When Keyboard Worlds Collide: Steve Nieve & Benmont Tench in Conversation

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famers from Elvis Costello's and Tom Petty's bands discuss their respective styles and mutual admiration society.

Elvis Costello Attractions and Tom Petty
Chris Willman

It’s only natural that the two greatest band keyboard players in the annals of rock would have formed a mutual admiration society. These would be Steve Nieve, of Elvis Costello & the Attractions and later the Imposters, and Benmont Tench, of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers fame.

There are other contenders for the aforementioned accolade, of course — other non-slouches include the Band’s Garth Hudson, who’s one of Tench’s oft-mentioned heroes, and the two E Street Band keyboardists, for starters — but Tench and Nieve really have very little competition when it comes to players with a signature style in Rock & Roll Hall of Fame groups who also, incidentally, proved capable of playing just about anything and everything outside of those bands.

In what counted as a historic musical summit meeting, Nieve and Tench recently performed together publicly for the first time, doing “four-handed piano” at a gig by the former at L.A.’s Largo club. The occasion was a local stop on one of his very occasional “Steve Nieve Plays Elvis Costello” tours (another leg of which will hit the States later this year), in which it turns out the songs by his frontman of nearly 45 years can be just as magnifique when Nieve, who now resides in Paris, returns here to play them sans band. But the Imposters, sans Costello, did sit in for part of the Largo gig, and it wasn’t just Elvis’ material being played — it was a mixture of both their boss/muses’ work, with “American Girl” and “Learning to Fly” sitting in the set alongside “Oliver’s Army” and a piano-driven “Pump It Up.”

Both are Hall of Famers, but Nieve just joined the Grammy owners’ club for the first time, as Elvis Costello and the Imposters’ “Look Now” got him his first of those trophies. Says Nieve, “Burt Bacharach, Anne Sophie Von Otter, Squeeze, Madness, Vanessa Paradis, Sting, Bowie, Elvis — working with all these artists is so f—ing special, and helps me to receive happily this award without feeling I’m an Imposter.”

Variety sat down with Nieve and Tench before their Largo gig recently to commemorate the meeting of minds and fingertips.

You must’ve crossed paths pretty early on, with both groups on the rise in the late ’70s. Do you remember when you guys first met?

TENCH: That’s a damn good question. We didn’t speak when we first crossed paths. Because we split the bill in Chicago at the Riviera Theater — right? — and we walked past each other. We were always just kind of arrogant, so I remember we walked past them backstage in the hall, and they were going this way and we were going this way. Or at least I walked past everybody and I was just going “grumble grumble grumble grumble.” Because I was so intimidated, because they were so f—ing great!

NIEVE: It’s funny that you think you were being arrogant, because I had the feeling we were being arrogant.

TENCH: I think we were both being arrogant. Probably we were a match for each other in arrogance. But inside, I was a pussycat. And then I went to see them play the five shows at the Beverly Theater, the Singing Songbook (series of shows by Costello in L.A. in 1986), alternating the Confederates and the Attractions (as backing bands). And at the end of the fourth night, Jake (Rivera, Costello’s then-manager) said, “You’re coming to Philadelphia,” and I’m like, what? Mitchell Froom couldn’t play the Philadelphia date at the very end of the tour with the Confederates. And I said, “Well, can I at least meet Elvis, if I’m playing a show with him?” And it was soon after that that I met you and Pete in a hotel.

NIEVE: He’s got a better memory than I do, because my memory is a bit pickled from those periods. But then I remember, a bit later on, Benmont played on Vanessa Paradis’ record “Bliss.” And I ended up doing the tour. He did the record, and I did the touring. It was great because I had a lot of Benmont keyboards to get to know, and it was fantastic.

You have such different signature styles and different musical backgrounds. What have you admired about each other that you think might be in a different wheelhouse than your own?

TENCH: He’s one of the guys who made his own sound in a really different way. I’m a big fan. I didn’t know why he had the Vox Continental, but I figured it was because Jake wanted to be able to keep the costs down and throw everything in the van, and a Continental you can actually throw in a van. I’ve still got to ask him how he gets the sound. Because I use my Continental and I do things with the drawbars and it doesn’t do that. So, yeah. I’m a big fan. He and Garth Hudson just convinced me to throw out every rule as far as playing a song the way that it is on the record, unless it’s something that’s too basic like “Breakdown” or “Refugee.” I saw him at the Greek in Berkeley, and I could almost see his mind working, because he had the Yamaha electric piano, and he had an emulator for samples, and the Continental and maybe something else. And it looked like he was just going, “I’m gonna do this. Oh, I’m gonna do that over here.” Especially by the time “Imperial Bedroom,” came around, it looked like you were going like off the map, playing a song and then sometimes going into uncharted territory. And I really liked that, and I was doing a little bit of that with the Heartbreakers. But after I saw that show at the Greek in Berkeley, I went, “Oh, the hell with it. Why not?” I was always trying to do that, but after that show, I went, “Yeah, of course.” And Tom, he probably couldn’t hear me, so I got away with it! But I can’t play like Steve plays — I can’t physically play like Steve plays. Because I didn’t practice!

NIEVE: That’s the same for me. I can’t play like Benmont plays, and I think it’s also to do with the fact that you’re really from the American tradition.

TENCH: Well, I’m from the American South…

NIEVE: I mean, obviously we can hear that in England, but the English thing is totally different. And my whole thing was trying to do classical music and not really being very happy about that — and trying to get away from it. So I think that’s a slightly different reason for my thing, whereas his thing is coming from a deep well of… You know, I adore American piano music, from places like New Orleans…

TENCH: You guys (Costello and Nieve) toured with Allen Toussaint.

NIEVE: Yeah, we did a record with Allen Toussaint (2006’s “The River in Reverse”) and toured with him. It was fantastic for me. But you know, Ben can do all that stuff. It’s natural to him.

TENCH: A little bit of it. But the thing is that I really like about the Attractions is that they are a four-piece band, and Elvis plays really cool guitar, but they’re not a guitar band. Steve kind of plays, to me, the (John) Entwistle role in the Who, which is like: You’rethe lead guitar. Davey (Faragher, the bassist in the Imposters) and Bruce Thomas (bassist for the Attractions) kind of did that, too. So that’s a different thing than us (in the Heartbreakers). I learned to pare it down and pare it down and pare it down, and get it smaller and smaller and smaller, so that I could cut through the guitars and come up with something that worked and simplify it — and also go Booker T, where you just keep it a simple thing, and you try to emulate that. And I would try to play like Steve, but I physically can’t. And you can’t get into another musician’s head. Not really. I mean, it’s a good source when there’s another musician you respect and whose band you really dig, and then you go, “Oh, wait, that’sreally cool. Can I adapt and apply that to what the band I’m in does?” And I did, in a few places. I grabbed it. But it’s also because I have a lot of you guys’ records, and I’d just listen to ‘em because I liked ‘em, and it’d kind of seep in.

So, Benmont, recognizing that you had more guitars to compete against in the Heartbreakers, you still found a way to do something of what you thought he was doing as a lead player in the Attractions?

TENCH: It wasn’t compete against. It was a guitar band. It’s like the Rolling Stones are two guitars, bass, drums and Ian Stewart — and I was in the Ian Stewart role. And mostly you would hear Brian Jones and Keith (Richards). And so I was down back there. But yeah… I got a Continental, and I told Steve just a minute ago, he’s got to tell me where the drawbar is set. I can’t make it sound like that. I just want the drawbar settings for some of that stuff on the Continental. But this is great, because we get to play together, so I can see, “Oh, he does that voice, and wait, the rhythm is that? I thought it was this.” And so it’s really fun. I’m having a great time, and playing four-handed piano, I just don’t get to do.

NIEVE: It’s an interesting piano, this one at Largo, as well. Doesn’t it have a weird history, this piano?

TENCH: It took me 10 years to get a grip on playing that piano, playing it time after time at Largo and going, ”Dammit. I played it, but it didn’t make a note!”

NIEVE: It’s a really weird piano. It makes funny noises as well. Certain notes, it sounds like somebody’s losing it. And it’s quite interesting. It’s not ugly; it’s got a spark, or…

TENCH: It’s got some kind of soul, and you can play all sorts of things on it. And if you’re Jon Brion (who has a monthly Largo residency), you can play anything. I played a solo show at argo, and I brought my Steinway, and I think I wound up playing half the songs on that (house) piano, just because it’s such a great, odd thing.

Can you think of any sort of favorite moments that you remember the other doing on a record?

TENCH: It’s too hard. Because you don’t listen like that. Right? You listen to a record and you dig the whole record.

NIEVE: When I hear Ben playing, I just think that I would like to know the drawbar settings that he has with the Hammond. It just sounds so perfect.

TENCH: We like each other’s drawbar settings. I stole mine from Al Kooper when we opened for him.

NIEVE: There’s a whole art to setting up the Hammond so that it just sounds great, and he knows what it is. I’m still learning.

TENCH: All of this stuff is very arcane. Very insular. The essential thing, the spirit of it, is that you’re playing really great songs with really great songwriters. I don’t know about you, but a lot of the time, the best I would be at coming up with what to play would be to just get my mind completely empty, almost get where I couldn’t physically see, and just sink into the song, instead of trying to arrange or do anything like that, and just let the song show what it wanted to happen. But I don’t know how you guys worked, or work.

NIEVE: I think that’s how I work a little bit, is just to try to get a feeling going from what we’re playing, rather than knowing what we’re supposed to play, and let that feeling tell you what you’re gonna do. Sometimes it’s different.

TENCH: It’s a Zen thing.

With Costello, Steve, sometimes you are just playing something really beautiful and sincere to a beautiful piece of music he’s written, but sometimes there is almost a level of wit and irony, too, like on an “Oliver’s Army,” where there is a fantastic grandiosity that is almost a counterpoint to the grit of the lyrics. Is that ever conscious, or are you just playing what feels right at the time?

NIEVE: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of variety in that. Sometimes you’re conscious of it, but sometimes the consciousness is what gets in the way of things. That’s when it goes wrong, a little bit, sometimes.

TENCH: The thing is, “Oliver’s Army,” it’s a joyous rock song about dark subject matter, so there’s that. But yeah, I think when you start thinking too much, sometimes, that’s the wrong thing…

It’s weird. Our bands are extraordinarily different. And our functions in the bands are extraordinarily different. We became friends through Vanessa Paradis, and it’s really great, and every time I’m in Paris, I try to get together with him and Muriel. And it’s actually no more than that. If we start to think about it or talk about it too much, we’ll probably never speak again. [Laughs.]