someone knows. Remembering all these songs, not just Elvis songs, but every song you ever heard or played is a kind of suit of armour, a sort of protection. I am working on memorising Shakespeare sonnets, a great exercise and for me more difficult than music notes. I guess it’s a terrible time we live in when each moment someone doesn’t remember something, they can just ask Google on their smart phone an obtain an answer. Dangerous. I’d like to quote my friend David Coulter, brilliant musician, and improviser, who posted this on his Facebook the other day:
In 2015 there are over 850,000 people with dementia in the UK.
There are 40,000 younger people with dementia in the UK.
There are 25,000 people with dementia from black and minority ethnic groups in the UK.
There will be 1 million people with dementia in the UK by 2025.
Two thirds of people with dementia are women.
The proportion of people with dementia doubles for every five-year age group.
One in six people aged 80 and over have dementia.
60,000 deaths a year are directly attributable to dementia.
Delaying the onset of dementia by five years would reduce deaths directly attributable to dementia by 30,000 a year.
The financial cost of dementia to the UK is £26 billion per annum.
There are 670,000 carers of people with dementia in the UK.
Family carers of people with dementia save the UK £11 billion a year.
80 per cent of people living in care homes have a form of dementia or severe memory problems.
Two thirds of people with dementia live in the community while one third live in a care home.
Only 44% of people with dementia in England, Wales and Northern Ireland receive a diagnosis.
As well as Elvis, there are other people you’ve collaborated with repeatedly over a long period of time so clearly you must be doing something right! What attributes do you have that keeps people coming back?
I’m a coward, so I always say Yes to anything they want!!
You’ve worked with such a lot of greats over the years. Who else would you really want to work with? Who would you most like to get a call from asking you to play with them?
I love playing with people born at least a couple of decades after me. Their musical perceptions head from a different perspective, refreshing, I learn so many things from collaborating with young people. I’d like to play keys for: Damon Albarn, (with) James Rhodes, the National, Christine and the Queens, Florence and the Machine, Josh Kumra, Rihanna, Tata Dindin Jobarté, (with) James Blake, Jun Miyake, The War on Drugs, (with) Nils Frahm, Tricky, Annie Clark (we played together already) to name but a few off the top of my head.
I’ve been enjoying the Heath Cullen album you worked on, but I don’t know much about him. Who is he and how did The Imposters end up playing on his album?
You won’t believe it, but Heath did a KickStarter type thing, told all his fans he wanted to go into the studio with the Imposters. We are incredibly expensive, but that’s how he got it done. I’m dying to hear the results as the sessions in Australia were very pleasurable, and I recall the songs Heath asked us to collaborate on were cool too. What can I tell you about him? He is a wonderful songwriter, a genuine and thoughtful soul, musician with a real love for old guitars and amps, not a lot of technology on his musical landscapes, sings with real passion in his voice. I love his previous record with Marc Ribot, Silver Wings is often on in my car when I’m racing down the German Autobahn. Must grab myself a copy.
[Available as a “Name your price” download here ]
Any plans for more records under your own name?
Yes, I’m about to complete recording a trilogy, it started with Mumu 1 which is titled Mumu, then came Mumu 2, which is titled “2gether” and next Mumu 3 – could be subtitled “Alone” as it’s going to be a totally solo batch of songs, but the title might be “Leaves from the Mumu Tree” – too soon to say for sure, but all the songs are now composed, just looking for the right producer for this one. Also I’m planning on releasing a piano solo album Steve Nieve Plays Elvis Costello, and then following that up with several volumes of Steve Nieve Plays… all my favourite composers and songwriters…
Finally we have 2 traditional Trust the Wizards questions that we ask everybody we interview. Apologies in advance.
You’re in a caff ordering breakfast. You can have toast and your choice of tea or coffee and then you’re allowed 4 more items. What would you choose?
Breakfast, never need to think about it, I have Muriel…
And the question that causes endless controversy between me & the other 2 wizards. Cricket, is it any good or is it just bollocks?
I was talking to Malcolm McDowell the other day. He told me when he met Stanley and they decided to do Clockwork Orange together they couldn’t decide what the look of the “droogs” should be. Malcolm turned up for the audition in his cricket outfit. “Perfect” said Stanley, “just put him a bowler hat on that, it’ll work a treat”. Viddy well, little brother.
- Live review: Elvis Costello & The Imposters, Liverpool Philharmonic, 10th June 2013
- Chorizo’s Elvis Costello gig memories Parts 1 to 5
- Which letter is better?
- Rebel Rikkit’s Elvis Costello gig memories
- Podcast number 39 (includes Costello songs & Costello quiz)
- Podcast number 22
- Podcast number 14: The Funeral Special
Links for Steve: