Texas singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo is a rock ‘n’ roll musician, plain and simple. The San Antonio native has dabbled in a number of different musical styles over the course of his career—from his time with the San Francisco punk band The Nuns in the ‘70s, to his illustrious solo career—but, as Escovedo notes, it all comes back to wanting to make rock records.
His latest album, Big Station, was released last Tuesday and might be the best example of Escovedo returning to his roots. It’s his third album working with both writing partner Chuck Prophet and producer Tony Visconti (David Bowie), and the combination has delivered a powerful collection of vivid songwriting and freewheeling spirit that showcases what Escovedo is perhaps most well-known for: his live performances. We recently caught up with Escovedo before a performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to discuss the new record, working with Chuck Prophet and how his music has been unfairly labelled over the years.
Your last album, Street Songs of Love, was very introverted and dealt heavily with personal relationships. Big Station has a much wider scope and seems to be more freewheeling and carefree. Was this simply the result of wanting to do something different from your last record? What was the impetus behind the new vibe?
Alejandro Escovedo: The initial inspiration was to make it different, definitely. I didn’t want to make another Street Songs of Love. When Chuck Prophet and I were writing the songs, I really kept the songs close to myself. I didn’t want to give them to the band and have the songs become what Street Songs had become, because that’s how the band was playing. I would keep them to myself because Chuck and I were working on the kind of spacey…we used an 808, we put heavy reverb on the vocals, we used bullet mics, things like that. We’d really just sit there and try to create a lot of space and atmosphere in the songs. So I just didn’t want people playing the same thing that they had played, the same way they had played it. It was going to take a total re-evaluation of how we approached the songs, and it resulted in me firing another drummer. Dave is not with me anymore, although he did play on the album. It just took us a moment to re-evaluate everything and check out how we were going to approach the album. I think [producer] Tony [Visconti] and I were very secure in our approach for it and with the ideas we had going into the album. I’m really happy with the results.
You mentioned writing with Chuck Prophet. What is it that has made him such a close and consistent collaborator in recent years?
Escovedo: First and foremost, he’s a great songwriter. He writes differently than I do, and yet because we’re friends and we’ve been friends and we’ve known of each other’s goings on for quite a while—I was in True Believers and he was in Green on Red when we first met—that when we first started to write Real Animal, which is the first album we collaborated on, I really needed someone to come in and help me shape that album. I had so many characters, the timeline was broad and there was a lot to include because it was autobiographical. What Chuck brought to that, though, was a sense of humor, number one. Number two, he had a very journalistic kind of eye for detail. He helped me condense everything and refine everything, and we really kind of set it up like a storyboard, like we were making a movie. We had characters and timelines and things like that. We approach each album in not quite the same way, but, in a sense, we know what we’re singing about when we leap in to make the record.
What is the writing process like between you two? Are you constantly bouncing ideas off each other and slowly formulating songs over a longer period of time? Or is there a point when you just get together and put everything out on the table, see what works and maybe, like you said, storyboard the album?
Escovedo: Now that we’re onto our third album and we’ve written almost 50 songs together, we’re pretty comfortable just bouncing things off of each other. But I think what Chuck and I do that’s really important is that we brainstorm exactly what it is we want to say on the record. A lot of times we kind of have a vague understanding of what it is we’re going for and we’ll listen to a lot of music. We’ll listen to very different types of music to come up with good ideas. It’s kind of like the songs lead you in the direction that the album is going to go.
So what kind of music were you listening to when you were writing Big Station?
Escovedo: Everything from Tinariwen to Sandinista. The Clash a lot. LCD Soundsystem, a lot. Gorillaz. You know, bands that we’re using to take different approaches to writing songs.
Do you just kind of absorb all that music and then write? Are there specific artists or influences that you’re consciously drawing from as you’re writing specific songs?
Escovedo: I think there are, yeah. It changes from song to song and album to album, but yeah, there are people that we kind of focus on and try to draw out whatever magic that they create. We try to find our way into that same sort of place.
You worked with Tony Visconti again on Big Station. As with Chuck Prophet, you started working with him on Real Animal. What is it about Tony, in particular, that has allowed you to mesh with him so well?
Escovedo: I think it gives him the opportunity to work with great songs and with a great band, a band that has made their name playing live. And I’ve always wanted somebody like Tony Visconti to produce my records. When we suddenly had the opportunity to work with Tony it was really a blessing. It changed everything, it really did. In the way that we approach records, the way we go about preparing for them. He’s given us so much that it’s hard to pinpoint one thing. He’s been very kind, compassionate, generous and very inspired.
Is this the new dream team, then? You and Tony Visconti and Chuck Prophet? Can you envision yourself wanting to go in a different direction in the future that might require a different type of producer or writing partner?
Escovedo: I think I could make any kind of record I’d want to with Tony. We’ll see, but I’d be perfectly willing to make more records with him.
Throughout your career you’ve existed on the fringe of a number of different genres and played a number of different styles of music. Recently, a lot of people have, perhaps lazily, called your music alt-country. Does this type of thing frustrate you? Do you consider yourself to be playing a certain style of music? Or at this point is it all just Escovedo-ism?
Escovedo: [laughs] Well, first of all, I think of myself as a rock and roll songwriter. The problem has been not only with alt-country and cow-punk and all those things, but when I first put out my solo record, because of my name, they were calling me Latin, salsa, world beat, Mexican music and whatever—they were not rock and roll categorizations. And that was based solely around my name. That’s another issue entirely, but I always had that problem. Then by way of the association with Bloodshot Records and No Depression, I was suddenly tagged as one of those types of artists. I think if you look at the artists that were initially associated with that school, there would be Wilco, Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo. Ryan Adams, probably. Myself, as well. But we were just trying to make rock and roll records. We all came from punk rock bands. It was just an appreciation for a certain kind of music, but I certainly wasn’t trying to be a country artist. I have too much respect for country music to think that I can sing it.
Do you think it helps an artist to be successful if they fit neatly fit into one genre or another?
Escovedo: At that time it definitely gave me some legs. I was in a state where I had just made a record for Rykodisc and left that label. In the interim I put out a live album, More Miles Than Money, and then I was kind of lost a little bit. I wasn’t sure what I was going to be. So that association itself really brought a lot of fans and a lot of people were interested in me, suddenly. I certainly would never deny that it wasn’t helpful, because it was. I just don’t like to be tagged with that. I don’t think anyone likes to be tagged with anything. I would like to be free of all those labels because my music is just my music. It’s not anything other than that.