The King and the circus have pulled all the stops for this one! Cirque Du Soleil, the world renowned entertainment act, has combined its talents with the King of Rock n Roll’s repertoire to create the stage production ‘Viva Elvis’; the story of Elvis Presley. This collaboration between the extraordinary human circus act and the voice that birthed Rock n Roll, can be experienced at the ARIA Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. If your path is not destined for Vegas, you can still enjoy the musical highlights with Viva ELVIS- the Album; the complete and re-worked mix of Elvis’ chart toppers from the ‘50s, his movie soundtracks, live stage acts from the “’68 Special,” and the famous Las Vegas performances of “Burning Love," "Suspicious Minds," "Blue Suede Shoes" and "It's Now or Never".
Cirque du Soleil recruited Canadian producer Erich Van Tourneau, as the Musical Director and Arranger for both; ‘Viva Elvis’ on stage and ‘Viva Elvis’ the album. He was responsible for modernizing the classic sounds of the 50’s through to the 70’s and Rock Star Weekly spoke with him about the process.
Watch for an all Elvis issue of RockStar Weekly's weekly mini-mag on April 11, 2011. The mag will feature this interview and some other tidbits, along with a handful of photos. It will be free to read online and can be ordered in print for only $2.00.
What an honour it must be to be involved in the Elvis Cirque show and Viva Elvis – The Album.
Absolutely, Cirque and Elvis changed the face of music so it was a total privilege to have worked on this project with these pioneers.
How did you get involved – was there a process to be accepted?
I was asked to do a pitch, so I worked on 2 songs; Hound Dog and One Night with You. They flipped out when they heard ‘One Night with you’.
Was it a different process to create music for the show and the album?
The main difference between the show and the album is really an esthetic one. The show has a live band, so I wanted to keep some space for the band on the album. I wasn’t limited on that level. I used as many samples as I could to create that kind of ethereal finish of Elvis live. I think that’s the main difference, on the album you have way more samples coming from the Elvis world.
What was the first thing you did to get acquainted with Elvis?
First I contacted collectors around the globe because it was imperative to listen to everything he recorded during his career. I bought over 900 albums and listened to all of it over 8 months. It was a gigantic task but that was the first thing I wanted to do was to be respectful of Elvis Presley who devoted his life to his music.
How long did the whole process take?
I worked on the arrangements for the show for about 2 years. I made the arrangements for about 35 songs. For the album, I had about 4 months, so it was pretty fast to work on the album.
Did you feel a bond with the King after a while?
It was there before because my parents are hard core fans. Elvis Presley music was always playing around the house. I remember going to my Uncle’s place and the ‘Comeback 68’ was playing in loop. Elvis was in my life before the project. I feel like I have a bond. I was listening to music from the 30’s and the 40’s,( the golden gate quartet) before this project.
Was there a vision or goal when making the album?
The mandate was the same for the show and the album; which was to bring Elvis back for 2010, to contemporize the repertoire. My philosophy for working on the songs was to revamp an old black and white movie from the 50’s and try to bring that movie in HD format. I was adding new colours around Elvis’ voice, a bit like the Technicolor technique.
Was there pressure on you to create the first Elvis studio album in 33 years and also on his 75th birthday?
I felt a bit of pressure at the beginning of the project when I was working on the show, arranging the songs. At the beginning I felt it was impossible that I was working on that project. It was so big. But after a few moments, you need to concentrate, get your hands on the song and try your shot.
When you were listening to all his recordings, you must have heard some intimate moments on some of those tapes.
Elvis between takes was always jamming different songs and was often jamming gospel, only the piano and his voice. They were very intimate moments.
Was there a surprising thing you heard on the tapes that either made you laugh or surprised you?
I laughed all the way through. Elvis was really, really funny. He had a unique sense of humour. I never heard him mad, he was always laughing.
How involved was Elvis Presley Enterprises in the making of the album?
Elvis Presley Enterprises helped us by giving us access to a lot of different audio tapes and masters. It’s like having access to the holy grail of Rock N Roll.
It must have been nice to have access to all that?
I was in New York two years ago with Ernst Jorgensen who is almost a bible himself. We were listening to master vocal tracks from Elvis. I remember listening to ‘Suspicious Minds’; Elvis was almost crying in this delivery, it was amazing!
Was it hard to try and keep the original vibe and emotion of the song and change the music style?
The heart of the project is Elvis’ voice. People are really attached to Elvis’ voice, so I try to keep the melodic line and keep his voice in tact and just paint new colours around him.
What do you think it was about Elvis that makes his music so timeless?
I think Elvis had the best songwriters of his time. He had the best songs and best songs can stay forever.
I want to quickly go through the album song by song to find your inspiration for it and why you chose the music style:
The opening was constructed from the song ‘Memphis Tennessee’. It was an Elvis beat, contagious and growing on you and that sound coming from when he was born in ’35. It was the way I saw this piece, the frantic feel before the show.
- Blue Suede Shoes
I am proud of ‘Blue Suede Shoes. Elvis was eclectic with his taste in music. I like the Delta feel of the harmonica with the mix of that urban beat. The vibe comes from a guitar riff from another Elvis song called ‘Plantation Rock’. There is a sample of that song at the end of Blue Suede Shoes and that was the centerpiece.
- That’s All Right
The rhythm section was my inspiration because the groove is already in the song. At the time; Elvis had no drummer (in ’54), and I was really hearing that Indie rock groove, so I went for that.
- Heartbreak Hotel
It’s very much like the original but it’s played with a different attitude. I wanted to pay tribute to a version of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ with the Dorsey Brothers. Elvis was in a white suit and it’s an amazing performance. My inspiration was the big band sound.
- Love Me Tender
I wanted to do a type of folk song with it, to keep the feel but bring a more cinematic feel to the song. It’s very theatrical.
- King Creole
I wanted to do a ragga song. It was about the beat. It was constructed around the beat and I wanted to have a ragga vibe.
- Bossa Nova Baby
The original is so strong. The vocals are so strong and I think its one of the best songs vocally of Elvis. It’s amazing the groove and the energy he is bringing into the song, so I constructed around that. I wanted it to have a lounge feel; groovy and slick, to keep the vibe of the 60’s.
- Burning Love
I wanted to do a rock song with it. My inspiration was to see Elvis on stage doing this song in 2010. I was picturing him with the band in Vegas, jamming with big drums, like Keith Moon.
When I heard the strings of memories, they were so touching and beautiful that I wanted to construct an ’in between’ with that song that could bring us into the romance section, because ‘Cant Help Falling In Love’ from the show is in the romance section when Elvis and Priscilla get married.
- Can’t Help Falling In Love
I started the song on the guitar in a very soulful way. I wanted to bring in an R&B beat of Bill Withers, but modern. With the female voice in the song it’s really strong and it’s really nice to have a duet with this one. The tone of Elvis’ voice is completely amazing. I began to play gospel piano at the end while incorporating the song ‘Love Me’. It’s one of my favorite moments in the album.
- You’ll Never Walk Alone
I wanted to have something intimate. It is an introspective feel. I was picturing Elvis at Graceland; 5 am jamming on the piano.
I constructed this song around Elvis’ voice because his vocal is so strong. He is almost crying. I tried to keep the original beat. I wanted to keep a modern and heavy feel to the song.
What is your personal favourite Elvis song?
I like the songs from the early years; ‘Mystery Train’ or ‘Lawdy, Miss Clawdy’; the songs with Scotty Moore and Bill Black.
It was mentioned earlier that Elvis was always around you while growing up, so was Elvis a musical influence for you?
I have a lot of inspiration but there is a lot of stuff in the back of your head that you are not conscious of. I am sure Elvis is in there in relation to the way I look at music, for sure.
How did you get involved in sampling?
I started 15 years ago, I bought this old Akai S1000; (a 16-bit professional stereo digital sampler) and began to play. I immediately understood there were a lot of things you could do with this thing, so I was a fan. I still am to this day.
What is it about sampling that is a challenge for you?
You can create an entire world with just a frame or a sound byte or create another world by adding one second to that sound byte and playing that very sound byte on the keyboard. It’s like creating new worlds with a tiny sound byte. To me, that’s amazing!
What is most satisfying about what you do?
It’s not just incorporating a nice tone or a nice sound, but to really stay true to Elvis’ roots. Sampling is only a tool. It’s not the conclusion, it’s only the beginning.
Any chance there will be more Elvis albums or is this it?
For me this album is really a volume one!
How about you. Are there other artists you want to re-image?
I’ve worked 3 years on this project and have so many thoughts of my own. I don’t want to work on other artists for the rest of my career. This was an honor, a privilege and amazing opportunity to work with the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and if there is another album I would like to work on that, but I have so many good ideas that I want to explore on my own and would prefer to go in that direction instead of trying the same thing with another artist.