Montreal Fringe Fest: Elvis Is Water (Interview)

Scotty Boys Productions program and website

One of the more interesting shows at Montreal Fringe Fest, in my opinion, is Elvis Is Water. In an attempt to revisit Elvis Presley’s legendary Sun Studios Sessions, writer/director Katherine Sandford and her husband/lead vocalist John Burns assembled a show of live music which incorporates stories and talk about the Sun Sessions in between the songs.

So check out this amazing interview (I tip my hat to thee for taking the time to write such detailed and passionate answers), and come check out the show! Details as to when/where are right below the interview!

– Elvis has influenced everything from modern music to, most likely, my haircut. Do you find Elvis gets the credit he deserves?

 Musicians appreciate Elvis.  Anyone who really understands rock and roll gets it.But in a larger sense, the answer is no, and that’s really why we named the show “Elvis is Water”.  It comes from as joke that the great writer David Foster Wallace told at the beginning of the famous commencement address he gave at KenyonCollege.  There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

That’s the way it is with Elvis.  He’s influenced our culture so much we can’t even see it anymore.    Here’s a quote from the keynote address that Bruce Springsteen gave last year at SXSW conference in Austin, which we reference in our show. (I’ve put the bits we used in italics, you might not want to print all of this – or maybe you will).

“In the beginning, every musician has their genesis moment. For you, it might have been the Sex Pistols, or Madonna, or Public Enemy. It’s whatever initially inspires you to action. Mine was 1956, Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was the evening I realized a white man could make magic, that you did not have to be constrained by your upbringing, by the way you looked, or by the social context that oppressed you. You could call upon your own powers of imagination, and you could create a transformative self.

A certain type of transformative self, that perhaps at any other moment in American History, might have seemed difficult, if not impossible. And I always tell my kids that they were lucky to be born in the age of reproducible technology, otherwise they’d be traveling in the back of a wagon and I’d be wearing a jester’s hat. It’s all about timing. The advent of television and its dissemination of visual information changed the world in the fifties the way the internet has over the past twenty years.

Remember, it wasn’t just the way Elvis looked, it was the way he moved that made people crazy, pissed off, driven to screaming ecstasy, and profane revulsion. That was television. When they made an attempt to censor him from the waist down, it was because of what you could see happening in his pants.

Elvis was the first modern Twentieth Century man, the precursor of the Sexual Revolution, of the Civil Rights Revolution, drawn from the same Memphis as Martin Luther King, creating fundamental, outsider art that would be embraced by a mainstream popular culture.

Television and Elvis gave us full access to a new language, a new form of communication, a new way of being, a new way of looking, a new way of thinking; about sex, about race, about identity, about life; a new way of being an American, a human being; and a new way of hearing music. Once Elvis came across the airwaves, once he was heard and seen in action, you could not put the genie back in the bottle. After that moment, there was yesterday, and there was today, and there was a red hot, rockabilly forging of a new tomorrow, before your very eyes.”

Read more:

– People see two different Elvises. The young, swaggering Elvis as represented in your show, and the overweight, oft-parodied Elvis. Do you find that Elvis is often overshadowed by what he later on became?

Well, for a start there are waaay more than just two Elvis’ – people have costume parties were everyone comes as Elvis and all the costumes are different.  Here’s just a few – there’s Elvis in the Army getting his hair cut, the Hollywood Elvis making all those awful movies, there’s the 68 Comeback special Elvis rockin’ it in black leather, there’s Hawaiian Elvis (Lilo and Stich) there’s Karate Elvis (yikes), and there’s the Gospel Elvis – one of the most important IMHO.

Not only did Elvis win his only Grammy for a gospel record, and was a huge gospel fan all his life, he was also a spiritual seeker.  He had books on all kinds of religions and philosophies which he annotated heavily with his own ideas – they have them all at Graceland.

But I think the way he died did overshadow things for a long time.  It was a shock.  He was so humiliated – dying on the toilet like that, so ravaged by the drugs. And it was terrifying – because you couldn’t help but think – is that the way it goes?  Is that going to happen to me?  To us all?  And the short answer is yes, it is.  We are all going to die, and dying is hard.

But now enough time has passed that the shock has worn off a little and the other Elvis’ are shining through – and speaking to artists in new ways.  You may be aware of Free Comic Book Day “May the Fourth be with you.” Well, last year in celebration they Liquid Comics released a limited edition book called Graphic Elvis, (Elvis was a famous comic-book geek, and he said he modelled his look after Captain Marvel he was actually blonde).

Anyway, Graphic Elvis is AWESOME — all these top-notch comic book artists and their interpretations of Elvis, sooo cool.  There is one strip where the Hindu Gods are debate making Elvis the new love god because they credit him with the invention of the Bollywood genre.

But the kicker is “Elvis” written by the great Stan Lee, where we see the King at the pearly gates, being quizzed by St. Peter.  Here’s link to an animated version Wired mag did.

When Elvis died he had a book in his hands about the historical evidence of the life of Jesus Christ.  So maybe now he’s just a different kind of seeker.

– Another take on Elvis nowadays might be Elvis Is Product. From nostalgia acts, impersonators to t-shirts and posters, do you find the music often gets pushed to the side? Do people remember Elvis as an icon more than they do the songs?

Well, I personally have no problem with Elvis as product, because it’s not some faceless corporation, it’s Priscilla!!  Elvis was actually almost broke when he died, but she was the one who marketed him so successfully – she’s one smart cookie!  She’s actually famous in intellectual property law because she (and her lawyers, obviously) came up with the idea of copywriting a person’s image – Elvis’ was the first!

Also the estate of Elvis is actually very, very generous with fans.  They keep a tight rein on his recording s and his image, but they totally support all the imitators and interpreters.

Priscilla rocks, and she and Lisa Marie deserve every cent they get.

– The actual sound of the Sun Session recordings, from any artist, arguably plays as much of a role in these recordings as the songs themselves. Was this difficult to transpose to the stage?

To be honest we didn’t even try, because it’s impossible. The technicians at RCA went nuts trying to recreate that sound, and they never could. There’s a magic to that room.

But, like the entire show, we were aiming for an interpretation, not an imitation.  And I think the most important part of Elvis’ Sun work was the incredible sound they got from just three instruments (Scotty Moore’s electric guitar, Bill Black’s stand-up bass and Elvis’ rhythm guitar).   They didn’t even have a drum!  That and also the wide variety musical styles they played with.

– Elvis Is Water attempts to find an answer as to why Elvis is as fascinating now as he was 50 years ago. How close do you think you are to the answer?

There is no answer; there are only more questions, grasshopper.

– How did the idea of writing this show as a play come about?

John has an amazing voice, and he loves to sing Elvis.  But he doesn’t like to be unprepared.  He never liked doing ad-lib banter.  And he sure as heck didn’t want to be an Elvis impersonator, so I told him I’d write some stuff for him to say between songs – and then we fell into the rabbit hole together.

– The last, incredibly obvious question. Is Elvis responsible for the birth of rock n roll?

No.  According to Elvis himself it had been around for at least 5 years before he started.

Rock and Roll is lightning, and Elvis was the lightning rod.


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