Earlier this week, hat-wearer, organ-player, Theremin-manipulator, keyboardist-supreme, Parisian, and the man on whose back Elvis Costello has ridden, and risen, for nearly 50 years, Steve Nieve had his Beatles birthday.
He was a teenager with almost no rock’n’roll experience when he joined Costello, Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas in The Attractions, which may give you some idea where the name – as you’ll see, it’s not the one he had 64 years ago – originated.
As a birthday gift, since we can’t send him cake, Wind Back Wednesday returns to the year 2014 and the time Nieve stepped out sans-Elvis for some hours at the piano in front of an Australian audience. Or indeed, wherever he might find a piano.
YOU CAN HIDE IN PLAIN SIGHT if you are Steve Nieve, the long running collaborator and keyboard-playing offsider to the more famous, more voluble Elvis Costello.
For a start that name does not appear on his passport or birth certificate: that would be Stephen Nason. Nor is Nieve the only name he’s been credited with on a record sleeve either: that list includes Maurice Worm and Norman Brain.
And as the pianist, an Englishman in Paris for more than a decade, reveals, none of his many names is even attached to his children.
"I once changed my name to avoid getting married and I adopted the surname of my partner at the time,” he says, somewhat ruefully. “As a result my children ended up with a name that doesn't refer to anybody because her name was changed in her passport.”
But there’s something nonetheless to the name, given to him as a punkish pun moniker by either Costello or Costello’s then manager Jake Riviera (neither of whom, of course, were using their real names either) back in 1977 when the 18-year-old Nason became the keyboard player for Costello’s band, the Attractions.
(Steve Nieve, second from left, with Elvis Costello and the Attractions)
"The name Nieve I really like it. I didn't like it at the time when it arrived to me but now that I'm older I can appreciate the word naive and I’m going to stick with it,” says Nieve. “I think your name does colour the way you regard things. I'm drawn towards slightly naive things, definitely in the world of piano.”
The term “naive art” often is ascribed to things which look simple or childlike or innocent, without sophistication but as Nieve says “when we look at those we find in many, not all, more complicated issues.” And as those who have followed Elvis Costello's career, and along the way inevitably followed that of his most crucial collaborator, would know, the deceptively simple and the devilishly clever or wicked sit alongside each other in the piano and organ (and vocoder and Theremin) parts contributed by Nieve.
He may nominally be part of the rhythm section but from the Abba-referencing organ in Oliver’s Army to the classically minded piano in the songs on the album North, in many cases he has been the lead instrument. Which is handy as now he will be the only instrument.
Nieve is to tour Australia as a solo pianist playing the songs of Elvis Costello reimagined, rearranged and probably never the same way twice. That variety no surprise for someone who says that the idea of solo piano playing is “to pile the pressure on and to try to be relaxed about all the pressure” at the same time.
“I can't see the pieces becoming fixed in stone, like a score,” Nieve says. “I think it's because they are such inspiring songs and when you start to feel what the song is about you are [moved] and sometimes in a completely different way to any time before. It's reacting to emotions."
The Costello songs are part of a larger project recording material from other artists – “volume one of what I hope will turn into an encyclopaedia” which will include Neil Young, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Frank Sinatra and Damon Albarn - on piano. And only piano. Though as many different pianos as he can find, wherever he can find them, in Paris, Perpignon and beyond.
While on tour in Australia earlier this year with Costello’s current band, the Imposters, Nieve recorded several Elvis Presley songs in a Melbourne studio - "primarily because they have a very beautiful upright piano”.
On a recent trip from the UK back to Paris he came across a battered piano in St Pancras station and, with the portable recorder he carries with him, recorded a version of Costello’s Shot With His Own Gun. And his Australian shows will all be recorded with the possibility of ending up on the coming record.
Of course, this chasing down different instruments is all fine when you’re recording but live it’s not like regular rock star who can have his roadie pack two dozen guitars into a hard case for the tour.
“It could be,” Nieve says, ever ambitious. “I'd like to have maybe 20 pianos on stage, all with different sounds.”
(The cover of 1987's Playboy suggests Nieve didn't always hide. And knew Bryan Ferry.)
With or without the 20 pianos, the bigger issue on stage may well be that history of hiding right in front of us as the quiet one up the back. In terms of testing himself, being the focal point of the show, the entertainer not the sidekick, could well be the ultimate challenge for a man who used to rarely give interviews, said even less on stage, and tended to hide behind dark glasses, a hat and his bank of keyboards.
It’s hard to imagine him doing banter or looking comfortable doing so.
"I would say I'm not comfortable in any situation. Even just playing the piano I don't feel comfortable,” Nieve says. “But I feel the excitement about it and that's why I am pushing myself to do it all the time.
"The idea of banter [he chuckles to himself] is something else altogether.”