Extended Q&A: Steve Nieve

The Attraction keyboardist talks working with Elvis Costello, through recordings good and bad.


In this week's print edition, Jeff Rosenberg profiled Steve Nieve, Elvis Costello's longtime keyboardist, who performs a set of Costello songs on solo piano tonight at Mississippi Studios. Below is an extended transcription of their conversation.

Willamette Week: How old were you when you started playing the piano?

Steve Nieve: I started off playing the harmonium, actually. My parents couldn't afford a piano. But there was a piano in the house of the neighbor next door. And I have two brothers and two sisters, and one of my brothers was born with the significant problem of being completely deaf. Which meant that my mother had to spend a lot of time with him, and I was a very young child, 3 or 4 years old. So I'd be left with a neighbor, and my neighbor used to just stack up a pile of telephone directories on the piano stool and prop me up there, and so that's really where I started playing the piano. And so, I'm thankful for my neighbors.

Were there any composers that really spoke to you as you grew older?

Well, it was a strictly classical upbringing, and then, after that, I got into singing in the choir, and I became the organist at a small church close by. So I think in the beginning I was really interested in the organ, and used to spend a lot of time playing church organs, and things like that. But as far as composers go, it wasn't until I was in secondary school, and later on at the music college, that I got heavily involved in listening to different composers, like, I suppose…I think one of my favorite composers is Stravinsky. And obviously, I was into contemporary music, but contemporary at that time was the 1970s, so there were things like John Taverner had an album out on Apple, The Whale. So that was one. And obviously I was into rock music, so I had a lot of Beatles records, as everyone seemed to have at that time, and I was very influenced by that, I would say.

So you were already playing rock 'n' roll piano early on?

Well, I don't know if it was rock'n'roll, but it was more about playing my myself, in my room. I wish I had some tapes of it—you know, we didn't have telephones with apps on [them], so I have no idea what it sounded like. 

What do you recall about first meeting Elvis Costello's given name?

Well, I recall the day very well. I was a student at the Royal College of Music, but I wanted, really, to be in a rock band. That was an obsession. And I saw an advert in a newspaper, and I went along to an audition, thinking—I was told when I called up that the audition was for a band that was going to back up an Elvis impersonator. Because they'd had so many people call up this number that they were trying to put people off. But as I was knowing all of Elvis Presley's songs, I didn't think it would be a problem. So I went along, and that's when I met Elvis, he was in a darkly lit rehearsal room, he had a band with him, and I think we played a couple of songs, probably "Less than Zero" and something else, and I asked him if I could stay and hear all the other guys. And then after the auditions were finished, I asked if I could tag along to the Indian restaurant he went to. And I think it was about a week later that I discovered my parents in tears, because they'd received the call that I was now an Attraction.

Elvis took you through many stylistic changes in the next few years. For instance, what did you think when he proposed a country and western album, Almost Blue?

He proposed several, ah, adventures. I mean, before the country album, there was an adventure that happened with a symphony orchestra in England, where we played at the Albert Hall, I think, with an orchestra, we had some arrangements, and that was an interesting moment, and one that we're reliving right now at the Hollywood Bowl. [Costello and Nieve were performing two shows with the L.A. Philharmonic the weekend we spoke.] The country album coincided with me becoming a father. And so, it was quite good discovering that music at that period. And I particularly enjoyed discovering the way things were done in Nashville, the way they write music out so it can be quickly transposed to any key. They have a way of writing scores down that is based on numbers, and things like that, and I definitely enjoyed making those records.

I felt that where you really…I don't want to say "came into your own," because you'd obviously already developed a distinctive style, but where you really stood out, was on the 1982's Imperial Bedroom.

It was an album where we took a little more freedom than we had before in terms of experimenting, and there were a lot of instruments available to us in the studio we were at, which was Paul McCartney's AIR Studios. I remember they had an electric harpsichord up there, things like that. And also, the opportunity to write some orchestral arrangements for some of the songs. And I think, prior to recording that album, we also did something that we don't normally do, which was some extensive rehearsing. Whereas on other albums, we were learning the songs up on the road, and they would just get played in immediately. We actually had time to experiment with different arrangements of things. And I remember, I bought an 8-track tape recorder, which was pretty wild in those days, and we recorded a lot of the rehearsals and got really into the thing. It was great to work with Geoff Emerick, as well. It was, I think, the first time we worked with him, and that was an eye-opener. And also, I think the songs that Elvis wrote for that album were particularly melodic, so it was very compatible with my way of playing. 

Would you say that you were an influence on Elvis at all? 

I think in the early days, things were slightly different than they are now, in that when we were on the road, it wasn't a question of plugging your headphones in and listening to whatever you wanted to listen to, it was more of a communal thing. You, sometimes in the bus, putting on tapes. A lot of times, we used to make our own tapes, kind of compilation tapes of things, and we all had slightly different tastes, and we wanted to impress our mates with our choices. [laughs] So these listening sessions influenced a lot of things that were going down. I was particularly fond of David Bowie, and the Station to Station album, and the live Station to Station album was a big favorite of mine. And different people would put different things on their tapes, and it would just come up and I think that was how we influenced each other a lot.

Probably most famously, the piano riff in ABBA's "Dancing Queen" influenced the part you played on "Oliver's Army."

Yes, that's true. But I think, in later times, Elvis has always been open to hearing ideas. He got heavily involved in the project Welcome to the Voice, right in the beginning when we started it, and was really helpful with that. And later on when we recorded it for Deutche Grammophon, with Sting, and we put it on at the Théâtre Du Châtelet in Paris, by that point Sting was the main character, and Elvis was singing the role of the Chief of Police. Sting was absolutely brilliant when we did that project, and got extraordinarily involved in it. So we spent a lot of time with him, until the music became like second nature to him. It's a complicated score to have inside your head, you know? So we were running through it daily.

What about the album Goodbye Cruel World, which Elvis called "our worst album" in the liner notes to its reissue?

I think there was a period in the '80s where the computer started to raise its head, and began to affect certain areas of life, and one of them was music. No one could predict what it would do, but of now you can see where we've got to with it. But at the time, it was very much in its infancy, but it was taking over a lot of different things. So it was taking over the mixing desk, and for the first time you could do a mix, and if it wasn't quite right, you could come back three weeks later and the same mix could come back up, and you could adjust just one little thing. Little things like that were creeping in. As far as what we achieved with [producer] Clive [Langer], I always thought that it was very musical, you know, and I loved working with Clive, he's a very musical guy. And I think the sonic of that album is quite remarkable, there's some great songs on it, and perhaps if we weren't working in that era of time, we might have taken a different approach, it might have been more acoustic or whatever, but you had to be reactive to what was going on around you, so that was what was going on around us at the time.

What did you think, a few years later, when he started recording with other players? Did he present it at the time as a temporary vacation from you all, or were you worried that you'd lost the gig, so to speak?

Well, I think that even in more recent times that's happened. Because you're talking about the King of America album. If you look at what's happened more recently with the Wise Up Ghost album [recorded by Costello with the Roots], the same thing has happened. Obviously, it's been a while since we made an album with Elvis [since 2008's Momofuku], and I'd have loved to have been involved in the latest one. And so there is a sense of regret that that didn't happen. And at the time that you're talking about, the same thing. But I think it's very rare for people to continue working with the same people for great lengths of time, and you need a break from each other every now and then, and it's good for creativity. It's good for a lot of things. It was good for me, it forced me to do other things, and I don't think it's a bad thing.

What were some of the highlights of that period away from Elvis?

The first time that Elvis took a break from the Attractions, I went into doing a lot of music for films and for commercials. And I also became the bandleader on a television show—much like the Roots—and we were playing each week with different artists, so it was a remarkable time. I had a really amazing time during that period. There were several programs, but they were all programs of Jonathan Ross, who's an English chat show host. At the time we started, it was called Last Resort and by the time we finished I think it was called One Hour with Jonathan Ross. It was really a show modeled on the David Letterman show, basically, but English. And so it was very creative time, 'cause we were backing up different artists each week, and we were trying to sound like those artists. We were trying to do their music the best we could, as an exercise of style, to be correct with their music. And we had some great things: we had James Brown came on our show, we had Paul McCartney, we had the Temptations, there were many highlights. We did some piano and voice numbers with Morrissey, and with Sting. 

As far as your solo career, the first album you made was Keyboard Jungle, in 1983. Was that a longstanding ambition, or an opportunity that arose?

Ever since a very early age I was composing music for piano, and it was an attempt to record some of that and to make some new compositions. It was very important to me at the time. After it was released, I did a short tour around it. I think it was very much, at the time, probably influenced by my days at the music college.

So you were always composing instrumentals, but on your more recent albums you're writing lyrics as well. Was that always a pursuit, too, or is that a newer development?

No it's not. I like to write words, I'm often writing words, I keep a notebook and write a lot of words, but working with Elvis, it's more difficult to release—to get away with things. And so it's taken me a little more time to get started on it, but it's very important to me and I will be pursuing it.

What about singing?

Again, working with such a master of vocal, it's a daunting idea to do but after I discovered different singers who have given me more confidence. I like very much a sort of style of singing that's not such…I don't know how to say it, but I think some of the singers who do it are not singing in a classic way, are actually singers that I really admire. And so there is a form of singing that is much more gentle, and much more to do with not adding something… that a singer can do, if you see what I mean. So having discovered singers like that, and I'm not going to say who they are, I don't want to be derogatory, cause I think they're great singers. But someone like Brian Eno, when you hear his voice, he's not singing like a singer, but it's great. 

Tell me a bit about your approach to last year's album, ToGetHer.

The album is, as you've gathered, a collection of songs I wrote with the idea of doing them as duets. And the people I got to sing on it with me are all people I've worked with in the past, and who have become friends. It's not just a collection of different people, they're all acquaintances, and they have something in the past that we've done together as well. So it gives it a strong attraction. And all the songs are composed at the piano, so even when we're doing band songs, I can perform them alone at the piano, so that's another aspect to the album. I've enjoyed working with some younger artists on it.

I wanted to ask about your creative, and, I'm assuming, romantic partner, Muriel Teodori.

Muriel, yes, she's been very important to me since I met her, really. She's the producer of Welcome to the Voice, and she's also the producer of ToGetHer. She's one of the most musical people I've ever met. She can literally sing Carla Bley's "Escalator over the Hill" from beginning to end, from memory. And so, when I first met her, that's how Welcome to the Voice started, trying to seduce her, really, and we started working on it. And when we came to put it on stage at the Châtelet, she directed it onstage. And because she has such a great musical memory, if she was rehearsing someone and someone else wasn't there, she could do the other person's part [laughs], so it's pretty remarkable. She's taught me a lot about French music and exposed me to a lot of things I'd never heard before. We live in Central Paris and, you know, there's different things going on there than other parts of the world, and a whole different language of music, and it's good, you know.

Let me ask you about what might be a more unpleasant subject, going back to the Attractions. Do you have a  book review of bassist Bruce Thomas' book, The Big Wheel?

Well, no, i don't, but it's funny you should bring that up, because I just finished my book. But it's not based on just what [the Attractions] were doing, but it's about a guy who's obsessed with the number twelve, and so, contained in the book are twelve almost-true stories that he has put in his notebook. Because he's actually doing the job that you're doing, he's a rock 'n' roll journalist, and most of the time he's trying to interview Steve Nieve. So these twelve almost-true stories are in the book, as are twelve love letters between him and his loved one. When it's coming out is a good question, but it's at the publishers.

Looking back on your career thus far, can you tell me what stands out as one or two highlights each, from the areas of live performance and studio recording?

Definitely a highlight for me was doing Welcome to the Voice at the Châtelet. I must say that it's funny to have worked a long time on writing that opera, and when we came to do it, I was stuck in the pit, so I really didn't see any of it! But that's another story. Obviously, I enjoyed playing with the Attractions, and we did so many gigs I can't tell you what a [a highlight] would be, but obviously, Imperial Bedroom was one of the highlights of that band, working on that. Another collaboration with Elvis that I'm very proud of is when we worked with Allen Toussaint, We did a lot of things, and we combined the two bands, we combined his band and our band, and it was a great time, and it was really interesting music. I was playing Hammond organ, which was raised up on a thing, and I was always able to see what he was up to on the piano, actually. It was great. So I would say that was a highlight, too.  

SEE IT: Steve Nieve plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., with Bill Wadhams of Animotion, on Tuesday, Sept. 23. 8 pm. $17 advance, $20 day of show. 21+. 

WWeek 2015

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