Improbably, Joe Ely is learning to ease up on the gas pedal a little. The Lubbock-bred performer has long been known for live sets and a work ethic both so intense he's often seen as a Lone Star counterpart to his friend Bruce Springsteen. But Ely, a force in Texas music since his days with cosmic-country trio the Flatlanders, recently wrapped a nice-and-easy Midwestern mini-tour with co-headliner and friend Alejandro Escovedo, and admits he can appreciate not pushing himself into the red all the time.
"I don't have to go through the same things I've already been through," says Ely from his home in Austin, where he has lived since the Flatlanders emigrated from the South Plains in the early '70s. "I've learned through experience. We still love to play, but I don't have to stay on the road the whole year anymore.
"I used to just stay out there," he admits. "One time in Lubbock I went out on a tour, and by the time I came back my car was gone and my house was gone. I was supposed to have been gone for a month and a half, and I was like gone for eight months. One tour led to the other."
Ely is also a technology buff. an interest that goes well beyond a hobby and factors heavily into his new album, B4 84. Make that sort-of new album -- B4 84 is effectively the dress rehearsal of Ely's Hi-Res, the somewhat controversial 1984 LP that caused him to part ways with his label at the time, MCA. That in turn led to Ely forming a new group -- guitarist David Grissom, bassist Jimmy Pettit, sax player Bobby Keys and drummer Davis McLarty -- that many fans still believe is the hottest live band to come out of Texas before or since, but we're getting ahead of ourselves a little.
As the story goes, when Apple was developing its personal-computing empire that would eventually change our entire society in the early '80s, Ely found himself in possession of an early-model Apple II+. It wasn't long before he hatched the far-fetched idea he might be able to use it to make music.
"I had been out with my band about nine years on the road and I had just decided to take a year off," he says. "My guitar player had quit, and I had just decided I was just gonna sit here and lay around, write some music."
As Ely explains, someone at Apple had created a (piano-style) keyboard that plugged into the computer, which became his starting point. He and a buddy of his, Austin musician Mitch Watkins (and later their bassist friend Roscoe Beck), set up the Apple alongside a Roland 808 drum machine and a four-track tape recorder and got to work.
"It was strange...in fact, Mitch didn't play through an amp," Ely says today. "He played through a headphone amplifier. Everything we used was stuff we had totally never even seen before. So we just kind of in fun put this record together, and didn't even think of it as a record. We just thought of it as a group of songs."
Years before that, though, Ely had already had one brush with the leading edge of musical technology. He got a chance to try the first Moog synthesizer in existence when in Munich with a touring company of the musical Stomp! that had come over from Texas in the early '70s. He was introduced to the instrument that would go on to revolutionize electronic music by an opera conductor named Eberhard Schoener, who explained to him that the synthesizer had once belonged to John Lennon.
"John Lennon hated it," Ely laughs. "It took you all day to get one sound out of it."
Ely will admit that he didn't have a much higher opinion of that Apple II+ sometimes. When he and Watkins started working with it, there was almost no software available to them except for a program called Alpha Centauri.
"Basically all it did was allow you to play combinations of notes," Ely explains. "Then it would save it in the computer and play it back for you."
He and Watkins used an old reel-to-reel tape machine to attempt to replicate some of the multi-tracking recording techniques the Beatles had used, Ely recalls. But sometimes the process of creating music with such primitive technology - which, ironically, seemed incredibly futuristic at the time -- could be pretty frustrating, he says.
"There was a lot of pulling our hair out," Ely allows. "I remember one time my wife found me dragging the computer out in the front yard by its power cord because something we had worked on for three days got erased. I had my shotgun in one hand and the computer in the other, and I was going to blow it up in the front yard. She talked me out of it."
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He's glad he didn't now. Even with these new computer-generated headaches to deal with, Ely says he was already fed up enough with the traditional recording process that this radical technology was still preferable to spending another boatload of money in the studio. Even an 8-track machine could cost as much as someone's house, he marvels.
"When I was first recording, it was impossible for a band -- no matter how good they were -- to show how good they were, because it was so incredibly expensive to record," he explains. "The machines were outrageous. People just couldn't afford 'em."
On top of all that, Ely says his friends would watch him trying to make a record with this computer and drum machine and think he was crazy.
"Oh, everybody teased me about it," he says. "It was like, 'You can't do anything with that thing.'"
But Ely and his friends -- including Pettit and McLarty from his future band, plus a teenage Charlie Sexton -- kept recording, little by little, until they had enough material for an album. What they came up with swaps out the baked-asphalt sound of Ely's previous album, Musta Notta Gotta Lotta, for some almost chiptune tones, but otherwise it's recognizably Ely -- a little cocky, a little brooding, a little Tex-Mex and rock and roll to the marrow. But when he handed in what he had been working on to his label at the time, MCA, "they thought we were completely out of our minds," Ely says.
Although at that time even groups like the mighty ZZ Top were using synthesizers and sequencers with great success, Ely figures his label was still expecting him to record for a country audience. But by then his sound had been tempered by not only his interest in technology but his extensive travels overseas touring with bands like the Clash, Squeeze and Elvis Costello & the Attractions, all of whom Ely says were making "new-sounding records." MCA asked him to go back and re-record his computerized demos in a real studio, he says, and "of course every penny I had gotten in advance from the record company went into the re-recording," Ely sighs.
"[We] put it out, and it just had such a different sound that people just didn't go for it," he says of Hi Res, which to date has never been released in the U.S. "So I just basically started working on another record."
Eventually that record would become 1987's Lord of the Highway, which was released on Bay Area roots-rock indie label HighTone and, with Grissom, Pettit and McLarty on board (plus Watkins staying on as keyboardist and saxophonist Bobby Keys on loan from the Rolling Stones), it's one of the most straight-ahead rock and roll albums in Ely's discography. But he never gave up on the idea of doing something with those B4 84 demos, either.
"Over the years I'd come back and listen to these tapes, and I thought, 'Man, that is really interesting stuff -- I've got to put those out.' And someday is, uh, now," Ely chuckles.
B4 84 is the second release on Ely's personal label, Rack 'Em Records, after 2011's Satisfied at Last. No less than Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and old acquaintance of Ely's, contributes the liner notes.
"The music studios had their money machines and didn't see the upcoming change in music production," Wozniak writes. "What is common today was not the acceptable thing at the time. But Joe saw how much power this gave the individual musician to create new music with few resources."
Ely, meanwhile, has been a loyal Apple customer ever since. Recently, he says, he discovered one of his old PCs in the barn at his house, an ancient model that had a chip with wires that (after first opening the top of the computer) connected a pair of leads similar to alligator clips to the motherboard. This relatively complicated modification allowed users to do something we all take for granted today: type in letters other than all caps.
"That's all you could do," Ely smiles. "I remember how thrilled I was that I could type on the screen and see lowercase letters."
Joe Ely performs tonight at Main Street Crossing, 111 W. Main in Tomball, mainstreetcrossing.com.
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