It's not often you get to see a legendary musician in a small club in the
middle of nowhere for just eight bucks. But for the lucky hundred plus squeezed
into the High Dive in Champaign, IL on June 28th, Alejandro Escovedo used
the intimate venue to perform musical brain surgery.
With buzzing guitars to shear skulls bald and sharp witted lyrics to make
the proper incisions, Escovedo and company poured pure melody and bitter
sweet guitar jams into the open heads of all present. Covering a large
portion of his new album, A Man Under the Influence, Escovedo and band
rambled through light-hearted songs like "Velvet Guitar", covered the heavy
subject matter in "Waves" and still managed to keep people on their feet
with the three-guitar assault of "Castanets". His black hair uncombed, the lanky Escovedo stood center stage with his guitar slung around his neck, engaging the audience between songs with poignant tales about his family, personally connecting his audience to each song.
Escovedo didn't just play for the High Dive crowd; he invited them into a
conversation with words and music that couldn't be ignored. Responding to
the hungry crowd's stomping and applause, the band returned for a rousing
encore that included a nod to Escovedo's past -- a ten-minute punk barrage
that rocked the venue and proved that Escovedo is above classification, able to swap
genres with the greatest of ease. After the show, the sweat-soaked
frontman sat by the door, signing autographs and visiting with the
Two hours earlier, he'd sat in the same spot with me and shared a quick glimpse
into a life largely spent on the road, singing about family and friends left
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Splendid: How long have you guys been on tour?
Alejandro Escovedo: Well, we just got off of a six week tour and this is another
seven week tour.
Splendid: Did you do stuff for the play? (By the Hand of the Father -- a
play written and performed by Escovedo)
Alejandro Escovedo: I did two shows in Chicago.
Splendid: How'd that go?
Alejandro Escovedo: That was wonderful. It was great. I had a really good time.
It's two actors and seven musicians. We're all on stage together. It's
kind of this blend of music and then narrative, dialog, spoken word.
There's a lot of scenes where the actors exchange a lot of things with each
other, from within the audience and on stage. So they are all over the
place. Then behind the band, which is on stage with the actors...
Splendid: Are you guys off to the side?
Alejandro Escovedo: No, we're right on...we encircle the actors. And then behind us
is this screen and another small stage on which they get up to do some
pieces and they dance up there. There is a lot of photo images and there's
a lot of home movies, a lot of visual things that help tell the story. It
began as a story about my father, it was inspired by the song "Wave" that is
on this new record. Since, it has become a story about five different men
who were born at the turn of the century in Mexico. It's about their
journey across the border as they leave this land that was their home, in
search of a better life and the things that they encounter along the way.
But also it deals with them raising their families here in America and kind
of two cultures. And how we in turn as their children raise our children
and the questions we ask our parents about being raised with that tradition
of the Mexican male. We deal a lot with the Mexican male and the enigma of
the Mexican male.
AUDIO: Don't Need You
Splendid: What was it like fleshing out that kind of writing, the visual
part of it?
Alejandro Escovedo: Well, it was interesting, because I started out wanting to be a
filmmaker and fell into being a musician because of movies. I was making a
movie, the movie was about this young boy, who was loosely based on Iggy
Pop, and he's looking for a band and he's eighteen years old about to turn
nineteen. He believes once he reaches the age of twenty he's no longer
credible as a singer of teen anthems. So, it's called Eighteen and a
Half. Since we were going to be this band, his last ditch band, the worst
band in the world. Since we did not know how to play, we became that band.
That's how I got started in music. From there, I played in punk rock bands
and then had a band called Rank and File. I was in this kind of art rock
band with Judy Nylon, in New York, then formed the True Believers with my
brother. Once I started writing, I started writing for the True Believers.
But my songs were very much about my family. They began to become these
little movies inside of songs. I was always very conscience of that kind of
expansiveness that film music has and Brian Eno and that atmosphere kind of
feel and space and wanted to apply that to stories. So it's come full
circle, in other words.
Splendid: So you've had twenty-five plus years in music, then. Do you ever
wish you did anything different, besides filmmaking? Is there ever a time
you wish you were doing something else? Or maybe had a more structured
Alejandro Escovedo: The lack of structure is what burns out a lot of relationships as
musicians and it's because I am gone constantly. I travel eight to ten
months out of the year, and it's hard to keep a relationship, so I have had
many of them. I have six kids that I don't always get to see. You know,
it's not just a story of a musician but any man that travels, any person
that travels away from their family. That's hard and at times I wish there
was something I could do that was closer to home, so I could enjoy my
children and watch them grow up. But that's not the case, I am a musician.
I am not sure if I chose music or music chose me, but it's my life.
Splendid: Where do you find the time to write if you're on the road that
much? Do you write a lot?
Alejandro Escovedo: I don't write a lot. I have made a lot of records and I have
written a lot of songs, but I don't get up every day and
write. I wait. I stockpile things. I don't keep a journal, but I write
down observations here and there or I get inspired by whatever and I write
it down. I kind of save it up. I made this last album, I put a lot
into this record, so I haven't written anything since. I have written a few
things maybe, pieces, but nothing complete.
Splendid: Are you private about your songs?
Alejandro Escovedo: I am pretty private about it. People want to write with me all
of the time, especially in Austin. There's a lot of collaborations between
people. I have always been kind of shy. The only person I write with is
this composer, Steven Barber. He actually helped me write a couple of songs
on this record. And some on With These Hands, the last studio record. But
he is a very schooled and gifted musician. So I go to him for inspiration
sometimes. He has ideas in which I will take off from and write material.
Splendid: When you finally get a song done, who do you take it to first?
Alejandro Escovedo: It's usually a bandmate or often times someone extremely close to
you, a girlfriend, wife, whatever.
Splendid: Did you have a theme in mind when you were going through this
record or did these songs kind of pop up?
Alejandro Escovedo: Well I wanted it...it's funny because you never know what a
record is going to become, you know? You can go in with this real
distinctive idea but the elements are sometimes out of your control. The way
musicians will play with each other, let's say you've chosen different
musicians to play and the effect that they have or the effect that you
wanted isn't what you're necessarily going to get every time, but you always
get something different. And if you're lucky it sparks some sort of
creative surge that leads to new things. So, with this record, I was very
lucky and it evolved into the story of me, myself and the band that I had
been playing with for about ten years. And it included a lot of the things
that we were going through as a family and friends and the frustrations we
were having as musicians and having worked as hard as we worked and the
relationships that had fallen because of it. In a larger scope, it was
about a huge family. Not just my children, not just my mother and father,
but also the parents of all the guys I played with and the families of all
the guys I played with, and the girlfriends and the friends that you meet
along the way. It was a big thing to try to tackle but it just worked so
well and the elements were there and the stars were aligned. Everything
just happened this way that made it not only, it was fun, it was work, it
was frustrating at times, but we knew we had something real special.
Splendid: What's your favorite moment on the record itself, the recorded
version? And then what is your favorite one to play?
Alejandro Escovedo: My favorite moment on the record is "About This Love", and it's
because it was written in the studio in between takes. It's just something
that happened and I think that it sums up the whole record and it's a good
way to end the whole record, the message that it gives. I think it's a
wonderful end to the record. My favorite moment to play live now is "Velvet
Guitar", because we got Bruce (Salmon) playing guitar and Paul (Brainard)
playing guitar and myself on guitar, so it's kind of taking on that True
Believers sort of anthem.
Splendid: There's a lot of good guitar work on this record. Did you do the
majority of it?
Alejandro Escovedo: I did some. I do mostly acoustics, so I don't consider myself a
guitar player. I surround myself with good musicians.
Splendid: Whose left that you haven't played with or you wish you could
say "God, I want to be on stage with this guy and this guy?"
Alejandro Escovedo: Well I have always wanted to make a record with Brian Eno and
some people tell me it is unrealistic to say that but I really would like to
do that. David Hidalgo from Los Lobos, who sang on my record and has been on
my records -- I would like to work with him on a record.
AUDIO: About This Love
Splendid: What about on stage? Someone to play with, a guitar idol?
Alejandro Escovedo: I don't know. I love the band that I have right now.
Yeah, they're my favorites. (Hector Munoz, drums; Paul Brainard, pedal
steel, guitar, trumpet; Luis Guerra bass, upright bass, sampling; Bruce
Salmon keyboard, guitar, backup vocals)
Splendid: Do you have fun on stage.
Alejandro Escovedo: I do, I concentrate a lot on stage, so it probably doesn't look
like I am having a whole lot of fun. I do have a lot of fun. I have fun of
course when everything sounds good and people are playing well and we all
remember the parts and the dynamics. It's a lot more fun than when we
SPLENDID: Have you ever had that moment when the CD comes out and you just
say "I hate that song" or "I hate the way that came out."
Alejandro Escovedo: Well, you know, with the True Believers, the very first record, we
just didn't know how to make records. So, with that record, although it has grown on me, initially it was quite embarrassing. It was tough because there were such high expectations placed on us that it was pretty disappointing. We're better now. At this point, I know enough
now not to put anything out that I don't want out there. It's taken a
Splendid: From all the way back from when you couldn't play the guitar.
Alejandro Escovedo: Well you know it's funny, I tell people this story. When we
started playing with The Nuns we were so bad that we would ask people to
come on stage to tune my guitar. We had no idea. I still can't tune my
guitar. At least I don't have to ask anyone. It's funny, I have a friend,
Steve, who played with Kris Kristofferson for years, fifteen years. I don't
know if you've ever heard Johnny Cash Live at Tulsa Prison...
Splendid: I've heard some of it, yeah.
Alejandro Escovedo: Well there's one, where he asks someone to come tune his guitar
because he can't tune his guitar. But he's one of those people, you hand
him a guitar that's perfectly in tune and then all of a sudden it sounds
like complete shit. So the same thing with Kris, he said they would tune it
and just hand it to him and all of a sudden it would sound like a complete
mess. I have that problem too.
Splendid: If it ended right now and this was it, last one, has it been
enough for you? Have you turned over every stone you wanted to in your
Alejandro Escovedo: No I haven't, but it has been a lot. It would be a lot, yeah
it's a lot to look back on.
Splendid: What would be the one thing you would want to do right now, as
far as musically that you haven't done yet?
Alejandro Escovedo: I've told these stories through songs in which I try to make
these records. You listen to as if you're almost reading a book or
something. But I would really like to make one in which I wrote the
narrative that kind of guided you through these songs. Almost like a
conceptual-like thesis. I know it sounds pretentious. But it might be fun.
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Jeff Julian manages a supermarket in Slebbitt, Iowa.
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - janet engel :: credits graphics ]