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Brad Elvis - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 15 / 5 / 2016

Brad Elvis - Interview


Former Elvis Brothers member and present member of both the Romantics and the Handcuffs Brad Elvis speaks to Lisa Torem about songwriting and his long musical career

Brad Elvis is a Midwest treasure that has deservedly garnered international acclaim. His flair for originality was already noted in the Screams, a band in which his contributions included mini rock operas, but his reputation as an all-around entertainer grew exponentially in the Elvis Brothers - the group that Brad, Rob and Graham started as “a lark” and in which they all elected to share the same last name. It was also the band in which Brad leapt dramatically towards his fans from his kit throne and in which he tossed and caught sticks into the air, whilst never missing a beat, much like his percussive hero, who he will disclose in this Pennyblackmusic interview below. The Elvis Brothers band name still conjures up smiles from Chicago locals who appreciated their original rockabilly ballads and clever covers. But the beat goes on. Twelve years ago Blondie drummer, Clem Burke, recommended Brad as drummer for the Romantics. Brad certainly had big shoes to fill - the band had already shot up the charts with the likes of ‘What I Like About You’, original and returning drummer, Jimmy Marinos, had already established a great groove too, and once Brad came on board he had lots of new material to master, but he aced the gig in record time, and, as he will attest, he’s outlasted the legendary line-up. But Brad’s latest band, the Handcuffs, is not a band to be taken lightly, either. Their original songs, primarily written by Brad, and sometimes co-written by the drummer/writer and his wife/lead vocalist Chloe F. Orwell, are packed with passion, irony and thematic depth. I had asked drummer/songwriter extraordinaire Brad Elvis to call me at 1:20 pm and that’s precisely when he did. PB: Are you always this punctual? BE: Well, you know, having good timing is a good thing to have. PB: Who are a few of your favourite drummers and why? BE: Drummers have inspired me, but also guitar players and comedians. At four years I’d been holding court at Christmases and family Thanksgivings. I’d be doing something silly. I’d always been that way. It worked out perfectly with me wanting to be a drummer and wanting to be in show business. The first drummer that really stood out for me was the drummer from the Who, Keith Moon. It was in the ‘60s and I was young and I bought their single, as a kid, ‘I Can See For Miles’. I wanted to play the drums and I never really had to work at it. I could always keep the beat and I knew what I was doing. I just had it in me. That was good. But even at ten or eleven, I thought, I should just pick a drummer and learn from that, follow that and at the time there was the Beatles, the Monkees and Herman’s Hermits, Paul Revere and The Raiders, and later I found out the drummer was Hal Blaine. Many years later, I realized that Hal Blaine was one of my favourite drummers. He was fantastic, so actually I like a lot of his stuff. I learned a lot of his awesome drum fills. He wasn’t just a drummer who kept the beat; he really did creative drum fills, which were musical. Then I looked around at my ‘Sixteen’ magazines and whatever was around at the time — we didn’t have 'Rolling Stone', and ‘Sixteen’ was a really hip magazine. For months, I was trying to figure out the drummer’s name from the Who. There wasn’t really much information on him back then. Nobody really knew what a Keith Moon was yet, so he became the one I started following and little did I know that I followed the craziest drummer in rock ‘n’ roll. I didn’t realize what I was getting into, but it really did fit my personality. I was always energetic and nutty and funny and entertaining, so it worked out and there were a million other drummers after that: Ginger Baker, John Bonham. But I was a huge Who fan. Fairly young, when I was playing drums and emulating Keith Moon, I was twirling sticks, bouncing my drumsticks and catching them. I started balancing sticks on my hands whilst I was playing, but I loved the Who so much and thought, "What if I swung my arm like Pete Townshend when I’m playing?" So that’s one of my things. In the Elvis Brothers, I stood up and played on my three-piece kit. So that gave me an opportunity to do these big leaps and crazy stuff, so I had a combination of Keith Moon and Pete Townshend with Jack Benny dialogue. My parents had a good sense of humour and we watched a lot of comedy. We watched Jack Benny and Jonathan Winters, comedians that were sort of edgy, more twisted than the vanilla comedians. PB: You live here now, but are you originally from the Chicago area? BE: I grew up in a small town, Pekin, Illinois, like Peking, China, without the g. I had my own bands in Pekin and Peoria and it just got to the point where, there’s nothing going on here, we just have to get the heck out of here and I pulled out the map and did a little research and Champaign, Illinois was a good music town. There was a lot of stuff that came out of there and things were going on. It was only a couple of hours away from Pekin and Peoria and we were young still. We had two different bands there and two different record deals and then we moved to Chicago in 1990. So, that’s my Illinois upbringing in two minutes. PB: Back in the Screams, you had written ‘Angeline’s Toys’. It had this klller drum intro. and lots of interplay between guitar and drums. It was great rock opera material and I believe it foreshadowed your later composer chops. BE: It’s interesting, your take, but I think it was pretty much of the era and I do the same sort of stuff nowadays, but I think music has gotten much simpler, starting with the disco era — a straight beat, a simple groove, repeating choruses and it just evolved into much simpler things, that were repetitive —okay, I get it, beat you over the head, as opposed to a bit more musical with intertwining bits: bass and guitar, keyboards and vocals. So that’s my explanation of that. PB: Moving forward to the ‘80’s and the Elvis Brothers. What songs from ‘Moving Up’ and ‘Adventure Time’ got the crowds most worked up? BE: From our first gig, we just threw the band together for a lark, to make a couple of bucks maybe, whilst we were doing our own separate musical things. We were all songwriters and we’d all been from different bands with record deals and things and we thought we’d throw this rock ‘n’ roll thing together. In the beginning, if we thought we were going to pursue a record deal, we would have never named the band tThe Elvis Brothers. PB: What would you have named it? BE: The Death Chamber. (He pauses. I laugh). I have no idea. It was such a fun, goofy thing. We laughed about the name, the Elvis Brothers, because when it came up the night before our first gig, we didn’t really have a name. I was looking at our set list which had all of these rockabilly songs and I said, ‘Wow, this is so cool.” We all grew up imitating the Beatles and Beatles vocals. We were just a three-piece and Rob and Graham sang like the Everly Brothers or John and Paul and I said, "It’s kind of cool. We’re more like The Everly Brothers’ and Rob goes, ‘The Everly Brothers?" He looked at the set list which had about a dozen early Elvis songs and two Everly Brothers’ songs and said, "Everly Brothers? More like Elvis Brothers." We thought that was hilarious and so light and goofy. So it just all came about and the last name just stuck, people falling in with the fun of it all. Boom, just like that. We had the character and personality and musicianship and all of that stuff. We started to throw in originals that matched what we were doing and there were a bunch of popular songs. I could name all of mine. PB: Sure. Let’s hear some of your favourites. BE: ‘Hey Tina’ always went over really well. ‘Count To Three’ was off our second album. Like I said, we were doing these rockabilly songs and no one was doing that in 1981. I collect vinyl. One of my friends said, "I’ve got this album from this band over in England, the Stray Cats", and it was their first album, but it was released over there. They didn’t have an album over here in the States for at least two years and when they did it was a combination of two albums they released in England, but their first album (released in England) was a really cool album, which had a really cool sound and the song, ‘Runaway Boys’. That influenced us and we thought it would be fun. But at the time, we hadn’t heard of anybody else doing it. It fit in with what was soon to happen in the ‘80s with MTV and it really worked out at that point. PB: When I think of rockabilly, I think of that slap bass sound, which seems to have its own rhythm. How does that work for you as drummer? Is that tricky? BE: No. We started in 1981 and we were signed by late 1982. That’s how quickly it took off for us, for not even trying to do anything. And we had some originals we’d thrown in there. Even by the time of our first album, ‘Movin’ Up’, we really didn’t see the rockabilly things taking off. The Stray Cats had done it and were already starting to wane a little bit and by late 1982, we were like "Eh". So ‘Now Dig This’ was kind of rock pile, roots, American pop sounding stuff and we started slowly falling back into writing rock/pop songs, that we’d always written, between the three of us at different times, and so, by the time ‘Now Dig This’ came around in the 1990s, there wasn’t really much of a hint of rockabilly on that whatsoever. But there were a couple of rootsy tunes that Rob wrote, which could fall into the rock pile genre, psychedelic songs and regular rock beats, so that’s where that came about, and going to the rockabilly drummer thing, I’ve always been kind of a busy, Keith Moon kind of drummer in a good way. Some people do that and it’s just crazy, busy, but I’ve just learned after years of doing that how to weave in and out; not stepping on lead vocals and solos and things, so it was different, just laying the beat straight down for a rockabilly thing. Also, the era that I grew up in - everybody had to know how to play a shuffle and play a swing feel, going back to the Beatles — “Oooh, I need your love, babe…” ‘Eight Days a Week’ had such a swing beat. Now these drummers are doot dat doot dat. No, there’s a swing, pull back thing, and that’s what everybody did. PB: Yeah, those transitions are so effective when they’re done right. BE: My friend, Bunny Carlos (drummer: Cheap Trick)—if you listen to Cheap Trick, it has that swing thing at the same time. Even straight-ahead songs like ‘Surrender’ has a different feel to it and then ‘I Want You to Want Me’ has the shuffle swing feel. That fit in perfectly for rockabilly, because that’s how that stuff was. That was another drumming and learning experience, so I could pretty much play any style. PB: So when the Romantics play their hometown of Detroit, do the fans go crazy? BE: Yeah, one would hope we’d do that. I’ve been with them a little over twelve years. I think I’ve been with them longer than any drummer they’ve ever had, including their original drummer. I’m an Illinois guy and I’ve lived in Chicago for quite some time. It’s still kind of their baby. I still feel like Ronnie Wood in the Rolling Stones. It’s been like forty years and he’s still the new guy, so it’s interesting to be a part of that. Their following in Detroit? It’s always weird. It seems like in my lengthy career and experiences, history, whenever you play your hometown, it’s always sometimes less (Laughs) for some weird reason than it is in other places. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because people know you so well. They’ve seen you a million times at that point. I’ve seen that in a number of bands. Sometimes you play and it’s, “What the hell was that all about? Oh, yeah, The Romantics are playing again.” PB: You were highly recommended. BE: Clem Burke was the one who suggested that I play with the Romantics. He said, "You should play for them. You’d be perfect," with that New Jersey accent. I said, "Call them and let them know I’m available at the moment." So I had to learn the songs the way they are, but some of those drum parts are weird. It’s like they are backwards from the way I would normally do them, like the fills start off and end differently than the way I would or the beats would be backwards. They played some weird stuff. Then I got in the band and it wasn’t until about six months later when I said that about the tom and they said, Jimmy (Marinos, original drummer) was left-handed and I said, "What?" But he was left-handed and played a right-handed kit so he would start with a different hand. I thought, ahh, that makes sense. As I was earning my stripes in the band, I pretty much stayed with it, played it pretty much how it was, but I have such a distinct style — I can say that now — and now I’ll say, "I know this part goes like this" and they’ll say, "No, no, do more of that stuff. We love that. Just do what you do." I stay to the basic original style that Jimmy had, but I’ve taken it over, I guess, at this point, at least live, because if they want to hear the original, they can listen to the album. PB: Are the Romantics going back in the studio? BE: We’ve been in the studio in and out, quick things over the past twelve years. There’s got to be a pile of stuff lying around. We’re finally starting to pull some of that out and play with it. We’ll see. PB: So let’s circle back to the present. The Handcuffs are a highly charged band with great originals. Looking back at ‘Model for a Revolution’, “make your head spin like a possessed girl/Practicing Zen on a tilt-a-whirl”—lyrics like that are really fun. PB: How has the band come up with such offbeat themes? BE: I guess, in a nutshell. I’m great. No, I’m just teasing. I do write the majority of songs. I’m quite prolific. But Chloe, my wife, does throw her bits in and she’ll work some of the lyrics and I think some of them, like the lines you just quoted from ‘Car Crash’, I think might be Chloe’s. I’ve always liked stuff that’s kind of on the outside, not like Captain Beefheart or Frank Zappa, I was never really into them that much. I’m always on the outside of mainstream, a little bit. All the bands I really like were never the big sellers. I was listening to Bowie early on, playing Bowie hits when everybody wanted to hear Foghat. "What the hell is this?" We just liked good music that was creative and had a sense of quirk. Even when we were doing cover songs in my early days, we’d always pick the weirdest songs. You’ve got to play Top Forty songs if you want to get club dates. You want me to do that? People can turn on the radio and hear that shit all the time. We wanted to play cool music and learn stuff from the songs. I loved early Sparks. They had super clever lyrics. They used to write about a guy who would crash into women’s’ cars so he could meet them. They had a song about a suicide pact, ‘Up Here in Heaven’. He ends up in Heaven and says, "Where you at?"’ She changed her mind. So I like double meanings… PB: I enjoyed the contrasts in ‘Sex and Violins’ from your debut (‘Model for a Revolution’)—“String quartets and discipline, featherbeds and Beethoven”—it sounds like it could have come off ‘The White Album’ or ‘Abbey Road’. BE: I was going to mention that earlier, but I’m a drummer and I didn’t want to get off the track, but that is how Chloe and I got together — she had answered an ad. I had written, “Must be into the Beatles, ‘White Album’, Sparks and Cheap Trick." If someone responds to that, they get where I’m coming from. So she called and we ended up talking for about an hour and especially bonding over ‘The White Album’. It’s my favourite Beatles album and hers as well. There are no obvious singles off that album. It’s just good songs. So it’s interesting that you said that about ‘Sex and Violins’. I hadn’t looked at it that way. That one, I thought, was more like Sparks, ‘Sex and Violence,’ but I twisted it to make it a nice thing. PB: Looking back at second album, ‘Electroluv’. You’ve got some Bowie references here- “Jean Genie, I’m on my way” on ‘I Just Wanna Be Free, Man’. BE: Remember the Electric Prunes? “Had too much to dream last night”? The Romantics did some Little Steven shows and a lot of people that came out are into 1960's garage band stuff. I ended up meeting James Lowe of the Electric Prunes. And then we played another gig at The Viper Room in L.A. and a festival in New York and they were on the bill. We ran into each other in the hotel hallway and James said, "Hey, you’re that drummer that balances drum sticks.” So we bonded and became friends and then we put out ‘Model for a Revolution’. He called me a week or two later and said, “I like this album. It’s great. It reminded me of an album I produced one time.” I said, “Who’s that?” He said, “A band called Sparks.” I said, “Sparks? What album?” He said, “The first two.” On the album, his name was Thaddeus and I just knew him as Lowe and didn’t put two and two together. He said he also did some Rascals stuff and produced Todd Rundgren. But I was talking to his wife on the phone one day. They’ve been successful with investments and things. But they still have this L.A./San Francisco/Sixties hippie vibe about them. So I was talking to her and she says, “Man, I don’t drive a car, man, I don’t need that. I just want to be free, man.” So I wrote that down. So he and Harvey, the original Sparks drummer, have a knack for doing things just on a whim. Twenty, thirty years ago he went to the Dominican Republic to do some surfing and said, "I’m going to buy some of this beachfront property." So he bought it for dirt cheap back in the day. Now it’s like a jillion dollars. So there’s a line in ‘I Just Wanna Be Free, Man’ about the Dominican Republic. PB: In ‘Waiting for the Robot’, ‘I’m So Happy That You’re Out of My Life’ and ‘Kiss This Goodbye’, the Handcuffs convey tons of attitude. It’s a fun, rebellious vibe. BE: I also try to write songs that people can relate to in a twisted sort of way -there’s a message. Who couldn’t relate to, ‘I’m So Happy That You’re Out of My Life’? At any point in your life, there’s got to be at least one time that you’re happy someone’s out of your frickin’ life, you know? PB: “We’re gonna dance in a champagne sparkle sky” is from ‘Dirty Glitter’. BE: I’d just gotten a champagne sparkle drum set. That’s where that line comes from. Now I have a blue sparkle, I think I had a silver one in between. PB: So when you and Chloe write, do you actually sit down and write? BE: I always come up with ideas and write down lines, but sometimes I hear music in my head. I hear songs and sometimes they come together so much or they start bugging me so much and I’ve got to do something with this and then I just kind of put it together and sit down. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of notebooks and tapes that never worked out and then when the time comes to make a new record, I pick out which ones I think would work and I present them to Chloe and she says, "I like this line and I have an idea for this." I really like her songs a lot. She’s a really good songwriter —she doesn’t write as often as I do, but when she does…I really like ‘Turn It Up’ and there are so many other good songs that she has. PB: So what’s it like being the only guy in the band with four women? BE: It sucks. No, it’s great. It’s like being in any other kind of a band. My big thing is, (and that’s what I first said to Chloe on the phone), she said, "Hey, your ad doesn’t specify male or female” and I said, “It doesn’t matter as long as you’re good at what you do and it fits with what I’m thinking about.” Same way with all of the gals in our band and they all happen to be good looking gals. They happen to be really talented and we all get along great and that’s kind of basically all you would want. So, yeah, we all play and it’s funny because we’ve actually had people say to us after the show, “You guys came on and I didn’t even realize until the second song that it’s all women up there and a guy drummer. I was so consumed with the music and the overall image. Woah. That’s a girl guitarist. And keyboard player.” PB: So it’s not a novelty. BE: Exactly. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but sometimes you go see a band and if it’s all women and they all have to wear micro-mini skirts or bikinis onstage to get noticed and writhe around on the stage and spit beer. It works for some people, but like I said, we don’t really need that. PB: Mike Hagler has produced all of your albums. BE: Three and many others that have been laying around. We had a band, Big Hello, and that’s where I first met Chloe. We released three albums and that was with completely different people and different producers and we ran into Mike, which was kind of a cool thing. You can get someone to record you and it sounds fine, but when you have a person who is almost like a member, a George Martin type, it makes it so much easier when you’re trying to explain stuff. It’s funny. He’s got this third brain. He’s sitting there working and being all consumed and maybe wearing headphones and Chloe and I will be in the control room and, “It would be cool if we had those sounds” or if we could just edit that part and we’ll be talking about it and a couple of minutes later, we’ll say, "Mike, Mike," and he’ll say, ‘Hang on, check this out.” He’ll know exactly what we’re talking about. We’ve started the fourth album, but we fund everything ourselves, Chloe and I. Timing, money, it’s very costly to go in the studio. PB: Musicians these days have a lot of their plates. What do you do besides performing? BE: We put our albums out ourselves on OOFL, which stands for 'Our Own Fucking Label'. We do everything that any other independent label would do. We get our own artwork and graphics together. We hire our own publicist, so it’s kind of like having our own label. PB: You admired Keith Moon. What about a drummer that wants to be Brad Elvis? BE: They could never be me. It depends where you want to take it. With young bands, nowadays, I wonder, what is their goal? Because when I was younger, until all the way to the late ‘90s or maybe 2000, the things was, I want to play drums, I want to be in a band, I want to play gigs, we’re going to get a record deal, we’re going to tour—that’s your goal, that’s your dream. Everybody said, you’ve got to get a record deal if you’re going to do any of that stuff. Now there’s not really any record deals. So I wonder about the bands - maybe dad will pay for it. I don’t know. I’m not going to pay for it. I guess I’ll do a Fund Me thing. Chloe and I refuse to do that. Give us money to do our thing. Hey, you got yourself into this mess. Figure out a way to do it. Don’t be lazy about it. I write down every gig I’ve ever had and I’m at about 4155 gigs or something and I wish I had retired at about 2000. So I’ve been doing this a long time, seen everything and done everything. So obviously there’s a passion, my heart was into it, no matter what, but I’m still reaching for that brass ring. I’ve had drummers write me: how do you get a gig like the Romantics? You’ve got to let people know you’re available and get it out there. No one’s going to come to your door and say, "Yeah, I’m looking for a drummer and I just happen to be in your area." They want everything to fall in their lap. PB: Thank you.

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