Since Alejandro Escovedo formed the San Francisco punk band The Nuns in the late 70’s, he has spent very little time not kicking ass as a guitarist and songwriter. Based out of Austin, TX for the past 30 years, Escovedo’s bands and solo albums have set the bar for heartland and southwestern rock; however, his constantly evolving sound eschews genre limitations. I mentioned Escovedo in an article a few months ago as one of the best live shows I’d seen–and lo! his publicity team reached out to us at Ninebullets for an interview as Escovedo toured through Tampa/St. Pete behind his new album Big Station.
NB: When did you and Chuck [Prophet] write the songs on Big Station?
AE: It was about a year ago that we started writing the album. When we first went to Baja, California, we started to write. Some of that became Street Songs of Love , but we actually had a couple ideas for some of the first songs for Big Station. Like, “San Antonio Rain” was one, “Bottom of the World” was another, and “Sally was a Cop.”
NB: How long have you been working with Chuck? You’ve known each other for a long time, right?
AE: We first met when I was in the True Believers and he was doing Green On Red, at a gig actually. We kept in touch for years, always running into each other, and when it was time to make an album after The Boxing Mirror  I had this idea for an autobiographical story about all the bands I’ve been in. And I started the project out on my own, but Chuck and I were touring together a lot and I asked him if he’d like to help me with it. We just hit it off as songwriters–collaborators, I should say. It was pretty instantaneous. Once we wrote our first tune, which was a song called “Slow Down,” we really felt like we were on to something. We wrote that album Real Animal  together, then Street Songs, and now Big Station.
NB: Did Real Animal come out completely the way you were thinking, as an album about the bands you were in? I know there’s a few, like “Nuns Song.”
AE: Yeah, it did. Not only telling a story about the bands, but in a way about everything that led to the bands, you know. Where we lived, in Southern California, the music we were listening to, the records that were important to us–that led to being in a punk rock band called The Nuns and that led to other things.
NB: Back in those days, when you were listening to The Velvet Underground and The Stooges and stuff like that coming out, did you find that it was received differently when you were living in California versus when you wound up back in Texas?
AE: By the time I got back to Texas it was 1980, so it had already filtered through. There was a lot of Iggy Pop bands, and the Velvets had recorded a live album there. And Sterling Morrison was living in Austin when I got there, so everybody was very into the Velvets and the Stooges by that time.
California, though, that’s weird, because the first Velvet Underground album had this little pocket right by the beach. You could walk into a party in that part of town and that album would be playing. That was kind of rare. It was a good place to grow up, there were a lot of bands coming through there.
NB: You played guitar in The Nuns and Rank and File, and the first band you fronted sustainably was the True Believers, right?
NB: So how did it go those ten years where you were finding your voice, enough so to be a frontman and deciding that that was something you needed to do?
AE: It’s funny because at first I got into music because we were making this movie. I really wanted to be a filmmaker, you know. And we were making a movie about this band, the worst band, The Nuns, then we ditched the movie and the movie became the band, the band became the movie. We were just having a good time, we were trying to look cool, drinking, drugs, having fun, pretty girls. I didn’t really get serious about wanting to be in a band probably until Rank and File. I wasn’t sure that I’d do it for the rest of my life or anything. Once I got in Rank and File–actually it was after Rank and File, with the the True Believers–it was then that I got serious about it.
I kinda fell into the roll of frontman. I didn’t sing or anything. But it was a cool band to be in with my brother [Javier Escovedo], it had a very venomal sound, kind of had elements of dirt music and the Southwest, New York Dolls and Mott the Hoople. That’s kind of what we were going for, to be the Mott the Hoople of the Southwest.
NB: A lot of your family are musicians, right? Your siblings and your son?
AE: A lot of musicians. My brothers, sisters, and also my children.
NB: Does that inspire you to keep playing or do you think it makes it easier to take your foot off the pedal, now that there are people keeping it up behind you?
AE: Well I’d like them to take over the wheel, for a while anyway. It’s really wonderful to come from a family of musicians. My kids really love music, they help me in various ways, being on staff. My son is into hip-hop and rap and really noisy punk rock. My daughter plays drums and bass in a spacy-airy-ambient kind of thing. Everyone’s into something different.
NB: How did you feel your own audience coming together as you started going solo after the True Believers? How did it hit you, how did you process the fact that you had draw yourself, how did that develop?
AE: It was real tough because the death of the True Believers, I was pretty depressed. I really loved that band. It was a band I had started with my brother, so there was a strong familial thing about the band–Jon Dee [Graham] was very close to me, all the guys in the band. That was a big disappointment for me. And there was this period of time when I got a job at a record store, I was just working. I really kinda fell into a solo career reluctantly. I didn’t really want to do it. It took me a while to get comfortable as a bandleader and a frontman. Even after Gravity  was released, I hadn’t toured in a while, just played in Austin. So it was just me, after a good year of touring, maybe two years, I got comfortable and back on my feet. We had some good shows in the beginning. I was touring with just cello and violin.
NB: Austin has been a self-replenishing scene for a long time, what kind of bands do like around there now?
AE: Ghost Wolves, the band we’re touring with right now, I think they’re great. The Happenings. Riverboat Gamblers. There’s a lot of young kids, a lot of really good bands. Jon Dee Graham’s kid has a band. Shit, I can’t remember what they’re called. They’re like 12 years old.
NB: How do you choose your backup singers, for tour or recording?
AE: Well I got really lucky with backup singers because the guys in the band can really sing well, first of all. And the girls–Carla I met through a guy, then through Carla we met another backup singer, but she left and got married, then we found Gina, who’s been with us a couple years, and she’s awesome. I love having them. I don’t bring them out on the road with me all the time, but whenever I can I include them in the performance.
NB: It’s something you don’t see very often anymore. What albums made you want to try that sound?
AE: We were just listening to Funhouse, you know. Records like that LCD Soundsystem record, the one with “Drunk Girls,” I love that record. Gorilaz Plastic Beach.
NB: You’ve described Big Station a an outward-looking record. What kind of things were you looking out on a year ago when you guys were writing?
AE: We were looking a lot at the abundance of brutality in the media. Especially pertaining to the cartels in Mexico. That had a big influence on us. As the act of violence became more brutal, it kinda left us wondering what this is all about.
NB: Have you see any politicians address that issue much this season?
AE: No one’s really addressed it at all.
[A power outage in California, where Escovedo’s publicity coordinator is holding our phone tether, disconnects us. The power returns a few minutes later.]
NB: We left off on violence in Mexico and drug wars not being apart of political discourse…
AE: I just feel like on the one hand you have Arizona, that basically just wants to outlaw immigration. Just build a wall. Southern California you have some of the same responses. That’s pretty much the situation, and I guess it’s just not a major concern to anyone but the people who want to cross the border.
NB: What books, albums have you been listening to this year?
AE: A lot of the stuff we’ve been talking about and also I love the new Silversun Pickups record. I saw them do a stripped-down acoustic set that was really awesome. Really cool presentation.
NB: Oh no way, I didn’t know there was one on him.
AE: Yeah it was great. It’s called Cure for Pain.
NB: He was in Treat Her Right around the time of Rank and File and Green On Red and stuff.
AE: Yeah, I remember them, they were a great band. Morphine and I were on the same label at the same time, so we played a couple record company functions, and we also played together in France. They were cool people.
AE: It’s an old song, from the 50’s in Mexico. It was just a song I heard a lot growing up. I thought I’d give it a shot.
NB: Did it fit onto this record in any specific way?
AE: Yeah, for some reason it did fit in. I’m not sure how, but it did. It was about time, I want to do it more often.
That was cool! Thanks to Mr. Escovedo and the folks at Concord Music for bearing with my attempts to record the conversation and be a journalist. Buy Big Station on cd, vinyl, and t-shirt from Escovedo’s store. Look for his tour coming through your town.