How did you develop into the artist you are today?
I was always creative. When I was very young I would sit at the family table making drawings while others were playing cards. In my early teens, I actually drew illustrations for my father’s travel flyers. He and a few others organized a yearly bus trip to Germany for a group of people from the small village we lived in. This was in the sixties before flying became normal and affordable. This was also long before computers were around and also long before the internet. A bit later I actually designed an election poster for his local political party. So I sort of was already preparing for my later career as a graphic designer. Of course, I made pencil drawings and paintings in my teens.
When I was in my early twenties I started working in the graphic industry with a company that produced door to door advertising publications. With the evolution of designing computers and my progressing career I really learned my skills as a graphic designer.
After a few years of working there, I started my own graphic design and digital printing firm. In that period there was little time for making art. When I stopped with my company I had much more time on my hands and decided to focus more on making art. Using the skills I had acquired in my work as a designer I developed my style as a digital artist. And that is where we are sort of today.
Can you tell me a bit more about how you work?
My current way of working sort of slowly has developed over the, let's say, the last 15 years years. When I started the transition from traditional approaches like painting and drawing to a digital canvas I made a lot of portraits from photoshop by applying filters to photos and then altering and refining the image towards the end result I was striving for. You see a lot of art on the internet that sort of using a similar process. Often it is the problem that they only apply the filters, do some coloring, and then consider it finished. The problem is that, if you know how it works, that you can still see the specific residue of the process and I think that makes it look amateurish.
With my photoshop portraits the process after the initial steps to create an image I go through an extensive amount of work adjusting, sharpening, and clearing of undesired side effects. But I currently only use the vector bases Adobe illustrator program. Obviously, I work from photos as templates. But it’s not really tracing as more interpreting the details because often the photos are not of high resolution. It’s a difficult and painstaking process. Also, the selection of colors is crucial. If you would just pick the color of the photo, if they are in color and not black and white, it wouldn’t look real good. I have learned to choose and/or adjust the colors in such a way that it looks good in the end. Also, my subjects have changed quite a bit. While honing my skills I started out with portraits but that became boring and repetitive after a while. So I started looking at a different approach. I came up with what I call conceptual art.
For me, that means that there is a theme to a work. It can be a song, a film, an event, or something that encompasses more than just a reproduction of a photo of a face. Often an artwork or certain elements are a composite of several pictures to get an image that fits the concept. I also developed my style which can be described as digital impressionism. Because of the limitation of the source material the drawing is often low in detail but looks fine when looked at at the normal distance. Also, I don’t use gradients or blends but only full colors which makes the image not so soft but stronger, more brightly colored.
How did you come up with the concept of this book, with essays about some of the artworks?
It actually started with another Elvis project called: Elvis (his)story I made a couple of years ago. It's three artworks that each represented certain periods of Elvis's life. The rock and roll period, the cinema era, and the concert years. These posters are each filled with elements that represent something that happened in that period. Some of them are clear but a lot are more or less hidden or somewhat cryptic. So I decided to write a guide for each of the posters that explained all the symbols and items in the artwork. It was fun to tell Elvis's story. I looked at other projects and then I thought it might be a good idea to collect all my works together in a book. But just art seemed a little boring. Then I remembered I had already written about certain events in the guide books for the poster series. Then I thought of the idea to present the art chronologically and write one-page essays for a lot of the art. I actually made works that are specially made to fit in with the concept of the book.
How long have you been an Elvis fan?
I’ve always been a rock and roll guy from a very young age. My home country The Netherlands is, unfortunately, more of a Beatle country. The whole rock and roll thing sort of passed the country by. We had a portable record player and a collection of singles in the mid-sixties that we got from an aunt or uncle. Every Sunday afternoon it was brought down from upstairs into the living room and someone was picked to play records. It was a mix of Dutch artists and certainly no rock and roll records. The closest thing we had was a single from a Dutch female singer called ‘Hou je echt nog van mij Rocking Billy?’. (Do you really still love me, Rocking Billy?) It was a cover of a Swedish song translated into Dutch. Actually, in retrospect, it is quite a decent uptempo rock and roll song. I was always looking for anything vaguely resembling rock and roll. We had an album by The Three Jacksons, an accordion trio, and it included a version of Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’. I still remember that so it must have made an impression.
Years later, in my mid-teens I bought an album called ‘The Incredible Little Richard Recorded Live’ and I was blown away. So I started collecting rock and roll albums. I had a friend in school called Wim with whom I shared my passion for pure fifties rock and roll and we frequently visited each other to play our latest finds. Obviously, Elvis was part of that story. I had greased hair, turned up the color of my shirts, wore those real fifties-style jeans with tight trouser legs with ends folded back, and a denim jacket with pins applied to the back that spelled the name ELVIS. Honesty compels to reveal that in that period Elvis was snubbed a bit because I was trying the hunt down the most obscure rock and roll and rockabilly I could find. People like Johnny Burnette, Sonny Burgess, Billy Lee Riley, names who were not common in Europe at that time. But I still was very fond of Elvis.
I remember that in the mid-seventies the story of the problems with Elvis his health had reached Europe. In 1975 the double album Elvis Forever came out. A chronological overview of most of the hit singles of Presley. I had an electric guitar I played and I remember that I used to play the whole double album while I more or less strummed along with the songs. I fantasized we were on stage and I was that young talented guitar player that had managed to inspire Elvis to get his act together again and be excited about his career again. Yeah, I’ve always had quite an active imagination. I got really back on track with Elvis when he died.
Where were you when Elvis died?
I remember it well. I was standing in the living room of my ancestral home with my brother and my sister late in the evening. The radio was on and the news came on and it announced that Elvis had died. I remember that even before he mentioned Elvis I somehow already knew it was Elvis. I spend the whole night in my bed listening to the radio that only played Elvis songs and talked about him. The next day in school a lot of the fellow students came up to me to extend their condolences because they knew I was a big Elvis fan.
Is Elvis the King of Rock and Roll?
Yes, I think he is. First of all, you have to look at his fifties stage act. If you see the footage of, for instance, his TV performances from those days, it’s truly amazing. His act is full of moves that have never before been seen on stage and they are performed with a conviction and so full of confidence you wouldn’t expect from a twenty-year-old in the fifties that is fairly new to show business. His act is most likely inspired by the wild church sermons and gospel concerts he witnessed when he was very young. But this act combined with the new sounds of rockabilly is a revelation. His moves are so fresh and fluent. Also with humor as he suddenly stops mid wild moves, looking at the crowd and taking in the response of the audience loud response to the unexpected move and then diving back into his shaking and moving. He is moving is so fluent and fresh.
A prime example is his stunning performance of ‘Hound dog’ on the Milton Berle Show on June 5, 1956. He first plays the regular uptempo version but then extends it with a slow blues segment. He shakes his legs, gyrates his hips in such a way that even today some people may be slightly uncomfortable with because of the undeniable sexual projection the moves seem to radiate. When you compare Elvis’s act to footage of other fifties great rock and roll stars most of them are much more controlled and inhibited. The only exceptions are maybe only Jerry Lee Lewis and Vince Taylor. Jerry Lee however always had the problem that he was sort of limited in moving around because he always had to stay within reach of his piano. Vince Taylor saw Elvis on TV when he lived in the States and when he moved to England and started his career he copied the wild stage act he had seen Elvis do. He never had a career in the States, had a fairly low-key career in the UK but was very popular in France for a short while before his mental troubles and substance abuse in France destroyed the chances of a sustained career. So his general exposure was fairly limited. The quality of these early Elvis performances is amazing and unparalleled.
When he returned to the stage in the late sixties his charisma, his natural and instinctive abilities, and confidence hadn't vanished and he proved he was still the most exciting performer. There are few that can rival Elvis as a performer. Obviously, James Brown is known as the hardest working man in show business and he had an exciting podium act. But he didn't have the refinement as well as the ability to make a connection with an audience the way Elvis did. There are only two performers that I have seen who have similar qualities. Both Prince and Bruce Springsteen are performers that combine(d) the excitement and electricity of their live performances with the ability to communicate with an audience on a similar level. Bruce Springsteen is one of those kids who watched Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show and got inspired to pick up the guitar and rock the world. Springsteen is heavily connected to Elvis in a lot of ways. When Springsteen went on tour with his River tour, for the album that gave him worldwide success, four years after Elvis's death he expressed on stage and in interviews that he was scared that this success would have the same destructive effect on himself as it did on Elvis. He covered many Elvis songs during his concerts and apparently wrote the song 'Fire', that the Pointer Sisters had a hit with, for Elvis to record but just around the time the demo reached Graceland Elvis had died. But it's fair to say that the exposure to the fifties TV Elvis had a big influence on the Springsteen performance style. Especially during his Darkness tour in 1978 and The River tour in 1981, his performance had a distinct fifties kind of flavor. He slid across the stage Elvis style, jumped on the piano, and rocked for around three hours. Although obviously, the repertoire was his current songbook, his show had the energy, vitality, and also the humor that he had seen on the Elvis TV performances.
Another big reason why Elvis should be considered the king of rock and roll is his studio work. A lot of people not very familiar with Elvis underestimate his musical abilities. Because he didn't write his own songs, a thing that was actually quite normal for artists at the time, people assume he had very little influence on his recordings. That he was more of a Fabian-like artist, whose career was constructed and shaped by experienced people in the industry. It all started in that break in the Sun studios in July 1954 when he masterfully combined all the influences he had been collecting over the years culminated in this song that changed the world. From the very beginning till the end of his career, Elvis was always in control in the studio. There may have been a producer appointed but his role was very limited. And Elvis was very good at it. Especially during the fifties, he molded songs and arrangements to amazing results. Actually, Elvis songs don’t have a particular sound. They are all different and each time turned into a unique piece of art. Look, Eddie Cochran is a masterful songwriter, amazing multi-instrumentalist, and technical pioneer. The first to experiment with multi-track recording. But an Eddie Cochran song sounds like an Eddie Cochran song. Chuck Berry is a tremendous guitar player and probably the greatest songwriter of all time. But again, all of his songs have a similar iconic guitar intro and structure. Also, most of the rock and roll recordings are fairly clean recordings. Not much in the way of effects and variations in sound. But no Elvis song sounds like the other. From the bombastic sound of ‘Jailhouse Rock’, the bubbly and cool ‘Treat Me Nice’ with a particular noticeable percussion part, the rough and raunchy ‘Hound Dog’, the bleak and almost depressing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. I could go on and on. He explored many different approaches and styles. From straight rockabilly in ‘Blue Suede Shoes, Doo Wop in ‘Don’t’, the jazzy ‘Fever’ to the operatic ‘Surrender’. And this is all down to Elvis’s masterful command of the work in the studio. Elvis also selected the songs he would record.
Most fifties songs are about love, dating, and having parties. Also in that regard, Elvis is very different from his counterparts in the fifties era. Yes, ‘Jailhouse Rock’ is about a party but it is placed in jail with convicted criminals. The earlier mentioned ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ is about the hurt of heartbreak. ‘Hound dog’ is a particular mean song about someone who is “Not a friend mine”. ‘One Night’, a song that is about love but talks about spending the night together. (The original title was ‘One Night Of Sin’). Elvis, apart from being a tremendous vocalist, was a decent guitar player, bass player, and pianist and apparently had a go at the drums occasionally. A minor element but still relevant is that 'Loving You', 'Jailhouse Rock' and 'King Creole' are excellent rock and roll movies With all those factors combined with the tremendous chart success he experienced he is definitely undoubtedly the king of rock and roll.
What are some of your favorite moments in Elvis's career?
His performance of 'Hound Dog' in the Milton Berle show on June 5, 1956 is obviously one of the greatest and most riveting TV performances ever. It shows one of the very few insights into how completely free and uninhibited, uncontrolled Elvis could be on stage.
One of the moments that always struck me as misinterpreted and therefore funny is the moment that Ed Sullivan complements Elvis and tells the TV audience how great of a guy Elvis is. Judging on the surprised and bemused look on Elvis his face I think something completely different was going on. People assumed that Elvis had won Sullivan over with his nice personality. I think Ed Sullivan, who didn't want Elvis on his show, was trying to give Elvis a sort of kiss of death. Elvis's selling point at the time was him being controversial, immoral, and a bad influence on kids. The stamp of approval of such a representative of the establishment could have been an attempt to take the sting out of his reputation and thereby diffuse and disarm the danger that he presented.
Completely different is 'Baby, I Don't Care'. It shows Elvis as the king of cool. Wearing a comfortable sweater at a swimming pool where most of the people wore bathing suits. The sensuous song combined with his understated performance is a definite highlight in the film. Even though it is one of the few songs in the film that is a bit awkwardly forced into the storyline of the movie.
Although, I consider 'If I Can Dream' to be most likely his greatest vocal performance ever. That's because of the combination of the theme of the song, the presentation, and the performance makes it an important event. However, in the sitting-down portion of the show, Elvis does a version of 'Trying To Get To You'. Purely on the merit of the vocals, but obviously less important historically because of obvious reasons, I consider that his greatest vocal performance. Every time I see that performance I tend to stop breathing and sort of hold my breath till the song is over. I don't know why but this rendition is so powerful and sung with so much emotion and almost a sort of desperation. His voice is rough and strong and the song is brought with so much confidence and energy. It's, like I said, breathtaking.
‘An American Trilogy’ also needs a mention. Not because it’s the greatest song Elvis ever recorded but because it’s special in a strange way. The writer Mickey Newbury wrote it as a sort of a joke. It is a bit of an awkward medley of three songs. One song from the South and a song from the North. The songs are from the time that both sides fought against each other in the American Civil war. A war mainly about if the US would abolish slavery. Added to those two songs is an African American spiritual. Newbury recorded it in 1971 and it reached the American single charts in 1972. Elvis started singing it in concert in January 1972 and released it on a single in June 1972. It reached number 8 on the charts. Elvis rearranged the several segments of the medley a bit to make the song more effective. The basic arrangement is there in the original recording of Newbury but Elvis upgraded it to a spectacular and bombastic showstopping orchestral onslaught. When I am working on my computer and it comes up in my iTunes I always turn up the volume. I actually went to ‘Elvis The Concert’ in 2005 in England and it was in the show. Hearing it live with the full power of the orchestra was amazing and it gives some idea how people must have felt when hearing it in a real Elvis concert. It’s a weird song but only Elvis could make it into this spectacular event and make it work.
It's hard to call it a favorite but the 'Elvis In Concert' special from 1977 is a special moment. It's still hard to understand why he agreed to do it. He must have been at least somewhat aware of the state he was in. He acknowledged after the first show they filmed that he hadn't done a good job and promised to do better for the second show. It's heartbreaking to watch it but in the end, the talent was still there. The testament to that is the one bit of footage that has been officially released by Elvis Enterprise: 'Unchained Melody'. Again painful to watch but also incredibly impressive that he managed to still dig that deep to come up with such a performance.
Any last word?
I hope people will enjoy this book as much as enjoyed making it. Elvis is such an amazing artist that still impresses me every day I listen to him. And I hope this book will help a little bit to keep the memory of the greatest artist in popular music that ever lived alive for much longer.