What says XMAS more than the punkified carols of El Vez, the Mexican Elvis? Find out what to expect from his holiday tour (on NOW)
Although musician/ performance artist Robert Lopez got his start playing in noted LA punk bands The Zeros and Catholic Discipline, it wasn’t long before he started performing as a character that would bring him notoriety for much of the rest of his life – El Vez, The Mexican Elvis. One part parody, one part tribute, and one part commentary about the Mexican-American experience; Lopez has brought levity, as well as darker insights, over the course of more than a dozen albums studded with unconventional Elvis covers like “En El Barrio” (“In The Ghetto”) and “Immigration Time” (“Suspicious Minds”) that are as likely to borrow licks from The King, as they are Public Image Limited, Iggy Pop, Kim Wilde, or The Jam.
In what is nearly a holiday tradition, December finds Lopez again kicking off El Vez’s Mex-Mas tour where he, his band, and his lovely backup singers The Elvettes channel the magic of Christmas through mashed-up and punked-up versions of classic Christmas carols including “I’m Dreaming of a Brown Christmas,” “Now I Wanna Be Santa Claus” and, of course, “Feliz Navidad.” In a show that is at once deeply traditional, and deeply twisted, it’s loaded with choreography, comedy, crazy costume changes, and giant inflatable Santas making for a holiday tradition even the scroogiest of Scrooges can appreciate. (check out our tour dates here to see when he’s in your town!)
We spoke to Lopez from his bed in fabulous Seattle to hear all about the upcoming tour, and what 2013 has in store.
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Rocker: I remember seeing you in 2008 on your El Vez for Prez show, which was fantastic, but I didn’t know if you had run for Prez this year?
El Vez: I did. We did some dates in Chicago, Indiana, Lafayette, San Diego, LA, Seattle,.. It was a small campaign. I didn’t have a Super PAC behind me this year.
Rocker: I heard that you didn’t win?
El Vez: I did not win, so I’ll be Santa Claus instead. Not everyone loves the President but everyone loves a Santa Claus!
The Prez show is pretty in your face with political ideas in the presentation, but I think the Christmas show is a more of a velvet glove. I’m not as hard on that one. I always end it kind of sad, but then on the encore I rock it up again. It is more fun.
Rocker: You’ve spent a lot of time recording and performing Christmas songs as part of your career…
El Vez: The first Christmas album is the most heartfelt because the song “Oranges for Christmas” is a real nice bittersweet song about how Christmas is more for kids, and as you get older it’s not as great.
I’m working with this Canadian artist on a film called ‘Christmas Rock’. He’s been following all the music from Christmas from Willie Nelson to James Brown. It’s a great endeavor that he’s doing. Every year he adds more to it. I’ve been doing interviews with him, and I was saying that Christmas is pretty sad because it’s mostly for children, and as you become an adult it turns into a thing of trying to recapture the nostalgia, or the traditions you do, to rekindle what it was like when you were a kid. But Christmas is not as much fun for adults because it’s got the pressure of gifts, time, and seeing the in-laws… it turns into a whole different thing. Christmas as an adult is just trying to recapture that magic you had as a child. But you grow up and there’s war, and the economy, and all the homeless at Christmastime,… It’s actually a pretty sad time with the winter and the weather and all that.
Anyway, in the film, I say that Christmas can be a terrible time for a lot of people, but this magic that we are trying to recapture from our youth – which is a wonderful time when you look through Christmas through the eyes of a child – that you don’t really get it back. But you can spin it by saying “Well, I’m going to decorate my house and do all this, to try to recapture that lost youth and try to have as much fun as I can.”
Rocker: I was thinking today, that Christmas is a high suicide time and yet it is a really interesting mixed bag of a day. Everything is so invested in getting to this big day.
El Vez: The big rush to a point that can’t really be fulfilled, or rather, it should be. Why we wouldn’t want to keep that idea all the time? To me, the important part is the nostalgic bit of trying to get back to the wonder that you saw through your Christmas eyes as a child.
Rocker: I feel your show does a great job of that.
El Vez: I’m trying to keep it happy, but so many times I’ve downed it at the end.
I remember doing a Christmas show on a date which was also the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. I was in Philadelphia and we’re doing “I’m Dreaming of a Brown Christmas,” and we had this big slide projector with CNN footage of the war going on. On the recording, which is one of the last songs of the “Sno Way José” album, the live recording, you can hear the audience all happy at the beginning of the song, and then although you don’t see it, you can hear them go “Gasp!” and people start chanting “USA!” because they took affront that I was bringing up the war and what was happening overseas at this holy time. Then I started singing John Lennon’s line, “And so this is Christmas…” and they understood it. Things switched on them. “War is over if you want it..” is the greatest Christmas song. So, it was such a good, interesting thing to hear the audience gasp, being affronted by war which was happening at Christmas time – which it was, then finally getting it. I always like to switch it up and make people think at Christmas, if I can.
Rocker: You’re really like a Christmas activist.
El Vez: Yeah – for all the things that Christmas should mean!
Rocker: What do you hope people to take away from your collection of work around Christmas? The show, the music,… When people come out of the mex-mas shows, do you have a hope of what they’re taking away from it?
El Vez: Merchandise? (laughs)
It is a slightly subversive idea, but next time they hear that Elvis songs I like the idea of them hearing my words in it. Or, next time they hear that regular Christmas song, my words will be in it. So next time they hear “Run, Run, Rudolph” by Chuck Berry, they’ll think of my “Run Immigration Time” which I superimposed on top of it. Or even just have the idea of immigrant reindeer running across the border. They’ll think of immigration rights. It’s subversive, so when they hear the originals, now they’ll have my mustache on them. It’s subversive, but it’s actually a hopeful thing I’m trying to do.
Rocker: You know at Christmas time, people always send you cards full of pictures of them and their children. Two years ago, a friend of mine had a photo taken with you at the Christmas show and I’ve got all these cards of all these people with their kids and one with her and you. It was her official Christmas photo going out.
El Vez: We’ll be doing that again this year. In my own house, I have an actual Santa throne from 1972 from the Nordstrom’s in Seattle. One of my most cherished possessions. It’s the funniest Santa throne you’ve ever saw. It’s all plaid. If I could bring that on the road with us, that would be great.
Rocker: I was thinking about your backup singers the Elvettes. I would think every man would like to be with them, and every woman wants to be an Elvette. What does it take to be an Elvette?
El Vez: Talent and onstage personality, and it sure doesn’t hurt if you’re beautiful. They have to have singing ability. Way back we weren’t as critical; you’d have four Elvettes so you could get away with more. But now, being a great singer and having stage personality. Charisma. And you fit into the outfit! One nice thing about this tour, one of our new Elvettes is a daughter of an Elvette. Now it’s gone generational!. It’s her first time out with us and she’ll be doing this Christmas tour. It makes me laugh, the thought of that. It’s a real family affair!
Rocker: When did you start being El Vez?
El Vez: The first show I did as El Vez was in 1988. This coming summer is the 25th anniversary. When I first did the shows, I did them to tape. I didn’t have a band yet, so it was all done with Karaoke tapes that were bought at Graceland, and I just sang my words louder than their words. It was very guerilla theater at the very start. Very humble beginnings.
Rocker: Has the El Vez character evolved for you over the years?
El Vez: Oh, very much so. When I started out, it was very fluff. I didn’t have an agenda yet. So songs like Blue Suede Shoes was “Huaraches Azules,” and I did songs like “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Chihuahua” – so they were really fluff. But then when I did “En el Barrio” it was the first time I said, “OK, here’s my agenda and point of view” So that lead to the whole El Vez idea, doing the Chicano point of view. I was just translating to Spanish at the beginning, but the point of view was the idea was where I was going to go.
Rocker: Were you concerned about how it might affect your audience as you started to get an agenda?
El Vez: No, because I knew I could still make it fun. It was soapboxing and it was putting the medicine in the ice cream. But I knew even though I was addressing a situation, I could still sing about Cesar Chavez and deliver it in hot pants, and be sincere about it as I’m dancing my ass off or doing a strip tease at the same time,.
Rocker: In what ways have you been inspired to grow your show it as time goes on?
El Vez: Whatever inspiration happens to me. It could be a costume. It could be a political situation that’s happening now. It can come from any place. It’s trickier these days, I live in Seattle and my band lives in Los Angeles. So I just get to meet up with them right before we start and then, sometimes I have to come with my sketchbook and show them the ideas I have.
Rocker: I’ve been thinking about your career as El Vez. Would you call your work satire, parody tribute or all of these things? None of them?
El Vez: All of them. It is satire, but it is homage but it’s very yin and yang at the same time. It is all of that. Satire, homage, critique, pointing out failures and the good stuff. Showing that things that can all exist at the same time, you know. It’s very both sides of the coin.
Rocker: Have you ever encountered problems with other artists whose work you have musically alluded to or covered in your own?
El Vez: No, I haven’t. Everyone seems happy with it so far. Everything I steal from is from artists that I love and respect, so I’m honoring and satirizing at the same time. Most of them all know. Bowie knows I use images; I’ve opened for Bowie in Denmark so they know the stuff I’m doing. It’s an honor to me that they approve of it and let me get away with it.
El Vez: Yes. But the nice thing is, I’ve had young kids who go back to the source because they didn’t know Bowie references and go back and say, “Oh, that’s a great album!”. So that’s one of the great things for me, if I can turn someone on to the original source, that’s great for me.
Rocker: The same could be said about Elvis himself. I was realizing if kids were at your show today, might not have even be born before Elvis passed away.
El Vez: I just did a lecture at a black college in South Chicago, in a theater class. One of the professors there has done at least three theses on El Vez, and is now a theater teacher there. She had this whole class; they’re all 20 years old, and they were really great and attentive and had tons of questions. I did a performance and talked about race in culture, performance art and all this stuff. But it’s interesting because, Elvis is the groundwork of the thing, but to a whole new generation he doesn’t mean anything, and I think that’s great. Being a musician, I know I like the idea of having a “tabula rasa”, a clean plate, and the idea that we don’t have to keep going back to our blues or punk rock references or whatever, but we always go back to those roots.
Rocker: Did it blow your mind that you are now speaking to a college class about – El Vez?
El Vez: Not really, because I’ve done college classes at The Washington University here, lecture halls, slideshow projection, and PowerPoint presentation at the Experience Music Project which is a big music museum here. I’ve gotten very eggheady with it, but it’s always funny to hear professors be eggheady on me. I go, “Oh, that could be. That’s not what I thought I meant but, ok.”
The whole idea of misinterpretation to me is great, especially the idea of interpreting Elvis to Spanish. For things to be lost in the translation, to me is part of the romance of it: El Vez is a Mexican man’s interpretation of an American mythology of Elvis. Everything gets translated, or lost in translation. So, someone can misinterpret my motives and content, and to me is part of the art. You’re meant to get it wrong or you’ll never fully understand my intentions. Because neither do I.
Rocker: So if I were to ask you what you’re intentions where you couldn’t even tell me.
El Vez: Yeah, because sometimes it’s just something from the soul, or something I just do because it was a song my father sang when I was a kid. So, it has no theoretical-political agenda, but oh, my father sang it around the house and it got in me. Sometimes it’s personal and artistic license. I take a lot of artistic license, but I don’t always buy the license.
Rocker: This may seem off topic, but I’ve seen that you do weddings as El Vez. I’m wondering, what is it about weddings and Elvis impersonators that make people say, “I want an Elvis impersonator to marry me”?
El Vez: I do not know. I never thought of it that way. I like it because, to me, a preacher, and a rock star, and a politician, can be kind of the same thing. That charisma that you have to have to get people caring enough about the Lord, or the situation as in a politician, or that a rock star has to have enough charisma so that you’re interested in watching him on stage singing and doing his own thing. So those lines of politics, religion and rock and roll have always crossed. Elvis loved gospel stuff, so to me that parlayed into religion, and what a preacher does, which is weddings.
Whenever I do weddings I have a white suit, custom made exactly like the ‘68 Comeback Special white suit Elvis wears, so I have an exact replica. I have two actually, one is a wrinkly one, and one is a one piece. But I’ve never done a wedding in the jumpsuit, I always do it in my preacher man Elvis outfit.
Rocker: I didn’t realize you still tour occasionally with your first band, The Zeros.
El Vez: Yes, we just did Spain. I don’t always work with them, but when it’s something out of the country I say I’m available. I like a trip to Europe! That was a part of it.
I’m also playing with my friend Alice Bag . She just wrote a book and she was doing book tours and musical bits, so I did a few shows with her. They worked out really well and we got Long Gone John, who’s our Sympathy for the Record Industry guy, to see the shows and he offered us a contact, so we’re in the studio doing our project which is us on guitars. We’re going to do that at SXSW this coming springtime.
Rocker: That sounds so cool to see.
El Vez: We’ve done a few of them already and they were really fun to do. We’ve already been in the studio right around Dia De Los Muertos, and recorded the basic tracks. But, she lives in Tucson and we both work so much that we plan way ahead when we’ll both be in a city at the same time. That’s how we do our work. “Ok, we have two days here let’s do this”.
Rocker: I feel like a lot of musicians have this thing where they have all their band members scattered. It seems more and more common as time goes on.
El Vez: It’s an interesting way to work, but I think if you’re a pure artist you like to do as many different styles as you can, and you don’t want to just be stuck in one role. I try to keep active and do as many different things as people allow me to do.
Rocker: Tell me about your book. Are you going to write it on your own?
El Vez: I’m going to write it on my own. It’s just going to be the punk rock years. It won’t get into El Vez, but it will have some of the seeds of what drove El Vez in it because so much of my punk rock childhood and teenage years affected what I did later. It’ll stay on that period in my life.
Another new project I’m working on is, there’s a singer named Raphael and he’s almost like the Elvis of Spain. He’s very dramatic, but more ballad-y, more like the Barbra Streisand in style and really dramatic in his facial expressions. He has been around since the 50s and everyone’s grandmother loves Raphael. But, I am working on a project for the Spanish market of “Rapha-el Vez”.
The Zeros had done a tour this past summer in Spain, and one of the bands that opened for us had this great, funny, 60’s amp. One of the guys was saying, “Oh, this is the amp of Raphael’s lead guitar player.” To me, that was amazing, to look at that amp. If that amp could talk, what would it say? Just made me start scribble and I wrote “Raphael Vez.” It’ll only work in Spain, the whole idea is going from a Franco period to the poor time they’re having now. It’s going to be musical and all his Spanish hits. He did Elvis songs too. He covered a lot of songs Elvis had recorded. So I’m trying to make this a musical theater idea, and I’m only doing this for Spain because it addresses something they know and love and is dear to their hearts. I get it, and I think they will get me doing it.
Rocker: I’d think it’d be challenging because you’re not from Spain to get in deep with someone else’s pop-cultural heritage. Like, Elvis is part of America’s cultural heritage. But to tackle someone else’s cultural heritage…
El Vez: Spain is the mother of Mexico. So, I’ve been to Spain so many times. I used to import Mexican folk art from all over Mexico and ship it to stores in New York, San Francisco and LA. I knew my arts and crafts of Mexico, but in my years of exploring Spain more,… Even basic stuff like in Oaxaca there’s a black clay pottery that gets oxidized by the smoke when they kilm it. It’s black clay but the kilning process makes it even blacker and makes this real modern-looking pure black pottery that they shine and give a dull finish. So originally I am thinking this is new world Mexico pottery that indigenous, but I found where it actually came from, Spain. So all these arts and pottery and painting traditions I mistakenly took as coming out of the traditions of Mexico, all come out of Spain. So the more I dove into Spain the more I see Mexico. Spain is dear to me, and I enjoy exploring their culture because it’s still, in a way, a part of mine. My very first tour of Spain for one of my albums had me dressed as a conquistador and I said “I’m here to make claim from Mexico.” The audience loved that. Spain is very dear to me and they love me, and me showing that I love them is me doing things especially made for them, like Rafael.
Rocker: Sounds awesome and far out. I only wish I’d completely understand the joke when I hear it.
El Vez: That’s the thing with my stuff, if only one person laughs and that person is me. I am happy with that. I’m lucky that I get to get paid for private jokes with myself. And if they don’t get it that’s ok too. El Vez works on so many levels. The music is great and fun. The band is good. Beautiful girls. The costumes. There are so many references, so if one doesn’t get you, the pie in the face will.