BIG ELVIS | A PHOENIX RISES FROM THE ASHES

Almost any music fan that was around the jamband scene three or four years ago will remember a band called KVHW. The popular jamband’s name was an acronym for Steve Kimock (Zero, the Other Ones, Phil & Friends) on lead guitar; Bobby Vega (Sly & the Family Stone, Jefferson Starship, Etta James, Paul Butterfield, Zero, among others) on bass, Alan Hertz on drums, and Ray White (Frank Zappa) on vocals and rhythm guitar. Basically, it was the combination of three long-time professionals in the music scene and one young dynamo of a Bay Area drummer. Having started out as sort of a “super-band” assembled for a benefit show, KVHW erupted from the Bay Area music scene and took the country by storm. With a focus on fiery improvisation, contagiously funky rhythms, soulful vocals and poignant instrumental compositions, the band seemed to have the whole package. However, their short two-year stint came to a premature end as personal conflicts tore the band apart and yanked this rising star from the musical horizon.

Now, more than two years after the demise of KVHW, three of the members have put together an exciting new band. Initially billed as Big Elvis, the band now consists of Vega, Hertz and White, along with a couple of young prodigies, Eric Levy (Garaj Mahal) on keys and Tal Morris (Alan Hertz & Friends) on lead guitar. Big Elvis played their first two gigs earlier this month in British Columbia, and the debut shows were very well received. Reports to various on-line discussion groups were gushing with praise, as the band played a mix of tried-and-true KVHW classics, along with some brand new songs and a smattering of Frank Zappa covers.

Big Elvis are gearing up for their first Bay Area appearance this Friday at the Justice League in San Francisco, with a short U.S. tour possibly in the works for later this year. Earlier this week I had a chance to sit down with Hertz, Vega and Levy at a café next door to their rehearsal studio, to get their thoughts on Big Elvis, so that their legions of fans will have some insight into the motivations and ambitions behind this exciting new project.

One of the first questions I asked was how the band came up with the name Big Elvis. This turned out to be the most politically charged question of the session, and as it turns out, I can only tell you two things about the name. One is that apparently it evolved out of an inside joke that relates to how some guys give names to certain body parts. (If you want details, ask them.) The other thing is that they are considering changing the name from Big Elvis to Big E. Stay tuned for details.

Meanwhile, here is rest of my conversation with Alan Hertz, Bobby Vega and Eric Levy.


RW: First I want to say how psyched I am that you guys are doing this. And I know a lot of other people are too. You know, as KVHW you guys had a lot of fans, and a lot of us have been really missing something since KVHW went away. For a lot of us I think this brings, I don’t know, maybe a sense of closure. How do you feel about it, Alan – playing with Ray, playing with Bobby again?

AH: When we went up to Canada, to Whistler, we had a blast. And then we went to Vancouver and had another good time. It feels good. It feels good to play with them again.

RW: Does it seem like closure?

AH: What do you mean by "closure"?

RW: Well, I mean that things were so open-ended when KVHW came to an end, and it seems nobody really wanted that.

AH: Right.

RW: But does it feel like that to you, or does it seem more like this is the beginning of a new project?

AH: Yeah, it feels like people’s priorities to either be a family - or to be a, you know, a leader - always get in the way of things. So you know, we definitely prioritized. It’s a long game. It’s like human beings don’t just end their relationships after one thing; it’s a long shape. Those are Bobby’s words for it, anyway. So everybody goes and does their thing, right. But we always know that we can pull together and create a family vibe, because we have that experience already on the inside of us.

RW: Nice. So it’s just a foundation to build on?

AH: Yeah. And now I’ve found a great relationship with Eric, and I want to introduce him to the great relationship I have with Bobby and Ray, and Tal from the Hertz & Friends. And Tal and Bobby have a musical relationship. We’ve formed something pretty good, I think.

RW: Bobby, I wasn’t aware that you’d played with Tal before.

BV: The first time I saw Tal playing he was working with Ronnie Montrose; this was a long, long time ago. And then I met him through Alan. And I said “No.” (laughs) “No thank you.” But then I got to know him and started playing with him, and it’s been great.

RW: So what a lot of us want to know is, this will be the third Big E show now. What kind of future do you see for Big E? Are there going to be some more shows? Maybe a tour?

AH: Yeah. We’re all doing things like... for instance the Garaj Mahal record is coming out. So we’re going to do the Garaj thing a lot, to support the record. And Bobby’s got a bunch of stuff going on. So I think we’re going to get back into it. (to Bobby) When are we going to get back into Big E, our tour?

BV: October, right?

EL: At the latest.

AH: In October we’re going to do some Big E touring.

RW: Nice! Outside of the West Coast presumably, to other parts of the country?

AH: Probably. We have a lot of friends in Fayetteville [Arkansas], and New York. Plus friends in all the places we touched down with KVHW, and Zero, and all the family stuff.

RW: From the set lists that we saw of your gigs in Canada last weekend, there were a few new songs that none of us were familiar with. Are you guys actively writing songs just for this project?

BV: Alan is constantly moving forward. (laughs) So you’re not going to see repeats when you’re playing with Alan.

RW: Well that’s one of the reasons a lot of us go see him a lot, actually.

BV: Well, there it is.

RW: Alan, the song "Celtic Indian," is that one of your new songs?

AH: "Celtic Indian," yeah. Have you heard it?

RW: No, but I heard about it.

AH: "Celtic Indian." It had a Celtic feeling, and it had an Indian feeling too. Whichever Indian that is...

RW: And there was another new unfamiliar song, called "Raindrops"? Is that...

EL: Yeah, that’s mine.

RW: Is that a Big E song?

EL: Yeah, I just wrote it for this band. From my perspective, you know, the first I’ve heard about KVHW is now. I was living in Chicago without a clue as to what a jamband was, while these guys were off doing their thing. So, I’m coming in now, but it’s like...

RW: It’s like culture shock, huh?

EL: Well I’m pretty much in the perfect situation, 'cause these guys... it’s like I walk in, and they’re already tight, and they already know how to play together. And so it’s really cool for me, and I don’t have to deal with any comparisons to another player, because they never had a keyboard player in KVHW.

RW: Right.

EL: So I have the option of just kinda sitting there. Hopefully I won’t piss everybody off with what I play. (laughs)

AH: A good way to replace one is with two.

RW: Yeah, I suppose that’s a good point. We know how certain music fans can be with their expectations. So, what kind of bands were you playing with in Chicago?

EL: Wow, all sorts of stuff, really. You know, doing some weddings to get by. I had a core of people I was doing a lot of stuff with. Kind of like funky horn bands, Chicago-style. We were also playing with gospel players.

RW: So you came into this through playing with Fareed [Haque, of Garaj Mahal and the Fareed Haque Group]?

EL: Yeah.

RW: How long have you been playing with Fareed?

EL: He was my professor when I went to college, and then I got into his band. And then he introduced me to Garaj Mahal. So actually right now I’m taking a leave of absence from the Fareed Haque Group. I was playing with them for the last... oh, many years. I moved out to California, so I can play with these guys as well as Garaj Mahal.

RW: I heard you moved to California. Do you live around here in the Bay Area?

EL: I live in Long Beach right now.

RW: Actually that’s another thing some of us were wondering about, because Fareed Haque Group is playing in San Francisco this Saturday night, only one night after your gig with Big E.

EL: Yeah, I will be there on Saturday. But no, he’s got a great young keyboard player. Everything’s working out nicely.

RW: Nice. So it seems like you guys are busting out some KVHW songs that you haven’t played in a long time, like "Five B4 Funk." Was there a reason you chose that particular song after keeping it on the shelf for such a long time?

AH: Yeah, because of the fact that I wrote a lot of it, the majority of it, and Bobby came up with part of it too. And I just like the tune.

BV: A lot of it is... all separately we’re not doing that, playing those songs. But when we all get together and play, that’s our music. You know, that’s all it is. We play the stuff that we wrote. When you hear it there’s not going to be any denying who wrote it or where you heard it, because that’s where the music came from.

RW: So do you think this might result in you guys going into the studio and doing a recording?

BV: I don’t know. It depends on...

AH: I’d love to.

BV: It’d be great if we can. It’s all about, will time permit us to do that, and will the audience support that? You know, it’s kind of hard to get everybody away from their families when you’re out there and there’s no audience or support for it. So time will tell that. We’ll get together and still play and write songs, hopefully, because it’s a great bunch of guys. But as far as getting out on the road and driving to Colorado, or to Texas, or to Chicago for a gig or a sandwich, that’s probably not gonna happen.

RW: I know you guys are normally working on your own projects or together on other various projects most of the time. Was there one person that tried to pull this whole Big E project together?

BV: Alan.

AH: (groans) No, no, no.

BV: Well no, I mean it’s everybody. I wanted to play with Alan and Ray because... because they’re family, and we’ve been through a lot of things together. A lot of stuff that happened, why we’re not together or work together, it’s just too much to go into. So to have everybody play again is very healing for me and makes me feel good. And that’s why I’m glad that it’s happening. But the one behind the idea was Alan, because Alan wanted to get Eric and Tal involved. He wanted to interject some new into the old. And I don’t think it’s a big deal, it’s just growth. And Alan as a musician, he plays with passion. He’s always moving forward and that’s great. I want to be around that. So that’s what I’m doing here, and I think a lot of the credit goes to that inspiration.

RW: Well, I think that’s one of the reasons a lot of the fans are really excited about it as well – for that healing aspect.

BV: Yeah, it’s a deep, soulful thing, you know what I mean? And hopefully we’ll be able to fix a line-up where we’ll be able to do it more. And that’s when it’ll happen. But to try to force something against something... life’s too short to try to go up against a lot of odds. So don’t complicate it too much, we’re just having a bunch of fun playing.

RW: Bobby, your name seems to turn up in all kinds of places. It seems like you’ve had a lot of people asking you to play bass with them over the years.

BV: Yeah, but sometimes it feels like nobody would pee on your house if it was on fire, so...(laughs) Maybe you can get me some work!

RW: Well, I heard you were playing with Pete Sears & Dawn Patrol lately.

BV: No, I did one tour.

RW: Oh, just that one? So what other bands have you been playing out with lately that we should check out?

BV: Just recently I’ve done some good gigs, but for about nine months I was in dry-dock. (everybody laughs) That’s the fire part I was talking about. But now things have changed around, and I’m very lucky.

RW: Are you thinking about working on anymore solo projects?

BV: I think I’m going to do more of an R&B-ish, funky... whatever you want to call it. The project I did before was a quiet thing, and I ran that way because so many of the people I’d been playing with were just (does a Jimi Hendrix-style air guitar impression).

RW: Who are you going to be working with this time?

BV: Tom Coster [formerly of Santana, Billy Cobham, Steve Kimock Band; currently plays with Steve Smith’s Vital Information, and occasionally with Yo Miles!] is gonna help a lot. I think he’d be a great producer, because he knows how to make people sound really good. And he has knowledge of a lot of music, so he’s going to help out.

RW: Nice. And Alan, I think I know most of the projects you’ve been working on. It’s kind of hard not to have noticed the Garaj Mahal project. Also, I hear you’ve been playing with Liam [Hanrahan, bass player with Alan Hertz & Friends] as a duo?

AH: Yeah, No Parking is the name of that band. It’s a cool thing, just kind of a drum & bass duet.

RW: And that’s mostly local Bay Area shows right now, right?

AH: We’re doing Wednesdays at Pete's 881 [in San Rafael] when we’re both in town. That’s about it for right now.

RW: One of the things I’ve always wanted to ask you, because I really enjoy your drumming a lot, is – who would you say are some of your big influences?

AH: (pause) Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham...

RW: A lot of jazz guys.

AH: Mmm-hmmm.

RW: I hear a lot of funk in your drumming, in addition to jazz influences.

AH: Those guys are Zigaboo Modeliste [Meters], and Clyde Stubblefield [James Brown].

RW: Yeah, I definitely hear a lot of that New Orleans sound in your drumming.

AH: Yeah, I like Zigaboo a lot. Um, who else do I like? Definitely a lot of the young guys on the scene that are playing out nowadays.

RW: Okay. Well, that’s about it, unless there’s anything else we should know about this Big E project.

BV: It’s just a bunch of guys getting together. Or, three old friends getting together with two new friends. Another family kind of thing, you know? We hope to keep it going.

Interviewed by Rob Winkler
JamBase | San Francisco
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[Published on: 6/27/02]

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