James Leedy, better known as Elvis Hitler, has the ability to revel in relative obscurity while still playing to actively interested fans decades after recording his band’s canon of material, including their best known album Disgraceland (1987) which, it can be argued, helped herald the psychobilly revolution of the late 80s. He has not, as I learned during this expansive interview, spoken to the press in 25 years, though I suspect that level of DIY touring he’s been part of over the last decade has been a part of it … the last time he actively did a series of interviews, he told me, they had a press agent and all that jazz. Still, he seemed excited to talk about the music, how the name Elvis Hitler has lost some of its offensiveness over the years, and the real reasons it’s been impossible for him to reissue the band’s albums despite demand.
Read on, and if you’re able, get to the Melody Inn on Saturday night as Elvis Hitler returns to the Punk Rock Night stage as headliners with MG and the Gas City Three, T Dastardly and Evil Engine!
Based on what I’ve heard about your last show at the Melody Inn, people said you blew the Koffin Kats away. Do you have any big plans for your return to Punk Rock Night?
Last time was just three quarters or less of the full onslaught, so this time it’ll be … well, this time there are four bands on the bill, which is kind of good, because we get carried away sometimes and have been known to do shows that are ninety minutes or longer, and the guys in the band even would say that’s probably a little too long, it goes right up to closing time …
They’ve had shows like that at the Mel before, where the final band goes on at 1:00 and pretty much plays until Dave says ‘alright, time to shut it down.’ And from what I’ve seen, people love it. The best shows are the ones where there’s still a crowd past 2:30.
Well hopefully there still will be! But the point I was gonna make is it’s almost better when we’re somewhat limited on time because then I feel pressured, and then if we’re opening for somebody else then we really have to get straight to the point and do all the most hard-hitting stuff and just rip through it. There’s this sense of urgency.
Tell Rich to put you third then.
Yeah! [Laughs.] But I also have a tendency to talk a lot, which they tell me that’s part of the show, part of the fun. It’s just off the cuff, whatever pops into my head and often people in the audience for some reason they seem to feel that it’s okay to just approach and talk and request, comment … [laughs]. So I’ll interact with people in the audience and after a while our guys in the band will start to play music like they do at the Oscars when you go too long, playing me off. “C’mon! I’ve got to reel you back in, let’s get back to the show!” Then I wrap it up and we do another song. Sometimes there’ll be five minutes of talking and a song that lasts two. It’s all fun and excitement.
It’s interesting, because you started recording these songs thirty years ago, and I think the last album you had with Splatter was in 1994.
Did you think you’d be playing these songs to audiences in 2017?
No, we hadn’t planned on that, in the first place. As a matter of fact, the original plan was I wanted to do a 45 just so I would have something to prove that I was ever in a band – and people would say “oh, you were never in a band,” and I’d say “look! I made a 45!” But it turned out a friend of ours started his own record label which is kind of obscure but some people have heard of it, it was called Wanghead, and they put out us originally, they put out Nine Pound Hammer from Kentucky and some other stuff. But they were doing a compilation album of Detroit-area bands, and he said “you should be on it!” and I said “well, I don’t have a band.” and he said that was okay, just use other people. And I said “I don’t really have any songs,” though I’d written a couple songs and he said that’s okay, just use the one song. So then we did that, and before you know it I had enough material for a whole album and that 45 wound up becoming Disgraceland which was our first album. And it went on from there, you know?You probably are somewhat familiar with the rest of the chronology.
Is any of that still in print now? Or is it just what you can find on Youtube?
That’s the tricky part. Due to an amazingly elaborate web of legal wrangling over the decades because Wanghead was just sort of a handshake thing, and then we started shopping it around to other labels and, you know – classic story – it got rejected time and time again. We tried everybody we thought might be interested in this sort of thing, like Caroline, Sub-Pop, Sire, labels like that. And everybody just said no. And then this guy at Restless Records said “I love it! I want to sign you guys!” and it wasn’t that great of a deal, but we went with it anyway and then over the years Restless was part of Enigma, which was part of Capitol, which got bought by Sony I think which got sold to I forgot who … there was some other big name in there.
I’m pretty sure BMG was in there at one point.
Yeah, and anyway, fast-forward and it turns out now our first three albums which is essentially the Elvis Hitler catalog is owned by Warner Music Group. [Laughs.] And it is buried deeeeeep in their vault somewhere and a small label in Kansas City was interested in us and wanted to re-release those three albums plus Splatter retitled as an Elvis Hitler album. There’s a lawyer they have on staff who’s now in charge of this label Little Class Records, and he’s had this idea that like David and Golliath, small record label versus giant corporation, at the very least he could make them aware they’re sitting on this eighties goldmine of what apparently they tell me now is part of the psychobilly canon – although there’s argument that we’re not psychobilly …
Hell, you can argue genre all day long!
Absolutely! [Laughs.] Then of course there’s the never released mostly-unknown and unfinished fifth album that we recorded in 1996, and all that’s left of that is a CD. All the master-tapes were destroyed because the bill at the studio never got paid by the record label we were with at the time. And that guy, we managed to get away with a disc of what we had mixed. We had three reels of two-inch tape which people were still recording on back then, which gave us about 15 minutes per reel, and there was maybe about 25 or 30 minutes of music and a bunch of shenanigans. I’d been hosting a spoken word night at a bar in Hamtramck, which is like a city within the city of Detroit. So there’s a bunch of spoken word stuff and vocal explorations, stuff with synthesizers where we didn’t have a proper keyboard and we wanted to do something synthy so we did some surfy-type stuff with Moogs. [Laughs.] It got really ridiculous! It was insane … and I was drinking a lot while we were doing it, and that was part of it also to add that almost as a special effect. Alcohol as an effect.
Because of all that, where everything is stuck in the vault, you’re not on Spotify and nothing’s been legally reissued, you’re getting by on the fact that people are still spreading your music around in the underground. And nobody at Warner knows what they have. It’s given you the ability to remain obscure in a world where, because of the Internet, nothing is obscure anymore.
I’ve been playing for 32 years and it’s the only band I’ve ever been a part of. Other people are like “I was in this band in high school and this band in college, and yada yada …” None of that happened with me. I started in 1985 and that was it. My first band, and every time I complained, people always shut me down: “oh yeah, you’re complaining because the first band that you were ever in got a record deal and toured Canada and your first album sold 30,000 records.” Which isn’t a lot, but at an indie level is pretty good. And now 32 years later people are still paying money to see me so I can understand why they don’t feel too sorry for me! [Laughs.]
But you’re right, it is obscure and I think that’s part of what people like about it. Because we have fans that have liked us for a long time and just love us and I think part of that is because people take pleasure in having something they consider their own. And I’m always surprised at how well it goes over in a variety of situations because I generally think “this is way too crass and hard for most people.” There’s this fella from Cleveland who’s a long time fan, who has been driving up to Detroit to see us over the last few years when we play the Detroit area. And he talked us into coming to Cleveland to play his 20th wedding anniversary party in a tiki bar he’d rented out. We show up, do two sets in the middle of the afternoon to a varied crowd of … I don’t know, we used to call them ‘squares’ I guess … [Laughs.] But the key was most of them, the majority of them had no idea who we were, and all sorts of people came up and talked to us about how much they liked it.
Then they find out your name is Elvis Hitler.
Well you know, that’s the other thing! That seems to have lost some of its shock value, because I can’t believe back in the eighties people would show up and protest, skinheads would show up looking for a fight thinking that maybe we were a White Power band and then we’d see these groups of skinheads watching for a little while and then they’d be scratching their heads – “these guys aren’t Nazis!” And I try to tell people, getting mad at us is like getting mad at Hogan’s Heroes or Monty Python. It’s the same kind of thing. When you look at all the schtick Mel Brooks has done … what amazes me is when you watch reruns of All in the Family, that was a top-rated show in the early 70s, and every once in a while I’ll catch a re-run of it now and I think to myself “oh my God, that’s offensive! That would never fly today, people would be up in arms!” Plus I think as time marches on people get more and more removed from Hitler and the Nazi thing … I mean, obviously it was supposed to be funny. Elvis Hitler is ridiculous. I’ve mentioned many times over the years what a stupid awful name it was, but when you figure that the original plan was we were gonna be this offensive punk rock band that put out a 45 and our career was gonna be roughly 1984-1986, not spanning two centuries …
The bottom line is we’re obscure, but I think if we’d had some other name we’d have been big. I listen to satellite radio and I’ll think we’ve got plenty of songs that could pass as outlaw country or psychobilly, even straight-up punk rock verging on speed metal! You’d think it’d be more successful but on the one hand it is successful. We’re still doing it, people still come see us, and it’s just everything loud hard and fast put in a blender. It comes out as Elvis Hitler.
While I was doing my research I was reading an article about that famous Cradle of Filth shirt that said ‘Jesus is a Cunt.’ And Dani Filth had a great quote where he mentioned that the shirt was just meant to be rebellious. “It could have been anyone, really, Elvis or Hitler.” So could ‘Elvis Hitler is a Cunt’ be your greatest merchandising hit?
That’s … that just seems more offensive than I would be willing to go that obvious. I like to be more subtle. The thing about that is that at my age I don’t really think I want to get arrested. And the other thing too is always when I tell people about Elvis and Hitler, that wasn’t even my first choice. I wanted to go with Elvis because I played that up – part of the reason I called the album Disgraceland was because of the Paul Simon album Graceland, and also the release date of that album was gonna be on the 10th anniversary of Elvis’s death in honor of that. So I had been putting different combinations together and my first choice had been Elvis Christ! And I thought that was gonna be too offensive because my theory was that Elvis, like some other messiahs, give it a thousand years and there could be a religion built up around a character like that. And then I thought, what about Elvis Manson? And I’ve always maintained this predated Marilyn Manson, which I’m pretty sure is provable, but I thought Elvis Manson was too easy. And Manson looked so ridiculous ranting from prison anyway.
You would have had to do psychobilly versions of the songs he wrote for the Beach Boys.
Oh God. But Elvis Hitler seemed so perfect. Because like I said before, I was thinking of that Monty Python sketch where Vipperntrop and Bimmler are hiding out in a boarding house in England, and Mr. Hilter is giving speeches on the balcony … I really was coming from an innocent place. And it turned out to be more offensive than I expected. Then at that same point, like you said, as obscure as we are, that people even know that name around the world is still pretty impressive.