Erich Van Tourneau – Musical Director
“Takin’ Care of Business”

Cirque du Soleil was quick to realize, with the critical and financial success of The Beatles Love, that it could expand its stable of productions beyond ideas and characters generated exclusively in-house. Many of the lessons learned during the creation of the Beatles project would be applied to its next collaborative endeavor – a show based on the life and work of The King Of Rock And Roll, Elvis Presley. But while the creative thrust of the Fab Four show – illustrating the life and times that inspired the Beatles along with bringing the characters from their songs to life – worked well for that show, it would not work as well with Presley.

Instead of placing him within a strictly historical context it was decided to update The King’s songs and image, bringing both into the 21st century for modern audiences. But it wasn’t going to be a remix effort (most notable of which was the JXL remix of “A Little Less Conversation”). This would involve updating the music and arrangements, utilizing Elvis’ vocals while placing them inside arrangements and instrumentation different (sometimes vastly different) from when they were originally recorded.

This task fell to Viva Elvis! Musical Director Erick Van Tourneau. When we spoke with Mr. Van Tourneau back in early December from his cottage in Montréal Blanc (in northern Montréal), it was just weeks after the release of the soundtrack CD, Viva Elvis – The Album (2010, Sony/RCA Legacy 88697-77582-2). The album has gotten high marks for its creativity and power, if criticized for its brevity. (At 42 ½ minutes it’s the shortest Cirque soundtrack album since the very first Cirque album back in 1987, which was originally produced for vinyl LP.)

Mr. Van Tourneau first came to Cirque’s attention at the end of 2007. “[Someone at] Cirque du Soleil called me a couple of months before Elvis [was announced], to have my press kit and information about the work I did to [put] in their bank of creators, because I’ve produced several albums in Montréal for different genres of music and for different labels.”

“[Then] I heard about the Elvis project [and] they asked me to do a pitch. I pitched two songs; “Hound Dog” and “One Night With You” (Ed: both of which are in the show but not on the CD). I didn’t have access to masters at the time so I found a version of “Hound Dog,” I believe from the ’68 comeback special, and worked with that version.” These demos, it turned out, are “really really close” to the way they sound in the finished show. “It’s funny, sometimes you create something and it’s more unconscious. I hadn’t explored and listened to the catalog of Elvis songs [when I did the pitch], so in a way what I created in the moment was really pure.”

“The director [Vincent Paterson, was] really happy with the music he heard, so that was the beginning of this great adventure.”

Sample This

His research included listening to all of the Elvis recordings he could, both official and unofficial, a task that took more than 3,000 hours and resulted in a bank of more than 17,000 samples of music. But only a fraction of those samples made it into the final show, and not all of the samples in the show made it to the CD. Fortunately, for those who are interested there is a listing of the samples used in the CD at (It doesn’t include samples (if any) used in “Memories,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone (Piano Interlude)” and “Suspicious Minds.”)

Working on the actual songs involved a great number of creative decisions, not the least of which was what material out of Elvis’ original recordings to keep and what to re-arrange or augment. “It [was] really a case-by-case situation, depending on the song. Like I’ve mentioned many times the most important thing, the heart of the project, was really Elvis’ voice. In each song I tried to keep the melodic line and Elvis’ voice intact and paint new colors around him. The clash was really coming from that, keeping the heart of the song, meaning Elvis’ voice, and clash that against new colors.”

“[Let’s] talk about “That’s All Right” for instance. [The version I used] was the one from 1954 where he recorded at Sun, it really represents the ripe incarnation of Elvis. It’s not a version from the 1970’s, it’s the purest one. In “That’s All Right” there’s no drum, the upright bass was really doing the drums job. So to really bring the song into 2010 and have the same kind of force that it had in ‘54 I had to bring a drum into the new arrangement. Also to have that hard rock feel I had to muscle up the rhythm section and record new bass and new guitars. But it was really important to me to have that clash, that mixture of tones. [So I kept] Scotty Moore’s guitar in there, because the sound of Elvis back in ’54 was coming from his voice but also from Scotty Moore’s guitar. That’s something everybody can easily recognize. So I kept [snippets] from Scotty Moore’s guitar, but mainly it really goes around the voice.”

Creating the soundscapes involved technology unavailable during Presley’s time. “To isolate Elvis’ vocal I worked with the program, “Digital Performer” (Ed: a software recording/editing/mixing package from MOTU-Mark of the Unicorn, But I used a program called “Melodyne” when I had to change the harmony in the Jordainaires introduction to “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” It came from “Known Only To Him,” an old gospel song. I had to change the harmony because it was clashing with the chord progression. (Ed: Melodyne is a digital studio package from Celemony,”

He also worked with an old friend, a pioneering stereo digital sampler released in 1988, the Akai S-1000 (see a picture with info at “[Laughs] It’s my sampler, my companion; I’ve had that sampler for years. I [had to make] some new knobs [out of] Fimo clay (Ed: a polymer clay paste like Sculpey, It’s really archaic, really old, I think the memory is 32 meg so it’s a joke. But it’s my old companion and I did a lot of mash-ups and breakbeats on the album [with it].”

To CD or Not to CD

As Mr. Van Tourneau worked on creating the show’s music, he wasn’t thinking toward an eventual CD soundtrack release. Indeed, though it’s desired to have a soundtrack as part of a Cirque shows merchandise mix it’s never a given, especially when somebody else’s music is involved.

“In this industry nothing is taken for granted,” said Mr. Van Tourneau. “Of course it’s natural to think there would be an album, [as with] LOVE. But I didn’t take that for granted. I was delivering song after song and doing my best just to stay on the boat in this adventure and keep everyone into it. Because [this] was my first project with Cirque and I didn’t have the name or history of (Beatles producer) George Martin.”

“[At one point] we were in Las Vegas at Guy Laliberte’s place there, and we had a meeting listening to all the songs with the people at Sony. And it was really the first time that I could feel and sense that [people] were really into it and interested in the music by itself, not just as part of the show. Because the music is serving the show and, depending on the act, it has to serve a purpose. [But] there was really a good vibe and it was really the first time I could feel that we could have an album [that would stand] by itself.”

“I really began to work on the project at the beginning of June. (Ed: In order to meet Sony’s desire to have the CD in stores by the 2010 Holiday Season.) I [had produced an album during the summer] once before and promised myself [I wouldn’t do that again]! [laughs]”

“Working during summer is really tough for a creator,” he continued. “I was working from 5am until 10pm. Mentally it was tough to [be working and] see my dog running outside. But I couldn’t refuse to produce [the CD] because it was my baby. Sony only gave me three months so it was really really fast. The vocals were really complicated to deal with, so three months was [not a lot of time].”

Keeping with the practice of recent Cirque soundtracks, Mr. Van Tourneau made efforts to include musicians and singers from the live Vegas band. He even went so far as to have show guitarist Jean-Sebastian “The Flash” Chouinard record parts in the Viva Elvis Theater at night after shows.

Yet there is one notable musician missing from the CD, percussionist Kit Chatham (who is a very present musical personality in the show). Kit is a fan favorite from his days as drummer with Corteo, why does he not appear on the CD? “Because of his bad attitude! [laughs] No, no, I’m kidding. Kit is so cool and has a strong presence in the show. I clearly remember when I saw his audition tape. [I got] a really strong impression of Kit and he was the first musician that I chose.”

“I think the main difference between the album and the live performance is really an aesthetic one. [With the CD] I tried to bring Elvis samples into the picture as much as possible. So when I had a choice between using a musician from the show or using samples coming from Elvis’ work or world, I would use Elvis samples. I tried to use the musicians every time it was possible, but if I had access to nice percussion coming from [the world] of Elvis I would use those.” (Indeed, there is no one listed as performing “Percussion” on the CD.)

The resulting CD features Elvis on 10 of the CD’s 12 tracks with a running time of just over 42 minutes. Why not more tracks and a longer running time? “It was just a question of time. If I would have had six months I would add maybe four more cuts. But in my opinion more than 16 cuts on an album is too much. When you listen to the album as it is now, for me I’m exhausted at the end. Because it’s really intense emotionally and energy[-wise], it’s like a 45-minute long rock concert. So I preferred to leave on a high note rather than do 20 cuts.”

Missing from the CD are such show setpieces as “Got a Lot of Livin’ To Do,” “Hound Dog,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” “It’s Now or Never,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “One Night With You.” The short time to produce the album meant hard decisions of which songs to include had to be made. “I really loved “One Night With You.” I didn’t touch a hair to [it] since the creation of [the original pitch demo], it was really solid. I loved the emotional side, it’s really different. But it was [a duet, and it would be] too much to have four duets on the album. That was really the main argument for song choices, to have Elvis singing on the album. The name of the show and album is Viva Elvis, so for me it was fun to have maybe a couple of duets, but other than that it was too much.”

Might this lead to a second volume of the show’s music? “Personally I would love to work on a “Volume Two.” After that I think it’s a question for Sony and Cirque. We’ll see how “Volume One” goes. I did ask Sony to print a vinyl version of the album for collectors. It [would be] so cool, having access to [an Elvis album on] vinyl. I am anxious to see that happen, I would buy one!”

(Answering his request, the soundtrack album has since been released on 180-gram audiophile vinyl by Sony Legacy Recordings, with a UPC code of 8-86977-67661-1 and can be purchased through Amazon and other sources. But it doesn’t look like there will be a surround-sound version as there was with the limited-edition CD/DVD-A package for The Beatles Love.)

The final CD also incorporated assistance to mix the final tracks, bringing in Serban Ghemea and renowned mixer Brendon O’Brien. Utilizing them helped in several ways, Mr. Van Tourneau explained. “It was [a matter of] time but also competence. I am a big fan of Brendon O’Brien’s work. And Serban Ghemea is an amazing mixer, I think he’s mixed more than 1,000 albums. I wanted Brendon to work on the songs that were really rock (Ed: he mixed “That’s All Right,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Suspicious Minds”). And I wanted Serban to work on the songs that were more urban and hip-hoppish, with machines and drum machines (Ed: he mixed “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Bossa Nova Baby,” “Burning Love,” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love”). Serban did a really cool job because it’s a big range. [Like in] “Blue Suede Shoes,” where it’s more urban with the beat and handclaps, and you have real drums and real fat guitars.”

“It was really complicated to find someone that could understand all the musical influences that are in there. I was fortunate to have those two guys.”

It wasn’t too difficult for him to pick his favorites from the CD. “I don’t have the set list [in front of me], but for sure “Blue Suede Shoes” is one of my favorites. It’s so eclectic and modern and at the same time so relevant to and using all of Elvis’ roots. Like using Delta blues, a harmonica and a Bo Diddley beat. But clashing that with DJ scratching (such as the stuttering “go-go-go”), all the samples coming from Milton Berle, and all that stuff. I really love the infectious energy of “Blue Suede Shoes,” it’s really decadent.”

“On the other side I [also] love “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” It’s sensibility, [with] Elvis’ voice sounding so amazing and rich, and I love the female vocal. The beat is really urban, a really 2010 kind of R&B, Bill Withers beat. And the ending is really one of my favorite mash-ups [where] I bring “Love Me” into the picture. You have Elvis singing and the curtain falls, and there’s a big gospel choir [with] Elvis in front of them. For me it’s really a nice tribute to Elvis’ roots, he was so into gospel music. Those two I really like.”

The Sound of Silence

When he finished working on the show and soundtrack CD it was time to take a well-deserved break. “I just came back from a road trip, I was on the road almost two months in the United States. And every time I’m driving – and I did a lot of driving, sometimes fifteen hours a day – I didn’t listen to music at all. Because it was so intense, working so hard during the summer and the last two years. When I can I don’t listen to music. Sometimes I like to play piano and guitar with friends at parties, and have a glass of wine and play and jam, but I don’t listen to a lot of music at the moment.”

“I imagine it’s the same when you work [hard], like you’re working sixteen hours a day, when you have a chance to disconnect and do other things I think you do that. When I work I listen to everything that can have a connection with the project. I’m a big big fan and freak of music of all kinds, so it’s really from Abba to Zappa. I like that expression really, because I listen to everything.”

As our time drew to a close, we asked Mr. Van Tourneau what characteristic he felt was most critical for success in music. In a word, “Discipline.”

“Because you can have talent; if you don’t have talent don’t expect to work one hour in the business. I think that’s the minimum, the first thing you need to have. But after that it’s really hard work. I was fortunate to have a father that is really a kick-ass person that is really disciplined with his projects, and I learned a lot just [watching] him.”

Discipline that equipped him to create a powerful album starring the King of Rock And Roll in a short three-month timespan.

Takin’ Care Of Business, indeed.

(Another great interview with Mr. Van Tourneau can be found at Parts of that interview can be heard in audio form (including a great segment with him discussing – and playing – his update of the Elvis classic “Suspicious Minds”) on the “ Podcast” at (4-part “Special Edition – Viva Elvis between November 1-8, 2010, just prior to Episode #50).

My sincere thanks go to: Mr. Van Tourneau for so graciously spending time with us, Chantal Côte, Corporate PR Manager, And my wife LouAnna for putting up with my sometimes obsessive hobby.