Just Another Orchestra-leading Twang Punk
Alejandro Escovedo is a not a person who rings his own bell. No Depression magazine’s “Artist of the Decade” accolade caught him (and some other people too, he admits) by surprise. “I get these things, like Artist of the Decade or ‘Musician of the Year’ in Austin, and people go ‘Huh?’ I mean, everybody knows I don’t play guitar that well…”
Don’t take his word for it. Looking back over his 20-plus years as a performer, from the punk fury of the Nuns to the remarkable Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra, either he’s extremely talented, or just happened to be in the right place at the right time. By now, everyone knows the tale of the Nuns opening for the Sex Pistols’ last show. A little while after that, Alejandro found himself living in New York’s Chelsea Hotel at the same time as Sid and Nancy. A call from Chip Kinman of the Dils, another west-coast punk group, led to Escovedo joining Rank and File, a roots band decidedly out of fashion in the haircut days of the early ’80s, but now regarded as one of the main influences of the current “alt.country” movement.
From there, it was on to the True Believers, a vehicle designed to be the next Mott the Hoople, but again, cursed by bad timing (straight-up rock and roll in the time of Duran Duran), the Believers found themselves imploding. Alejandro started out again. Five albums later, he’s found a home on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, haven to the Waco Brothers and Neko Case. His first release for them, the live More Miles Than Money , captured his unique blend of scalding rock (covers of Iggy Pop and the Stones) and intensely personal guitar and strings (“Pissed Off 2 AM”) in a mesmerizing symphony of emotion.
I spoke with him (between loads of laundry — his, not mine) recently from New Jersey.
Legend has it that the first song you sang live was a Jimmie Rogers tune, and here on your latest ( Bourbonitis Blues ), you do a version of Rogers’ “California Blues.” That’s pretty consistent.
Alejandro Escovedo : Thanks. I guess it is, at that.
It seems that you are not only a musician, but also a big fan.
Oh, most definitely. I don’t see how you can be a decent musician without being a fan of rock and roll. I think it has to mean something to you before you can do it well.
You have quite a few covers on your last few records…
Now I’m the covers guy. Never release covers before the last two records, and now it’s all people ask me about!
I was wondering more along the lines of what makes you pick the songs you do. I see a strong leaning toward the Velvets (“Pale Blue Eyes” on Blues and “Street Hassle” on Miles ), Ian Hunter…
Oh, Lou Reed, that’s been a major influence, and the Stones, Mott the Hoople. It’s stuff I can relate to. Even a song like “Sex Beat” by the Gun Club, I can really relate to that.
I like your version of that on Blues , with Melissa Swingle (from Bloodshot’s Trailer Bride).
Thanks. It was great recording that with her. All those Bloodshot women — the Mekons’ Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan, Neko Case — Bloodshot’s the coolest label I’ve been on.
What does a song have to say to you, before you’ll record it?
I think good songs are like journals, or scrapbooks of your own life. It’s like watching a movie about yourself, even if it’s by somebody else. I mean, I’ll never cover a Hole song.
What does the title of the record refer to?
Bourbonitis Blues ? I guess blues over missing bourbon these days.
Beautiful cover art, as well.
I’ll tell her! It’s my wife, Dana Lee Smith. She does wonderful stuff, really an amazing artist. She was in a band, [an] all-girl punk band called Pork.
Is that how you met?
She was dating my guitar player.
So they’re good for something!
Yeah! Thanks, guitar player!
Was being named No Depression ‘s “Artist of the Decade” a good thing, or bad, or what?
I don’t know. I mean, it’s an honor, and I was real surprised, but it was real embarrassing at the same time.
I mean, anytime anyone puts that kinda label on you, hangs a tag around your neck, it’s a lot of pressure. It’s a lot to live up to.
Better than saying it about yourself.
Oh, I wouldn’t do that. I’m no Marty Stuart.
Or the Stones.
Or Ryan Adams of Whiskeytown, for that matter.
What sort of reaction did that get?
Well, a lot of people were surprised, thought it should be Steve Earle or something. Even down here [in Austin], I get named something, and people know I don’t play guitar very well, and they go “Huh?” — Jimmie Dale Gilmore gets it, everybody goes “okay.” I mean, you can’t really worry about that stuff too much. It’s an honor, anyway.
Speaking of honors, what was it like recording “Nickel and a Spoon” (from With These Hands ) with Willie Nelson?
Definitely in the presence of greatness. I mean, he’s Willie. It was the first time I’d ever heard someone else sing one of my songs, too. It was cool.
Your music is very personal and open — do you ever feel overexposed?
I think that’s true. I mean, lyrically or in interviews, I end up saying too much, and it makes people uncomfortable, sometimes. I don’t know why that happens, but like the No Dep thing. I mean, geez, what more is there to say about my life after that?
On that note, I left Alejandro to return to his laundry. A few days later, I saw the last night of his current tour. (Returning home to Austin so guitarist Joe Eddy Hines can become the father of twins and to record a new record). Opening for Gillian Welch, Alejandro and band played in front of the stage curtain, all acoustic, and it was just as powerful as a wall of Marshalls would have been. (“And we get to leave the spandex at home,” quipped Alejandro from the stage). When he closed with Ian Hunter’s “I Wish I Was Your Mother,” it hushed the crowd and brought tears to my eyes. Perhaps, as he says, Alejandro can’t play guitar all that well. But he does everything else about as good as it can be done.
Alejandro Escovedo plays the European Street Listening Room in Jacksonville on July 8, the Go Lounge in Orlando on July 9, and Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa on July 10.