El Paso Music Scene

Elvis Suissa of Three Bad Jacks

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by Charles Hurley

EPMS: Aside from the obvious, was there any special reason your parents named you Elvis? Was there an Elvis song on the jukebox on their first date or something?

Elvis Suissa: Basically, my folks just loved Elvis. My mom, you know, they're from France, and they came to America. They wanted the American Dream, and they just loved rock and roll. They named me after the king.

I feel very blessed. You know, it's a hard name to grow up with. I've heard every joke about a thousand times, that you can imagine, anywhere I played,

Elvis has left the building!

You know, you hear every wisecrack on the planet. You get a little bit older, and get a little more respect. They gravitate towards it, they like it.

EPMS: Do you hear any good jokes about your name?

Elvis Suissa: God, they're usually the same.

EPMS: LOL.

Elvis Suissa: I've heard everything from, like I say, "Hi, I'm Elvis," they say, "Hi, I'm Buddy Holly." Weird shit like that. You just sort of, like, shake your head. For a while, I'd say, "Wow, that was like, really witty. I've never heard that one before."

They get all like, happy.

EPMS: LOL.

Elvis Suissa: It's like, "No, I was fucking with you." I don't really do that any more.

EPMS: How many years have you been touring?

Elvis Suissa: About ten solid years with this project.

EPMS: How many times have you been to El Paso this year?

Elvis Suissa: Uh, I think this'll be about the third. That's a lot, but, you know, we draw a good crowd, people love us, so, hey, why not? If they're gonna come out, drink a lot, dance, have fun, let me set them on fire, all this kind of stuff. I mean, literally, I'll set people on fire.

EPMS: There you go, I'll have to bring my camera (and bring him some people to light!)

Elvis Suissa: Absolutely. You'll see some bass on fire, drums on fire, you'll have a good time. It's more like the old school rock and roll shows, man. Jerry Lee Lewis stuff, you know. When he set his piano on fire, we'll set the bass on fire. We'll have a blast, you know. The crowd eats it up.

EPMS: What's the best band that you've played with?

Elvis Suissa: You know, there's been a lot. I mean, I can tell you, we've played with Social Distortion; one of my favorite all-time was Joe Strummer. We did a tour with him, you know, like, four or five shows, and then, I mean, he was a really nice guy. He was a complete gentleman. In my heart, that might just be the best, but you know, we've played with everybody: Dwight Yoakum, the Stray Cats, we played with, you know, just about everybody you can... We've played with Iron Butterfly, we've played with The Animals. We've played with just about everybody on the planet, You know what band was really fun to play with, was Bill Haley's Comets.

EPMS: Oh, yeah?

Elvis Suissa: They're really fun, you know. They're great, they're energetic. You know, they're all our idols, at one point or another.

EPMS: Damn, I know you ain't that old!

Elvis Suissa: Well, no, but, you know, actually, Bill Haley's Comets still tours.

EPMS: I understand, a lot of bands do that. You might not like this label, but what is the best psychobilly band in the country?

Elvis Suissa: Um, I don't know, I've never really thought about it. That's a tough one. Maybe we'll not get into that question.

EPMS: That's how they usually label you.

Elvis Suissa: Well, they sorta do, but a lot of people know we're more than that. I never really think about that all that much because we have a diverse crowd. I mean, you know, we'll play with the indie kids. There'll be punks. There'll be, you know, older people. There'll be rock and roll kids. I hate just to be pigeon-holed. I try never to do that, you know, because, it's funny we've been doing this... my old band, Terror Train, was a very long-running band. You know, it comes and it goes. It seems like you just do something because you love it, and then everybody else jumps on the band wagon, you know. I don't know, it's sort of like, it's really hard to explain, you know, (people think) just anybody with an upright bass can do it. Well, they try to.

EPMS: I'm sure that having an upright bass has a lot to do with why they call you psychobilly.

Elvis Suissa: Well, you know, I consider us more rock and roll than anything. We do get a lot of psychobilly kids. In a lot of ways, we do a lot of psychobilly type stuff. There's a lot more to it. Psychobilly does seem to be doing really well right now, though.

EPMS: What is the songwriting process that you go through?

Elvis Suissa: I typically write something in my head, you know, sort of like, have it in my head for a while, and i'll write the melody, and just grab my guitar and you know, I usually know what I'm going to play already, so I just do it in my head. All the words will be pretty much written in my head, then I'll grab the guitar and it seems like the music just comes really quick. But I start with the words, I guess.

EPMS: I know on your albums you do almost all of the songwriting, where do the songs that you don't write come from?

Elvis Suissa: Well, on the new record, we did the Ace of Spades by Motorhead. We've been doing that for quite a few years. On the first record, we did Brand New Cadillac, which The Clash did, but was actually a 50s song. And that was, gosh, I don't know why I'm forgetting the guy who wrote it. The older you get, the more you start forgetting. Oh, God, I'll remember it in a bit. We'll come back to that question But I love doing covers. You know, I think we know as a band probably over a hundred songs.

EPMS: Have you ever played outside the U.S.?

Elvis Suissa: No, I've only played in the country.

EPMS: I ran across some stuff in different languages on the internet about your band in French and German.

Elvis Suissa: Oh, yeah, we have an international following, because we do a lot of the big, you know, weekenders. We'll do something in Las Vegas. We'll get people from Denmark, and Germany, and Japan. They all pretty much know who we are. I've never really tried to get outside the states, but I've heard the scene is incredible. That's pretty much my next step, though. I think we'll have a lot of fun in Europe.

EPMS: How soon you think you might go there?

Elvis Suissa: Probably within six months. My manager, somebody who's managing us right now, we're getting shopped to a lot of different labels. She actually did the June Carter Cash record that won the grammy. She signed a lot of people on Geffen, and you know, Capitol. You know, I'm working with her right now. We're actually negotiating the management contracts and all that stuff as we speak. She wants to get us in Europe pretty quick, actually. We're going to start working out licensing of the record, so, yeah, we'll be over there pretty soon.

EPMS: What cities in Texas do you play regularly?

Elvis Suissa: We do San Antonio, we do Austin. We're doing Dallas more now. We played Dallas a million times; we're trying to get back into there. We do a little bit out of Texas, we do Oklahoma City. We do pretty much.. where else? What's that city outside of Dallas? Fort Worth?

EPMS: Yeah.

Elvis Suissa: And Houston.

EPMS: All the big ones, huh?

Elvis Suissa: Pretty much, yeah. You know, when a band travels nationally, a lot of people will drive... they'll drive a couple hours to see you. We've even played like, back in the day, when we were starting out, we played Midland. We've played everywhere you could imagine, really. You've got to pay your dues, man.

EPMS: In San Antonio, I saw at least one mention, you played with an El Paso band called Straight Razor Suicide. Do you remember them?

Elvis Suissa: I sure do, they're really cool guys. They're a newer band. They're doing great. They're starting out, I think they're going to follow us, they're doing the El Paso show with us, again, and then they're going to go on to Austin, Texas, with us, and then they're going to San Antonio with us. You know, they're out there, they're doing it. It's good to get the young blood out there, they work it, you know, they keep everybody out there, they tell their friends, it's cool. It's sort of exciting to see all these kids getting into the music.

EPMS: I hadn't realized that they were going out of town. I don't think they've been together that long.

Elvis Suissa: I don't know how much traveling they did, in the past, but I know they're starting to really give it a good effort to get out there. You have to, you know, you can't stay in your hometown if you want to make it. Just to make an example, this is all we've ever done, is this band. We don't have day jobs, you know, we go out, this is how we earn our living. This is how we eat. You know, and really, I pay my bills with this band, and we take it seriously. First comes music, but we have the responsibility to our fans to play great shows.

EPMS: From the people that I've interviewed, that's unusual except for the very young bands. Most of the bands I've interviewed, they have to have day jobs.

Elvis Suissa: Oh, no. This is all we've ever done. You talked about the type of music, all the way from psychobilly to rockabilly to punk to rock and roll, most people have heard of us nationally, which is a really good thing.

EPMS: Who has been the different guest musicians on your CDs?

Elvis Suissa: On the first record, actually John Palmer played some drums, but the bulk of the drums on the first record was done by Steve. He used to play in the Desert Rose Band, Ricky Nelson, Buck Owens. His name is Steve Duncan. On the first record I had Marty Rifkin, you know, he won the Country Music Player of the Year like three years in a row. He's played with everybody. You know, pedal steel (player). On some keyboard, I had Skip Edwards, played with Dwight Yoakum and Johnny Rivers. Is that right? Secret Agent Man?

EPMS: I think so.

Elvis Suissa: I had people from Dolly Parton's band play with us. You know, little tracks here and there. On the second record, it was basically... oh, and the coolest person on that record by far, you know, Elvis Presley's bass player. You know, and it's so funny, you're seeing me forget names, and it's only because, you know, the more I do, things get a little bit foggier. His name was Jerry Shef. Jerry Shef was the 60s bass player of Elvis. He said, "Elvis, you know I've played with other guys named Elvis," and he said, "You know, I've played with Elvis Costello," and I just died, man. I thought he was gonna say "Elvis Presley." He did all that Doors stuff, too. Really interesting guy, really great bass player.

EPMS: Usually you see guest musicians after you've done five, six, seven CDs. You've had them right from the beginning.

Elvis Suissa: Right. Well, you know, it's cool, that was a great record. I did it in my house. I set up shop in a room. Put a couple of bedspreads on the wall, and I tracked in the living room. And I did this record at, it got reviewed by Music Connection, and it got an 8. Paul McCartney got an 8. You know, Natalie Cole got a 2, Madonna got a 5. For something that we just did at my house, it got reviewed by you know, a really important magazine. We hit on something. You know, you could do it yourself. The second record, I think the only guest we had on it was Chris. He did all the original Eagles stuff, and he still plays with Don Henley, all those guys, and he's a really great sax player. We had him on a track, and we had... Dave Chamberlin played a couple tracks of bass, and that's about it, really. Oh, and we had D.J. Bonebrake from X playing vibes.

EPMS: You're not counting that EP in there, right?

Elvis Suissa: I'm sorry?

EPMS: You also had an EP, in addition to the two full-length ones.

Elvis Suissa: Yeah, we did that just like, you know I did that, it was just something in between records, really. People were waiting for something, I just put that out. The interesting thing on there, I don't know if you've ever heard of Don and Dewey?

EPMS: No.

Elvis Suissa: They were legendary.. The Beatles got their sound from, you know, both those guys. They did a lot of early rhythm and blues. They wrote that song, I'm leaving it all up to you. Real big hit, probably one of the most-recorded songs on the planet. Dewey actually sang on that song, it was the last track he did before he died.

EPMS: What comes to my mind is Donnie and Marie.

Elvis Suissa: Yeah, they did it, they had a huge hit with that. Believe it or not, Sonny and Cher did The Letter. Remember that song?

EPMS: I have a song in my head, but i'm not sure that it's it.

Elvis Suissa: (sings) I'm leaving you darling,
to say goodbye,
I know it will hurt you,
I know you will cry.
I'm writing this letter...

You know that tune, right?

EPMS: The melody sounds familiar, but not the words.

Elvis Suissa: I don't know if it was a really big song for them, but it was cool, I remember seeing some VH1 show or something. They were doing The Letter, it was pretty cool. I couldn't believe it, just from being a friend of Dewey's. That was sort of unique, to have that on that EP, old school rock and roll, Johnny Otis band, kind of like The Johnny Otis Show. And that was a limited edition, we only put out one or two thousand of those.

EPMS: You were talking about how hard it is to promote yourself without a label, being pigeonholed, the record companies only wanting bands that fit in certain categories and stuff.

Elvis Suissa: Here's an example, I walked into a big record label, and the guy was floored. I mean, he goes, "What song do you want me to play?" I didn't care, I just said, "Play the first one." The guy turned it to eleven, he was just jamming. Like he almost knew the words. He loved the stuff. And he goes, "I'm bringing it upstairs, but Elvis, we're signing Hillary Duff, signing bands like this. So, I don't know." He goes, "I love it." You know, but, if you're not in that same norm of you know, your typical punk-rock, pretty-boy, Rick Springfield-type, pop-punk band, you know it makes things harder. You know, guys who really deserve record deals like Tom Waits, creative people, it's a lot harder. They don't really want stuff like that. I don't even know if they know what to do with it, they're not hip enough. They're selling, you know, to soccer moms, to fifteen-year-old kids, who never heard of The Clash. I don't know, it's tough. They keep signing the same thing over and over. And to be played on K-Rock, I heard you got to pay twenty-five grand a month, a week, or something. It's totally unfair, really. They're not picking who's good, they're picking bands the labels have put money into. What do you do?

EPMS: You said you sold 41,000 CDs, and you said that those are mostly sales to people that have heard of you, a record company would really help you reach people that haven't heard of you.

Elvis Suissa: Exactly, I mean, the people who have heard of us, we do a show, we go through a couple hundred CDs, and that's great, but once those people have your stuff, and we are getting a whole lot of new fans, but it's in our best interest anywhere we play, to move a couple hundred CDs. Sometimes it'll be twenty, sometimes it'll be fifty. You know, it's cool, and it's a couple hundred, if you get the promotion, you're gonna do better. Bottom line, that's just the way it is. On the other hand, you know, we're sort of blessed. Our first tour, we were able to tour nationally without any promotion. And ever since, we've been able to do it. These record labels, they buy these kids vans and trailers, they put them on the road. They don't really have the history. They go out, do their show, then start playing Nintendo. They're not really into the music, they're into being rock stars. I see these kids all the time. We pull up in our van, you watch these little eighteen-year-old kids with their beautiful van, the trailers, and just perfect gear, and it's like mom and dad bought it for 'em. Then they start playing, it's like, "Oh, my God, it's a sixth-grade orchestra." It's terrible. You know, it's like, are they serious? It just seems that that's what they want to do. They like grabbing, I don't know... I think it might be, not much substance. It sort of bothers me about the record industry. They're screwing themselves. You know, U2 said, when they were getting inducted into the Hall of Fame, something to the effect of "We'd like to thank so-and-so for putting us on the map," I forgot, "They believed in us, you know, if it wasn't for them, we wouldn't have made it. They invested time." These record labels don't, they put you out: if it doesn't work, you're back in the trash. You know, when they're signing you to all the early bands, anybody, all the people who made it, took three or four records to break. It took Springsteen three records. That's Bruce Springsteen. That's just not no nobody. John Cougar Mellancamp. You know, it's funny, I mean, they put 'em out so many different incarnations, gimme a break. That's not even the style of music I listen to. You know, I like watching 'Behind the Music' type thing. If they didn't give them a chance, they'd have never broke. They just don't develop artists anymore. They just look for somebody like Brittney Spears. They'll put out as much garbage as they possibly can, and then it gets dated super-quick, and it's in the trash. And then they become a Tiffany or something. I mean, what do you do? It's ridiculous, you see it time and time again. I can't believe the American public, their musical knowledge is so limited. They listen to this unpalatable bullshit. I hear this music, I'm like, who gives a shit about Christina Aguilera? You know, these Kanye West. That's not Marvin Gaye. That's bullshit! It fucking pisses me off, just because, you know, Christina Aguilera can sing every note on the Bible, it doesn't mean she can write a song like Aretha Franklin. They look at these people like they're superheroes. You know, if you got shot nine times, it means you're a star. How about learning how to fucking rap in time? You know, doesn't that matter? I know like the top engineers, who worked on our stuff, and I'm not naming all the names, only because I should, because they can get in trouble, but you know, the guy was working with 50 Cent, he said he can't even rap in time. You know what I mean, do you know how many times we go over this stuff? Thank God for Pro-tools, you know? It's not very sincere. This is what they want. It's mind-numbing. You know, I have to listen to this stuff. I can't even turn on an awards show. You can hear somebody in a bar sound better than a lot of these people. It's not like they deserve to be up there. One day, I was at Guitar Center, and I was playing guitar. I was just a kid at that point. By the time I was fifteen, I could play anything, by the time I was ten, I could play like Robert Johnson. I remember, like sixteen years old, I was wailing...

They shut Guitar Center down. Stevie Wonder happened to come in, they kicked everybody out, I didn't know why. Stevie Wonder threw up his arms and said, "That's beautiful music." You know, it's probably nothing that would have been on a Stevie Wonder record, but he appreciated it. You know, and that's, hey, I'll take that compliment. You know, it's musicianship, but all these people lack it. Their music's not very deeply-rooted. How could that be impressive? Do they know who Stevie Wonder is? Do they know who Marvin Gaye is? Do they know who The Clash is? Do they know who Elvis Presley is? Do they know all the people that I could mention that you never heard of, I mean it's one of the sad... They don't care, they don't reward you for being good and creative. You know, look at the movies they put out. You know, the movie industry is another thing. They put on all these movies, they have to re-do the Flintstones movie. They have to do stuff like that, they get all these rap artists, to sample other people's stuff, and sing their bullshit. They get a two bar loop. They'll sing somebody else's melody over it, they're just not good. I just don't believe it. I can't subscribe to that shit. If I have to stay indie, I'll just do it.

EPMS: I'm not sure you wouldn't make more money that way.

Elvis Suissa: Absolutely, I think, it's not the money factor at this point, it's my sanity. It's too much work to stay indie. You know, producing your own records, building your own studios, going on the road, driving. I'm driving as I speak. Not only am I a songwriter, I'm driving the vehicle. It gets a little wearing. That's where you need somebody else just to set a few things up for you. We get labels calling us to put their bands on the bill. That's funny. We're helping labels out. They're not helping us. Know what I mean?

EPMS: You mention Bill Haley a while ago, and I know this obviously doesn't apply to promotion and things you're talking about, but I know a lot of bands, they're big for a while, when they're smaller, they get rid of all of their expenses, still able to make a lot of money.

Elvis Suissa: Right. Well yeah, we're probably making way more than a lot of bands on labels. When you jump on the work tour, you're not making money, you're getting exposure. A lot of these bands on labels, you think they're doing really well, but they're not. If we sell a record for fifteen dollars, we're seeing fifteen dollars. LOL. We're not seeing ten, we're not seeing thirteen, we're seeing fifteen. They get like eighty or ninety cents. So, yeah, in a lot of ways, we're doing better.

So far, we've sold out Knitting Factory and Chain Reaction, which is a venue in Anaheim. And those are the two places we did all the live stuff with all the band stuff and then we're gonna do this real wild stuff, I don't even want to give too much away. But it's for that song you heard, Crazy in the head.

EPMS: Again, you're doing a DVD? As in, like, an hour-long DVD?

Elvis Suissa: We're gonna do a real video, like an MTV-type style video.

EPMS: Not really a full DVD?

Elvis Suissa: We'll probably have some excerpts shot at shows. I really haven't thought of exactly how I want to do it. The main concern is doing the video. Like a DVD video, whatever they call it, something that would be like on MTV or something. Any of those type of stations.

This guy's pretty cool, Robert John, he's shot a lot of people. He just did Motorhead videos, documentary-type stuff. He used to shoot all the Guns n Roses stuff. He's done a lot of rock and roll style projects. It's funny, I just met him, I've always loved Motorhead. That's something that made me gravitate towards him. He has a really open mind, and he's really creative. We just gelled as people, so we just jumped into it. We're gonna have like, flying saucers, very Ed Wood-style, sort of comical, sort of scary, sort of fun.

EPMS: I'm gettting a lot of static on the line, so I'll have to let you go. Thanks a lot.

Elvis Suissa: Hey, man, I really appreciate it. We'll talk to you soon.