Alejandro Escovedo: Nobody Left Unscarred

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Longtime troubadour and critic’s darling Alejandro Escovedo has lived an eventful life filled with many musical milestones.  With his latest CD, the autobiographical Real Animal, he recounts those tales in vivid detail. Co-written by Chuck Prophet and produced by Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T. Rex) Real Animal tells these stories not only with Escovedo’s trademark lyrical and melodic punch, but also by incorporating all of the aural elements that fueled those times into one whirling sound that is all his own—punk rock urgency, contemplative and moving ballads, blustery blues and his unique brand of string-laden Americana. Real Animal finds Escovedo engaged and energetic, defiant and sometimes wistful. He took the time to speak with Honest Tune just before embarking on his summer tour. 

Honest Tune: I’ve been digging in to the new record and I was interested too see that you had co-written all of the songs with Chuck Prophet. Have you known him for a long time? Alejandro Escovedo: I’ve known him since the mid-eighties probably. It’s been a while.

HT: How did the two of you get hooked up on this project?

AE: Initially, it was my idea to tell this story about my musical life, my musical journey. A lot of that had to do with bands I was in such as the True Believers and Rank and File. Chuck was always part of that scene in a way so not only do I consider him in the highest order in terms of a songwriter and a guitar player, but he’s a great guy and a good friend of mine so I thought it might be a good time to seek someone out to collaborate with.

ae1.JPGHT: I’m a big fan of his. I didn’t know you guys had a connection, but it’s cool to see it happen. Does he play or sing on the album?

AE: He plays guitar and he sings.

HT: When was the last time you worked this extensively with a collaborator? The True Believer days?

AE: I’ve never collaborated to this extent on any record. Before, [brother] Javier and I wrote some songs together, but it was pretty minimal. I’ve always gone to people like Steve Bruton if I needed some help.

HT: How was your working relationship?

AE: It was great working with Chuck. He’s a great guy. We had a great time. It’s pretty easy.

HT: Did you fit into any kind of pattern in terms of who writes what?

AE: We pretty much had our own technique as far as getting around songwriting. It really involved more hanging out—just getting together and I’d tell these stories and we’d tape them. Then we’d try to find a line within those stories that would work, or subject matter. Pretty much, staying within the context of the story is what was important.

HT: That paints a pretty vivid story. I wasn’t aware of a lot of the history. Between The Nuns and the events of the song "Chelsea," you came into contact with the Sex Pistols on at least two occasions, right?

AE: We opened up for the Sex Pistols on their very last gig at Winterland. When I moved to New York, shortly after that we moved to New York, the band the Nuns. We were living in the Chelsea, playing at places like Max’s and CBGB’s and touring the east coast by Amtrak train. But our headquarters was the Chelsea. When Sid and Nancy got to the Chelsea I was actually in the lobby. I saw them and we said hello and everything. It must have been a couple of months later that Nancy was killed there. But that was the end of an era.

HT: Certainly. Were the Pistols an influential band for you?

AE: I wouldn’t say influential but I certainly loved them. ae2.JPG

HT: After the Nuns, it was Rank and File.  Weren’t some of the guys from the Nuns in there?

AE: Originally it was some of the guys from The Nuns and Tony Kinman from the Dils. Then we brought in Chip Kinman from the Dils. When I went to New York—this was after the Sid & Nancy thing at the Chelsea, we were on the lower east side—chip called up after The Dils broke up, and he wanted to come out and we’d reform Rank and File. So Chip came out and we formed it with Barry Myers, who was the Clash DJ. If you’ve ever seen the movie Rude Boys, he was in that. And Kevin Folley who had played with me in the Judy Nylon band. So that was Rank and File at that time. We went on tour—we left on the night that Bush (he means Reagan) was elected president. A seven week tour but only seven dates.  So we went on tour—seven dates in seven weeks, which took us through Austin, Texas. One of them was Austin and one of them was Portland. In Portland we picked up Tony Kinman. Our last gig was in Vancouver BC…we broke up on the way back from Vancouver. It was Chip and Tony and I and we decided to come back to Austin. This was 1980.

HT: On all of these songs you speak almost nostalgically about the Nuns and Rank and File and all of the bands you’ve played with in the past. But the album ends with the line, “You can’t live in the moment while you’re tangled in the past.” That kind of wraps the whole thing up.  Is this process of remembering this and setting it down to song a way to move forward with a new chapter?

AE: I think after I made that record The Boxing Mirror—that dealt so specifically with being unable to play for three years because of that illness, you know. And it’s kind of a dark, melancholy record. I’ve always written very personally. But this is more autobiographical in nature. But I think as a result of having gone through three years without being able to play, that’s when I really started thinking about everything that I had done before. Because at that time it seemed like I wouldn’t ever play again. So these memories were pretty important to me. They were of a healthier time, a more joyful time of my life. In making this record, I wasn’t as attached to these memories. I was just looking at them the way you would look at a home movie. There’s a lot more joy in looking at these memories rather than being so attached to them. But I think I really wasn’t trying to … I don’t feel like they had any kind of therapeutic goal in mind in thinking about these bands and these times that I was involved in. I just felt it was due time to talk about these things.

HT: You mention The Boxing Mirror being more melancholy and compared to that, this album sounds happy to me. A

E: It does seem happier to you?

HT: Oh yeah.

AE: Yeah. Me too.

HT: It’s nostalgic and not necessarily wistful. But celebratory in a lot of the songs.

AE: The Boxing Mirror was definitely dealing with near death and all that stuff. This record is celebrating not so much that I’m here but that I was able to play in all those bands and had such a great time doing it. I was really just trying to connect with the source of all that music. More than anything, the music that inspired me to want to play and to listen as intently as I did.

HT: You address that some when you talk about your old friends that you’ve lost touch with. “Smoke” is one of these songs. Sort of what you’re talking about …being thankful to have made it through that. Did your health scare make you more appreciative of your friends and look at the rock n roll lifestyle in a different way?

AE: Yeah, I think so. It’s funny. When I got sick I wasn’t sure if it was the result of my throwing myself into this rock n roll life that had made me sick and I kind of blamed it for a while. Later I found that that wasn’t the case. There was certainly a lot of things I was doing that weren’t healthy.  But I think in the end, it’s all …it’s funny that I don’t drink and I don’t do anything. It’s just about the music now. For the first time really, other than when I was a kid listening to it. So I think that that’s what we’re trying to get at, like in that song “The Swallows of San Juan.” It talks about rolling in the mud and the clay. That’s basically a metaphor for wanting to immerse yourself in that feeling, that music.

HT: “Swallows of San Juan” goes back to your childhood and you sort of getting back to the music as a child where you had just listened to the music and didn’t have this lifestyle surrounding it.

AE: That’s kind of what “Sister Lost Soul” is about. You know, a lot of us really buy into this stuff. Almost to the point of religion, right? It’s pretty hard on people. It’s like the song “Sensitive Boys.” These are very sensitive people, pretty fragile people, who are trying to live this hardcore lifestyle. They see their Johnny Thunders or Keith or whoever. They suddenly find themselves tied into something that’s not so easy to… you can’t just take it off like a coat or a jacket or a new pair of pants. You find yourself deeply immersed in this hellacious kind of lifestyle sometimes. A lot of them fall by the wayside. In a way, that’s what we’re talking about in “Sister Lost Soul”. The opening line is “nobody is left unbroken, nobody is left unscarred.” We all have them. All of us, the survivors, we have them.

HT: We, writers and musicians alike, are all probably guilty of romanticizing it too much too.

AE: That’s a lot of it too. I know so many people who become caricatures of themselves as a result of romanticizing this life.

HT: The song “Golden Bear” seems to speak about your illness as well.

AE: Yeah.

HT: But the Golden Bear refers to a club.

AE: Yeah, it was a club in Huntington Beach, California.

HT: That’s where you grew up seeing a lot of acts?

AE: Yeah, we went to California when I was about seven. I was born in San Antonio, so we left Texas. My parents told us we were going on a vacation, and we never went back. We stayed in California and went to Huntington Beach. There was a club there called the Golden Bear. I was in my teens nearing high school and in my high school years we’d always go there because the greatest bands would play there. Huntington Beach was one of those California towns where there was a skating rink on a pier and Love played there once. Buffalo Springfield played in the little club on the corner. There was a little place right next to Golden Bear called the Salty Cellar. It was where all the garage bands would play, all the local garage band. But we saw Limey and The Yanks, The East Side Kids and all those really cool bands.

HT: This was early sixties?

AE: The early to mid sixties. I finally left Huntington Beach, Orange County, about ’72 or ’73. I went to Hollywood. At that point, I was already sold on English rock n roll. That’s when bands like Roxy Music, and Bowie and Mott and all that stuff—T Rex.

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HT: You mention T Rex. On this record, which Tony produced, there’s some effect on there that sounds like something I heard on [Bowie’s] “Ashes to Ashes.”

AE: Yeah, that’s a little keyboard.

HT: That was an intentional nod?

AE: Absolutely. Because all of those records that Tony produced, it was like a lifeline. It was like an IV of those records back in the day when they came out. We just woke up in the morning and put them on and never took them off until we finally passed out at whatever hour.

HT: How was it working with him, and working back to back with John Cale and Tony?

AE: They’re both amazing. They’re both amazing but such individuals. John definitely has his own style and way of approaching things. I thought he was perfect for the Boxing Mirror. Tony has a perfect way of involving himself in the band so that he’s almost a part of the band. He pays a lot of attention to arrangements and to the string section. And he’s a great bass player and a great singer. I wanted all of those things from the records he had made. The background vocals, the instrumentations and those weird little sounds like you were speaking of. I definitely wanted that.

ae5.JPGHT: It’s almost like a signature.

AE: Yeah. And I encouraged him to do that. I said Tony, "We need to go somewhere we’ve never been before." And I remember him asking me when I was going to record, or when we were going to mix, he said: bring some of the records you like the sound of. I don’t have to bring them. You are all the records that I love.

HT: Speaking of your health, it’s been five years since you had the major health scare. How is your health? How are you feeling? How are you doing?

AE: Great. I feel very good, very strong. I haven’t drank since that major thing happened, so that’s been five years. I don’t do anything anymore. I don’t even smoke turf anymore. But it feels really good. Like I said earlier, the music is really the most important thing right now. Being clear or having clarity really allows you to really focus and really kind of …the communication between us as a band is really stronger than ever I think.

HT: I read a quote from you that stuck with me that you dropped the bottle quicker than anybody, and it was basically that you were choosing life.

AE: Yeah. You know, my doctor told me. You can drink or you can die. I said, “Okay, I’ve had enough drink.”

HT: You’re hitting the road pretty hard coming up and playing at a lot of festivals—Wakarusa, you’re opening for Dave Matthews. When you’re playing to that huge of a crowd, do you change the presentation of your music?

AE: I think it changes because you amplify everything in a way. It has to be broader, larger. You have to address more people. It’s funny how it happens naturally in a way. Because we’ve been doing this for so long, playing in clubs for so long. We’re quite comfortable in a club. But given the opportunity, when we finally get a chance to reach out to a lot of people it’s a real kind of turn on. It’s a nice experience. The thing that happened with Bruce Springsteen in front of 18,000 people was pretty amazing. I got a taste of that response from that many people, and it was pretty amazing. I could see where someone could get addicted to it. HT: It’s funny you mention Bruce Springsteen. The Jazz Festival immediately after Katrina, he came down with the Seeger Session Band and did a version of “When The Saints Go Marching In” that brought people to tears. AE: Bruce is a pretty amazing guy. I’ve really grown to have a lot of respect for him.

HT: He’s a guy that it took me a while to get where he was coming from. Sometimes you’re obscured by the hits and the “Born in the USA” and stuff.

AE: I was confused with that record too.

HT: A friend of mine is a huge fan and kept urging me to go see him, and when I did, I finally got it.

AE: That’s funny because this time I played with him was the first time I’d ever seen him. And I’ve seen a lot of rock shows, great ones—Stooges, Zeppelin, all kinds of stuff. The Who, Jeff Beck group, a lot of shows. And that was really an amazing experience.

HT: Who is in your touring band right now? With these big shows are you taking the string section out?

AE: Yeah, the string section is coming on the Dave Matthews tour, and then the tour after that after the record is released. We’re going to do a four-piece rock band, and then we’ll bring the strings in for the larger shows. All the TV stuff will be with the strings. But yeah, we bring them out as often as we possibly can.

ae6.jpgHT: You’ve used string sections in your music for a long time. It’s kind of unusual in some respects for a rock band. But it really works to great effect with your songs and your music to where its inextricably linked. What is it about cellos and violins that you think fit your mode of songwriting and performing?

AE: In the beginning it was just that the strings really lent themselves to the words I was singing and the moods of the songs. We finally realized (on the) album Street Hustle by Lou Reed, that was the direction we wanted to go, with strings. At that point, it became more aggressive and like more upfront with the electric guitars. I don’t think it’s been until this record that we’ve really nailed it. I give Tony a lot of credit for that. We’ve always been trying to marry this Crazy Horse with a string quartet vibe. At time we hit it at time we didn’t. It’s always been great to have strings. I just love ‘em. The players—Susan Velt on violin and Brian Sandifer on cello are the best as far as I’m concerned. So I think there will never be a time when I don’t have strings.

HT: It’s interesting the way you describe that because I think when people think of a cello they might not think of it being capable of the kind of aggressive punch that you sometimes achieve.

AE: Sometimes we do the string quartet or quintet where we have two cellos and two violins and those just rip, dude. I got no qualms about the strings.

HT: I read somewhere that you took the “Castanets” song out of your repertoire for a while because George Bush supposedly had it on his ipod or something. Is that true?

AE: Yeah. We found out that it wasn’t even our version. It was the Los Lonely Boys version. But that was pretty embarrassing really.

HT: Did it kind of ruin the song for you?

AE: For a while. Now that we talk about it and its such a joke and people cheer when I say we’re doing it to celebrate the fact that he’s leaving office, it takes on a whole different meaning now.

HT: I’ve got to wonder if the whole playlist was just some manufactured political move.

AE: It totally was, and that’s fine with me.

HT: You mentioned Bruce Springsteen. What other musicians you are listening to?

AE: I love Jack White. I love his stuff.

HT: The new Raconteurs is pretty rocking.

AE: I love them. I think they’re great. And I love…anything Ian Hunter still puts out. Iggy Pop of course. It’s funny with Iggy. I just love him and anything he’s putting out. I like the Dolls. The reformed Dolls I think they’re great. I’ve got to be quite honest, I’m not that well versed with the younger bands.

HT: Iggy is sort of an inspiration for this album, right?

AE: Well, he’s an inspiration for that song. Then we just took the title Real Animal, the song is called “Real as An Animal”. He represents everything I’ve ever loved about rock n roll.

HT: The abandon?

AE: Well, the freedom. The total, unabashedly spirit of abandon. That danger too. That whole’ fuck you’ attitude.

HT: We talked about The Nuns. It sounded like quite a cast of characters. What are you most vivid memories of that band?

AE: I remember the time that Allen Ginsberg and Peter Lofsky came to see us play. And playing with the Ramones as often as we did. Those were great shows. The Sex Pistols show was cool, but the one we did with Bryan Ferry with Robert Fripp and Chris Penny were both there, that was cool. It was a big show. They thought we were freaks, you know? And I don’t know, all of those shows were great. The thing about the Nuns, it was my first band. We had a lot of potential, but we didn’t really know how to play. We just looked cool I guess.

HT: Right. You didn’t play much growing up, even though you were in a real musical family.

AE: I didn’t really start playing guitar until I was 24.

HT: What got you to San Francisco to begin with?

AE: A girl.

HT: Do you remember what the first song you wrote was?

AE: On my own? “The Rain Won’t Help You When It’s Over.”

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