Earlier this morning, Alejandro Escovedo talked to Rocks Off about his recent albums Real Animal, Street Songs of Love and Big Station, which have put him in the vanguard of mature rock artists. But those albums are in many ways the culmination of a career that began in San Francisco punk rockers the Nuns, a band Escovedo revisits in Real Animal's "Chelsea Hotel '78."
Escovedo, who turned 62 last month, was born in San Antonio but raised largely in California. His large, musical family also includes brothers and noted Latin percussionists Coke and Pete Escovedo, other brothers Javier and Mario of the Dragons and the Zeroes, respectively, and niece Sheila Escovedo, aka Sheila E. of "The Glamorous Life" fame. His time in the Nuns gave way to Rank and File, one of the first groups to give punk a country twang (thus "cowpunk") and then the True Believers, a three-guitar army many still believe was the best '80s Texas band to never make it big.
As a matter of fact, in March Escovedo will preside over a True Believers reunion at his annual closing-night SXSW soiree at Austin's Continental Club, a guaranteed packed house that this year he says has swollen to also include a Drivin' N Cryin' reunion, Peter Buck of R.E.M.'s new band, Bobby Bare Sr., Austin weirdoes Pong, Willie Nile, Jesse Malin and the Ghost Wolves. "It's gonna be awesome," he promises. "Killer."
RO: What would you say was the most pleasant experience you have ever had making an album?
AE: Hmmm. I think my first album, [1992's] Gravity, was probably my most pleasurable experience making a record. Because I went in there lacking confidence, lacking a lot of things that you need in order to make a record. But I did have the songs, right? That's probably the most important element.
And then I had Stephen Bruton, who was completely supportive, and a mentor, a teacher, a brother. He was such a part of that record, and he made it so much fun. We laughed the whole time we made that record. It was always exciting, it was always interesting.
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He was trying new things, I was trying new things. I think it was just a wonderful time for both of us, you know. And for me, it really was a launching pad. I don't think if I hadn't had that experience I would have made another one. I was really considering not playing at that time.
RO: Did you stay close to Bruton?
AE: Oh yeah. Yeah. I spent a lot of time with him in the end there. We wrote a song called "Rose Light." I saw him, well, when he got in the car to go to the airport to leave for L.A. I was there with him. I took him to Dallas a couple times, to -- what's the name of the cancer hospital there? I think it was Dallas or Houston. [After a long battle with throat cancer and shortly after completing work on the Crazy Heart soundtrack, Bruton passed away in May 2009.]
RO: We just lost the original singer of "Wild Thing." Did you like that song?
AE: Reg Presley the Troggs singer? Oh yeah, of course I did. He was great.
RO: Do you remember where you were and how old you were the first time you heard it?
AE: I don't remember where I was. What year was that, '64 or something?
AE: '66. I was 15 years old, I was in Southern California, probably on the beach. It was the soundtrack. That's all you heard, was that song. It was just part of being on the beach. I can remember.
There used to be a surf shop that was right underneath the pier, and they would blast the radio all day long. In those days rock and roll radio was pretty awesome. "Wild Thing" was always there.
RO: And then was there another version over the years that you especially liked?
AE: The Hendrix version to me is just... I mean, he took it even further. It just reeks of sexuality, "Wild Thing," but then when Hendrix did it, it took it to another level completely. And the performance that he gave of it was just astounding. No one had ever seen that before.
RO: Did Rank and File or the True Believers ever have much of a Houston following?
AE: True Believers, and Rank and File too. I think we had a pretty good following in Houston.
RO: Do you remember what kind of joints you guys used to play here?
AE: The first time Rank and File played, we played at a place called The Island, a long, long time ago. It must have been '79 or '78, maybe. No, it was '80. When did Reagan get elected president?
RO: '80, I think.
AE: Yeah, yeah. It was '80. We left on tour the night that Reagan got elected president, from New York City. It was a crazy tour because we had seven shows in seven weeks. Houston was one of them, Austin was one, because Lester Bangs was there and we were friends with Lester in New York, and we always heard about Austin.
So I remember there was a group of people who had a fanzine called Contempo Culture here in Austin, and they interviewed us in Houston, and wanted us to take a bag of pot to Lester Bangs. The pot never made it, but we did see Lester (laughs). We had a good time. That was good.
RO: Fantasy has got to be one of the most historic Bay Area labels.
AE: Oh yeah. My brothers were on that label. Pete and Sheila were on that label, and I think Pete and Coke were also on that label.
RO: Does putting you records out now on the label mean anything special to you?
AE: It really does. In fact there's still some of the guys who worked when my brothers were there, at least the last time I was there they were still there. It was pretty cool. It's a great label, man. I really love the label. I think it's a very happening label.
RO: Do you prefer playing divey rock clubs or nice theaters, or does it matter to you?
AE: You know, at this point I love 'em both. Just to have a gig is pretty cool. And honestly, theaters have their attraction in that they're clean, they usually feed you real well, the audience is there to listen. The theater tour I did with John Prine, that was one of my favorite tours I've ever done. His audience is unbelievable. They're incredible.
So there's that, but then who can resist playing the Continental Club? I just love it. It's my favorite rock and roll club. I'm into it.
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Alejandro Escovedo and the Sensitive Boys play the Continental Club with Hot Club of Cowtown Saturday night. Doors open around 8 p.m.