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Alejandro Escovedo has been called a musician’s musician. He has played in the obscure, yet legendary bands the Nuns, Rank and File and True Believers before striking off on his own solo career. His tastes run from alt-country to glam to punk. But there is an even more serious side to the story. After collapsing on stage in 2003, Escovedo learned he had hepatitis C. Like many musicians, he did not have health insurance but the musical community banded together, playing concerts and putting out a tribute album to help defray medical costs. In 2008, Escovedo worked with producer Tony Visconti to put out Real Animal, a rocking tour de force that moves through all the music Escovedo loved and had influenced him. I had a chance to catch up with him via phone at his Texas home right before he embarked on tour.

How have you been feeling lately?

I feel great. I’ve been feeling really good, man. I’ve been taking care of myself, we’ve been working hard and I’ve started writing songs for a new record. So, everything’s good right now.

That’s good to hear. Is your new tour going to be focusing on material from Real Animal?

Yeah, I think we will focus on that pretty much. Last night we had a rehearsal and we started going over the older songs like “Mountain of Mud” that we’re going to add to the set again. I’m trying to think about what else we worked on. “Crooked Frame.” Some of the stuff from the older albums that we haven’t done in awhile.

I’ve actually seen you once. A long time ago when I was in college, I drove from the middle of Pennsylvania to DC to see Son Volt and you opened with Buick Mackane.

Oh yeah? Where was that in DC? The 9:30? That was a good show.

Is your touring regimen different now that you are taking better care of yourself?

It is. I don’t tour nearly as much as I used to, for one thing. We try to give me a day off every few days. I’m not doing five, six, seven days in a row like I used to. I try to get to bed earlier, but that’s always been a losing battle for me. I can’t sleep, so it’s hard.

Are you an insomniac?

Yeah. I get hyped up when we start playing and it’s hard to turn it off and I can’t do that.

Getting hyped up is a good thing, isn’t it?

I guess so but sleep is really the most important element in staying healthy in my opinion.

Yeah, it seems the younger you are, the less you adhere to that maxim.

Right, right. I’ve been taking good care of myself and I feel really good right now so I’m excited to go out with the band. We haven’t played as a band for awhile now.

Is this band the one that is featured on the new album?

Pretty much except we have a new bass player now. His name is Bobby Daniel. He’s a great bass player. He’s from Birmingham, Alabama. I met him through this record I produced here. I recruited him. We needed a bass player. He’s great. I really love the way the band sounds now. I think it’s the best band I’ve ever had.

That’s exciting. You’re actually playing at one of my favorite venues in town.

At the Aladdin? I love playing the Aladdin. I’ve been playing there for years and years and years. I love it.

It’s got a great sound. So, is “Castanets” back in the setlist?

Yes. It’s back, it’s back, it’s back.

Did that have the effect you had hoped?

It didn’t have much of an effect at all other than having a kind of funny story to tell.

So what was your reaction when you found out that your favorite ex-President had your song on his iPod?

I was really mortified. I couldn’t believe that had happened to me. I did whatever I could to remove myself from it.

Well, it could be worse. You could be Ricky Martin in that photo where Bush is attempting to dance.

I’m glad I’m not that.

It’s good that he’s gone.

Yeah, it’s absolutely beautiful. Like I said before, the drag is he came back to Texas. But he’s been pretty quiet.

They keep him isolated down there on that ranch.

Yeah, just keep him out there and he’ll be fine.

You live in Texas?

I live outside of Austin. About 45 miles southwest of Austin.

I have a friend who lives in Austin and I went to some restaurant in Driftwood called the Salt Lick.

I live right down the road. I live out in the hill country. Another 20 miles after the Salt Lick.

It’s pretty quiet out there.

It is. We don’t make a lot of noise out here.

I guess you don’t have neighbors complaining when you practice.

No, they love it.

Let’s talk about the new album. You worked with Chuck Prophet on this one.

Chuck is an old friend of mine. He was in Green on Red when I was in True Believers. So I’ve known him for a quite awhile and I just think the world of his talent. He’s a wonderful guy; real fun to hang out with. It was easy.

I remember hearing Green on Red the first night I heard Ziggy Stardust.

There you go. Those records were so influential to us we definitely wanted that kind of feel on the album. So getting Tony Visconti to produce it was a perfect match. We wrote for that kind of album.

How did you get Tony to come aboard on this one? It seems like a coup to get him.

Tony just became interested because he heard the material and he felt he could relate to it. He thought that I really had a rock ‘n’ roll album inside of me and that’s what we went for. But getting him was, like you said, a coup, it was a really amazing move for all of us. It just kind of brought everything together.

Is Chuck Prophet on tour with you this time?

Chuck is not on tour with us.

You’ve been a variety of bands and I hate to put people in a box, when you look online people talk about you being one of the progenitors of alt-country. At the same time, there is definitely a glam influence. If you look at the name Buick Mackane, it comes from T. Rex song.

It’s usually been rock ‘n’ roll first. I think the alt country thing came just because sometimes the media just doesn’t know what to do with you. If you listen to my albums you can maybe say there is a tinge of country influence on them. I certainly don’t ever try to shy away from the fact that I love country music. The good stuff, the older stuff. I think to say that I’m alt-country is shortchanging the music.

Like I said, it’s easier for people to put others in a box.

It’s funny how that works. You gotta understand one thing: I’ve been doing this for a long time. So even when we were supposedly punk rock, we weren’t really punk rock. It just kind of grew around us. I’m talking about my first band, the Nuns.

That’s the band you opened for the Sex Pistols with?

Yeah, that band. So that kind of grew around us. The other part is that Rank and File was really trying to be a combination of many different things. The punk rock that we loved, the kind of country that we were drawing from was very different than what people would assume was country.

What type was that?

Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings and that kind of stuff. Buck Owens. It doesn’t bother me anymore because I know what the truth is, right?

Well, it’s your music. It is interesting how this vein of country music has persevered while the popular, radio stuff has kind of dissipated into the history books.

Yeah, that’s eternal music. It’s like listening to Miles Davis or John Coltrane. Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald. Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. Those are just classic records. Classic songs, classic sounds. I love drawing from all of those things. I’ve always said my music is a result from my vast record collection.

Do you have a lot?

Yeah, I do. I collect vinyl.

Back to the glam influence, do you definitely see that on this new album?

Oh yeah. Like I said before, it was what we were drawing from. The inspiration was all those records, that sound, that time and everything that came as a result of being part of all that. Going to Rodney’s English Disco and hanging out with kids who almost loved the Stooges as much as I did.

Do you like that newest Stooges album?

Yeah, I like it.

Do you have any albums from that time that were influential to you that you put on and still have the same effect on you now that they did back then?

I listen to Honky Dory over and over again. I listen to Mott the Hoople’s records over and over again. I listen to the Stooges over and over again. There’s a lot of those records. I listen to T. Rex’s The Slider and Electric Warrior all the time.

It’s interesting because I feel like bands like Mott and T. Rex went through a period where they were discredited as over excessive but they have a re-evaluation over the last 10 years or so.

I also think if you compare them to what is happening now, those records seem to have so much more depth to them, at least in my opinion.

Is there anything that has come out recently that you have fallen in love with?

There’s a band from Mali called Tinariwen. Have you heard of them?

From Africa? I have not.

They are amazing, man. They live out in the desert and they play electric guitars and stuff. They just groove so big. It’s amazing. It’s just lovely music. I love it.

Well, Mali is the epicenter of West African music. That’s where Ali Farka Toure came from.

Right, they have all these great guitar players there. I think that’s where guitar is, personally. Electric guitar, rock ‘n’ roll guitar, it’s being played there.

I saw this interesting film called Throw Down Your Heart with Bela Fleck where he goes to Africa in search of the origin of the banjo.

Oh, does he?

It’s a pretty interesting movie.

I’d like to see that. It sounds great.

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Let’s talk about this new album Real Animal. It sounds like it’s very autobiographical.

It was meant to be an autobiographical record, so that’s the way we played it out. I’m really happy that it turned out as well as it did because it was an intense venture to take on and it took us awhile to get there.

Is facing mortality a big factor in making the record?

I think that it had a lot to do with it. It didn’t consciously spur me but obviously it was some sort of subliminal kick in the ass.

Which songs are your favorites?

I love “Hollywood Hills.” I love “Chelsea Hotel.” I like the “Nun’s Song.” It’s one of those records where I can’t listen to one song. It’s funny that “Always a Friend” is really the most popular song on that record but to me it’s my least favorite song on the album.

First songs usually take on that form.

The first song we wrote for the record was “Slow Down,” the last song on the album. I love the ballads; I love “Swallows of San Juan.” I think that’s a beautiful song.

I’m excited to see the more muscular ones live. Let’s talk about some of the songs in specific. With “Chelsea Hotel ’78” I feel like you’re adding and poking a hole in the rock ‘n’ roll myth of the Chelsea Hotel with that song. Why do we mythologize this place?

It dates way back.

Dylan was there in the ’60s…

Dylan Thomas lived there. It dates way back. All these different artists of every type lived there. It was a haven and epicenter for bohemian lifestyle in New York throughout the ’50s and ’60s. Maybe even further back than that. The Beats certainly hung out there. My friends always wanted to go to Europe and yet I always wanted to go to New York. I always wanted to see where the Velvet Underground were from. I was living in California at the time. I just always wanted to go there.

Did it provide you with what you had hoped?

Well, it did until that Sid and Nancy thing happened. At that point everybody split. It was really symbolic because it was kind of the end of a certain kind of scene.

In your song you say, “We all moved out/ We all moved on.” Like I said, that’s kind of like poking a hole in the mythology of it whereas this horrible happens and it’s destroyed for everybody.

It really did. It’s funny because I was up in their room a few nights before it all went down. There was a dealer that lived in the building that everybody I knew who lived felt he was responsible for that. It was a strange scene, very surreal living in the Chelsea Hotel. Have you ever read Dee Dee Ramone’s book about the Chelsea?

No, I haven’t.

You gotta check that out. It’s really good. He talks about seeing ghosts and they are pretty decadent and pretty messed up. It’s very interesting. I’m glad I was there at that time because it changed shortly after that.

Did you have any paranormal or surreal experiences there?

Oh, there are definitely spirits in there, dude. Yeah, a lot. It’s a heavy place. You just look at it from the outside and you can tell there’s a lot living in there that you don’t see.

Now, “Chelsea Hotel” segues into “Sister Lost Soul” which begins with “Nobody left unbroken.” Was that written in tandem with “Chelsea Hotel” or was just a sequencing coincidence?

That was sequencing thing but it’s a good pairing of two songs, I think, because the Chelsea obviously takes you to a point where it all kind of broke and then you have to pick up the pieces to survive. “Sister Lost Soul” is really about the practitioners of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and how everybody’s so sensitive. Some get pulled in and become caricatures of what a rock person should be, a rock star, whatever you want to call it. A rock ‘n’ roller.

What do you think a rock ‘n’ roller should be?

I don’t have any preconceived notion because personally I’ve been fortunate, I don’t know how to say this, but I’ve always had very close friends and family close to me who have bought into it and I’ve seen them go to the brink of death basically. Some of them don’t survive. I don’t know. There’s something about me. Maybe I was a little too vain at times and I’ve never let myself get to that point.

You push yourself in other ways though.

I guess, but some guys get into it and they really buy into it. They feel they have to do dope because Keith Richards did dope. Do you what I mean? That’s what it was like back then.

It’s almost an inflated version of the tortured 18th century poet.

In a way. It’s very romantic, the tortured, brooding genius that just can’t take the pain. I think a lot of us, when we feel pain and we’re uncomfortable with it, we medicate ourselves. If we do this to the point where we can’t feel anything, I’m sure it’s not so healthy.

There is also the whole Holden Caulfield aspect of authenticity where if you’re not actually living the pain or indulging yourself the pain, then you’re not truly living the experience.

I think the problem with that is that we all suffer. Suffering is part of life. Some of us learn how to let go of it.

If you want to look at suffering right now, look at what happened to Michael Jackson.

That was horrible. It’s kind of what happened to Sid Vicious really. It wasn’t as played out and he didn’t have the cultural impact that Michael Jackson had but they wanted him to be that to sell records.

The crazy thing is there is probably a strain of people out who look at what happened to Sid Vicious to be more admirable than Johnny Rotten continuing and using the Sex Pistols name to make money.

Exactly! It’s always more glamorous when the guy dies, right? When the guy totally destroys himself is always more glamorous and romantic than the guy who survives and moves on. You know what I’m saying.

I think that kind of ties into your “Sensitive Boys” song in a way.

Very much.

I think you’re talking about…Well, I’ll let you tell me.

No, no, go ahead.

It sounds like a bunch of wannabes who look to a rock star as an idol.

In a way, that’s part of it. To me, the great line in that song is, “Sensitive boys want all your love or they want no love at all.” It’s about insecurity. There’s a line, “If you want to find the most insecure guy in the room, just look on stage.” We’re all trying to avoid being targeted as hacks sometimes.

I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to call Sid Vicious or Kurt Cobain insecure. I really like that song. Another song I really is “Golden Bear.” The first time I heard it, I thought it sounded like “Ashes to Ashes.”

Right, it’s supposed to.

I feel like the referencing that happens in these songs acknowledges what forms you.

Definitely. I am making no bones to pretend that was an original thought. It’s obviously “Ashes to Ashes” and I put it there because it’s an homage to that song, to that time and especially to David Bowie. I do it with respect. It’s also a great reference point within the song to take you there.

Do you know if Bowie’s heard the song?

No, I don’t know.

But having Visconti attached to the project makes it easier.

(Laughs) Sometimes, yeah.

Let’s talk about metaphors and allusions. “Swallows of San Juan” is one of return and this album seems to about a journey home where you examine your influences and return full circle.

When we wrote “Swallows,” I know Chuck and I talked a lot about getting back and rolling around in the source. The source of the music, the songs. Those garage bands that we loved. I grew up in the ’60s and listened to these bands we used see in these tiny, little clubs. Amazing bands. Real rocking bands. It’s about rubbing that stuff all over you again. It’s about wanting to be who we are now but having that alive within us. And it is. That’s what that song was about really. Part of it was reflecting on growing up in California during those years. It was so beautiful there.

Did it feel good to bathe yourself in it again?

It was; it felt really good. It still does, man. When I went back and played in San Diego and played in LA, to play those songs is a really wonderful thing.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Huntingdon Beach, California.

I’m an east coaster that’s been transplanted.

Where you are at now?

I’m in Portland.

I love Portland, man. It’s a great town.

I’ve only been here for a year, but this is where we’re going to stay.

It’s cool, right?

It’s great. Hopefully you’ll get some time to poke around while you’re here.

Do you have family there? Like kids and stuff?

No, we just got married in December.

Oh, that would be a nice place to have children.

Yeah, there are lots of them here.

I like that place a lot. I have a lot of kids.

How many do you have?

Seven

Oh wow. That’s a lot of kids.

Yeah, I used to travel through there because I just go pick apples in the Yakima Valley. Then we’d make enough money to go over to the Olympic Peninsula and Seattle. It’s really beautiful there.

One last question about the album. The one song that seems to be drawing the most attention is the one I mentioned before, “Golden Bear.” Specifically the line “Oh, why me?” Is that a metaphor music infecting you as a young man or reference to the hepatitis C?

For myself, it’s really about the hepatitis C. It’s not to be this pitiful cry out of “oh, why me?” With any significant thing that happens that changes your life, you have to ask that question. Especially when it’s based around a life-threatening disease. I remember when I realized what it was I was dealing with when I was diagnosed, I looked around and saw many of my friends who were close to me that I had grown up with and played with and drunk with and did drugs with and they didn’t have it. But I did. It was just like asking a simple question. I wonder what it was. What is it? What is it? Why did that happen to me? Was it karma? You could even do down the road that you’d done something bad and that you were being paid back for it in some way. Which I guess is karma. In the end, I look at it now as something that really improved my life in a very profound way. I don’t look at it as a bad thing at all.

The song seems like a catharsis for you.

Yeah, it definitely was. That’s kind of where that song’s at.

(Photos: Nick Barber)

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