Alejandro Escovedo is a real rock ’n’ roll animal, a true believer. He believes in the power and sanctity of music. Music without barriers or borders. In 1998 he was named “Artist Of The Decade” By the magazine No Depression which showed the respect he had garnered throughout his career. A career which had already taken in punk, roots rock and hard rockin’ (and rollin’) as well his own Mexican musical heritage and the innovative use of a string section on stage and in recording. His albums have always been varied and different from each other allowing him to follow his muse as this will takes him. He has had success and he has also been through hard times but the music has always stayed with him. He is about to release a new album The Crossing that relates to the current political climate in the US as well as to his culture. This interview was conducted backstage at his last appearance in Dublin where the performed with his Italian band Don Antonio. Alejandro Escovedo was as open and honest in person as he is in his music and it was a pleasure to meet him and his wife Nancy (and thanks for the cup of tea Nancy).
You have been touring in Europe behind Burn Something Beautiful how has that been going?
It’s been extensive, day to day, 32 shows, in what seems like 25 days. But I know it’s actually been longer. There’s hardly any days off, what days off there have been have been for travel. It started because I have an English manager now, Chris Metzler, and he gave me the option of working with a few different bands and I choose these guys because they had worked so much with all my friends like Robyn Hitchcock, Dan Stuart and Howe Gelb.
They all raved about the band so Nancy, my wife and I flew over to Bologna and they picked us up and we went to the little tiny village that they are all from and we had dinner, with Italians the first thing they do is eat, then we went to rehearsals for an hour for two. After we woke up the next morning we rehearsed again, all day this time. Then next morning we gather all the equipment together and loaded the van. There was 6 of us and all the equipment in a little van. So, we’d got up at 4.30 the next morning to leave for a 10 hour drive to Frankfurt. We played that night after the long drive stuffed into what I call the “veo-cage.” That was the start of the tour and it’s been non-stop since.
It’s been amazing to be back here. It’s always been non-stop touring for me but my European visits have been more sporadic. But now that I have a manager who has been able to get this tour together of 32 dates there is a lot of interest again. So, I’ll be coming back more often.
The album moves away from the Americana mode that you are associated with even though you have been a rocker at heart for a very long time?
Well I never really got that far away from it but people never really associated me with it because of Rank & File kinda pinned that Americana thing on me. Also, my association with Bloodshot Records had a lot it too as well as singing on Ryan’s (Adams) record the Whiskeytown album. My taste has always been towards The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, New York Dolls,The Seeds, The Standells … those bands as well as Motown and blues. The Americana thing has come by association really.
Yet traditional Country was also a part of your musical journey.
You have to think of some of the great country artists like Lefty Frizzell. Nobody was making records and doing arrangements like he was. Bob Wills was basically doing jazz and he was drawing from all the best big bands in America: guys from Benny Goodman’s band and from Lionel Hampton or whoever. Then you had people like Waylon. When we formed Rank & File we found some sort of thread between Waylon’s music and dub music. That’s what we wanted and my rhythm guitar playing was totally skanking with the snare drum. That also reflected Mexican music.
That’s why I think that when you tag a label on music, such as Americana, it doesn’t do anything to help the artistic, creative process. You need to break down walls to create something new. I instantly bristle and want to rebel against it. If you tell me I’m Americana I’ll make metal machine music. I know that a lot of people tend to find comfort in it. It’s not like a real individualistic thing, it’s more a sound. Like the Burrito Brothers or Dillard and Clark or whatever. That is all wonderful music but I don’t think it needs to be recreated.
When you claim to be the greatest fucking blues band (or whatever) in the world you’re just shooting yourself in the foot. I understand it for press purposes but in the end you have to live with these things. When you get to a certain age and you know better I think it’s best to let the music speak for itself. Let someone else label it because I don’t even know what it is. I’m not sure myself half the time. I’m just playing songs.
This record (Burn Something Beautiful) is taking it back to the Northwest and playing with Peter (Buck) and Scott (McCaughey), especially Kurt (Bloch) on lead guitar. It put us back in the garage and that was a beautiful place to be. I knew I would get that with them and we had toured a little bit together so that gave us an idea what the record was going to be like. It took a long time as a lot of things happened in the interim, a lot of personal things. All of us, not just me, went through a lot of things. Like Nancy (Alejandro’s wife) and I went through a hurricane that led to a year of PTSD. We had to get through that and when that was over we were finally ready to make the album. When we started I wrote with Pete and then Scott came in and we all worked together and we got some really wonderful songs. They allowed me to take over the lyrics so that I could shape a story that was mine as I was going to have to sing them.
Do you draw a lot from the energy levels from the music?
Yes, due to a couple of things, one was the end of my Hepatitis C, finally get rid of that has given me a lot of energy and then playing these songs has naturally inspired me to want to get back into that head space where your discovering things. You know I haven’t had a drink in 15 years because of my health but I got rid of the Hep C and it’s gone. Now people don’t even ask if you drink or not, they just pour you a glass of wine and when I’d say no they acted offended. Then I had a little half glass of wine and it was ok. But when I got to the UK I had a couple of beers and that was ok too.
Your health, lifestyle and background all reflect in your music?
My music has always been drawn from a certain respect for life and death. Including the grief that we have to work through for so many things. It could be a personal experience. My previous wife committed suicide but the effect of that was to really open up my music a lot. I became more able to come open about what I was going through. There is no greater compliment to me as a writer as to when other people come to me and relates that a wife or brother or someone they know and love has passed away and that my music has guided them in some way. To help find some kind of understanding of that.
All I was doing was writing about my feelings and thoughts about what I was going through and I really expected nothing of it. But then people started coming to me like people who had experienced suicide in some manner. Suicide is a mysterious and never ending cycle of feelings. It’s like a ripple effect in that it affects people so far beyond the actual act people you’re not even aware of sometimes. It was a little daunting as I don’t think that I was prepared to give anyone advice at the time. Last the same time it helped me as I could see how far I’d gone as opposed to someone who was just new to this experience.
On the album (Burn Something Beautiful) we talked about the process of getting older and raging, especially in Rock ’n’ Roll. I played a, I think 73rd birthday party, for Ian Hunter and he came out and showed us all what it’s all about I don’t care who got up there to sing as once he got up there you thought of no-one else who had performed prior to that. I often play I Wish I Was Your Mother or All The Young Dudes as a solo encore at gigs because Mott The Hoople were wild. Ian’s still making great records and his band is amazing. He’s been a big inspiration for me. When I was a punk rock kid in Austin all I knew was to turn the amp right forever, good hair and wear tight trousers were the whole thing, right!(laughs). I was constantly asked to play something when a guy would hand me a guitar so I’d learned Mott’s I Wish I Was You’re Mother they loved it and they didn’t know who wrote it.
You have worked with some inspiration producers in your career.
Yes, people like John Cale, Tony Visconti, Chris Stamey and Peter and Scott on this album and I give them all the credit for that. When I work with a producer I really like to let that producer do his thing. There’s a lot of guys that I know have a very strong ideas of what they want to do and then they start butting heads with the producer and to me that’s not wealth he’s there for. If you think you know enough to produce your own record why invite someone in. When I invite someone in I allow them to guide me and I have to trust them. It takes me a long time to decide who I want to work with because I don’t want to work with just anyone. I have been offered the opportunity to work with some interesting people but, also, I don’t want them to just make their own record either.
The current political climate in America, for someone with your background, must be difficult to say the least. Do you feel the negative side of this?
Absolutely. It’s a frightening time in our country and it seems to be a frightening time in the world the more I travel. America is faced with this resurgence of right wing and in France with Marie LePen and England with Brexit. There seems to be a trend in that direction that has to be stopped. The world seems to have reached a boiling point again. Then in the 70s and 80s it became about money - and about ME. So hopefully this will draw us back to a place where we become more concerned with each other. I keep thinking that these devices that we are drawn to and addicted to … I’m talking about phones and computers in a world where it’s called ‘social media’ but to me it’s done everything but create a social world.
Interview by Stephen Rapid Photograph by Nancy Rankin Escovedo