Costello Sideman Steve Nieve: Now He Has a Trio of His Own

Steve Nieve didn’t choose his fake showbiz name–it was thrust upon him.

Born Stephen Nason, he dropped out of the Royal College of Music in 1977 after answering the ad “Keyboard player required for rocking pop combo.” The combo turned out to be Elvis Costello’s new band, the Attractions, who embarked on a barnstorming tour of England with fellow acts on the Stiff Records label.

At the time, Mr. Nason, the London suburbanite son of a bank manager and a bookseller, was 19, and his behavior on the road (about which he refuses to elaborate) led another performer, Ian Dury (of “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” fame), to dub him “Steve Naïve.” The name stuck, if not the spelling.

Through his many years of genre-bending melodicism with Mr. Costello–from staccato punk to Farfisa soul to their most recent incarnation as a kind of post-punk cabaret duo–Mr. Nieve has grown to embrace the somewhat silly moniker.

“When I was young, I didn’t really want to be naïve,” said Mr. Nieve, who will fly in from Paris to play the Knitting Factory on Wednesday, Aug. 18. “Now that I’m older, I would like to be naïve.”

He doesn’t have to try that hard, at least when it comes to today’s music scene. This summer, he and Mr. Costello played the touring Guinness Fleadh festival and Woodstock ’99–two party-hearty settings not all that conducive to a low-volume set performed by two over-40 musicologists. Asked about the rampant baring of breasts at Woodstock, Mr. Nieve drolly replied, “Of all the bands that played, we probably did the best on that front.”

So which acts sandwiched them at the festival-turned-riot? Mr. Nieve drew two blanks. “Well, we went before a woman, and I can see her face, but I can’t think of her name.… And I’m not sure who was directly before. The man was kind enough to lend Elvis an electric guitar …”

The woman and man, it turns out, were Jewel and Everlast. So Mr. Nieve is not up on pop culture; no matter. His own musical ambitions lie elsewhere, and are, well, ambitious.

His set at the Knitting Factory–with Brad Scott on double bass, Jon Handelsmann on bass clarinet and saxophone and singer Dean Bowman–will consist of three distinct works in progress: music inspired by ambient landscape sounds and linked to the opening of an exhibit of landscape paintings in the club by Mr. Nieve’s friend Alain Blondel, called “Only a Tree”; an opera co-written with the French screenwriter Muriel Teodori about a steelworker smitten with an opera singer; and a selection of what Mr. Nieve calls his “chance songs”–personal numbers he worked up by improvising to lyrics he’d written, with bare-bones titles like “Keyboard” and “Words.”

Does this mean Mr. Nieve, whose vocal stylings during years with Mr. Costello were mostly limited to yelling “Hey!” on the choruses of “Lipstick Vogue,” and more recently providing the backup for the live version of “Red Shoes,” is going to be stepping out as a lead vocalist?

“I don’t think I’m really a singer,” he said. “But these songs I can perform in a certain way that will work.”

Mr. Nieve has bounced back from a long unhappy spell that began when Mr. Costello abandoned the Attractions (who also included drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas) after the 1986 album Blood and Chocolate . “It was a shock,” Mr. Nieve said. “It also coincided with problems closer to home and resulted in a depression that eventually caused me to take a long hard look at myself and make some difficult changes.” (He has been separated from the mother of his two teenage children for about five years.)

In the interim, he served as band leader for Jonathan Ross, the David Letterman of England, with Pete Thomas on drums, backing everyone from Paul McCartney to James Brown. He released his second solo album, It’s Raining Somewhere (his first, Keyboard Jungle , came out in 1983), and did some session work with producer Clive Langer for the movie soundtrack to Absolute Beginners and with the bands Madness and Hothouse Flowers. More recently, he composed his first score, for the French film Bleu de Ville .

Mr. Nieve hadn’t seen Mr. Costello for years until Mr. Langer was producing a record for Sam Moore of Sam & Dave. Mr. Costello, who’d written a song for Mr. Moore, came in to rehearsal to discuss it. “We got chatting in the break over a tea, and I was invited to a session where Elvis was cutting tracks with Pete Thomas. That was how casually Brutal Youth began,” he said, referring to the 1994 album that reunited the Attractions.

Mr. Nieve formed his current trio in Paris, where he’s been living for four years, around another exhibition of Mr. Blondel’s paintings. “Solitude is Alain’s obsession,” he said. Each painting in “Only a Tree” portrays a “solitary melancholic tree alone in a landscape,” he said, but the cumulative effect is “a joyful community like a forest,” which Mr. Nieve finds “quite moving.”

“I think it’s a great idea to connect painting and music,” said Mr. Nieve, who first collaborated with his friend Mr. Blondel when he went to the artist’s atelier and recorded him at work. He later edited down the sounds of Mr. Blondel’s brushwork to 40 minutes, put it on a continuously looping CD that played in the room where the painting was hung for an installation called “The Noise of the Painting ( Bruit de la Peinture ).”

That went so well that Mr. Nieve decided to write songs loosely based around other field recordings. While touring for the past several years, he’s brought along a DAT machine and captured the natural sounds of cities and countrysides.

One of his favorites comes from a small town in Morocco called Taprayud. “It’s right in the middle of this mountain, so it’s kind of like in a crater,” said Mr. Nieve. “Round about 6 o’clock in the morning, the guy in the mosque began singing, and then the mosque in the next village began singing, and I managed to record this for about an hour, and I’ve edited that, and I’ve used that to improvise piano to. Some of the sounds are quite industrial–walking around Dublin when they’re just closing all the bars. They just spark off things and take us into different worlds, so it’s great beginnings for an improvisation.”

The way it works in concert is, Mr. Nieve compiles 40 or 50 sound bites on a CD, then has them play at random. “We never know what’s gonna happen,” he said. “So something could come in quite unexpected and inappropriate. And that’s quite good.”

Despite the random-sounding approach, he stressed, the songs are “quite melodic, and quite constructed. It’s not freeform jazz, it is a composition.”

Mr. Bowman will be singing the male arias from Mr. Nieve’s operatic collaboration with Ms. Teodori, another Paris friend, tentatively titled The Parasite . In the story, a steelworker becomes so obsessed with an opera singer that he quits his job to sleep outside the opera house, trying to meet her. In one scene, he falls asleep outside the opera house and three ghosts from past operas appear, counseling that he’s so much like a character from an opera, he ought to kill himself.

If the opera is produced for stage or an album, Mr. Nieve envisions the women’s parts being played by trained opera singers, but for the men he’s talked to Tom Waits about playing the director of the opera, Robert Wyatt as the chief of police and Mr. Costello as the steelworker.

“The Parasite” ends with a duet between the opera singer and the steelworker. She sings, “It’s very unlikely that a woman like me could be in love with a man like you,” while he counters that it’s the unlikely things in life that are beautiful.

The same could be said for a punk keyboard player who has ended up making jazz and opera and who turns mosque wailings and brushstrokes into songs. Naïveté, it turns out, can get you very far.