Alejandro Escovedo

Alejandro Escovedo
This veteran Texan troubadour has long been critically revered (once named "Artist of the Decade” by No Depression) but commercially overlooked. It’s great to see that change a little now thanks to a recent Springsteen connection — Escovedo’s new album, Real Animal’s opening track, "Always A Friend,” has just been covered by the Boss. Quite the compliment, though it’s actually far from the best cut. Escovedo’s previous album, the intense The Boxing Mirror, reflected his near-death experience, but here he gives his rock’n’roll side free rein. That may not thrill those who prefer his subtler chamber roots material but the rest of us can revel in the riffery. Exclaim! had a chance to sit down with the rock’n’roll survivor to discuss his new album working as a memoir, how talented his family is and a quick run through our Questionnaire.

So how goes it all?
Well, it’s a little tiring. There was all the stuff I did prior to the record coming out. We recorded in December and January, and had to wait until June for the release, but in those months I’d be going to New York two or three times a month, doing interviews and all that stuff.

But looks like it’s paying off. I hear you made the Billboard charts for the first time, and as a New Artist-after 33 years. That make you laugh?
Yes, and it’s fun. You know how you can think you’ve seen everything and know everything, then you realize you know absolutely nothing? Those sort of things keep things fresh, and that’s rare. I don’t know if other people can say that.

Congrats on a real strong record. Now here at Exclaim! we have a feature called Questionnaire, so let me throw these queries at you.

First, name something you consider a mind-altering work of art?
I’d have to say as far as music is concerned, Street Hassle, by Lou Reed. That was probably the record that really turned my musical taste and what I knew of music around. I realized when I had been working with strings, that it was that record that really opened the door for what we would eventually develop. Without that record, it’d have been a much more difficult thing to find. Lou Reed’s pursuits as far as creating art out of rock’n’roll was something that not a lot of artists have done on the level that he has accomplished, from the Velvet Underground on. Experimentally that was the kind of piece of art that changed my mind and my life and my whole perspective on nearly everything.

Name your most memorable or inspirational gig, and why?
Seeing the Velvet Underground at Shrine Auditorium was one of them. They were everything I had ever dreamed of, musically and as rock ‘n roll. Seeing rhe Stooges at the Whiskey A Go Go. It was during the Raw Power period, so it was James Williamson on guitar. They did a double bill with Rufus, with Chaka Khan. They’d alternate sets each night. That was just fuckin’ amazing! And to see the New York Dolls for the first time, at the Whiskey, that was also one of those shows. It was so much fun, there was a real sense of community, it was the beginning of what became known to us as punk rock. It was that perfect step between rock as we knew it from the ‘60s and into the ‘70s.

Name your career highs and lows?
Highs: singing with Ian Hunter at Auditorium Shores at South By Southwest. Playing with Bruce Springsteen was a career high. Making records with John Cale and Tony Visconti, they’re highs. The lows were becoming ill, the demise of the True Believers. I had invested so much in that band. I’d started it with my brother Javier, and our relationship fell apart as a result of being in the band. That was a low.

What traits do you most like and dislike about yourself?
What I like about myself is my ability to speak with people. An open-ness with people. I get along well with people. I know a lot of performers who don’t really like people, but I love people. That was something I picked up from my father, I think. Things I don’t like about myself? I’m being somewhat hard on myself, but the fact that I’m a father who’s never home. That’s difficult for me. The fact I’m still doing this 33 years down the road and the fact that this means a lot to me. I don’t know what that thing is that drives you, that ego. Pride, desire. Those are things I like least.

What do you think of when you think of Canada.
I think of really warm and friendly people. That is what I’ve always loved about Canada. The citizenry has always been cool people. I’ve always got on really well with Canadians. A cliché to say they are polite, but you are. I respect and appreciate that. It’s funny, but the people I do know here, I’ve become very close to. Like today, at the in-store [at HMV], it was rather like a class reunion.

I liked your line there about more people showing up than at your first gig in Toronto, the one I went to at Ultrasound in the early ‘90s.
Well, it’s true.

What was your most memorable day job?
The one I enjoyed the most was working at Waterloo Records in Austin. My least enjoyable one was where I was at a factory and we’d have to cut these huge 6 ft by 12 ft Styrofoam installation pieces. You’d have to stand alongside this huge saw, and it was rather dangerous. There were all these convoluted machines so they could make these foam packages. That was the worst job.

If you weren’t playing music, you’d be…
I have no idea. Honestly. When I first started music, I also wanted to make a film. Film was really what I wanted to do then, so I like to think I may have become a filmmaker. That is also a gamble. They were also selling Quaaludes at the local discos, so it may have led there [laughs]. I’m just happy I do what I do.

What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
For the sake of my marriage, I would say my wife. Otherwise, I’d say playing a loud electric guitar.

What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
I would have to say getting picked up by Martin Sheen while I was hitchhiking, right after I had seen Badlands. That was in Hollywood, and that was pretty cool. He was great. He was going to do the Bix Beiderbecke story at the time, so he was taking lessons. He was just very sweet. He asked if I wanted to go meet his sons in Santa Monica, but I was on my way to Venice to visit my girlfriend, so I ventured on. We talked a lot about the making of Badlands, a film I loved.

What does your mother wish you were doing instead?
She always wanted me to become a civil liberties lawyer and help the people, or maybe a politician. She was always very active when she was younger, so we were always either being taken to demonstrations or political rallies. My father was a union member, so we’d picket with the union, things like that. So the role models we had when we were young were either musicians or guys who worked for the unions or political parties.

Final one here. What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
I want to be cremated, I know that. Or a sky burial, where they’d feed me to the condors. If there was a song to be played, I’d like "Gymnopedie” by Erik Satie or "Wild Horses” by the Stones.

Enough of those. Onto the new album, Real Animal. At the in-store, you mentioned you saw it as a memoir. Was that the original mandate?
How it came about, I think it was as a result of being sick. When I was ill, I had a lot of time to think about things. A lot of these memories started to flood. Memories of the bands, of certain people, people from my past would send me letters, and it seemed to ignite this real interest in the past. Then I did The Boxing Mirror with John Cale, and that was more of an exorcism. It wouldn’t have been the record I’d have wanted to make. I had to make that record. I think it’s a beautiful record, but it’s not necessarily easy for people to digest. I think it may be one of those records that people may later find and look back on it as a great record. With this one, I wanted to get away from all that. I’d started to write songs loosely based on some of these characters I knew, Then I thought that to really get this together, well I’d been touring with Chuck Prophet, doing solo work. I told him about this idea. I went back and tried to write some songs on my own. They were OK., but I felt that with Chuck, seeing we both had a interest in film and how to construct films, that he had the keen eye for detail I needed to get this accomplished. To flesh out the characters. The chronological scheme of the story was already there. I’d just talk for hours into one of these cassette recorders. I’d tell stories, and then he’d chime in with little anecdotes about his perspective on it - ‘do you remember this guy etc?.’ It just led to hours and hours of tapes, thinking about various situations we were in. we’d sift through these tapes, find certain lines or song titles. "Sensitive Boys” I knew I wanted to write a song about Javier [his brother]. Then it became not just about Javier, but all those bands that toured in the mid ‘80s that we’d cross paths with. Gun Club, Soul Asylum, the Replacements, Rain Parade, Green On Red, all these bands. So at a certain point we almost had a story board. It’d be like lists of characters, starting in San Antonio Texas, 1951, Southern California 1958, Ike and Tina Turner Revue, James Brown, the first shows I ever saw. Local dances, the East Side Kids, and we’d just sort of take off, and from that we created the record. There was just so much there. We thought there must be a way to present this, perhaps as theatre, but once the records got made and I got the support of the record company, I felt like I had to go for the record alone. Concentrate on just one thing at a time.

But these songs do work individually too
Right, and they’re not chronological, so in a way they are just songs. You know, ‘because you know my life, but maybe some people won’t pick up on the story. I don’t know. In the first place, you want to write good songs, and then the story can shape itself.

And musically and sonically, it works as a career retrospective too. You aware of that?
It’s funny. Let’s say with "Sister Lost Soul,” a song about friends and acquaintances of ours that have passed on. Peers, mentors, heroes. We wrote that in very much a True Believers style, and I think of it as like an extension of "The Rain Won’t Help You When It’s Over,” songs like that. We refined it I think. "Real Animal” is very much like Buick MacKane [Escovedo’s ‘80s hard rock band], but refined because of musicianship and Tony’s arrangements and stuff. We definitely knew "Nuns Song” had to sound a certain way. We wanted a sound. "Chelsea” almost has like a Lou Reed four chord thing, with that spoken narrative feel.

I gather things with Tony Visconti were fun and a thrill?
Unbelievable. You’ve heard this a million times, but it’s something I could never have imagined ever happening.

I imagine if I looked at your record collection, there’d be lots of ‘Produced by Tony Visconti’ credits there.
They are all there. And he’s the kind of producer where even the ones he hadn’t, I thought he had. You think about those records, the Bowie, the T-Rex, I still live with those records. As a kid, well I started playing guitar so late, like at 24, I never thought I’d be playing guitar much longer than a couple of years.

If someone in New York City in 1978 had told you you’d be making a record with Tony Visconti 30 years later, how would you have reacted?
I’d have laughed. I’d have thought they were on drugs. It just didn’t seem possible. Tony did such an amazing job on the record. He brought the band together in such an incredible way. In the past, since I’ve come back playing, I got to make a record with John Cale, got to play with Ian hunter. I got to visit him once. People were saying ‘you and Chuck don’t have any songs,’ so I went to get Ian’s feedback on the songs. Then making a record with Tony, I’m glad it happened now, when I feel I’m capable of performing on a level that they appreciate and that turns them on too. Creating something like this. With Tony, I feel we created a real strong bond between him, the band, the music, songs and arrangement with him. He was always as up as we were, or even higher, trying to encourage us.

You’re both veterans still getting a kick out of what you do, right?
Tony would tell me, "You are just now reaching your peak. You’ve still got records in you.” And he feels the same way about himself, and I feel that way about him. He’s always made three or four records with the artists he’s worked with, so I’m hoping that relationship continues with us. This was just an introduction really. Who knows what the results will be a couple of years down the road.

So you do sense that, in terms of name recognition, this record is bringing you up another level?
A lot of things happened. I got new management, Barbara Carr and Jon Landau and Jan Stabile, who manage Bruce Springsteen. They’ve managed Shania Twain, Natalie Merchant, Train. Immediately that opened doors that have never been open before. I got a new booking agent in America, High Road. They do Lucinda, Wilco, and they’ve been amazing. That changed my life. So all these things coming together, doing the Bruce show. Doing The Today Show, Conan. Like this kid who must have been 14 years old came up to me at the airport, and said, "Weren’t you on The Today Show?” Those things are happening more and more. It is like a new beginning, and I’m glad it’s happening now. I feel healthier, clearer, I haven’t drank in a long time, my focus is clear, and the band is just phenomenal right now. Tonight’s gig will be a four-piece rock band.

And you must be pleased that people now are talking about the record, as opposed to you nearly dying a few years ago?
That’s a big weight off my shoulders. As much as I think all that experience and the focus on me for what I went through helped other people. I was very open about it, but at a certain point you want to move on. ‘Cause I’m OK now. I’m healthy, I’m writing songs. That’s what I want to talk about, the music. But I obviously appreciate all the concern.

Had time to write new stuff since making this record?
I don’t know if I want to tackle any kind of conceptual thing, but I’d love to just make another rock ‘n roll record though.

And you’re having fun playing this one love?
So much fun, it’s incredible. It’s loud. It’s like Buick MacKane again, only with more focus on the music and less on the alcohol and everything else. Though Buick was one of my favourite bands ever. That Reverb show in Toronto? You remember that? It was a great show.

So still in love with loud rock ‘n roll, after all these years?
I play too loud for my kids even, and that’s encouraging!

Are they musically-oriented?
My daughter Paloma is a songwriter. A great writer, first and foremost. And she plays guitar. David Pulkingham, my guitarist, is her teacher. My son Paris is a graffiti artist. My daughter Juanita is a dancer. She’s got the performance thing about her, but she’s also a very avid reader and writer. And the young one, Kiki, is an actress I think. She’s five and has been in a couple of movies already.

None are going to become rich lawyers or accountants?
Afraid not. We’ve just always stressed with our children that they first of all become loving human beings, then whatever they choose to do is fine. What can you do? You can’t shape your children’s lives. We all make ourselves into what we want to be.

Just one final question. You were out opening for the Dave Matthews Band. How did that go?
It was for six dates, and I was very pleased. Again, doing that tour was kind of like starting over again. We’d never been on a tour with anyone before, outside of Los Lobos with the True Believers or the odd Lucinda date. Never been asked to open up for anyone. The fact that he handpicked us, that he really loved our records, he’d watch us every night, introduce us to his audience every night, treated us like kings. He very much a gentleman, gracious and generous, and he really tried to get his audience to listen. But they’re an arena rock audience. They are there to see him. It was the first time I’d ever really encountered the culture that is based around texting and cell phones. While we were playing, they were texting. As if we were interrupting their texting. The tour culminated here in Toronto where we had a great response. It did nothing but help, and we played well. Took us a while to get used to the size of the stages. We’re a club band. Have been for 33 years! Last night was wonderful. We played Club Soda in Montreal. Had 873 people there, and that’s really good for us. The time before, 2 years ago, we had 125 people.