30 Days Out Exclusive Interview: Alejandro Escovedo
Alejandro Escovedo is the greatest musician working out of Texas today. For more than 20 years, he has been a premier songwriter and a crack bandleader. But his roots go back even farther – he comes from a musical family. His father was a musician, his brother Coke (died 1986) was a member of Santana and the rest of his brothers are also musicians. Alejandro was a member of seminal punk rockers the Nuns, who opened for the Sex Pistols’ last show in 1978, and alt-country pioneers Rank and File as well as the True Believers.
As a solo performer Escovedo has earned many kudos: No Depression magazine named him its “Artist of the Decade” in 1998 while last year’s Real Animal was atop many “best of” lists last year and it was Escovedo’s first effort to chart on the Billboard album lists. He has worked with some of the biggest and most interesting names in music, and he recently took a few minutes to speak to us from his home near Austin.
30 Days Out: You had a pretty good year in 2008 … how do you turn around and top that?
Alejandro Escovedo: I try not to top it, actually. Just go ahead and keep playing gigs and enjoy the warm glow of last year and just try to write good songs, you know?
30 Days Out: Do you have something in mind, something you are working on toward your next project?
AE: This is probably the most – what’s the word for it – it’s the most tormented aspect of writing an album, figuring out what you’re going to write about. The last record (Real Animal) was a great record and I told a story, and I like telling stories, but pretty much I summed up the whole thing on the last record in a way. For the first songs I have been writing I’ve been going back and thinking about a lot of stuff right now … I have some friends who are going through tough times physicially, some health issues, the songs are kind of gearing toward those kind of memories. I don’t honestly know where it’s gonna end up, I don’t. I did with the last record because that’s what we set out to do; By the Hand of the Father was obviously a project that had a context to it that I could obviously relate to, it was a story about my father. I don’t know if I would tackle something like that again, I would just like to make a collection of songs. Something may come up that just grabs my attention and takes me in a new direction entirely. I try to stay open to it, you know?
30 Days Out: How were the Real Animal album and music received in other parts of the country? You have a lot of fans in Texas but what about the rest of the country?
AE: Oh, it was great, the shows in New York, Boston … Chicago has always been wonderful, the shows we did in Toronto, Montreal was great. It was really cool. The record just really helped a lot, it was well received everywhere.
30 Days Out: You played the “Today” show?
AE: We played the “Today” show, the “Tonight Show,” the Democratic National Convention, we also played … what was the other show we did? We did three, I can’t remember.
30 Days Out: Did you ever go back and do (David) Letterman?
AE: No, not yet. We hope to do it this year, though.
30 Days Out: So I take it that getting with Jon Landau was a good deal for you. (Editors’ note: Last year Alejandro signed with Jon Landau Management, which manages Bruce Springteen, among others. He has since played with Bruce Springsteen in Houston in April 2008, opened some shows for the Dave Matthews Band and will perform at the Bonnaroo festival this summer.)
AE: (Laughs) It was pretty much a “break down the doors” kind of thing. I had a previous manager in Texas for quite a while, and I felt that … I don’t know, with the scope of the record and the label and everything I just felt like we weren’t moving forward in the direction I wanted, so we amicably parted ways. The record company assisted me in finding a manager and I talked to several really good managers but when I was introduced to Barbara Carr and Jan Stabile of Jon Landau Management and then met Jon, it was obvious that it was a great place to go to. And I just got along very well with them, they were there for the right reasons.
30 Days Out: It’s obviously changed your career a lot, can you expand on how much it’s changed your career?
AE: I mean, I probably would have never played with Bruce Springsteen in front of 18,000 people if that hadn’t happened, right? And I probably wouldn’t have opened for him in front of 75,000 people in Milwaukee if that hadn’t happened. I think that probably the Dave Matthews thing was the result of Jon Landau Management, even the TV shows, so you can see when you have someone who’s been in the business as long as Jon and Barbara and Jan, and they’ve got the reputation they have. They’ve dealt with the kind of acts that sell millions and millions of records , it’s another world entirely.
30 Days Out: Does that change your music a little, when you think you are going to have a much larger audience?
AE: Well, I mean, it obviously didn’t change the way I made Real Animal because the record was done before the management change. And they don’t want me to do anything but what I do. This is the thing that’s always kind of confusing for an artist when you get an opportunity like this; the tendency is to think, ‘What does Bruce Springsteen do that I don’t do?’ Somewhere in the back of your head you think that. I had this kind of dilemma when I started to make the last record with Glyn Johns, the quality of songwriting had to elevate. He told me and everyone told me, from the record company to Tony Visconti, they just want me to be myself. The reason I’m here is because of the songs I’ve written previously and the shows I’ve done and the way I’ve conducted my band. As long as I can keep a sense of what it is I love to do and to feel natural about it and at ease with it, I think I’m okay with it.
30 Days Out: What was it like playing at the Bruce Springsteen show in Houston?
AE: First of all it was unexpected. I was told I was just going to meet my managers in Houston. Bruce was playing, we were all going to go out to dinner and we were going to see a Bruce Springsteen show. My wife and I were late as we always are, and we were driving to Houston, when we suddenly got a text message from Jan saying “Bruce wants to play ‘Always A Friend’ tonight in Houston. Are you in?” And I wrote back, yes, I’m definitely in. But I was very nervous, I had never met Bruce Springsteen or even seen one of his shows. And so when I got there they had already done sound check, he took me into his dressing room, they had already had the lyrics laid out … he had the chords worked out, so we went through it a couple times just him and I. Then the E Street Band came in, we went over it a couple times acoustically in the dressing room. Then my wife and I went out to watch the show. I was totally blown away by the show, it was my first Springsteen show and it brought back that beautiful feeling I used to get when I’d go to big rock shows in the past. I hadn’t been to a big arena rock show in a long time. It was very powerful, I loved the vibe in the room, the way he kind of makes 18,000 people feel like they’re at the Continental Club.
30 Days Out: How do you return the favor? “Hey Bruce, come and play with me at the Continental Club?”
AE: I would love to do that, and maybe that will happen.
30 Days Out: He’s coming to Austin in April. You going to do another one?
AE: No, I don’t think so but we certainly thought about booking a show where we invite him out to play with us. That would be great.
30 Days Out: When you’re working with a big name producer like John Cale or Tony Visconti, what kind of compromises do you have to make? Or do you make them? (Tony Visconti – who has worked with David Bowie and T. Rex – produced Real Animal; John Cale – of the Velvet Underground and producer of the Stooges and the Modern Lovers – produced Escovedo’s The Boxing Mirror in 2006.)
AE: When I hire a producer to I hire them to produce a record and that’s why they’re there. I don’t want to dictate what the record should be, to a guy who has the experience of John Cale or Tony Visconti. I bring them in because I want what they have to offer. So I pretty much hand it over to them, I write the songs and outside of anything that’s completely ridiculous I let them have their way. I felt that every record I’ve ever made, from Stephen Bruton to Chris Stamey to having Visconti and John Cale, it’s the trust I have in these people to produce a particular kind of record. With Cale I knew it would get out there a little bit, I felt it would be little more electronic. I felt like the band at that time, especially after the hiatus we had because of my illness, needed to be totally shaken out of its den, to come out of hibernation. I love the record we made with John. Then the record with Tony was different, it was more of a band effort – it was more organic, he wanted the band in there the whole time. With John, we spent a lot of time alone making that record.
30 Days Out: Real Animal certainly has a bigger sound.
AE: It does, and Visconti is known for making those great English sounding records. That’s what I wanted from Tony, because of the subject matter and the story of the record, we wanted it to sound like an older record.
30 Days Out: Why did you go to Lexington, Kentucky, to record Real Animal?
AE: There’s a studio in Lexington that Tony wanted to record in, Sinclair studios. Tony said it is one of the top 5 studios in the world that he loves to work in. For Chuck Prophet and I – he co-wrote the record- it is a place we went that was outside of Austin. There’s a club there owned by Bobby Ray, he is also a DJ at the radio station. He was in love with Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Townes, me, people coming out of Texas. He would play the music a lot on the radio, when we would show up for gigs in Lexington it was suddenly packed houses. The audiences loved us and they treated us very well and we had a great time there. So it was appropriate that we go back to make this record, about this story, in Lexington.
30 Days Out: Writing about the punk era on Real Animal, what did you take from that time? Do people try to romanticize the past a little?
AE: I think sometimes, obviously. When I talk about all those great glitter rock days in Hollywood and stuff, I mean it was such a tiny little segment of rock music. Those bands sold barely a thousand copies of their records, how many records do you think the New York Dolls sold? Probably nothing. But when I look back at the punk era, what I loved about that particular phase of rock and roll and that time, it shook up everything and gave people an opportunity to get back into the garage and take it back to the street, let’s say. That was important. It made it possible for a lot of people to express things that they probably wouldn’t have in the Bill Graham 1970s era, you know? I’m talking about in San Francisco with bands like Journey and others, and you had to be a kind of technical player to be out there. This brought it back to the essence of it.
30 Days Out: Kind of like the Beatles did 10 years or so earlier …
AE: Exactly. The other thing I got from it was that it kind of dissolved the line between the audience and the performer, took it away from that pompous rock star thing that happened in the 1970s.
30 Days Out: When Real Animal came out last year, you played an in-store at Waterloo Records in Austin. And you said you were its No. 1 employee? What do you remember about working there?
AE: I love Waterloo Records – it kind of saved my life in a way. It came at a time … I got that gig after the True Believers had broken up. It’s funny because John Kunz and his partner in the very beginning, they funded the first True Believers recording. We go way back, they were old friends, they took me in at a time that I really needed a gig. I had the Orchestra going at the time and so everything about it is just a great memory … not to mention the education that I got musically from working in such a great record store. My vinyl collection tripled in size! I just made some really strong friendships. I just loved the place, and still do. The sad part is, when you work in a record store the employees always get first pick, always get the best stuff, so you kind of feel sorry for the customers.
30 Days Out: We also saw you at the Continental Club, and people were talking so loud they almost drowned you out.
AE: It’s really funny, I don’t understand why these people go. Personally if I want to talk to someone, I would have a dinner party at home. But not where music is being played, you know? I tell you one place that’s just ridiculous is the Continental Club in Houston, people are just so loud.
30 Days Out: We were there! All the talking kind of pissed you off that night.
AE: I know, I probably said something about it, right?
30 Days Out: Yeah, but it was great. It probably made you guys a little more punk toward the end.
AE: We were pretty loud at that point, and they were still kind of overbearing …
30 Days Out: You always have a bunch of shows planned around South by Southwest in Austin … what are you gonna do this year? (South by Southwest is March 18-22.)
AE: Well, we are going to bring back the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra (rock band live with strings) this year. We’re gonna do the Orchestra at Jo’s Coffee Shop, in the parking lot, on Friday. I’m also going to play at the Austin Music Awards show this year, David (Pulkingham, the band lead guitarist) and I going to do a duet. And we always close out on Sunday night with a big show at Austin’s Continental Club. We’ll play, my brother Mario’s band will play, Chuck Prophet will play a set, the band Grady, Nic Tremulis and the Tall Boys … it’s going to be a good lineup. I like it, it’s really a great way to present all the great music we get to hear in Texas that maybe people from other parts of the country would otherwise never encounter.
Listen to an entire Alejandro Escovedo show at KGSR radio, Austin (go to “Archives”)
YouTube: Alejandro Escovedo and Bruce Springsteen perform “Always A Friend”
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