Interview: Brendon Chase on Elvis and Cruise N Groove

ElvisIt’s good to mix things up on a country music website – although, as Elvis Presley was a bluegrass performer at least some of the time, interviewing an Elvis performer is not mixing things too far.

After over 20 years of performing Elvis tunes, New Zealander Brendon Chase earned himself the title of ‘Australasia’s Ultimate Elvis Tribute Act’ in 2017. He is one of the world’s premier Elvis performers – not to mention the busiest in New Zealand, by the sound of it – and he is appearing on Cruise N Groove, with the theme Elvis Meets the Legends. The 2018 Cruise N Groove music festival at sea departs from Sydney on 6 November and runs till the 13th. I spoke to Brendon recently.

 

How old you were when you discovered Elvis?
I would have been seven years old, I guess.

And was that because your parents were playing Elvis music?
No, it was the Elvis Aloha concert beamed around the world and I watched that in 1973.

Is that a distinct memory, seeing him for the first time?
Yes – it blew me away that he was such a cool dude and I thought I want to be cool like that one day.

So, given that you were so young and you get exposed to a lot of music over a lifetime was Elvis like your favourite artist as a child and a teenager?
Yeah, for sure. And probably Motown was my next, but Elvis is up there with the best of them.

You mentioned that you saw him and you thought you wanted to be cool like him one day. Are you feeling cool like him these days?
Well, when I don the gear and play the part, yeah, I do think I am like that.

There is a difference between being a fan of course and being able to sing like him, because that is technically he had such a distinctive voice. I can’t actually even imagine how you go about that process. When you first started to sing, obviously you have your own sound and then how do you go about technically recreating his sound, because you sound so much like him.
I knew I could sing pretty well, and I was still singing high, but I started finding my voice [singing in a] group. So that’s when the power started coming out and I thought this is getting better and better. It wasn’t actually I went to the States and heard Americans sing and you get rid of the Kiwi twang and you get rid of some of our flavours of how we say words compared to everyone else in the world. And once you get your head around that and you hear yourself a lot and then you hear Americans a lot then you hear Elvis a lot, you take away what you need to define it. It does take quite a long time and, if you are going to ask me how you do it, well, you have to train yourself with better people and study and study and study. Until you want to do that, until you get the motivation to do that, it just doesn’t happen.

 And so having then attained that sound, for you, is it a matter of constantly concentrating? Or are you now able to slip into Elvis and you don’t have to think about it so much when you are performing?
I don’t think so much, because that is just natural now to me because I have been doing it for so long. When I first started, my natural sort of voice is like as I have said, when I first started, I sung quite high. But now I am good at the Elvis singing so I have to keep it that way, because I was doing two shows a week, so it has to be that way for me all the time.

I think you have answered my next question, which was going to be, if you are signing in the shower, do you sing like Elvis? So that sounds like the answer is yes?
Absolutely. Yeah.

So to put together an Elvis show would require a lot of rigour when it comes to the set list, or set lists, I would imagine because his repertoire was massive. So how big is the repertoire that you are drawing from?
Well, if you do a concert, it is fairly old songs and you have got to give the people, that’s older people, what they really, really remember – ‘Suspicious Minds’ and what have you. But I like going back towards gospels and ballads. So if I do my own show at home, I’ve got 300 backing tracks on my phone, I can take them straightaway, and I usually start the show with the big, hard, heavy ones and impact songs. And then I will stop and say, right, take a break and we will do a quiz for half an hour and some people will ask for some obscure song and I can do them. But it is nice to do stuff you don’t hear. That is really, really cool, but at the end of the day, they want to hear the same old thing, and it does get a little boring after a while.

Do you prefer a white jumpsuit Elvis or 1968 Comeback Special Elvis?
That’s a good question. Elvis is all about the leathers, but he only had a few songs. He only did about 20 song in the leathers. But everyone loves that 70s Elvis and the high jumpsuit and the bling … I am lucky. I have the same height and the same colour eyes and same weight as Elvis, and I can pull it off. A lot of people can’t. They also remember Elvis in the last six months of his life. So the white jumpsuit is a winner. Everyone recognises Elvis in the white jumpsuit. If you haven’t got a white jumpsuit you are not doing Elvis properly. You’re mocking him.

You performed at the Parkes Elvis Festival. What was that experience like for you? Did people want to take 1 million selfies with you as you were walking through town?
Yep.

Did you enjoy it?
Yes, it is all part of the fun and the brand. So while I am off stage I dress pretty smart. I want to be seen. I don’t want to shock or anything, but you still want to be seen and go, ‘Hey, there goes Brendon.’ Or there goes whoever it is. So you have got to actually be memorable and be a point of difference for someone else, and that is when I fall back on my military background. I am ex-military and in the clubs military people want to see me. So that is part of my brand as well. And yeah, you have got to look a little bit different and out there. Elvis was out there.

How long have you been performing – well, doing this show. Have you been doing it throughout your life and you have only recently started doing it a lot?
I am in my 27thyear of being Elvis and I am only 30 years old, so there you go.

[Laughs] That’s a great answer, but obviously you did have some time in the military.
Yes.

Did you ever perform for your colleagues?
Yes, I did. That is basically where I started. I did 20 years in the navy, so I actually went overseas and obviously I had a few jumpsuits and I ended up knocking on some pubs’ doors, actually the first time was in Sydney, and saying, ‘Well, I can bring you 250 sailors along tonight. Can we have a jam?’ And, ‘Well, what do you do?’ ‘Well, here’s my cards.’ And away we went and every port we went to, I did shows. Singapore, Asia, all through Australia. I spent the night in Dubbo once, it was great and one thing led to another.

Which audiences around the world do you think are the most – I don’t want to say passionate but maybe that. Who screams the loudest for you, in which country?
Americans do have a wild streak, they scream your head off and that is just crazy … they are very passionate and if you show passion and you show your intentions and portray Elvis in a great way, then they appreciate it. And there’s a lot of people out there who actually run after the money and people come across from the States and I always treat it as hobby. I like being on stage and singing and just love Elvis, and I guess they call us the ultimate Elvis fans because we try and know as much as we can about Elvis on stage and dress like him and be like him and talk like him and sing like him. So we are paying homage to him as the ultimate fan.

So as an ultimate fan, what is it about him that you love? What are the qualities? Obviously there is the music but there is obviously – there has got to be something else. Like there is some pull that makes a super fan.
That’s always a tough question. For me it’s mainly the stories that it tells of the voice, is what gets me. We know he’s handsome, and we know he looks great and dare I say it? He is one of the best-looking men in the world, and for me that is not so much. It’s more his singing and what he’s done for singing really and how he tells stories.

He does that expressiveness, even in his face as he would perform.
And that part, that is really, really hard to get, because when Elvis scrunched his face up his teeth popped out and his ears popped out and you have got to recreate that and make up does that a lot. But you have also got to get some form of likeness for a start and, as I have said, you can look like Elvis, sound like Elvis and dress like Elvis but not when you have to do all three of them. So I think I might have two and a half on.

I suppose to some outsiders it might seem like an easy route to try and do a tribute show. ButI think the amount of control and concentration you need to have in order to do this time after time is pretty phenomenal.
For sure. I have done shows where a lady goes, ‘You’re in a white jumpsuit, you didn’t shake your hips a lot, you didn’t swivel your shoulders, and I said, ‘You don’t know much of Elvis because when Elvis was older, in the ’70s, he never did that. But in the ’50s he was.’ And that’s what people see. We don’t do that and you don’t disrespect the Elvis in the jumpsuit and do that. So you don’t do the raunchy things that the ladies want to see because then you go over the top and it doesn’t work. When it comes to competitions you have got to be 100 per cent authentic. And, if you are not, you get one point off. And if there are 12 judges, you have just suddenly lost 12 points and that could be the difference between top and bottom.

Now I had better move on to talking about the cruise because that is the reason for the conversation. So you are performing on Cruise N Groove. Have you performed on a cruise before?
No, not at all. I have been to sea for 20 years in the navy and been all around the world on a ship but this was the first one for me. I go to Italy on a cruise for three weeks and then come back and then come over to you guys virtually. But yeah it is going to be cool. Really, really cool, and not only that but we are surrounded by four of the best Elvises in the world who are coming over as well, and lots of others who have been invited, and I’m privileged to join them.

I guess I don’t have to ask you if you are worried about that you are going to get seasick, because the answer is clearly no.
On ships usually I don’t worry about any waves but no, I wouldn’t get seasick, it’s not my problem.

I guess you are probably going to spend a lot of your spare time seeing all the other shows, because there is a lot going on?
Not so much. I have worked with Justin Sandler and I have been on the same stage with Bill Cherry. He was singing with me in New Zealand here … so probably just a handshake and enjoy the sun and catch up with a lot of my Aussie friends who are coming over and on the ship as well, so I don’t see them all the time. So I am not out of place at all, because I know the guys already, I am fortunate to be able to sing with them now.

I do often wonder on these cruises whether it is like you can’t ever switch off, because of course, if you are out walking around the ship or whatever, people are going to recognise you.
They do. I’ve got naturally black hair and my natural sideburns. So I don’t have to hide it so yeah, unfortunately I tend to look like him quite a lot.

Well, then you should gear up for some more selfies.
[Laughs] They’ll all be at the pool bar.

I am thinking of that film Elvis did in Hawaii. You better match the swimming trunks.
Yeah, that’s the one, that’s the one. Unfortunately I’ve got more tattoos on me, so I can’t pull it off that much.

The last question I would like to ask you is about New Zealand and the Elvis circuit. So you said you do a couple of shows a week. Are you touring around or is that mainly in one part of New Zealand?
Well, Auckland is the bigger city and I cover Auckland quite nicely. I do go out of town. This year I have been out of town almost every second weekend. There are not many Elvises and new talent. Actually I am lucky I am on top of the food chain, so I can pick and choose what I need to do. It’s quite nice. But I will go wherever it takes me and I will be back to the States again in August, and then like I am going to Italy in June. So I am pretty full on. That’s all I do now, so it’s quite nice.

And Italy. Who knew the Italians like Elvis too?
Everyone loves Elvis no matter who they are, what colour, what skin, how tall or how short. It doesn’t matter. It is phenomenal. It blows me away how many people around the world know a song of Elvis. And just even one song, ‘Oh, yeah, I know this one.’ It’s like, ‘Okay. Yep. I will sing it for you, yep.’ They enjoy what we do on stage and we can have people go back to their childhood memories or maybe if they got married to Elvis or whatever it may be, and you see that in people’s eyes and they go, ‘Oh, wow, now I remember this song.’ And they will come up and say, ‘I got married to that song in Hawaii.’ No other artist can do that and it is just a shame he died.

Well, it is except it was a massive body of work already by the time he died. And also I would imagine, a lovely job for you to have to be able to connect with people in that way and and for the associations to be so positive.
Yes. And they really don’t understand it a lot: ‘Why are you so obsessed with singing Elvis? Why don’t you do something else?’ And I say, ‘Well, actually I do sing other stuff but I go back to Elvis because that’s what I love and there could be worse things I could be doing.’

There could be worse things for your voice too, to be doing constantly.
I know, I know. I could be doing heavy metal.

 

For information on the cruise, go to: https://chooseyourcruise.com.au/cruises/cruise-n-groove-2018/

Brendon Chase: https://www.elvis2u.co.nz/