IN A TINY SCREENING ROOM on the basement floor of a boutique Soho London hotel, Elvis Costello is pondering the genius of The Roots' workaholic drummer and ursine frontman, Amir 'Questlove' Thompson. As talk show host Jimmy Fallon's house band, The Roots operate out of what The 58 year-old songwriter refers to as a "tiny little cabin" at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York. "It's about a third of the size of this room," explains Costello, "That's where they do all their work. When I first appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon [in November 2009] The Roots had learned an arrangement that The Attractions had played once in 1978.
"Next time I came in, Quest had been in the studio all night with D'Angelo and was in the process of learning these Mahavishnu Orchestra songs because John McLaughlin was on the show. They do it all operating from this tiny cramped space, so the first thing we have to consider before talking about this album is, Is Questlove a Timelord? Could he be the new Doctor Who?"
Based on the evidence of the first press playback of Elvis Costello & The Roots new collaborative album, Wise Up Ghost, the answer is a resounding "highly probable".
Growing out of jam sessions during rehearsals for Costello's appearances with the Roots on successive Fallon shows, Wise Up Ghost certainly suggests that Questlove has an uncanny ability to time-travel throughout the musical universe.
Begun in secret, as "a gentleman's agreement" without a major label contract, the album – produced by Questlove, Costello, and longtime Roots associate Steven Mandel – combines deep muggy grooves, distorted Isley guitars, Trouble Man strings and JBs drums, initially bringing to mind the kind of socially conscious cinematic soul that soundtracked Questlove's youth: albums such as as Chairman Of The Board's Skin I'm In, The O'Jays Ship Ahoy and Curtis Mayfield's There's No Place Like America Today.
Similarly, Costello's lyrics revisit his own past. "I wanted to incorporate other verses and ideas from old songs as an ongoing dialogue," he explained. "On a number of songs I used that collage method because some of the things that were said in those [old] songs as they were originally written, well I won't say they've come true but to me they have more disturbing significance because they continue to go on, certain actions in our name. Hopefully, when you read the lyric sheet you'll see what I'm talking about."
The sinister Soul Train dance grooves of Stick Out Your Tongue reworks and repurposes the anti-tabloid lyrics from Costello's 1983 release as The Imposter, Pills And Soap, while the verses on the paranoid conspiracy funk of Refuse To Be Saved were originally written around the time of the invasion of Panama but, says Costello, still apply to the invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan because "the same mistakes are still being made."
Other highlights include Cinco Minutos Con Vos, an answer record to Costello's 1982 anti-Falklands war lament, Shipbuilding with a stunning vocal turn
from La Marisoul, lead singer of LA's la Santa Cecilia, and the downbeat brass-section Curtis soul of the deeply sinister title track.
Questlove has rightly described Wise Up Ghost as "a moody, brooding affair, cathartic rhythms and dissonant lullabies. I went stark and dark on the music [while] Elvis went H.A.M. on some ole Ezra Pound shit"."
What both men have done, is reach back into their pasts to soundtrack our troubled present. In the process they appear to have made a future classic.
Wise Up Ghost's Shipbuilding answer song, Cinco Minutos Con Vos.
"The lyric came to mind because people were asking me a lot over the last eighteen months about the song Shipbuilding, which was written against the background of the Falklands War. I never really thought about writing a similar human story as if you were on the other side of that conflict. It's taken thirty years to think of something I felt right about. Rather than write about something I don't know, I simply wanted to write story about a girl who's waiting for her father to arrive home [while] he's being pushed out of an aeroplane. The only reason I raise this song now is because people are [still] being taken away in our name, taken away in aeroplanes, flown off to various places and we don't know what's being done to them. Those used to be things the bad guys did, we could point at them as say, They're the bad guys. We can't do that now. Now we're the bad guys. That was one of the reasons for writing that song and I thought it would be very beautiful to have that girl's distress, in the middle of the song, sung in Spanish, Argentinian Spanish, by La Marisoul."
Touring Wise Up Ghost in the internet age.
"Well first I'll have to sneak The Roots out of the freight elevator at NBC. That proves to be a tricky proposition but we are discussing the prospects of playing. There's the hope that when the record comes out, it generates some interest. To promote the record the week it comes out seems so old-fashioned now. When I first played with the Roots on Jimmy Fallon I would hear about it weeks later because everything goes out on the internet now. I don't think people are gathered around a television set at 12.30 at night anymore. In the main people are hearing about it a day, a week, a month later. Recently I got an email from somebody saying, Did you see Pulp on Jimmy Fallon? Of course, I missed it. This was fairly recently, when they reformed, and they hadn't really been seen in America before and there was this... Shock. Jarvis was like this Elvis Presley, only from Sheffield. It was startling and you would have missed if it wasn't available to you on the internet. That's how it works. You get the word out, and if people want to hear it then you'll eventually hear back. I hear The Roots are big in Switzerland. Maybe we'll go there."
Performing Tramp The Dirt Down in the wake of Margaret Thatcher's death. [Following a question from an Independent journalist on whether Thatcher's death had "met your expectations"]
"I didn't feel vindicated. I didn't personally kill her. If you've seen any of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook shows recently we have a big vaudeville wheel which we encourage people to spin and then select the repertoire but on this tour we've made a point of setting it aside at some point and choosing the next song. Now this is linked together by the fact that I lost my father recently to dementia and having seen what misery that was, I really genuinely don't wish that on my worst enemy and that's approximately what I say every night. On the other hand, the things that Tramp The Dirt Down speaks about? Well, I thought when I was younger that we would all have jet-packs, and it would be a great future. It hasn't worked out that way and I do feel that the Thatcherite revolution, a bit like the Glorious Revolution, is one of those things that many people regard as a great cleansing thing, and it's not. And it's still the same bunch of swines in there, so that's why I want to revisit the song, regardless of the offense it might cause. I haven't shot anybody. It's just music. It can't harm you."
Writing a musical with Burt Bacharach.
"You get back from a three-hour show at Blackpool Opera House, it's 12.30 at night and the phone rings and it will be Burt, wanting to know where the lyrics are for the new songs. It's fantastic. We are working on an adaptation of [1998 Costello and Bacharach collaboration] Painted From Memory for the stage. The book is nearly complete, the first act is written, the second is in draft and Burt and I are working on six new songs. It's wonderful to hear his melodies and I'm happy to be the lyricist. Some of the original songs from the album will be adapted into the story. And hopefully it will be ready for the stage next year."