Steve Nieve, Pianist of Elvis Costello
Steve Nieve is one of the greatest keyboardists of our time, and arguably who ever lived. He undeniably holds the highest honor of rock star status, if a permanent place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a Grammy to his name doesn’t speak for itself. Steve Nieve is best known for playing piano, organ and keyboard instruments with Elvis Costello and the Imposters (formerly the Attractions), first teaming up with Costello at the age of 17, while still a student at the Royal College of Music in London. After that, it was rock history. Led by Costello’s vocals and Nieve’s catchy piano lines they left a trail of epic concerts, platinum records, and 70’s rockn’roll urban legends in their wake. Nieve’s creative collaboration resume is one of the most impressive in the business, having shared the stage with everyone from Bono, Sting, Squeeze, Bruce Springstein, Ted Baker and Lou Reed to David Bowie and The Rolling Stones….the list goes on and on…
In person, the posh British born Paris expat of almost two decades is one of the kindest, humblest, and brilliantly funny people you might have the good fortune to meet. Onstage, he is an absolute madman. Surrounded by a black and white cage of up to ten keyboards, he is the nucleus from which the energy of the show erupts, his fingers flying with wild speeds across the keys with a fervor reminiscent of a Brit-pop version of Mozart.
Alongside producing some of the most worshipped albums that have graced the pages of rocknroll, Steve has pursued an impressive solo career, putting out heartbreakingly beautiful and innovative piano albums, film soundtracks, and alongside with his companion and muse, Muriel Téodori, composed an Opera “Welcome To the Voice” a modern Dionyisian musical interpretation featuring Sting, Elvis Costello, Ron Sexsmith and John Flansburgh at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris.
His latest album “To Get Her (Together)” reveals Nieve’s gravitation towards collaboration and features music sung by Lou Reed, Sting, Robert Wyatt, Elvis Costello, Vanessa Paradis, Joe Sumner (of Fiction Plane), and Tall Ulysse (of TALL), with whom Nieve recently completed a US and Japan tour. Despite having played with highest order of musical giants, Nieve has a love for playing with young, up and coming artists like TALL, and electro-rock group hailing from Paris to create a new kind of musical experience born from a collaboration between generations and genres. Nieve is living, musical proof that even despite experience and professional achievement, there is always room for collaboration.
“I think anything that you do whether you’re a musician or doing something else, it’s just a question of being in love with something and just reading everything you can about it, being involved in it and listening to other people that are involved in it and taking cues from them.”–Steve Nieve
CM: When did you start playing piano? know when you wanted to pursue music in life?
I started playing piano when I was four years old, before I had a piano and we didn’t have a piano at home. I have two brothers and my youngest brother was born deaf and consequently my mother left me with my next door neighbor a lot who had a piano, so I used to play the piano at her house, and when I returned home, I drew the piano keyboard out on pieces of paper and sat there at the table playing it.
CM: How did you start playing with Elvis Costello?
I was studying classical music at the Royal College of Music, but I just wanted to be in a rock group, and I was constantly scouring music papers like the new Musical Express or Melody Maker, and I saw an advert and replied to it. It was like an audition and that was it. Costello had already released a couple of tracks and had a first album recorded at that point.
CM: What inspires you?
I am inspired a lot by the people around me, particularly Muriel, she inspires me. Sometimes inspiration comes to me immediately, sometimes it doesn’t but it’s always good to work on it a little bit. It’s good to get your first idea down and then work on it.
CM: What is your all time favorite sound? Favorite bands?
My all time favorite sound is the sound of Muriel when she sings, I love her singing. My favorite band is changing constantly, but at the moment it is Christine and the Queen.
CM: Favorite song you ever composed?
My favorite song of mine is a song called Mumu, about Muriel. I am inspired by a composer called Bach, who lived towards the end of the Baroque period. He composed music with a different way of thinking than we do now, it was at the end of a period where people were thinking horizontally instead of vertically.
CM: How do you overcome creative blocks?
I think anything that you do whether you’re a musician or doing something else, it’s just a question of being in love with something and just reading everything you can about it, being involved in it and listening to other people that are involved in it and taking cues from them.
In the age that we live in, we have so many new tools like computers and we can go in endless directions, but it’s also good to think to slightly more classical tools, and approach everything with an open mind.
“The internet is the marketer of everyone…In a way we can have more opportunities than before, you just need to know how to use it.”–Steve Nieve
CM: What advice would you have to give to aspiring musicians?
There’s one piece of advise that probably won’t be very popular, that it is really a good idea to learn how to read music because its not everyone who can do that. Theres a lot of musicians who didn’t try to learn that. It does require a bit of effort, but at the end of the day it will give you a whole other set of tools. Even when you’re using a computer, if you can tell the computer what key your song is in, it will open up a whole set of things the computer can do that it can’t do otherwise.
CM: What was your craziest concert memory?
Well I’ve got so many crazy concert memories, it’s difficult to know which one to choose. I’m going to choose this one: When we were back in the previous century, we were touring on a bus and it was right when video machines were invented, but the problem with having one of the first video machines was that there were very few video tapes and so we only had two tapes, one of them was Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and the other one was A Clockwork Orange and it soon became well known that we were constantly watching A Clockwork Orange, so the fans were constantly showing up to our concerts dressed as Alex and there was one guy in particular who was really beautifully made up as Alex with the costume and makeup, but he was in a wheelchair. And because he was in this wheelchair, he was wheeled to the front row of every concert he came to and he came to every single one. It wasn’t until a few months after we noticed this guy sitting in the front row, that anyone figured out that built into his wheelchair, he had microphones in the arms and a very expensive technical system under his seat, and he was actually the guy who was bootlegging all our concerts.
CM: Can you tell more about how you collaborated with so many different artists from different genres on ToGetHer?
I think that the thing about that was that they were not all present at the same time. It was one track at a time over quite a long period of time. It was nice because as a collaboration it was possible to be focused on one person and go where that person was living or working. And we were crazy enough to produce something absolutely impossible to produce with a label because it involved so much time, so much effort and traveling from our part. Sometimes the artists came to our environment, like Glenn Tilbrook and Squeeze came to Paris for a few days, then that was different, but we went to Tuscany for Sting, the Loire Valley with Laurie Anderson, Perpignan for Cali, Los Angeles for Vanessa Paradis, it was completely impossible to do this with a label, so there was this freedom you give to yourself when you don’t think in terms of rentability.
“Music is an art form that is usually slightly late compared to other art forms…”–Steve Nieve
CM: What is your attraction to collaboration?
I think that a lot of it comes from Muriel because my natural inclination is to be a hermit, I quite like just doing solo stuff, but she has inspired me and pushed me to collaborate more with other people and that opens up a whole new world of creativity, and eventually that becomes the interesting thing about the project, the relationships you can develop with other people. You can learn so many things from other people you could never learn by yourself. I can’t say I prefer collaborations because I am a very shy person and I find it is daunting for me, but I think it’s more rewarding in the end to go through that barrier and have the chance to pick up so many great things from so many great people.
CM: The greatest collaboration you can think of?
I would have to take Miles Davis as one of the elements, because he is one of the most amazing and interesting of musicans, and I would maybe combine him with someone from the present time and someone from way back in time like Mozart. So Mozart, Miles Davis and Muriel. Everyone beginning with M.
CM: Where do you see the future of the music industry going?
Music will always go in unexpected places. At the moment it has exploded into so many different worlds, it’s quite incredible really what is going on in music. Music is an art form that is usually slightly late compared to other art forms, I don’t know whether that’s true anymore. I think in the past the other art forms like painting and sculpture were pushing boundaries, like trying to find ways to create things that are more realistic or abstract, and then music would follow behind it. Technology has so easily embraced music, but it’s very complicated. I have no idea where music is going, but it’s exciting. There are so many kinds of music out there, it’s a totally mind blowing world, like the cosmos.
CM: How would you suggest musicians market themselves.
I think all of that is very difficult. Due to certain things like piracy, certain aspects of being a musician have changed so much. Its true that marketing is a big part, but because of the internet everything goes so quickly, and people can become known, because of a viral video for example, even without marketing; they can appear in an instant. The internet is the marketer of everyone. Before you were supposed to struggle and be in a corner and people had to figure out that you even exist, but now it can happen in an instant via the internet. In a way we can have more opportunities than before, you just need to know how to use it.
CM: If you weren’t a pianist, what would you be doing?
I would definitely be some sort of doctor involved in the medical profession.
Photography copyright: Steve Nieve