Catching Up With... Alejandro Escovedo

Music Features Alejandro Escovedo
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Although he's yet to cross into his sixth decade, it seems like Alejandro Escovedo has lived enough life to fill a century of lyric booklets. After a harrowing battle with Hepatitis C left him vomiting blood at the side of the stage in Arizona, the Austin-based musician gave up the rock-star lifestyle and delved into his near-death experience on 2006's brooding, John Cale-produced, critically-acclaimed album The Boxing Mirror. Escovedo's ninth solo offering, Real Animal, which hits record store shelves today (June 24), chronicles the glory days of Escovedo's colorful journey, starting when he was a young California punk enraptured by glam rock and continuing through to when he settled down in Texas and began his solo career. In a neat turn of events, Real Animal was produced by the man who helmed so many of Escovedo's favorite records, the legendary Tony Visconti (T. Rex, Bowie, Morrissey, to name just a few). Paste caught up with Escovedo on the eve of South By Southwest, where he was preparing to perform Real Animal in its entirety with cowriter Chuck Prophet.

Paste: Tell me a little bit about Real Animal.
Alejandro Escovedo: Let's start at the beginning. After The Boxing Mirrorwhere I was turned onto Bowie and T. Rex and The Stooges and MC5 and Roxy Music. I would hang out at this club called Rodney's English Disco and everybody used to come there... From there I went to San Francisco and that's when I started to finally be in a band, because I was making a movie about the worst band in the world. Me and my friend Jeff [Olener], since we couldn't play, we became that band and that band became The Nuns and... we had no idea what we were doing, we were so bad that we had to ask the audience to come up and tune our guitars for us. But we eventually became a part of the San Francisco scene; punk rock, we became a part of that package, but we weren't really punk rock. I mean, we were punk rock in the sense that we wanted to be a combination of The Stooges and the Velvet Underground—we had a female singer who was kinda Nico-esque. That was my first band, and then I went to start Rank & File with Tony and Chip [Kinman]...

Paste: Were you singing in The Nuns?
Escovedo: No, I was doing nothing but playing guitar. Very minimally. Also, it's a stretch to say I played guitar, but I had the guitar draped around my neck, trying to look cool.

Paste: That's very punk.
Escovedo: [Laughs] So, from The Nuns, Tony and Chip and I started Rank & File with some of the members of The Dils and some of the guys from The Nuns... we were trying to really just play everything in our record collection, from Marty Robbins to Joe Higgs to Bo Diddley to country music, blues, rock, whatever. I moved to New York City with The Nuns and lived in the Chelsea Hotel when the Sid and Nancy thing went down, I stayed there for about a year. Rank & File went on a tour and we left, on the night that Ronald Reagan was elected President, with a bag of pot, a roasted chicken, and about $25 to get us to Dayton, Ohio, where our first gig was. We played seven shows in seven weeks, which took us all the way from New York City to Vancouver. Austin was one of those gigs, and Lester Bangs was staying here at that time and we knew Lester from New York, so we fell into this beautiful place, Austin, and I remember thinking, 'I'd like to live here someday.' So eventualy we limped back to NYC, decided we were gonna leave, and so Tony and Chip and I and my cat went from NYC to Austin and I've been here ever since. I left Rank & File and started True Believers, a really important band for me, with my brother Javier and Jon Dee [Graham], and from there I left and went solo—reluctantly, didn't really want to, but I did. When the True Believers broke up, I got a job again in a record store, that's when I was working at Waterloo Records, and decided to start trying it again and started this solo thing. That became the orchestra and also started Buick MacKane, which was really my answer to all the bands I'd ever wanted to have, just a four-piece rock 'n' roll band really trying to be like The Faces, and The Dolls, and that was really more of a party than a band so it didn't last that long. We were together maybe three years and we wrote enough for one album; we were drunk most of the time. Then from there I started making solo records. Stephen Bruton produced my first record, and it just took off from there, I've been doing that ever since. That was '92, when my first solo record came out. That's a lot to put in a record, right?

Paste: Real Animal is kind of that time period, then?
Escovedo: From '76, when we started the Nuns, to all those bands, True Believers and Buick MacKane. But it just kinda touches upon all those different things; there's elements of that. When I wanted to write the record I realized that it was a lot of information to put into song and that I would need some help. After The Boxing Mirror, I was kinda sick of singing about myself in that way, exorcising a lot of pain—that record's pretty melancholy—so I wanted to see it more like a little movie. I recruited Chuck Prophet, we cowrote the whole record together and he really helped me a lot.

Paste: How did you end up releasing both The Boxing Mirror and Real Animal on an EMI imprint after what happened with True Believers?
Escovedo: That's funny, because I went into it thinking that it was just on Back Porch Records, which I thought was just a part of Narada, and then suddenly I realized I was on EMI again! But it turned out to be really great because I met Ian Ralfini and Mike Daly, who was with Back Porch, he's the A&R guy who signed me, and Ian is the vice president of Blue Note and the Manhattan Music Group and he really has been so supportive, like nothing I'd ever had before on a record label. He really kind of inspired me to make this the best record I could possibly make, the combo of him and Mike Daly and Tony Visconti, who's the producer, it's just amazing. So I'm very, very happy as to what happened. They really kind of made me work a lot harder than I'd ever worked before. It's kinda funny when I think about it, but to have someone like that supporting me in the way that they do is a real blessing.

Paste: So [Ian Ralfini] knew you from the True Believers days?
Escovedo: No, I don't think Ian was aware of me until he saw us play live, when he saw us at Irving Plaza after The Boxing Mirror had been released was when he really really got turned on. And it was also the same performance that excited Jonathan Demme about making the movie.

Paste: What's the status of the movie?
Escovedo: It doesn't even have a title at this point. To be quite honest, all I know is that it's happening at the end of April, but, you know, Jonathan's the director and I'm just really gonna take his direction, so whatever he comes up with, I trust him.

Paste: Is it going be more like a documentary or is it going to be a fictionalized/stylized version of your life?
Escovedo:whether that's combined with a live performance type of film, I have a feeling that's probably the way it's gonna go. But I'm not sure. What I know is that he doesn't really want to make just a concert film or a straight-up documentary.

Paste: He's made some pretty awesome films... Did he approach you? You did the soundtrack for the Jimmy Carter movie [Demme's Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains], right?
Escovedo: [Demme] saw that performance at Irving Plaza and he said, "I know you know a lot of filmmakers in Austin, but if you ever want some help..." and he was almost kind of shy about it, you know, and like four months later it dawned on me and I said, "Man, we gotta call him and see what's up!" So we called him and started talking about doing this film, and when he did the Carter film, he wanted me to work with him on that and we did that and it turned out to be really beautiful, it was a great experience for me, so that began the relationship right there.

Paste:documentary for, Neil Young recently commented that he doesn't believe anymore than a rock 'n' roll song can save the world, and I was wondering, after the huge outpouring of support you got after what happened in Tuscon, what do you think? Do you think that rock 'n' roll still has that kind of power?
Escovedo: I don't think it has the kind of power it had in the '60s, like, where a mass amount of people believe that the world is gonna change as a result of songs and music and art. But it was a collective thing, it wasn't just music, it was literature and poetry and film...all these different things, y'know, that really kind of made it seem like it was a big movement, it was beautiful. And now, I think if you just change one person's life, it's what's gonna make a difference. I still think that music has the power and the ability to do that. I never want to believe that it won't. I hope I never feel that jaded about it. I'm not saying that he is, but he's been in the midst of it, he was one of the leaders of that movement, in the Buffalo Springfield, even later, so he's always been aware of these things. I think he's always understood the power of the music but I think the way that information is digested on such a disposable basis now, it doesn't have the impact that it once had. Because of commercialism and everything.

Paste: Do you feel like the era of the rock 'n' roll superstar is over?
Escovedo: I tell ya, there's something that I see and it's that everyone looks like a rock star now. People can go into a mall and get their hair cut, they can get the clothes, it's very accessible now. Whereas when I grew up, to find a green velvet suit or something or get something tailored so that it looked like an English suit or to cut your hair in some really weird way, you had to do it yourself. You had to find these things on your own, and you really stood out. But now, everyone looks like that. All through SXSW it's hard to figure out who's in a band and who's not. The whole town's like this one big, I dunno, extras call for rock musicians, y'know?

Paste: Going back to Real Animal, how did you decide how to shape the album that would follow up The Boxing Mirror, after it got so many accolades?
Escovedo: I knew that I wanted to make a rock record again and I knew that I wanted to make a record that was biographical, I guess in a way autobiographical, I wanted it to have more energy and life to it. This record is also retrospective and introspective at the same time, but you move to it a lot more and it has kind of this different light to it than The Boxing Mirror. I listen to The Boxing Mirror and I think it's a really beautiful album, I love it, but this record sounds completely different and a lot of that's because of Tony [Visconti]. Cale, he's a genius as far as I'm concerned. I admire him so much and he was really great for me. He wanted me to be strong, and it was right after all that illness stuff, and I think that's what he did for me, he helped me stand up with my head high, and I mean that musically and personally. With Tony, it was like...when we went in to mix, he said, "Bring in records that you think sound good." I go, "Dude, you've made all the records that are great. Any record that I would bring are the ones you've produced. Whatever you do, it's gonna be great." I had lot of faith in him, and I still do.

Paste: You've gotten to work with some of your idols, then.
Escovedo:questionable to certain people and at one point I rang up Ian Hunter  and I said, 'You know, I need some help,' so I got together with him and he kind of helped me see what was good and bad about the songs. And to me, he's one of the premier songwriters, ever. That was really huge.

Paste: How are you feeling these days, healthwise?
Escovedo: I feel amazing. Stronger than ever. I've learned how to manage it.

Paste: Are you still completely sworn off drinking?
Escovedo: Oh yeah, I'm pretty straight edge right now.

Paste: But you partied pretty hard when you were younger, huh? Do you miss it?
Escovedo: I had a good time. A very good time. No, I don't miss it any more. When I first quit, I did, but I don't any more.

Paste: One more question: As someone who started playing music relatively later [Escovedo didn't start playing guitar until age 24] do you have any advice for people who think they're too old to start?
Escovedo: I don't think it's ever too late to do anything in life. Except maybe try to be younger. It's like Vic Rock told me the other day: We're too old to die young [laughs].

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