Alejandro Escovedo has performed professionally since the mid-1970s, when he was a member of the Nuns, a San-Francisco-based punk rock group. He then helped create the cowpunk and alternative country genres with Rank and File and the True Believers in Austin, Texas, before launching his solo career.
The son of music-loving Mexican immigrants, two of his brothers played with Santana and his niece is singer Shiela E. His new album The Crossing tells the story of two young immigrants — one from Mexico, one from Italy — pursuing their American rock dreams. NPR called The Crossing “possibly Escovedo’s finest recorded work yet.”
The guitarist and vocalist has collaborated with Bruce Springsteen, Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey (R.E.M.), John Cale (Velvet Underground) and Los Lobos, among other musicians. No Depressionmagazine, which focuses on American roots music, named Escovedo the Artist of the Decade in the 1990s.
Brad Durrell recently spoke to Escovedo, who will perform with the Italian band Don Antonio on Jan. 26 at Fairfield Theatre Company.
Brad Durrell: Tell me about growing up in a family of musicians?
Alejandro Escovedo: My father had 12 kids, with two mothers involved, and there was always music around the house. My father loved Mexican and country music, and my mother loved Big Band jazz. Records were always being played. My father was a singer so he was always singing, too. It was just a house full of music.
When you’re the seventh kid of 12, you’re kind of the forgotten child. Since my brothers were so talented — they were natural musicians — I chose other things to gain attention. I wanted to be a writer and a filmmaker. I got into music kind of grudgingly. I was making a movie about the worst band in the world and since [those of us making the film] couldn’t play music, we became that band for the movie. That led to where I am today.
BD: How did you get into punk rock?
AE: I always loved those bands in the 1960s — the Yardbirds, the Stones, the Pretty Things. That kind of led to the garage-band movement in the United States, with the Stooges, MC5, the Velvet Underground — my favorite band. It was a natural progression for me.
BD: Why did you move to Austin in the 1980s?
AE: I was in a band called Rank and File. We were trying to marry the sounds of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings with our approach to rock-and-roll, and kind of created this sound. We were living in New York City at the time and did a tour that took us through Austin and fell in love with it. I was born in San Antonio and always wanted to get back to Texas, and this seemed like a good time. In Austin, we learned a lot about country music in an environment where the songs and songwriting were really the thing. It felt like going to school.
BD: Tell me about the newest album, The Crossing?
AE: The characters are Salvo, who’s from southern Italy, and Diego, who’s from northern Mexico. They meet in Galveston, Texas, where both are working at Salvo’s uncle’s Italian restaurant, and start to discuss what they love about rock-and-roll, America, literature and film. They are into American punk rock — including all the bands that led to that movement, the Velvet, MC5, the Stooges, the New York Dolls –and it’s that America they go looking for. It’s a story about their innocence and how they believe America is a place that’s free, democratic and welcoming. What they find is it’s not as welcoming as they imagined.
It’s not just a story about immigration, although that certainly plays a part of it. It’s really a story about these youngsters and how they want to live this esthetic life in America, and find they face a lot of resistance.
In the end, we lose Salvo along the way and Diego is left to contemplate and meditate on what it is they’ve done and whether the trip was worth it.
BD: How did you hook up with an Italian band?
AE: I was about to tour Europe less than two years ago, and was given a choice of three bands — two were English and one was Italian. I chose the Italian band, Don Antonio. I love their musicianship. They weren’t trying to sound American but were true to the Italian approach to music. It struck me as something that would be very interesting with my music and songs. It turned out to be wonderful choice.
We originally toured in 10 different countries, doing 35 shows in 40 days, and got to know each other well. I went back later and toured southern Italy with them, and it was then that we started to devise the story that became The Crossing.
BD: Do you get into politics at shows?
AE: I try not to be didactic about it in any way. I may mention that in these times it’s hard not to be aware of politics. The current political climate in America is somewhat frightening for someone who’s as old as I am and has seen a lot. It’s funny, in Europe they are more accepting and you can say what you feel about the current president and people will cheer you on. Here, it’s not as open as people think.
If I get into politics, it’s more politics about the soul, about art and about human kindness. Because the story of The Crossing is a journey we’ve all taken. It’s a human story. It’s not just that about two kids from Italy and Mexico, or any other country, it’s all of our stories.
BD: Why should someone come hear you play?
AE: It’s important to see this cross-cultural intersection of music and telling stories. And the musicians in Don Antonio are some of the best I’ve seen in my life. You’ll learn something and walk away with more than just having listened to some great songs, but hearing people tell stories.
BD: Around 2003, the music community came together to help you when you collapsed on stage and faced medical issues and expenses. How did that make you feel?
AE: It was very humbling and hard to accept at first. I was always the guy who helped others. The first gigs I ever did were benefits for other people with the punk band. So it was hard for me to be on the other end, actually. There’s a certain amount of pride and I didn’t want to be known as the guy with Hep-C. And then I realized by accepting this gesture of gratitude and love from so many people, I was helping them in a way. It was part of this cycle where I’d gone out and played music and made people happy, and in return they were there when I needed help. That’s a beautiful thing.
BD: If you weren’t a musician, what do you think you’d be?
AE: I don’t know. In my dreams I would have been a great baseball pitcher or a great surfer, but it just turned out I love songs.