Death-Dodger Rocker: Alejandro Escovedo at The Ark
It's been a rough few decades for Alejandro Escovedo, but at age 66 the musician seems to be enjoying a new lease on life. Born to Mexican immigrants in Texas, Escovedo cut his teeth in the punk band The Nuns and blended in rootsier influences with his later bands Rank and File and The True Believers. He embarked on a solo career in the '90s, winning the auspicious designation "Artist of the Decade" from roots and country music magazine No Depression in 1998. But behind the scenes of that professional achievement, Escovedo had only begun a prolonged personal battle. He was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1996, and a combination of financial troubles and negative reactions to traditional treatment caused him to struggle with the disease for nearly 20 years.
Escovedo collapsed onstage in 2003, which led him to seek non-traditional treatment for his condition. He was finally cured of hepatitis in 2015 -- but not before he and his new wife, Nancy Rankin Escovedo, underwent a different kind of harrowing experience. Hurricane Odile struck during the couple's 2014 honeymoon in Mexico, tearing off the front of the beachfront home they were staying in. Both the Escovedos were diagnosed with PTSD following the experience.
In the wake of all this hardship, however, Alejandro Escovedo has experienced considerable rejuvenation both personally and creatively. Last year he released Burn Something Beautiful, a new album co-written with former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey, frontman of The Minus 5 and The Young Fresh Fellows (and a regular R.E.M. collaborator). As with Escovedo himself, the scrappy, hooky record has far more energy than anyone might expect of the average senior citizen.
Escovedo will play The Ark on Wednesday, August 23, sharing the stage and swapping songs and stories with fellow Texas rocker Joe Ely. We caught up with Escovedo while he was visiting Austin, where he lived for over three decades before a recent move to Dallas.
Q: How does it feel being back in Austin?
A: I miss my friends. I miss my family. It's funny. Nancy and I took a walk through the neighborhood we used to live in last night. It felt nice to be in that neighborhood again, but we live in Dallas right now. So in a way we really don't have a home, so to speak. Dallas is our home, but I don't know how long we're going to be there or what we're going to do next.
Q: Would you consider moving back to Austin?
A: I don't know. I don't think we could live in Austin proper, but maybe outside of Austin somewhere. It's funny. Austin's always so beautiful in between all these horrendous festivals that they have. Otherwise, it's a beautiful place to live. There's just so much that gets so congested. The locals begin to feel very alien in their own city, so it's kind of weird.
Q: You've been invested in the Austin scene for so long. How do you feel about the way Austin, particularly the music scene, has changed in recent years?
A: It's funny, because it's definitely changed on a commercial level. There's more attention to Austin. There's more festivity here that attracts people to Austin, so I think that influences music because it suddenly becomes a matter of making it, wanting to be big or famous or whatever. That, of course, tends to dilute the quality of the music sometimes, you know. But I think Austin at the core of it has a very strong base. You have to be very good to be very popular in Austin, to represent Austin. You have to be on a level that is pretty high. When I lived here in the '80s and the '90s there was definitely a sense that you couldn't walk around acting like you were a big rock star. It just didn't fly in Austin. You had to prove yourself by your technique on your instrument or your songwriting ability or whatever you chose to represent you as a musician. You had to be pretty fucking good, or so we thought. Maybe we were under an illusion, but it seemed like that. So many great songwriters came from here. Townes [Van Zandt] and, of course, Guy Clark and all those guys spent time here. Willie [Nelson], Waylon [Jennings]. There's so many. Joe Ely and Lucinda [Williams] and Pat Mears. The list goes on and on and on. Butch Hancock, one of the greatest of all time. It's pretty heady company. You're definitely inspired by that level of songwriting.
Q: Have you seen friends of yours who are longtime stalwarts of the Austin music scene get displaced from Austin by changes that have happened recently?
A: I think there's a lot of people who honestly just can't afford to live here anymore. And because of the quality of the musicians here, it's really tough to keep a gig when there's bands that are willing to play for free. And sometimes bar owners or club owners just want to have bodies inside the place. It's all about numbers, so I think a lot of people can't compete with playing for free. I think there's a lot of people who have a hard time making a living as a musician in Austin now. When I lived here I think it was easier because there wasn't as much competition.
Q: I want to ask you about the new album. How did this collaboration between you and Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck come together?
A: I've known both of them quite a while. I met both of them when I was in the True Believers; we used to tour with Los Lobos all the time in the early '80s. I remember one night in Seattle we played at the University of Washington. The bill was The Young Fresh Fellows, The True Believers, and Los Lobos. I hit it off with Scott immediately. I loved his band. I loved him and his love of Mott the Hoople that he and I both share. We went to the Edgewater Inn and hung out there all night long. Los Lobos were singing in the piano bar and we were just bonding and drinking and having fun. That began that relationship, and we didn't keep in super close touch, but always kept tabs on each other and always were happy to see each other.
Same thing with Peter. I met Peter when we were playing with Los Lobos in Athens, Georgia. We were playing a gig and I remember that night and we went to the 40 Watt and saw the Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, who they had from Boston. We all hung out, and I've always admired Peter and his love for music and his love for rock 'n' roll. He's a very bright, smart, and talented musician. Of course, his trajectory took him much further than any of us, but we always kind of kept each other in mind. Of course, Scott played with Peter in R.E.M. for many years, and when Peter moved to the Northwest, he and Scott had maintained a very strong relationship over the years.
Q: So then how did you guys end up deciding to come back together and make this album?
A: We were going to tour with the Peter Buck Band. Peter was doing a tour behind one of his records, and I was probably in between records. I was touring just with Susan Voelz on violin and myself. And we decided that maybe they could back us up on a few tunes, and a few tunes turned into a whole set. They would play their set and then they would back us up for our set, and it turned out to be just an amazing melding of styles and influences. It became a really cool thing, and we planned to tour after that. That's when we started talking about them producing a record for me and working together. Then began the process of writing the songs. I first started writing with Peter, and Scott joined us, and the three of us just wrote the whole thing together.
Q: What was your songwriting process like with them? Which of the three of you would bring which parts to the table?
A: It works kind of like three producers working together. You'll say, "I have an idea for a song," and usually mine are very, very basic. Peter's might have more fleshed-out chord structure. Scott and Peter write down a lot of lyrics also. So they would present something to me or I would present something to them, and then we would begin to dissect it and say, "That's interesting. That's not too interesting. Let's change that." Peter always has a knack for throwing that riff or key or chord change. Both he and Scott, I've got to say, have very strong pop instincts. They add these really cool parts to the songs and, of course, they love to rock also. I present more the basic stuff, and we help each other with finishing the songs. But it works so easily now. We've got it down to almost like a method. Now that we've made one album, we've already started the second album. The process is easier and it's getting more comfortable, so there's a lot of ideas pouring through.
Q: Ah, that's interesting. I didn't know you had another one on the way.
A: Yeah, we started writing just last week. That's going to be an album that we're looking at as more of an acoustic album.
Q: Multiple times in your career you've written entire albums with another collaborator, including Stephen Bruton and Chuck Prophet. What do you enjoy about bringing a cowriter on for a whole album?
A: I've written a lot of albums on my own, of course, and I tend to write from more of a personal, emotional perspective. So after a while, all those records about what I went through with either romance or the loss of someone very close to you or family or of course my illness, which I've written about on a few records -- I just wanted to walk away from myself in a way and enjoy this kind of anonymity, I guess. It helps me write with more of a character in mind and to somehow try to hide myself inside the characters. But the collaboration with Chuck Prophet began a really beautiful kind of process. Chuck is a brilliant writer, brilliant musician, and he also has what I feel is -- and he might disagree with me -- but I think he has a very fine eye for detail in writing. Together we made a really great team. We wrote some really beautiful songs, some of my favorite songs I've ever been involved in, and I love to perform them still.
With Peter and Scott, it's the same thing. I think each one brings a little something different. But I like the camaraderie of writing with someone, and I love the finished product because it's something that we worked very hard on and I have two other people who can watch my back and stop me from going too far into the emotional and the personal. But one thing I've got to say about everybody I collaborate with is they want me to tell my story. Even if they bring me a song with lyrics or lyrical ideas, they want me to interpret it in a way that reflects what I'm going through. So we talk a lot about that. We talk about what we're seeing in the world or seeing in each other's lives or whatever.
Q: When you play here you'll be with Joe Ely. How long have you known Joe and what's it like sharing the bill with him?
A: I've known Joe since I first moved back to Texas in 1980, I believe it was. My band Rank and File played with Joe Ely. I used to see him all the time. And ever since then I've been nothing but a great admirer of Joe and feel like he's just one of the greatest Texas has ever produced.
Q: I was reading an almost 20-year-old interview with you where you were talking about how much you love playing live. Has that gotten more difficult for you through your illness and 20 years of aging?
A: First of all, you know that I've gotten rid of hep C?
A: Well, with that came this renewed energy and almost like a life force. I had more energy than I've ever had. I really love it just as much as I always have. I think the traveling wears on me more than anything, and that's only because of how hard it is to travel by airline or drive long distances. When we're rushing to get to places it tends to wear on me a little bit. The thing about playing music live and being a musician is that no matter how bad you feel, when you get onstage all those aches and pains and illnesses of any kind totally vanishes. It's always the remedy for whatever it is that might be ailing you.
Q: It's been nearly two years since you were officially cured of hepatitis C. How does it feel to be healthy again after having been ill for that long? Is it something you still think about regularly, or have you adjusted to getting back to normal life?
A: I've adjusted somewhat to getting back to normal life. Things like diet and exercise, I try to be more aware of and try to be more consistent about food and exercise. I think that's a big key for myself to be able to pursue this career and pursue music even further down the line. But it brings a certain relief, of course, and that relief takes a lot of weight off your psyche -- not just physically, but mentally.
Q: You were diagnosed with PTSD after your encounter with Hurricane Odile, and that experience took its toll on your life and career. How much does the PTSD affect you now?
A: You know, I'll tell you a little story. I guess it was about maybe a month and a half or two months ago, my wife and I had a little bit of time and we decided we would go back to where the hurricane occurred. So we went back and retraced our steps. We met with people who helped us along the way. We took them out to dinner. We thanked them. We listened to their stories, because they had to remain in a place that had no electricity and water for a couple months. They were there for the rebuilding of their homes and their lives and families. So we went back and retraced our steps. We slept in the bed that we were sleeping in when it happened, and it was very, very -- I hate to use the word "healing." It's overused. But it was. It was really something that gave us more confidence about going back there. So we plan on returning again in December for a family holiday.
Q: That's great.
A: Yeah. So PTSD's a very bizarre symptom that caused things in me that I had no idea what was going on. I was unaware of PTSD. Once I became educated about it and we went and sought therapy, it helped a lot.
Q: Before we wrap up, I want to ask you a little about politics. You were very outspoken against now-President Trump during the election. How does it feel being a person of your heritage under this new administration?
A: It hurts, in a way, and it's painful, what I see happening to people. When I play in Europe, I talk a lot about what's going on politically in the United States and I tell the story about that my father was from Mexico. If my father was alive today, there's a possibility that he would be returned to Mexico and I would remain here in the States. So there's a lot of conversation that opens up after that because immigration's always been something that's been part of our lives. I've written about it and I plan to write about it. To me, I'm still dumbfounded by the fact that [Trump]'s in office, that his administration is in office, and people haven't woken up to the fact that he's lied to us and he's scammed us and he's a con artist. But once again, the Democrats don't really have an answer for it either. So I worry that even if Trump were to be impeached, which I hope he is, the country would still be in a very unstable situation because I don't think the Republican party would have a lot of strength if he were to be impeached. But I don't think the Democrats have anything to answer to it. It really shows the weakness in the two-party system, for one thing, and it's shown us the weakness in media and what we can believe and can't believe. I find it a very sensitive time.
Q: Do you have any sense of a change in your role as a storyteller, and perhaps as a representative of the Mexican-American community, as a result of Trump's presidency?
A: I'm a songwriter, and the way I express myself is through my songs. When I go to Europe and tour, I tour with an Italian band that's called Don Antonio. We're going to make a concept record about a young Mexican boy and a young Italian immigrant who find themselves in south Texas, and they join together to try to find work in America. But they face a lot of adversities in their journey. Somehow they come across punk rock, and punk rock is the kind of family and community that helps them and also helps them to express what they're going through on a political and social level. John Parrish is going to produce the record. We're going to do it in Europe. So we'll tell our story in that way. I think doing things like that and just making people aware is the way that I can express myself.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and the managing editor of Concentrate.
Alejandro Escovedo and Joe Ely play The Ark on Wednesday, August 23, at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $30. For tickets and more info, visit theark.org.