June 20, 2008

by Moss

One of my favorite ex-bay area natives, Alejandro Escovedo, is still rockin' after all his probs. I spoke with him outside his cool-aqua tour bus at, "Hardly Strictly Bluegrass" a couple of years back. Very cool guy. You gotta check this latest article by; Tom Speed,Mick Rock, etc.

Alejandro Escovedo has, on the surface, lived the typical life of the critic's darling - doted on by writers, lauded by a small but vocal group of ardent fans, largely ignored by mainstream music audiences. He's damn-near deified in Austin, Texas, cited as a major influence on songwriters everywhere, and even had a litany of A-list stars contribute versions of his songs to a double-disc tribute album (2004's Por Vida). Infamously, the alt-country (whatever that is) bible No Depression even went so far as to name him "Artist of the Decade" two years before the decade was even over.

But there's much more beneath the surface, and its all but typical. To pigeonhole Escovedo as merely a critic's darling or an earnest alt-country troubadour would be to overlook a far more interesting career, one that has taken him from the nascent punk rock scenes of both the West and East coasts to the emerging alt-country movement and the blossoming of his solo career throughout the 1990s. Along the way, he's had flirtations with big time success, squabbles with record labels and a serious near-death encounter with Hepatitis C in 2003 that came to a head when he was rushed to a hospital after vomiting blood during a performance. He got well and addressed the experience in the triumphant 2006 comeback album, The Boxing Mirror.

Now, he's taken all of those experiences and weaved them into a compelling narrative of in his latest CD, the autobiographical Real Animal (arriving June 24 on Back Porch Records). 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 incorporates all of the aural elements that have fueled his career 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.

The title comes from the song "Real As An Animal," an appropriately balls-to-the-wall blast of Stooges-stirred catharsis that was inspired by Iggy Pop. It reveals Escovedo's love of the spirit that coaxed him into the rock world to begin with. "He represents everything I've ever loved about rock 'n' roll," Escovedo says of Pop. "The total unabashed spirit of abandon, the danger, that whole 'fuck you' attitude."

While Escovedo has encountered plenty of documented danger, Real Animal reads more as a story of a life lived to the fullest, an optimistic and appreciative remembrance.

Alejandro Escovedo
Though he comes from a musical family (his father played in mariachi bands, his percussionist brothers Coke and Pete Escovedo both played with Santana, and his niece is Prince protégé Sheila E.), and grew up an avid music fan, Alejandro never played music until he was in his mid-twenties. Born in San Antonio to Mexican immigrant parents, Escovedo and his family relocated to Huntington Beach, California when he was seven. "My parents told us we were going on a vacation, and we never went back!" he recalls.

It was in mid-'60s Southern California that Escovedo frequented a music club called The Golden Bear. He cut his teeth on a never-ending cavalcade of rock bands. "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. We saw Limey and The Yanks, The East Side Kids, all those really cool bands," Escovedo says.

In the early 1970s, Escovedo moved from Huntington Beach to Hollywood. "At that point, I was already sold on English rock 'n' roll," he says, "bands like Roxy Music and Bowie and Mott and T. Rex." A few years later, he migrated north to San Francisco, "following a girl." Like most pivotal events in his life, it's recalled in song on Real Animal in the beautifully ethereal "Hollywood Hills."

A Four Piece Band

Alejandro Escovedo
Escovedo's first foray into the music world was with a group of San Francisco-based punk rock misfits called The Nuns. Even then, the primary reason he assembled the group was to produce a student film he was working on about "the worst band ever." "We had a lot of potential," Escovedo says, "but we didn't really know how to play." Nonetheless, they opened for the Sex Pistols at their very last show at San Francisco's Winterland and performed a memorable gig with Roxy Music. "They thought we were freaks," chuckles Escovedo.

Soon, The Nuns moved to New York, where they set up shop at the Chelsea Hotel and toured the East Coast by Amtrak Train. They played Max's and CBGB's, sharing gigs with kindred spirits like The Ramones. In "Chelsea" from Real Animal, Escovedo describes the yearning of the band to move to New York to "live inside the myth of everything we'd heard." The Chelsea Hotel was also home to Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. "When Sid and Nancy got to the Chelsea I was actually in the lobby that day" he says. "I saw them and we said hello and everything. It must have been a couple of months later that Nancy was killed there."

The rest of The Nuns soon headed back west but Escovedo stuck around, playing with Judy Nylon and others. He later joined up with Chip and Tony Kinman in the seminal cowpunk band Rank and File.

"Chip called up after [his band] The Dils broke up," says Escovedo. "He wanted to come out and we'd reform Rank and File. So, he came out and we formed it with Barry Myers, who was the Clash DJ and Kevin Foley who had played with me in the Judy Nylon band. So that was Rank and File at that time."

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. I kind of blamed it for a while. Later, I found that that wasn't the case, but, I think in the end it's just about the music now - for the first time really, other than when I was a kid listening to it.
-Alejandro Escovedo
Always A Friend
Alejandro Escovedo & Chuck Prophet
With Real Animal, Escovedo, for the first time, created an album comprised entirely of collaborations. Old friend Chuck Prophet co-wrote the entire album, and plays guitar and sings on the record. The two have known each other since the mid-1980s when True Believers shared bills with Prophet's Green On Red.

"Initially, it was my idea to tell this story about my musical life, my musical journey. But a lot of that had to do with bands I was in such as the True Believers and Rank and File, and 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 him out to collaborate," says Escovedo.

The two of them concocted a technique to craft the songs into a compelling storyline. They'd just hang out and roll tape as Escovedo recounted all the stories of his early bands. Then they'd go back and listen to the tapes and pull certain lines and ideas from them to craft the songs. The approach produced a powerful song cycle, with the final sound of the album heavily influenced by producer Tony Visconti, who produced legendary records by David Bowie and T. Rex that were essential listening for Escovedo. "All of those records that Tony produced [were] like a lifeline," says Escovedo. "I remember him asking me when we were going to mix the record, he said, 'Bring some of the records you like the sound of.' I said, 'I don't have to bring them. You are all the records that I love.'"

The album is bathed in the glam-punk ethos of those old albums. "Golden Bear" even contains an overt reference, in the form of a very recognizable keyboard effect, to Bowie's "Ashes To Ashes." "I wanted all of those things from the records he had made," says Escovedo, "the background vocals, the instrumentation and those weird little sounds. I definitely wanted that."

The album also carries Escovedo's traditional utilization of string sections. "[Tony] pays a lot of attention to arrangements and a lot of attention to the string section," says Escovedo. Throughout his solo career, Escovedo has employed the use of strings - violins and cellos in particular - in his music. On occasion, he's even doubled the instruments — two violins, two cellos — in his String Quintet. That group put out the self-released album Roomful of Songs in 2005.

Alejandro Escovedo at Wakarusa 2008 by N. Rodriguez
"In the beginning it was just that the strings really lent themselves to the words I was singing and the moods of the songs," he says. "We finally realized that that album Street Hustle by Lou Reed, that was the direction we wanted to go in with strings. At that point, it became more aggressive and 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."

That realization is no more apparent than on the more punk-edged selections like "Nun's Song," where the angular strings provide an aggressive push to the song's anthemic abandon, or when the strings decorate the chugging guitar grind of "Chelsea." Elsewhere, the string parts exhibit more traditional orchestral beauty on "Sensitive Boys" and "Swallows of San Juan," but they are always a part of the tapestry. "It's always been great to have strings. I just love 'em," says Escovedo. "The players - Susan Voelz on violin and Brian Standefer 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."

So Much To Live For, It's Not Too Late

Alejandro Escovedo
This summer will find Escovedo touring heavily, performing the new material before enormous crowds. He has already played the New Orleans Jazz Fest, Wakarusa and he did a number of monster shows supporting the Dave Matthews Band.

"I think it changes [your approach] because you amplify everything in a way," Escovedo says of playing to such large crowds. "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 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."

Escovedo recently sat in with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at a show in Houston, performing Real Animal's gleefully exuberant leadoff track, "Always A Friend." "I got a taste of that response from that many people," he says. "It was pretty amazing. I could see where someone could get addicted to it."

He'll bring the strings out on most of the big summer shows, and on television appearances including Late Night with Conan O'Brien on June 20 and The Late Show with David Letterman on August 7. However, the club shows will feature the stripped down band of Alejandro on guitar and vocals, Josh Gravelin on bass, Hector Munoz on drums and David Pulkingham on guitar - just the kind of "four piece band" he's always wanted