Austin's Real Animal: Alejandro Escovedo
August 19, 2009
|You may be surprised to know that the moniker “Austin’s favorite son” doesn’t necessarily apply to Stevie anymore, or even a bluesman.
Music critics are now using the epithet to wax lyrical about Alejandro Escovedo, a craftsman of song whose disparate influences and experiences embody the city’s modern spirit. Blues will always thrive in the Live Music Capital of the World, but the city’s pulse also pumps to the beat of everything from indie creativity, country roots, die-hard punk angst, Tex-Mex rancheras, and of course, the Texas singer/songwriter tradition.
In essence, musically, Alejandro Escovedo is Austin.
The San Antonio-born son of a mariachi singer grew up in California and caught acts like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Buffalo Springfield and the Doors in the Huntington Beach area where he went to high school before dropping out. He went on to become a founding member of the Nuns, a late ‘70s San Francisco punk outfit that opened for the Sex Pistols’ last gig. He was in the Rank & File, a cow punk group that is widely credited with influencing the alt-country movement. He was also in the True Believers, a critically-acclaimed roots rock/ alt-country band that burned out on the road but earned a loyal following in Austin, where Escovedo would end up after spending time as a bohemian in New York.
Escovedo’s music ranges from gentle ballads with string sections to aggressive punk and everything in between, sometimes within a single song. When you see him live, one moment you’re admiring his gentle touch with a Collings acoustic, and the next you’re counting his full-arm Townsend windmills against an SG. (He was one swing short of 30 in a row when performing “Castanets” at the New Orleans Jazz Fest last year.) His solo work, which comprises nine albums and counting, explores a range of emotions that makes sense once you know that he escaped a near-fatal bout of Hepatitis. The experience added a depth of introspection to his music that has taken it to another level.
Today, Escovedo’s fan base is exploding. His latest album, 2008’s Real Animal, co-written with Chuck Prophet and produced by Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T.Rex, Thin Lizzy) led to an opening spot on a Dave Matthews tour, and appearances on Leno, Letterman, Conan and at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Earlier in the year, Escovedo picked up Musician of the Year, Album of the Year and Songwriter of the Year accolades at the Austin Music Awards. On the same night, The True Believers were inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame. Other honors include performing on Austin City Limits three times and being named Artist of the Decade (1990s) by roots music authority No Depression. Escovedo is up for Artist of the Year and Album of the Year at the Americana Music Association Awards which are being held this month.
Gear-wise, Escovedo covers a lot of ground with a fairly simple signal chain. Outside of his Collings acoustic, he’s largely a Gibson guy but you can’t peg him on one model. He swears by his discontinued Reverend amps and, like most Austin cats, loves his Durham pedals.
I had a chance to talk to Escovedo about his gear and his career recently. Our conversation began with his penchant for Gibsons.
Growing up in a large musical family, I assume there were always guitars lying around. I take it that many of them were Gibsons.
Yeah. You know, I’ve been using Gibsons since I first started playing. I always had Melody Makers—a lot of early ‘60s Melody Makers—and I had some beautiful Juniors. There were Flying Vs, Gold Tops and a ’73 Les Paul Custom that I just loved. I’ve always had a ’69 Hummingbird and a beautiful ’56 J-50. That was my main guitar for many years, until I got a ding in it. I decided to let it rest for a while, but in the studio, it’s the guitar.
Tell me about your 339. I saw you use it at South by Southwest this year in number of different situations.
Man, I just love that guitar. I think it’s a brilliant guitar. It’s like the perfect combination of a hollowbody and a Les Paul.
When you had it in full Paul mode on the Continental Club’s small stage, your distortion was incredible. I noticed you didn’t have any of the feedback issues that some guys get when they do that with a semi-hollowbody.
$0I can control the feedback off the 339 better than any guitar I’ve ever had. It’s great with my Reverends. I use two little Reverend combos with a 12 in them—a Hellhound 40/60 and a Kingsnake 20/60. They’re little monsters, man. They just rip. They’re a perfect combination with that guitar.
Escovedo with his Gibson Southern Jumbo at the Birchmere in Alexandria, WA. The round-shouldered Southern Jumbo shape combines elements of Gibson’s Jumbo and HG Hawaiian. Photo by Carl Hutzler.
Take me through your signal chain.
I go through one of those old DOD A/B boxes to pick my amp, but the chain starts with a Boss TU-2. Then I go through a Durham Zia Drive if I want distortion and a little kick. I use it more like a boost, really. Then I go through a Boss digital reverb, the RV-5, then I go through another Durham box called the Sex Drive. For my sound, it’s really a combination of the Sex Drive and the next thing in my chain, a Demeter Tube Direct Box. That’s what makes the guitar able to sustain all that crunch yet, when you pick and arpeggiate, it keeps this beautiful clarity and piano-like quality.
Charlie Sexton [the pedal’s namesake who worked with Alan Durham on its development] told me that it took a year and hundreds of bench hours to get that pedal dialed in.
It’s a beautiful box. It’s essential now for me to have that box. It works wonderfully with humbuckers. I’m really happy with this setup now.
Some of your SGs have P-94s in them. How’d you come upon that configuration?
Gordie Johnson is an amazing guitar player in Canada who has a killer rock/dub reggae hybrid band called Big Sugar. He has a signature model in a rare ebony finish with P-94s that Gibson makes for the Canadian market. It’s like a ’61 reissue. We were doing one of those Sunday night gigs and when I saw it I was shocked. It was funny—I wasn’t quite sure how to articulate it to him, but that was the kind of guitar I had been looking for. I had been looking for a lighter guitar with the same kind of tone, or close to it, that I had gotten with my Les Paul custom. That guitar had become too heavy for me. He gave me that SG right on the spot. He said, “It’s yours.”
It’s amazing how I just fell in love with it. I’ve since dropped P-94s into another SG, a reddish one that I have.
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.
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?
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 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.