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 audience.

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 behind.

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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 life?

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.

AUDIO: Castanets

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'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 aren't. 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 while.

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 career?

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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Read Splendid's reviews of A Man Under the Influence and Bourbonitis Blues.

The official Alejandro Escovedo website.

Bloodshot Records, Escovedo's label.

Buy Alejandro Escovedo stuff at Insound.

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Jeff Julian manages a supermarket in Slebbitt, Iowa.

[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - janet engel :: credits graphics ]

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