Elvis Costello & the Roots: Questlove’s Pipe Dream Isn’t Over

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It's a safe bet that when the Recording Academy announces the nominees for the 56th Annual Grammy Awards on Dec. 6, you'll be hearing the names Elvis Costello and the Roots. That is, if Grammy members can figure out in which category — or categories — the genre-bending collaboration Wake Up Ghost & Other Stories best fits.

Mixing Costello's legendary wordplay with the Roots' down-and-dirty, funky grooves, the album has already roused one-time Costello devotees from their slumber and has likely converted some Roots followers into Elvis fans, impressed with how the bespectacled Englishman can throw down a rhyme.

If you're already hip to the album, which was released in mid-September, there's good news. More music from the pairing is on the way. Roots drummer and co-leader Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson tells us that there will be a new release by Costello & the Roots on the Black Friday version of Record Store Day, fitting since it was on the annual springtime celebration of independent record stores that first saw the release of Wake Up Ghost as a limited-run while label test pressing. "We got something really special coming for that day," he says. And that's not all, Questlove tells us that their live performance at the Brooklyn Bowl on Sept. 16, the eve of the album's official release, "really opened up a whole new good can of worms," hinting there may be even more to come.

The "roots" of the unlikely pairing can be traced to Costello's three appearances on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" on which the Roots serve as the house band, usually jamming with the evening's musical guests. Unbeknownst to Costello, Questlove was a huge fan. But there were clues. During one of his guest spots, Questlove and the Roots dug up music from a U.K. commercial for R White's Lemonade written by Elvis' father, Ross MacManus, and featuring a young Costello, then known as Declan MacManus, on backing vocals and bass. "We found it on the Internet and decided to do it," Questlove says, "and it really floored him. He was like, 'How did you know about that?'"

Little did Costello know, Questlove had been obsessing over him and his music for years. In fact, part of the reason he agreed to take the Fallon gig was that Costello's name was dropped during a meeting with the future talk show host and producer Lorne Michaels. "The scenario that Jimmy said was, 'The cool thing is you can have your friends in, so you can have Q Tip sit in on Tuesday, Herbie Hancock could sit in on Wednesday, and Elvis Costello could sit in on a Thursday.' And when I went home to tell [friend and producer] Steve [Mandel] how the meeting went and gave him those hypothetical examples, a light bulb went off in his head and he said, 'Yo, now you must take this 'Late Night' gig so we can be down can be down with Elvis.' It was like a pipe dream."

Questlove discovered Costello while growing up in Philadelphia in what he calls a "three record-collector household." His father's collection had soft pop like Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, and Carole King; while his mom favored jazzier stuff and Earth, Wind & Fire, War and the Average White Band. It was through his older sister that he found Costello. "She was bringing rock stuff home, like Bowie, Queen, the Clash, and Elvis, so I remember seeing Get Happy! and My Aim is True, although I didn't necessarily gravitate towards it when I was 6 or 7," he says.

Yet by the time MTV rolled around, Questlove was a fan. He recalls seeing the video for "Every Day I Write the Book" and says Costello's 1989 album Spike was the first cassette he bought himself.

From age 6 to 16 were "the formative years" of his Costello obsession, Questlove says. He didn't go to "Elvis university" until he was 26, while recording D'Angelo's 2000 album Voodoo with assistant engineer Steve Mandel. "He'd champion Elvis like he was the Lord Jesus Christ. He'd constantly make me all these mix CDs and cassettes of things I should know," Questlove says. "He made me [Costello's 1982 masterpiece] Imperial Bedroom, because I was really into [the Beach Boys'] Pet Sounds reissue. He said this is Elvis' art record." He adds that Costello's haunting song of obsession "I Want You" from 1986's Blood & Chocolate "is pretty much the soundtrack to every relationship I've ever had."

For his part, Costello says he was a fan of the Roots when they took the Fallon gig and admired how they were able to turn it on and off in the confines of a TV studio. "When you have an occasion to be on a movie set, you realize it takes a different sort of mentality to give it your best; they say action and you have to give it your best, the same thing goes for playing music on TV, it could be a soul-damning thing or a liberating thing," Costello says.

And once he began collaborating with the band for his appearances on Fallon, he realized there was the potential of a future collaboration. "They have this tiny room where they lock themselves in playing the music for the evening's show and making records at the same time, which has been very creative for them, and the sense of adventure with which we approached my appearances pretty gave us pretty much all the tools we needed. And then we only needed the will to make a record after that," he says.

It was during his first appearance on "Late Night" that Costello also noted that the Roots had a deep knowledge of his music. "When I got to the studio, the Roots had referenced a long-abandoned arrangement of 'High Fidelity' that I developed with the Attractions that I had left behind after we realized that we couldn't play like David Bowie's Station to Station band, and then we sped the song up and that's the rendition we put on record. But the Roots getting hold of that groove, they made it sound like the way I kind of dreamed the song originally. Not superior to our version, just different," he says.

Initially, the plan was to record new versions of Costello classics with fresh arrangements courtesy of the Roots, but then this changed once they started with Costello's "Pills and Soap" from 1983's Punch the Clock. "There's nothing to be gained by doing a straight recitation of the original lyric and revisiting the world of 30 years ago and not making any further comment as if the world hasn't moved on," Costello says. "Yes, certain things that were lies that were being told to us and certain inequalities still exist, but I wanted to connect it to other times, specifically the media focus."

Questlove was also a bit hesitant to possibly muck up Costello's classics by "remixing" them. "I didn't want to look like the guy that just burst into his world and did some asinine experiment against his will," he says.

So instead, Costello and the Roots created new songs that referenced some of his past classics, such as the "Pills and Soap" update "Stick Out Your Tongue" and "Cinco Minutos Con Vos," which looks at the flipside of the Falkland's War-inspired "Shipbuilding," by examining Argentina at a time when many of its citizens were disappearing at the hands of the government. Marisol "La Marisoul" Hernandez guests on that track, singing verses in Spanish.

"He was digging through his old catalog like a hip-hopper digs through his old beats to make something new, and that's what we ended up doing," Questlove says.

Given Questlove's and Costello's busy schedules, some of the initial songwriting for the album was done via email. "It was done in all sorts of stolen hours," Costello says. "Steve Mandel would email me if I was on the road somewhere, whether in Europe, to the West in America or Canada, I might get an email at 11 o'clock at night, which is 2 in the morning for him, saying, 'I just finished mixing this. This is a couple of parts we got down tonight with [Roots guitarist Captain] Kirk [Douglas], or we worked on the drums and I worked on these vocals you recorded.'"

For Questlove, the sessions kept getting better, especially when they all found time to get into the studio together. "The best songs came at the very last minute." He points to "Sugar Won't Work" and the deluxe edition bonus track "The Puppet Has Cut His Strings," which Questlove says Costello used "as a therapeutic moment to mourn his father's death."

In the end, they had so much material, they added bonus tracks to a deluxe version of the album and also have some material to release for Black Friday. Yet Questlove says that the Roots "pipe dream" with Costello is not over.

"This is not going to be the end," he says. Ghosts don't go away that easily.

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