“I’m sitting here in Carrboro, North Carolina.” This is the voice of Alejandro Escovedo. On the day we’re speaking, I’m hoping to catch his performance that night at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, but I’m also dealing with the possibility of ice on the roads and about an hour’s drive each way. By the end of that night, I’d be shaking my head listening to him and his and current bandmates, Don Antonio, rework his 2012 song “Sally Was a Cop” into something transcendentally different from its original studio version, and I’d be grateful that the weather held long enough for me to get home.
It’s been more than six years since Aquarium Drunkard last spoke with Escovedo, and since then he’s been through a few things: a new marriage and a near-death experience on their honeymoon, resultant PTSD, moving from his long-time home of Austin to Dallas, and parting of ways with longtime management. But it’s his latest album, The Crossing, co-written and recorded with Italian musician Antonio Gramientiere and his band Don Antonio, that centers our conversation. It’s a song cycle about two immigrants – one Mexican, one Italian – who come together working in the kitchen of a restaurant and set out to find the America they’ve seen in the music, books and films that they love. The America they inhabit is a bit nebulous in time, but it’s very much grounded in the present as they struggle to find the country they had envisioned.
We spoke with Escovedo on the phone about the latest album, how he got hooked up with Don Antonio, working with James Williamson of the Stooges, covering Joe Ely, representation in art, and how he still believes in the power of music.
Aquarium Drunkard: Your new album The Crossing gets into issues of immigration. And obviously one of the characters being Mexican makes sense, but where did the idea of the other character being Italian come from? Was that something you had in mind, or did it spring out of your collaboration with the band Don Antonio?
Alejandro Escovedo: Exactly. It all came from the collaboration with Don Antonio and spending so much time in Italy over the last two years. I really fell in love with Italy, its people, and especially the band and the town that they live in. About two years ago, I was going to tour Europe and I had a choice of bands and I chose Don Antonio. I went to their little village and we rehearsed a few hours the night I got there, we rehearsed all day the next day, then we got up the next morning at 5 AM to drive to Frankfurt, Germany to begin a tour of 35 shows in 40 days. I hadn’t been to Europe in awhile, so it was nice to get to see it through their eyes. We came back a few months after that and toured Southern Italy. I began to see this correlation between Southern Italy and Mexico. It seemed very Mexican to me. The cities kind of resembled Mexican cities. There was a sense of history that was very ancient. There’s a lot of immigration from Africa in that part of Italy. And the food was spicier – they had food that reminded me of Mexican food. So it was there that I started to work with Antonio Gramientiere, who co-wrote the record with me, and we came up with the concept of the record and the idea of the two boys, Salvo and Diego.
AD: In addition to Don Antonio, you have an amazing lineup of people on this album: Wayne Kramer, James Williamson, Peter Perrett, John Perry and Joe Ely. You also had that great trio of records working with Chuck Prophet and Tony Visconti, and your last record working with Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey. At this point in your career, what do those kind of collaborations bring – music wise, writing wise – to your artistic process?
Alejandro Escovedo: It brings so much. They can go both ways. Sometimes they don’t work as well. I’ve been very fortunate. I love collaborating. And I think more than anything, I’m more of an architect. I can really construct things and arrange music in a way that maybe they wouldn’t have thought of. And I think of groups of musicians that might seem a little too different from each other, but when I bring them together with these songs, they seem to work. In collaboration you get a lot of inspiration. Working with Tony Visconti was inspirational. Working with John Cale was a different experience, but just as inspiring. Writing with Chuck [Prophet] was amazing. The Real Animal record – I was really proud of that. I thought we’d made something really special. And we wrote two more records together, and I did three with Tony Visconti producing. So it works up to a certain point, and then you have to go searching for new ideas. And that’s when Peter Buck and Scott came in. That experience was very different, but equally as fascinating and inspiring.
This last record with Don Antonio was a really wonderful thing because it was a collaboration of not just musicians – it was international in scope and had a story line that involved all of us and one we could all relate to. Antonio and I worked really hard to make sure that what came out of the album was something people could begin to think about a little differently than they had perhaps previously perceived. We wanted to make sure we weren’t frozen in any sort of narrative that put us in any particular time and date. We wanted it to be somewhat of a timeless story.
AD: The opening night of this tour in Austin was kind of crazy from what I saw, in the best of ways. I have no doubt that getting to play Stooges songs on stage with James Williamson and Wayne Kramer had to be fulfilling some of young Alejandro’s dreams.
Alejandro Escovedo: Yeah, it’s one of those things like you go to see a baseball team that you love as a kid and one day you end up in that uniform. To play with Wayne Kramer, he’s just great. His attitude is great, he’s 70 years old. He’s just an inspiration. Same with James. He was always one of my favorite guitar players. I think the solo on “I Got a Right” is one of the greatest guitar solos of all time. Their performances were unbelievable. So to be able to sing “Search and Destroy” with James Williamson playing guitar is at the top of my list, for sure.
AD: There’s one song on the album that is a cover song. You do Joe Ely’s “Silver City.” When there’s a concept album that includes a cover, I always wonder, did you go looking for a cover to include, or was this something where you thought Ely’s words said what you wanted to say better than you thought you could in that spot?
Alejandro Escovedo: AJoe and I have talked about writing songs about the border for a long time. Joe is an artist who is real. He’s the real deal. When he writes about hopping trains, he did hop trains. He did join the circus. Everything he writes about is true. “Silver City” to me was a song that fit so perfectly into the concept of the record. I was very honored to help present Joe with the Townes Van Zandt Award last year at the Austin Music Awards. And they asked me to do one of Joe’s songs, and I chose “Silver City.” And Charlie Sexton and I did this different arrangement to it. And that night, Joe was very happy with it. And his wife Sharon leaned over to my wife Nancy and said “Alejandro’s got to record that some day.” And it just turned out that it was perfectly appropriate for the record we were making, and Joe was kind enough to come help sing on the album.
AD: The lyrics to “Fury and Fire” on the new album get unfortunately more and more prescient as the year goes on. Especially the line about “they call us rapists / go and build a bigger wall / we’re gonna tear it down” which is an obvious reference to the President’s ‘escalator’ speech that launched his campaign. That line of “they wanna tear it down” seems to repeat with various meanings throughout the song. It’s almost like this inversion of the ‘make America great again’ thing. Like, yes, let’s make it the welcoming place that it could and should be.
Alejandro Escovedo: Yeah, that’s spot on. Literally, I think all walls should be torn down. Maybe one around the White House wouldn’t be a bad idea. And we’ll get Mexicans to build that one. But it’s really about wanting to find that place where you’re welcome, and that America becomes as wonderful as we know it can be. We stick to the original idea of democracy which includes everyone. There are a lot of issues in that. Not only is the record about these particular situations you’re speaking about, but it’s also about the never-ending story of people coming to find a better life. And how we as a society somehow create obstacles for that to happen. And if we were a true democracy, and if we were really about freedom, we could welcome all people and really tear down all borders in a way that would allow us to live in peace and harmony. Maybe that’s a naive thought, but it’s one that I would rather believe in than other things.
So the record is really about those boys looking, first of all, aesthetically, at the things they love – rock and roll music, punk music. They want to go to L.A. because the Zeros and the Plugz play there. They can relate to them, and find community in punk rock music. But they also love the films and they love the literature, and they want that America, want to find that America. And they’re faced with a lot of obstacles. They wonder at one point if they’re even too late. Maybe that America is gone.
AD: That’s the next thing I was going to ask you about was the line in “Sonica USA” where you sing “I saw the Zeros / and they looked like me.” And that’s something that really stuck out to me – you hear a lot of people talk about seeing musicians that looked like them in the sense of people who could barely play a guitar, or were from their same place. But then to also see people who look like you ethnically, racially – and how important it is to have those cultural representations. I always think of that photo of that little boy touching President Obama’s hair. And how important that was and how far away we are from seeing non-white people represented more broadly.
Alejandro Escovedo: In the song, when I sing that line, I was thinking about when I was a kid growing up and the Beatles and the [Rolling] Stones and the Yardbirds and the Dave Clark Five and all those great bands, there weren’t – like, I knew I wasn’t going to look like a Beatle. It was a little difficult. I’m 68. I grew up in an era where, when I went to school, we were constantly being told we couldn’t grow up to be doctors and lawyers and such. We were being prepared to be laborers. My ideas, my fantasies, were about dreams about becoming something more than that. But because of the resistance to that, you become really confused in a way. You find yourself thinking that you’re not good enough, not white enough, or you’re the wrong color, and that you have no place in that world.
So when you see someone like Richie Valens, or see someone like the Sir Douglas Quintet from San Antonio and you see Sam the Sham, Question Mark and the Mysterians – it gives you some hope that you can do that too. If they can do that, I can do it, right? So when we were in the True Believers, we would play for these kids in San Antonio, San Marcos and down in the valley in Kingsville. Most Mexican kids at that time were really into heavy metal, Iron Maiden and stuff, and they’d come to the shows in their denim jackets with patches. But they would dig us because we had long hair, we had guitars, we were cool. They loved us for that alone. And the fact we’re making rock music, was just icing on the cake to them. A lot of kids come up to me and say that when they were little, their dads used to see us play, and would bring home our records, and how it inspired them to want to do this also. So it’s a beautiful cycle of events that is changing because of bands like Los Lobos, Raul Malo, The Plugz, The Zeros, the True Believers – the list goes on and on. And the Latin population is crazy. It’s a huge market. Eventually people have to pay attention to it.
It’s changing, but the thing about music for me is that I never wanted it to be ghettoized. Let me give you an example. When my records first came out, they were never in the rock sections of stores. They were always in the salsa section, world beat, world music, whatever section that was not rock, merely based on my name. And that’s completely unfair, you know, and when you go to radio somewhere and they say, ‘well, we already have one Mexican band, we don’t need another one.’ It’s just more racism. So it’s something you always have to be aware of, but I never wanted to be dictated by that battle. I didn’t want it to have boundaries. I could write about my father and his story of immigration from Mexico to America in a way that is really just about the story of a man who has traveled far to create a family. And that could be any man, right? He could be Irish, Scottish, Vietnamese, Korean, whatever. That’s what you have to write in order to make it relatable to people.
AD: This is the jaded part of me asking this, but is there an Alejandro Escovedo fan that is going to hear this album and it’s going to actually make them re-think their thoughts about these issues? Is it possible for people to be won over by art in this age? Can you reach across those boundaries in 2019?
Alejandro Escovedo: I believe that it is. Someone asked me, ‘why should people come and see this show?’ And my answer is – it’s something you won’t see again. You won’t see a Mexican-American artist with an Italian band singing songs about immigration, about two boys following something they love, their dreams, being shut out of it in places, yet finding community within this thing called punk rock. So I’d hope there are people who listen to it and I’m not just speaking to the converted crowd, but maybe find this music and find there’s a story in there to relate to. And that’s the beautiful thing about being a songwriter – when someone comes to you later and says that these songs helped them through difficult times. That song “Down in the Valley” I have about my son, a lot of parents come to me and tell me how much it means to them, how much it relates to what they are going through with their children. I do believe that this work can change people’s perspectives. I still believe music is powerful enough to change the world. words / j neas