Brad Elvis’ basement in Albany Park is a power-pop museum — four storied drum kits, Sparks posters on the walls, Debbie Harry’s shoe on a shelf. In one corner is a framed photograph of one of Elvis’ old bands, Screams, showing Elvis leaping over his drum kit, doing the splits in mid-air.
“I can’t do that anymore,” Elvis says. “I’m not sure I could do that then.”
Elvis is one of those guys who’s been around the Chicago music scene for what seems like ever. He sports a jet-black dye job, but a few spots on his hands give away his wisdom. When I ask how old he is, he artfully dodges the question. Twice.
Screams hailed from Peoria and then Champaign, gigging a lot in Chicago and releasing a self-titled LP in 1979 showcasing a sound mostly straight outta Rockford (Cheap Trick) with a bit of punk around the edges. “We weren’t Foghat,” Elvis says.
He was Brad Steakly then. The kingly moniker came from his next project, the Elvis Brothers, a trio taking a genealogical page from the Ramones (featuring Rob Elvis, Graham Elvis and Brad Elvis) and dropping three LPs in the ’80s and ’90s. Next was Big Hello, from 1996 until 2002, and now Elvis is the key to the Handcuffs — a prolific pop-glam duo with his wife, Chloe F. Orwell, and augmented on stage by guitarist Ellis Clark, bassist Emily Togni and keyboard player Alison Hinderliter (Scotland Yard Gospel Choir).
Each band earned praises and “next big thing” prognostications. Elvis’ flashy drumming style consistently has been admired by fans and fellow players.
“I’m the most legendary drummer no one’s heard of,” Elvis says. “I’ve just kept going. Pretty soon you realize how old you are. I’ve tried to make each [band] the best one. I’ve played with a lot of different bands that just … stay in that place.”
What he means is, if you want to catch Brad Elvis in action, you have to be at the show on time. Ever the bridesmaid vs. the bride, Elvis’ bands are always around but almost always “opening for.” Screams opened for the Ramones, the Elvis Bros. opened for the Clash. The billings rise and fall. This weekend — and Elvis is the kind of guy to keep track, so this will be his 4,027th gig — they open for indie-rock’s Supersuckers.
“We’re trying to work our way up to the bottom,” Elvis says.
“We’re very under the radar, but we love where we are and what we do,” says Orwell.
A publicist once wrote a charming story about how Orwell and Elvis met — at a newsstand, both wearing purple suede jackets and buying the same paper, The Weekly World News. Like that publication, the story was pure fiction. The two actually met through far more typical circumstances: Orwell answered Elvis’ ad in the Chicago Reader, searching for a singer later in Big Hello’s run. The ad listed Elvis’ influences: Cheap Trick, “The White Album,” Pulp and Sparks.
“I just kept getting all these Pearl Jam guys, all these guys wearing jeans,” Elvis says.
“I didn’t know who Sparks was,” Orwell admits. She turns to Elvis and says, “I don’t think you envisioned a girl singer. You were surprised when a girl answered your ad.”
“No, I didn’t,” Elvis says, raising his eyebrows. “But you know, as long as you were good and got it together, you know. As long as you looked great.”
The phrase “image conscious” comes up repeatedly in conversation with the Handcuffs. This is a duo that doesn’t wear street clothes in concert.
“I grew up with bands that had individual images,” Elvis says. “The bands I looked up to had a look. Even the Ramones — they were just wearing jeans and jackets, but all four of them were wearing jeans and jackets. They had a look. I don’t think I’ve ever gone out in jeans and a T-shirt.”
“I did once,” Orwell says, “when I went as Kurt Cobain for Halloween.”
Elvis usually looks sharp in bold blazers, vests, stripes and checks. Orwell’s out front in short skirts, scarves, fishnets, boots. “I like to feel like I’m going on stage when I go on stage,” Elvis says.
Elvis and Orwell are now working on a fourth Handcuffs album, the follow-up to last year’s “Waiting for the Robot” (“We were listening to demos today,” Orwell says) and trying to push themselves “out of our comfort zone,” she says.
But Elvis’ secret weapon isn’t his skinny ties or his rolling fills, it’s his songwriting. Strongly power pop, with recent glam flourishes and rocking backbeats, the Handcuffs stay afloat through occasional gigs and recordings, sure, but they’ve also discovered another paycheck option: licensing songs to TV and movies. Nearly 40 Handcuffs songs have been used in TV shows on 11 networks, from “Gossip Girl” and “The Cho Show” to “Jersey Shore” and “Laguna Beach.”
Meanwhile, Orwell does voiceover work, and Elvis records and tours with the Romantics, a gig he picked up years ago as a hand-off from a friend, Blondie’s Clem Burke.
It ain’t playing stadiums, but neither is it digging ditches. Fame, also, has degrees.
“It’s pretty regular,” Orwell says. “These guys are always coming up to him — ‘You look just like this guy, this drummer!’ — and then, ‘I saw you in Minneapolis open for Van Halen! You’re awesome!’ ”
— The Handcuffs’ next couple of shows are Nov. 9 opening for the Supersuckers (9 p.m. at Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee. Tickets, $12, 773-489-3160, doubledoor.com) and Nov. 23 opening for the Steepwater Band (9 p.m. at Brauer House, 1000 N. Rohlwing Rd. in Lombard. Tickets, $5-$7, 630-495-2141, brauerhouse.com).