Rock bands have blended strings with their music forever, often in ballads. You do that too, but let the strings elevate and distort along with the rest of the band when some of your songs ramp up to another level. It’s an amazing thing to witness live. How did you develop that kind of sound and the ensemble that could pull it off?
Escovedo closes an eight-act bill at Austin’s Continental Club during the last night of South by Southwest, a gig that has become an annual tradition. His Collings CJ has a Sitka spruce top and East Indian rosewood back and sides. Similar to a dreadnought but with sloped shoulders, the CJ’s tone has a very articulate bottom end.
I played with the American version of Slim Chance when Ronny Lane lived here in Austin, so I learned how to play along with mandolins, dobros, tenor guitars, and all that kind of stuff. Later, I knew I wanted another version of that, I just didn’t know how I wanted to get it together. It took a long time. I knew I wanted strings and I wanted them to be as aggressive as the electric guitars. I didn’t want them in the background like an afterthought; I wanted them to be right in the center of the hurricane. The most important part of it was finding the right players. That was really the thing, because you can find a lot of string players who are attached to sheet music but we don’t write things out. I like to improvise a lot. I like to go on feel and emotion, and I hate things played the same way twice. I looked and looked and eventually found the perfect players with Susan Voelz (violin) and Brian Standefer (cello).
You picked up some serious hardware at the Austin Music Awards this year. Musician ofthe Year, Song Writer of the Year, Album of the Year, and the True Believers were inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame. What was it like for that community to recognize your work like that?
I’ve never been a competitive person, so the recognition sometimes seems a little funny to me, because there are so many great musicians in town and they all deserve it. Everybody works really hard. At the same time, it also means a lot because those awards are from this town and there are so many great musicians here. To have that record, especially, recognized like that… it felt like an accomplishment, you know? I felt really strong about it. I was happy to see it recognized like that.
Let’s talk about Real Animal. What was it like working with Chuck Prophet?
It started out with Chuck and I. We were touring solo artists, and I had [lead guitarist] David Pulkingham and Susan Voelz with me. We were touring the Midwest, and I was telling them I had this idea to do a record that was based on this story of my musical life, and so we talked a little bit about it and I started to write songs for a new record. I wasn’t nailing it. I mean, they were good songs, but they weren’t really locking into the story I was wanting to tell, so I called Chuck up. The first song we wrote was the last song on the album, it’s called “Slow Down,” and I felt that in that song alone we had set the bar high. We nearly immersed ourselves in the story. That was important, so Chuck became just a perfect writing partner.
And Tony Visconti?
He’s worked on my favorite records, and he’s made some amazing records. Collaborating was tremendous—he’s adventurous. I really had to step up because the expectations were high, you know? I think he really allowed us to see something in ourselves that we hadn’t seen before—the possibilities and stuff as musicians and as songwriters and performers. It was cool; he’s an amazing guy.
You’re playing some big stages these days: Bonnaroo, Jazz Fest, shed shows with Dave Matthews, big gigs with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band… what’s that like?
It’s like starting over again. We can really fill up a club. We know how to do that and feed off that intimacy. When you’re faced with 20,000 or 30,000 people—that’s a completely different atmosphere. Who do you focus on? How do you play to that large of an audience? Every gesture has to be made larger, and yet at the same time, you want to stick to what it is you do that brought you there. So, it’s an odd thing. But I tell ya, I really enjoy it a lot. Plus, Dave Matthews is great. Bruce Springsteen is great. We played a show with Bruce in Milwaukee for 75,000 people…
[Laughs] It’s insane! But you know, he has this pit kind of area so people are right up against the stage, so you focus on the front third of it and that projects to everyone because of the sound and the video and all that kind of stuff. I kind of got used to it, eventually.
What’s it like now looking back on low points of your career?
Well, I’ve had a lot of high points, man. Real Animal was and continues to be a real high point—it was the kind of the record I’ve always wanted to make. I’ve been able to work with Tony [Visconti] and John [Cale, who produced his 2006 album, The Boxing Mirror]. I played on stage with Bruce. I saw Iggy Pop dancing at one of my gigs. [laughs]
The low points—they’re more personal. The illness, obviously, was something that I shared with a lot of people and it definitely affected the way I approached music and how I approach it now. It was a pretty intense kind of alarm clock. I learned a lot. You’ve probably heard this, and it sounds pretty corny, but it was a blessing, it taught me a lot.
You weren’t able to play for, what, three years? How do you come out of that?
Collings CJ SB
Gibson Southern Jumbo
Gordie Johnson Signature Gibson SG JR
Reverend Hellhound 40/60 Reverend Kingsnake 20/60
Durham Electronics Zia Drive
Boss RV-5 Digital Reverb Durham Electronics Sex Drive
Demeter Tube Direct Box DOD 270 A/B
DR Strings Phosphor Bronze for acoustic
DR Strings Pure Blues for electric
It was more like two years, but that’s still a long time—especially
when you consider that I had played guitar every day for 30 years or
something like that, you know. And then suddenly, I had no interest in
it. I was taken by the illness. A lot of the time I was just incapable
of having the strength to play.
It was a weird time, man. And then coming back was scary because, when I started, I made cassettes that I don’t want to listen to anymore because I don’t really want to go there again. But for me, first trying to sing again and then play again, it was pretty cryptic. But you know, that was then and I’m fine now, man. So, it’s all good now.
What’s next for you?
We’re doing a lot of touring. There’s also kind of a documentary that’s being filmed—maybe you saw the crews in Austin. I started to write new songs and am thinking about doing a website-only record with the 16-piece orchestra that plays with me sometimes. I’m also going to produce Amy Cook’s record.
Any tips or nuggets of wisdom for Premier Guitar readers?
Maybe this will be helpful—get the bulk of your tone through your amp. In a naked sense, that’s where it’s at. If you’re just buying boxes, you’re not really there. You can’t buy guitar tone. I believe that it’s between you, the guitar, and the amp, and once you get that together, then you can add other things and embellish. Gear in itself is not an answer to anything.