"Here's a concept that you know already — be it Elvis or an American pop tune or universal pop tune — and then [I] flip it, put a moustache on it and change it."
Over summer, Robert Lopez — the Chula Vista, California native — will return to Australia for Falls Festival with his prerequisite costumes. He'll likewise have headline gigs — even a Melbourne "MeX-mas" show.
Lopez started as a teen, playing guitar in Los Angeles' pioneering punk band The Zeros. Lopez was managing an art gallery in the early '90s when he developed El Vez, not so much as a Presley tribute, but as an "interpretation". His El Vez is satirical, postmodern and proudly Chicano — one of Lopez' songs is You Ain't Nothing But A Chihuahua. However, Lopez' repertoire is jukebox-varied. He's dropped in songs by David Bowie, his other "touchstone", through to the incongruous Oasis. El Vez performed ahead of Bowie at the 1996 Roskilde Festival — "an honour", he enthuses. Bowie thanked him on stage.
Coming from punk-rock, Lopez has a sense of iconoclasm and "the bravado to go ahead and do something different and mix and mash." Yet he usually avoids contemporary songs. "I tend to use the nostalgic tunes because I like to say, 'Here's a concept that you know already' — be it Elvis or an American pop tune or universal pop tune — and then [I] flip it, put a moustache on it and change it," Lopez explains.
"The whole idea of a drug overdose and then going to rehab and then coming back again … He was almost like a sacrificial lamb."
Presley is among rock's most enduring icons with several generations of fans. The Pet Shop Boys cut an '80s synth-pop cover of Always On My Mind, though Public Enemy's Chuck D challenged Presley's appropriation of black music in Fight The Power. Both Justin Timberlake and Bieber have Presley's musical DNA. Why are people still fascinated by The (comeback) King and his rock mythos?
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"I think being dead does a lot of that," Lopez quips. "Things are so much different [today] than 1977 when Elvis died. The whole idea of a drug overdose and then going to rehab and then coming back again, that whole thing that you're so used to now, hadn't even begun... He was almost like a sacrificial lamb." And no white male performer before had Presley's sexual swagger, his infamous gyrating hips. "He was groundbreaking in his time — Elvis was a gangsta rapper of his period, he was the Michael Jackson..."
Lopez has worked with the family-run Elvis Presley Enterprises. "One of the people who works there told me, 'You know, half of us love you here 'cause you're pushing boundaries and taking Elvis to another dimension, and half of us hate you because they think you're just a joke.' To me, that was the perfect place to be."
The Mexican-American isn't afraid to be political, just as Donald Trump, the Republican Presidential contender, is propagating antagonism towards (Mexican) migrants Stateside. "The sad thing is I have a song called Immigration Time [based on Presley's Suspicious Minds] that I've been doing for 25 years and the situation hasn't gotten much better," he rues. Commentators have suggested that Trump is polling well because his political-incorrectness is bizarrely entertaining, but Americans won't vote for him. Lopez is unsure. "He does have charisma," he concedes. "It's funny — you can go, 'Who would elect a television personality?' But Ronald Reagan was elected, and so was Arnold Schwarzenegger. America loves a good personality."