INTERVIEW: Elvis Suissa - Three Bad Jacks
Woodland Hills, CA’s rockabilly rebels, Three Bad Jacks are coming to DC to promote their latest album, Pictures & Memories From Home. With a sound that varies from classic rockabilly to rough and tumble psychobilly to heartfelt ballads and just about everything in between, Three Bad Jacks doesn’t fit into a mold, and continues to redefine their unique brand of rock. We had a chance to chat with singer-guitarist Elvis Suissa about family, the music industry, Joe Strummer, and life on the road.
[9:30] Tell us how the tour is going so far.
[Elvis] It’s amazing. It’s by far the best tour we’ve ever done. Last weekend we headlined the festival in Silverdale Washington, which is 50 minutes away from Seattle, and we drew 2500 people. It was amazing. It’s really great because my son was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old, and at that point we were dealing major record deals and all this kind of stuff, and almost had to take a little bit of a break, not from touring, just from further touring. Instead of hitting areas 4 times a year, 3 times a year, we stopped, concentrated on Europe, and with this new album we’re really just concentrating on America. You just see regions build. I think with the economy, I think it took 50% of the audience off the top, and now it’s just rebuilding, and it’s not rebuilding because the economy is getting better, I think we are. We’re working a little bit harder, so it’s really gratifying at this point, and I really feel like we’re doing something great.
[9:30] Where does the tour take you after DC?
[Elvis] Well, it’s funny, because this month I think we’ve done about 20,000 miles.
[Elvis] Yeah! I think the first or second weekend of the month, we were in Providence, Philadelphia, flew home, and then we’re home for a second and the we did like 5,000 miles, the rear end blew off of the van, you know, and we’re trying to not miss a gig, so I flew to El Paso, they fixed the rear end in like 5 hours, and those guys drove while I flew and did an acoustic set, and then we went to Albuquerque and played the Launchpad, went to Austin and played the Revival Festival with Reverend Horton Heat, Nekromantix, and there was about 2 or 3,000 people there, and we were one of the headliners, and we just blew their fucking roof off. Then went back to New Mexico, which was another 1,000 miles through the night, and packed the Navajo nation, then did another show that night, then drove to LA, then to Seattle, and we had 2 days off, then flew to Philadelphia, then heading to Washington DC, and we’re just gonna get there for soundcheck, then play for you guys there and rip the tiles off the roof! So I hope they’re ready!
[9:30] Sounds great, I hope DC is ready too!
[Elvis] You know, we really haven’t messed with DC in a while, and I think it’s just gonna be fantastic, and I just can’t wait to show em what we got.
[9:30] Tell us a little about the band’s formation Three Bad Jacks, and how it all came together.
[Elvis] Well, it’s interesting, because I had this drummer named John Palmer, who I consider one of the greatest roots drummers in the world, and when you see Three Bad Jacks, you watch this stuff, and it was by chance I got him, and I didn’t understand a lot of stuff. All I really understood was “I’m having a lot of fun, and I’ve got this great drummer,” and we came out with this roots record, this rockabilly record, but it was a little bit deeper, I mean we were getting write-ups alongside Paul McCartney and Madonna, and we were getting 8s and 10s, and I did this thing in my bedroom! We did a show, and we were just stupid kids. Back then we would get like $100, $200, and we would buy cables! You know, I put a fuckin blanket up on my wall and we made this record that sold 100,000 copies. In LA, people made the analogy of the first rockabilly cd you used to buy was The Stray Cats, and when Three Bad Jacks came out, that’s the one you bought. There’s songs like It’s Forever that never stop selling. The record that came out in 1998 still sells as well as the brand new one.
[9:30] I think the first record you release is your statement.
[Elvis] You know, the rockabilly scene was stagnant. It turned into a fashion show. So I put out this cd, and it was hard as nails, but it still had lots of rockabilly melody. It wasn’t quite psychobilly, it was more like…I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it really sparked the psychobilly movement.
[9:30] Thinking about where the rockabilly and psychobilly music is going, For the next minute or two, I want you to consider yourself the spokesman for the whole genre. Give us a your “State of the Rockabilly Address.”
[Elvis] It’s funny, because I still will always play it, but I don’t think I could do that. It’s hard for me to say. This is not coming from any different direction, but I’m on the road 200 nights a year, I’m flying in and out, and I can’t really tell, but what I did, what I said to myself is “Im not gonna get locked in, I’m definitely gonna be true to my roots, but I’m here to make great music.” With this new record, people are saying “Well, this is is like The Beatles and Elvis.”, and that’s the weirdest mix you’ve ever heard. I think what I’m personally trying to do is just make great records, and if you hear the tunes, you’re just like “Wow, this is definitely outside the box.” What we keep trying to do is just keep pushing the envelope. I think we’re one of the best bands at playing traditional rockabilly, period. I mean the band, my bass player Dave played with Brian Setzer, Mike Ness, even bands like Berlin, and my drummer played with The Coasters, and Chan Romero who did The Hippy Hippy Shake, and I’ve backed up Chuck Berry, and Bill Haley’s Comets, so we’re definitely in with the style, but that being said, I never wanted to be a 50s throwback. My name really is Elvis, and I think that would be retarded. I try to take it to a new level and a new place. It’s a rock n roll show. I get emails every day like “We just walked down the aisle to Noah and Jacob’s Song”, which I wrote for my little boys, and it’s dedicated to Autism, it’s a little awareness song. Then there’s stuff like Crazy in the Head, which is just vicious.
[9:30] Songs to get the whole place moving.
[Elvis] Yeah! There’s definitely a lot to work with with Three Bad Jacks. I think one of the main reasons we get hired is when we play, it’s a show. And everybody in the audience is involved! (laughs)
[9:30] Do you ever say to yourselves, “If its not a show, then what’s the point?
[Elvis] Well yeah! It’s really off-the-cuff. We’ve never had a set list.
[9:30] Really? Never?
[Elvis] Nope, never. Somebody will scream a song out, I’ll think about it for 2 seconds and say “Yeah, I think I can play this.”
[9:30] I don’t think most bands are together enough as a band to be able pull that off.
[Elvis] When we rehearse, I talk about tempos, I talk about feels. When I write songs, I write them in my head, then grab the guitar and play them. As a kid, I was forced to stand up on stage, and play 3 sets of music without ever hearing the stuff. With Three Bad Jacks, the neat thing is if you like blues, if you like rockabilly, if you like jazz, or you know, metal and punk rock, you’re gonna enjoy it because it encompasses every one of them. There’s fingerpicking like Scotty Moore did, and I’ve played with Scotty Moore. There’s blues playing like Robert Johnson. There’s in-your-face stuff like The Clash or Motörhead, but it’s not like it really sounds like any of the above, it sort of just, you hear the influence, but we made them our own.
[9:30] So you mentioned Motörhead, and you have released a cover of Ace of Spades. Who would you say are some of your influences, both classic and modern?
[Elvis] As a point of fact, Lemmy said we did the best version of Ace of Spades that he’s ever heard. Fucking amazing.
[9:30] Now that’s a compliment.
[Elvis] Oh yeah, I man I bow down to Lemmy! I mean, as far as in-your-face, aggressive rock n roll/punk rock, it’s always been Motörhead for me. From the time I jumped out of momma, Ace of Spades and everything else he did, even the 1916 record is just phenomenal, I think. The man’s going 150! I just never forgot how much I love rock n roll. I’d have to say as far as the ethic of the band, it’s always been The Clash. I always thought Joe Strummer was amazing, I was always in awe of him. Then we got to tour with them. When we were walking back stage at the Shoreline Amphitheater, Joe was eating and surrounded by bands who were huge fans. We walked in and Joe stood up enthusiastically and said “No way it is The Three Bad Jacks? Do you guy’s know the Three Bad Jacks?” I felt speechless. I cant believe he remembered who we were. I’m tongue-tied at his point, because he’s my hero. We were going to go out on one of their next tours, and then he passed. But even from the grave, like Rudy Fernandez, you know, [from the Clash song] Rudy Can’t Fail…he found me, I don’t know how, and he was like, ‘Joe really loved you, and he would have loved for you to be one of the featured acts in Strummerville,’ and we did it with Love & Rockets, Mike Watt from the Minutemen, the guys from Jane’s Addiction, and Flea, and we just put together the Strummerville charity, and it was just amazing. I guess if you really like what someone does enough, it sorta comes back to you. I helped with Strummerville, and I got to play with my idol, we got to help a bunch of kids, you know, it’s just been great.
[9:30] Musical karma?
[Elvis] That’s a great way to put it! You know, I talk to many musicians now and you can tell the people who want to play, and who don’t. I mean, at this point in my career, we’re lucky that we’re like a “bigger indie”, and we’ve done it DIY, completely. We passed up labels, we never went that route, and I have a sick kid. My boy may never speak, so you know, we’ll do 3-4 shows, and I’ll spend $1500 on plane tickets to get everybody back. It’s just for the love of music, and I’m completely into it.
[9:30] Do you think a lot of bands are going back to the “DIY ethic” in response to the music industry of today?
[Elvis] I can’t really speak for them. I was with Sony Records a few years back, and we were gonna get this big old record deal. I looked at the guy, and said ‘Hey Kenny, you must be a genius or something, cause your office looks like shit man!’ I mean there’s boxes everywhere, stacked to the fuckin roof. It looked like a nice enough office, and I said ‘What are you Einstein? Don’t you know what filing cabinet is?’ I just kept thinking to myself ‘What the fuck?’ His response was ‘Yeah, you would have gotten your record deal today, but this is my last day here. They’re firing everybody.’ Everybody. Everyone that was on contract, I believe, was let go, and it was sort of devastating, cause we were selling way too much to be on an indie label. We went into Capitol, which was our next meeting, and they’re like ‘Well, what’s a band that’s sorta like Three Bad Jacks?’ My manager at the time said ‘I don’t think there’s any band like Three Bad Jacks, but they have a really big Latino following.’ So then they, and this is how out of fucking touch they are, they pull up Ozomatli and go ‘Hey they have a big Latino following, wouldn’t you agree?’ So he says ‘Yeah, they do.’ They say ‘Well, they only sold 300,000 units, and that’s just not fucking good enough.’ And I am thinking to myself, ‘You’ve gotta be fucking joking.’
[9:30] They’re comparing fruits to vegetables at this point.
[Elvis] Well, yeah, and I really can’t figure it out. We were going to our friend’s labels, bigger independent labels, and they tell us ‘You’re selling more than our bands, we can’t help you,’ and I guess we weren’t quite big enough for the majors, or maybe it was the wrong timing. But I think that being said, we get to play music on our own level, for the right reasons, and we can afford to. Bands nowadays, and I think you know this, any band that was in a 1,000 capacity room is now in a 200 capacity room.
[9:30] It has definitely shifted.
[Elvis] It’s just the way it is, you know? It’s great to see us building, but in the grand scheme of things, I think our fans really appreciate the fact that: a. we’re eclectic, b. we do the music for them and ourselves, and we’re not gonna change what we do. And most likely even if we fucking did, the majors are signing Justin Beiber. They don’t give a fuck about Tom Waits, or, you know, anyone who could have been like the Beatles.
[9:30] Do you think they are favoring style over substance?
[Elvis] Oh, they definitely are about the “1-2 year, cash in and throw ‘em out the door.” It’s really interesting, and it’s a little bit off-topic, but I live in Woodland Hills [CA], basically grew up in North Hollywood, and I happened to see the singer for Warrant [Jani Lane] when he was in the store. I looked at him and wads like “Hey man, I know who you are.” And I asked him, “What are you doing these days?” This was like a month before he died. He’s like “Well, I make music for Disney, writing songs and stuff.” I think they were touring a little bit, but he didn’t tell me that, you just sort of hear things, you know? I asked where he was living, and he said he was living in a motel near the store I was shopping at. The irony was, a month later, he died in a room by himself. You see these interviews with artists on MTV, and these people don’t give a shit about you guys. He [Jani Lane] talked about “his life-size picture being in his record label’s lobby, then one day he walked in and it was replaced with a poster of Nirvana, and they wouldn’t call us back.” On a different sort of level, when people think they can make money off of you, they will call you back. But even if somebody loses their position, they won’t. It has nothing to do with friendships. I was this sort of green kid, and I thought “Wow, man, my buddy never called me back,” and I was sort of heartbroken. I’ve been on the road a long time, and I’ve gotta say, it’s heart wrenching. Not that I buy Warrant records, but he was human. They ate him up and spit him out. The guy seemed really decent to me, he seemed like a really nice guy, you know? A brother-in-arms, for that matter. I don’t know nay of their songs, but I can definitely connect on some level.
[9:30] You mentioned your latest album, Pictures & Memories From Home. tell us a little bit more about the album.
[Elvis] This record is a little more thoughtful. I think, first and foremost, I’ve always been a songwriter, and this has been a little bit more about my life, and what I’ve been going through. And I mean, songs like Crazy in the Head and Scars were as well, but I think I buckled down and wrote the great record for Three Bad Jacks. When I was in the studio with guys who produced Frank Sinatra and Beach Boys, they just looked at me and were like, “Oh my god, this is just fucking great!” I just think I really did the best record ever. Be built a recording studio, DIY, and I did songs like Noah and Jacob’s Song, I’ve Been Around, I Want Some More, and Run Away With Me, and I used Rami Jaffee from the Wallflowers, and he’s now in the Foo Fighters, but still an original member of the Wallflowers. And I can see why a lot of people can say, you know, “Beatles, Elvis Presley.” Yeah, you hear that early Sonics, Dion…it’s dirty, it’s rock and roll, it’s really big sounding, you know? It’s taken us to a bigger, sort of, level. It’s definitely not your typical rockabilly 1-4-5 blues progression really fast, and all the elements, you know, chain wallets, and people’s names on their chests, that’s really not what we’re doing.
[9:30] Have your fans that were fans of songs like Crazy In The Head, that got them into your band, have they been pretty receptive to this album?
[Elvis] They have. But you have to understand, when I came out with Crazy In The Head, we always put out really different records. We never repeat anything at all. On the first cd you hear songs like It’s Forever, and that’s our anthem, you know? It’s extremely fingerpicking rockabilly, and you hear stuff like Pretty Señorita, that’s like the Southwestern Marty Robbins sort of ballad…there’s jazz stuff. On the first record we were playing with Elvis’ bass player Jerry Scheff, Skip Edwards from Dwight Yoakam’s band and Johnny River’s band, and so it was a really creative record for a really young kid. And then the second one was, you know, “I’m gonna beat the shit out of you!” There was some ballady, smart songs on that as well, but this one I went back to sort of a dirty, grungy, late 50s-60s rock and roll, with more ballad stuff. It’s always been my sort of take on rock and roll, like “I’m gonna take you guys to another place, whether you fuckin like it or not!”
[9:30] I think that era speaks to the rockabilly genre in general, I mean, that’s where rockabilly came from.
[9:30] It crosses over more easily than, say, Metallica doing an album with Lou Reed.
[Elvis] Absolutely. And look, I don’t give a fuck. I honestly don’t. I mean, we sell records, we gain new fans. But I can’t really see that we lost a few. And if we do? I think they get it in about a year, a year and a half. Dude, it’s a sharp contrast, but we’re getting older, and our fans are getting older. I might get a bug up my ass in 2 years to do the heaviest record we’ve ever done. Or it may be completely different than that. I think I know the direction we’re going, but, you know, I sorta do what I want to do, and I do what I like, so who cares? They don’t fuckin like it? I don’t give a shit. I would hate to be the next “thing in style”. I’d rather take the Tom Waits route and just do what you do.
[9:30] Is there anything else you’d like to say to the DC fans before you play here on Thursday night?
[Elvis] We’ve got one of the best shows we’ve ever had. It’s completely different. We’ve got great players, the skill level is high, the songs are gonna be there, and we’re gonna play one of the best rock and roll shows they’ve ever seen! We’re coming to kick some fucking ass! (laughs)
- Jon Pacella