n usnAce December 1994
BY MATT HICKEY
They were local heroes in the 80s. They got one shot at the big time, a self-titled album on a powerful recording label, before the foursome split.
Anyone familiar with the Lexington music scene in the mid-to-late 80s will remember Velvet Elvis, a power pop quartet who went from being local heroes to achieving a brief measure of national exposure after releasing an album on a fairly large label. It’s been about six years since the band’s heyday, so we tracked down the four members of the troupe during its most successful incarnation: all still have at least regional ties to the area, appear happy and are, for the most part, still creating music. But first a chronology.
Started in 1985 by singer-songwriter Dan Trisko along with drummer Sherri McGee and two others, Velvet Elvis built a following in and around town, eventually releasing an independent EP. Trisko, however had wanted the EP to be a full-blown album, something some of the members apparently had no interest in. So after they left, Trisko and McGee recruited bassist Scott Stoess and keyboard player Jeff Yurkowski and went on to more local success, eventually releasing an independent album, What in the World?
That record wound up in the hands of noted indie producer and pop sympathizer Mitch Easter, then of the group Let’s Active, and Easter enthusiastically produced Velvet Elvis’s shot at the big time, a self-titled album on Enigma Records.
Velvet Elvis turned out to be the band’s pinnacle as well as its nadir. They felt Enigma did a lousy job promoting the record, and after successfully extricating themselves from their contract, the band tried to get another deal — unfortunately, never scoring one. McGee was the first to officially defect, followed soon after by Yurkowski. Trisko and Stoess attempted to carry on with others, but called it quits in 1990.
A crass description of Velvet Elvis’s career might read: local heroes blow their only shot at stardom. The band members, while having some understandable regrets and a universal distaste for the record industry, see it differently: looking back, they pretty much concur that they did the best they could with what they had — and there’s no failure in that.
THE GUY WITH THE JOB HE CAN’T DESCRIBE
Trisko works at Oxmoor Toyota in Louisville and says his job entails so many things he’d rather not attempt a description. Married with two young boys, Trisko was the only founding member still around when Velvet Elvis left the building in 1990. He started the band with one goal: to make a record. He accomplished that, but only partially to his satisfaction. What in the World sounded better to him than Velvet Elvis.
“Artistically, I always set these impossibly high standards for myself, and so that record in particular drove me crazy, just because I was expecting so much,” he says by phone from his home in Louisville. “I thought, ‘OK, we’re going into a real big-time studio, and we’re going in with a big producer, and I jsut expected it to turn out great, and when at least to my ears it didn’t, I was just really disappointed.
“[The record] didn’t have any sort of particular feel or drive or flow to it, and I thought at times the one befoe it did. It had places where I thought it worked. I thought, “let’s just do this, but do it better,’ but or me at least, it didn’t quite turn out.”
Trisko, who still does session work and wouldn’t mind being in a band again, says his perception of the quality of the second record, along with the deadly problems with Enigma, helped speed Velvet Elvis’s demise. As with others, he really doesn’t have regrets: the band was only capable of so much.
“If it was a poker game, we just kind of got a mediocre hand. We played it the best we could, but it just wasn’t a particularly exciting hand,” Trisko says. “Scott asked me once what did I think was the peak of the band and it was really the year we put out What in the World, moreso than that big album a year leater. Five years later looking at it, I still can’t tell you what happened. Certain career moves were made that just didn’t produce any results. We were determined to leave the record company. That’s the gamble we took, and we didn’t get a second chance.
It was simply a band that ran out of steam. We had chased that carrot for four years. Some bands have the built in chemistry to just look each other in the eye and say ‘we believe in ourselves; let’s dust ourselves off and keep on running,’ but we just didn’t have that in us anymore.”
“It was a feeling I had in my gut for years. For a good year, year and a half, I kind of knew that this was a real precarious thing that could just kind of crumble, you know? Sherri was the first one to officially say, “I quit,” and I was like, ‘Well, there you go.’”
The White Trash, Trailer Park, Country and Western Singer
McGee tells a joke via the phone from Austin, Texas, “how do you circumcise a hillbilly?”
“Slap his sister on the back of her head.”
Besides sharing nasty jokes with impressionable innocents, McGee, after a sting in Los Angeles, is continuing her music career in Austin, along with, in no particular order, looking for a job, working sporadically in nursing homes, and attempting to open a thrift store called You n Used.
“I’ve become a white-trash, trailer-park, country-and-western singer,” she says with a discernible trace of glee. “I moved down here in February. I was playing in a couple of bands down here. I played with a blues band — imagine that in Austin — and a punk band that was cool, but I quit them both because I went home to Kentucky — Glasgow is where I’m from — so I was there and Lexington, just visiting, hanging out with family and friends and stuff.
So I came back [to Austin] hopefully to start Little Miss Tammy Smith. Tammy is my country AKA I’ve got a lot of original songs — real traditional country like Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn.”
McGee, single with no children (“You see who the true rocker is, man.”) best remembers her time in Velvet Elvis as an opportunity to experience life on the road — and the free food at gigs.
“The road is the life for me,” she says, “I love going to bed in clean sheets every night, living out of a suitcase, not having to know what day it is, and deli trays — oh my god — I have pictures of every deli tray we ever got. We had a great booking agency, so the tours were a blast.”
Regardless of how Velvet Elvis turned out, McGee views her tenure in the band positively; it was an enjoyable experience, and no matter what happened with the group, or what will happen in the future, she’ll always be a musician.
“We were such a good band, but it was questionable whether anything would’ve happened because it’s such a weird business to be in. We definitely had the talent and the drive,” she says. “I really miss it a lot. I regret that it’s over, but you just keep doing it, keep moving on and something might happen.”
“I can’t help but play. I’ll play until the day I die. I just can’t help it. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell my Dad. Some of us quit, but I just don’t think I can.
The Computer Programmer
Yurkowski may be the most familiar of the ex-Velvets to Lexington music aficionados. A Pennsylvania native, Yurkowski plays piano and accordio for the Yonders, a local country band that just released its first album, the CD-only Texall on Main Street, on the band’s own Beaux Vinyl records. The Yonders also play every Wednesday at the Wrocklage.
While holding a day job as a computer programmer in Lexington, Yurkowski is the only ex-Velvet to currently belong to a functioning band, simply because, though married with two daughters, he enjoys it.
“[With Velvet Elvis], we just liked to make records, make music,” he says. “It’s the same philosophy I went in with the Yonders, and that’s what we did.”
As far as Velvet Elvis, recording the album with Mitch Easter was one of the highlights for Yurkowski.
“It was great,” he says, “The studio we did it in was in Memphis — Ardent Studios — which was used by a lot of people. It was a lot of fun. We went to Graceland.”
After some thought, Yurkowski, who eventually would liek to integrate computer programming with music by doing a soundtrack for a computer game or a TV show, regards Velvet Elvis with equal parts fondness and regret. Or maybe not.
“[the band] was work, but we had a good time, he says. We stayed prettty busy. It was hard, it was a lot of work, but we got to see the whole country a couple of times. I enjoyed it. I love that life.
“I have regrets that we didn’t accomplish more. Ah, I guess that’s not true,” he recants, “Id on’t have any regrets. I wish that we had sold more records. I regret we didn’t sell more records.”
THE CAR SALESMAN
Stoess has turned his lifelong fasciantion with cars into another career. After working as a mechanic before and during Velvet Elvis, he now sells cars for ol’ Don Jacobs in Lexington. “They hired me and wanted to fire me after the first three months. “Stoess says, “but I went on to be their New Car salesperson of the year, every year I’ve been here.”
After graduating from the University of Kentucky and spending an eye-opening summer in Great Britain, Stoess, who lives in Lexington with his wife and three children, fulfilled his wish to be in a band with longtime friend Trisko by joining Velvet Elvis. While insisting the band wasn’t king of the local hill by any means — “We were just part of what was then a healthy scene” — his memories of the time revolve around the word “fun,” which isn’t surprising if you know him. It appears positively impossible for the LaGrange native to be negative.
“We made it just far enough to — there’s some sort of Biblical parallel. I’m sure — we were led to the well and almost got a sip,” he says. “We had fun, no one declared bankruptcy while we were in it, and we had a lot of fun. There was a lot of gratification from it. We had two videos on MTV, which was fun. We got to see the country, which was great fun.”
Prior to settling in at Don Jacobs, Stoess did some session work before deciding to devote his full attention to being a husband and father. And after recently re-stringing a favorite guitar, he says, although he most likely would never be in another band, the music bug has perhaps made a return visit.
“Being a father and having all three children at home, I would find it terribly difficult to go out and be on the road or be in that environment,” he says, “because I don’t think that I love music quite that much or have that desire to take it to that level and compromise not being there when they’re growing up. Right now, I’m really, really enjoying my kids.
“But there’s this high off of creating something, whether it’s artistic, sculpture, music or whatever, and when you collaborate and do it, it’s just a very unique high, and once you experience it, you never forget it. Something magical is taking place and it takes you with it, and when that happens, it’s just priceless.’