For his ninth solo album the Austin songwriter took
his new partner Chuck Prophet on a journey through the past.
BY ANDY TENNILLE
much a feeling of ‘now’ on this album: this is where Alejandro Escovedo is
today,” says Tony Visconti, the legendary producer (David Bowie, T. Rex) who
manned the board for Real Animal,
Escovedo’s latest record. “I think he’s laid his demons to rest. He’s had kind
of a tragic life and he could be a lot more negative about things, but he’s
absolutely radiant now.”
demons have taken different forms throughout the 57-year-old Austin musician’s life, whether it was the
suicide of his second wife Bobbie LeVie in 1991 or his struggles with drug and
alcohol abuse. The demons nearly bested him in 2003, when Escovedo collapsed
after a concert and almost died of liver complications related to years spent
living with Hepatitis-C. After two years of bed-rest and recovery, he cut
2006’s The Boxing Mirror, with John
“The Boxing Mirror was a
beautiful album that was written immediately after I was coming out of being
sick and still getting my land legs,” Escovedo says. “It has a lot of those
emotions that come with the intensity of living through that experience. But
all the things that I wanted for The
Boxing Mirror — and I love that record — really come to fruition on this
Real Animal, Escovedo’s ninth album, is a 13-track autobiography
and walk down memory lane in which Escovedo reflects on his three-decade career
and the people he met, the places he went and the music that served as a
soundtrack to it all. Accompanying him on the journey is Chuck Prophet, the San
Francisco-based singer, songwriter and guitarist who co-wrote the album and
adds the kind of dynamic guitar playing that first gained him fame with ‘80s
underground rockers Green on Red.
“I’ve known Al
for a long time,” Prophet says. “The band I played in, Green on Red, and Al’s
band, The True Believers, crossed paths a lot out on the road. And we have a
lot of parallel experiences. Al grew up in Huntington Beach, and I grew up in
La Habra, which is probably 15 miles away inland up Beach Boulevard from
Huntington. We knew all the same surf spots and went to the same clubs to see
“I haven’t written
with that many people in my life,” Escovedo adds. “So to find someone that you
can relate to so quickly was incredible. Whenever I would have a reference to
something, Chuck knew exactly what that was and understood it. We had a real
bond immediately as to what this was about and that the characters were real.”
Prophet was an easy fit, finding a producer proved to be a more difficult task.
Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones was considered and Glyn Johns was courted
and abandoned. Even Visconti was reticent at the outset when his old friend Ian
Ralfini at Manhattan Records approached him with the idea.
“I was a little apprehensive at first,”
Visconti admits. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to work with him because it seemed
like his songs on past albums were so dreary and that he was in a lot of pain.
So many of the artists I work with can be like that, and I can only take so
much. But when I heard the demos, I was immediately struck with the way the new
songs were written. There was a positive attitude. It was an autobiographical
album and the stories were really, really interesting.”
revived, Visconti caught up with Escovedo out on the road to see a show at
FitzGerald’s in Chicago
and discuss the project.
“I happened to
get there just before soundcheck, and the band was onstage fooling around,
playing some punk songs. Hearing that, plus the demos, convinced me that Alejandro
was capable of a great rock record. I was just thrilled ‘cause this was the
kind of album I wanted to make. When I spoke with him afterwards, I told him
that I wasn’t going to let him record more somber, acoustic songs and go back
to what he’d done before. Those days are behind him. It was time for him to
does rock on Real Animal. Backed by Prophet,
plus regular collaborators David Pulkingham (guitar), Josh Gravelin (bass),
Hector Munoz (drums), Susan Voelz (violin) and Brian Standefer (cello), Escovedo
mixes his punk roots with rock, country and dashes of the doo-wop and surf
music of his youth. Visconti says working with Escovedo on the album gave him a
greater understanding of the man and his music.
with a lot of people who just write songs, but Alejandro goes a lot deeper.
He’s able to put his soul into his voice when he sings,” Visconti says. “He’s
technically not the greatest singer in the world, but he makes your body
resonate with the meaning of the song. He’s a true artist.”
AL: It started out with a few conversations,
CHUCK: A couple years
after his illness, Al and I did a tour together and said he wanted to do a new
record and that he wanted me to help him wrestle it to the ground. So I went
out to Wimberley where Al lives outside of Austin with the idea of writing a few songs
together. This was in November 2006.
Al and I get in a room together, it’s like touching two wires. It’s just sort
of electric. We never run out of things to talk about. So we spent the better
part of three days just talking, really. We played a little bit of music, but
we just had a lot of catching up to do. When we didn’t have anything to talk
about, we’d just lie on the floor, turn off the lights and put on Mott the
Hoople records. [laughs]
AL: We would sit for hours and talk about
these stories from our lives playing music. We’d also talk about the records
that kind of accompanied those different periods of time. Chuck would put on an
album and then I’d put on an album. It could have been the first Roxy Music
album, Bowie, Lou Reed or even going back further to the surf music that I
loved growing up. So we’d listen to all that stuff.
talking for a while, all these different characters and places emerged: Sid
Vicious and Nancy Spungen and the Chelsea
Hotel; Iggy Pop; the
Golden Bear; our friend Jeffrey Lee Pierce; and the guys in The Nuns and Rank
And File. We almost drew it out like a storyboard, like we were making a movie.
CHUCK: I’m really
superstitious with writing with someone. In my mind, if you don’t get something
in the first couple days, you’re probably not going to get anything. It’s
really one of those things where there’s some luck involved, where you connect
with somebody that can help you do what Dan Penn calls “performing the
miracle.” So I was starting to get a
little restless, but Al wanted to go into town. We took his pickup truck into
Wimberley and stopped at all these antique stores. We go into this one place
and Al’s asking the owner about these little baskets that his daughter likes. I
was starting to get a little restless. When we got back in the truck, Al turned
the key and just looks at me and goes, “Hey, bro.” It was like he looked right
through me, saw I was have doubts and said, “This is all part of it.”
we got back to his place, we literally pulled this song out of the air called
“Slow Down.” It was really just an extension of the stuff that we were talking
about all weekend.
AL: That song is kind of about the futility
of trying to share things from your past. My
wife is younger than me, so when I take her back to Huntington Beach to try to tune her in to
what I felt as a kid, it’s not the same. It’s really hard to relive the past,
so that song is all about living in the moment. It’s about wanting time to slow
down, so that you can really enjoy life for all it’s worth.
CHUCK: Getting that
first song made me really appreciate how much faith Alejandro has in the
process. You kind of have to trust each other, but you also have to have faith
in the process in order to do it. And if there’s anything that Al has in
spades, it’s faith. After we finished “Slow Down,” I asked him about the whole
faith thing and he just shrugged and said, “Bro, that’s the Mayan thing.” [Laughs]
AL: Chuck has a great gift for melodic hooks
and things like that, which really, I think, made the songs on the record more
precise in a way. Chuck also is a guy who won’t give up on the song until we’ve
milked it for all that we can get out of it. I tend to be a little lazier. [laughs] “Golden Bear” is a song that
Chuck really drove and convinced me would work out. That song’s about survival.
It deals with my battle with Hepatitis-C, but it’s also about the Golden Bear
being torn down. The Golden Bear was one these coffee house-type clubs that are
all up and down the coast. It was a music club, just one of the best I’ve ever
experienced in my life, if not the best. Everybody played there, from Muddy
Waters to Captain Beefheart to Love to Big Brother & the Holding Company to
Paul Butterfield Blues Band to Jimmy Reed, Cheech and Chong and Steve Martin.
it came at a beautiful time in my life. I was young, during my high school
years. At first, when I couldn’t get in, I’d just sit outside in the alley and listen
to music inside. It was a sacred place. I’ll always remember it with the
fondest memories. It was so important to those of us who grew around there that
when they finally tore it down, my friend’s father got a brick for us from the
building. And we still have it.
CHUCK: “Chelsea” was another song
inspired by a specific place and time. Al and I did an acoustic tour together a
few years back, and I remember driving down from Ann Arbor to somewhere and Al
was talking about living at the Chelsea Hotel. After the Nuns opened for the
Sex Pistols at their last show here in San Francisco,
they headed out for New York and Al lived at
the Chelsea for
like a year and a half. He was playing with Judy Nylon and told me a story
about selling a Marshall
stack to John Cale for drug money.
also told me about the day that they pulled Sid Vicious out of the hotel. Al
told me about how he’d gone down to Sid’s room like the night before, ‘cause Nancy
Spungen had called over looking for someone to party with. You know that
photograph where a cop has Sid Vicious by each arm and he’s got that tuxedo
jacket on? Al was standing on the sidewalk with the photographer sharing a
cigarette when they heard this commotion and the doors busted open. The guy
turned and snapped that picture. When he told me that story, I was blown away.
Those are the details that I thought were worth digging deeper for and
exploring. That song just kind of ended up writing itself, really.
AL: When Chuck and I were first talking about
“Sister Lost Soul,” we were talking about Jeffrey Lee Pierce from The Gun
Club. From there, we just started
talking about all the different friends and families that have passed on and
who’ve passed away as a result of the temptations of being in bands and being
on the road.
CHUCK: I think there’s
a tendency to romanticize the rock ‘n roll lifestyle, and that can be a
dangerous thing. It really wasn’t hard to come up with people who aren’t around
anymore. We talked about Jeffrey Lee Pierce some, but I don’t think that song
is about any one particular person. I think it’s sort of about everyone we both
know who didn’t make it.
AL: The songs about the bands — like “Nuns
Song” and “Chip ‘N’ Tony” — are like letters to those guys in a way. The Nuns
was the first band that I was in and we had an amazing little ride. I think we all sometimes look back at certain
periods of our lives that were difficult with negative feelings, but all those
memories are still alive inside me. Those guys all taught me a lot about life. I include Rank
And File in there too because that was a difficult band for me to be in. I
learned a lot in Rank And File, and I have nothing but immense respect for Chip
[Kinman] and Tony [Kinman].
CHUCK: Early on, we both
acknowledged that Iggy basically showed us that this was all possible, so we
figured we had to have him in here and wrote “Real As An Animal.” And Al’s like
the Stooges meets Bartók. He’s a perfect marriage between the regal and the
street. That’s kind of been his blueprint from day one, when he stepped up to
the mic and sang “I Want to Be Your Dog” with a string section behind him. That
was the lightning rod.
AL: Iggy was a really big influence on me. He
was kind of the anti-rock star in a way, but he was a rock star to me. He was
my kind of rock star, so he had to be on this record. Chuck and I listened to a
lot of the great albums while we wrote these songs, stuff from The Stooges, Lou
Reed, Suicide, Mott the Hoople, Bowie and T.Rex. A lot of the records that we
listened to happened to be Tony Visconti-produced records, so it was a blessing
that we ended up having Tony produce the album. His sounds – not only the
sounds that he’s helped create in the past that inspired this record, but also
what he achieved with us – are just incredible. We spoke with a lot of
producers about working on this, but Tony was the one who really understood
what we were trying to do.
TONY: When we first spoke, Alejandro was very certain that every
song he’d written had to be on the album because it was all an interconnected
story, going from his very first band up until the present day. He and Chuck
had written it that way. Even at the start of the recording process, we’d
received some input from the record label about songs they didn’t like or
changes they wanted to make. We had to fight right from the beginning that this
was a concept album and it had to be recorded intact.
CHUCK: I was impressed
with Tony right off the bat. When he came down to Austin last November for two
days while we worked on the songs, he somehow managed to wiggle out of any
meetings with management. He ducked out of his dinner, came to the rehearsal
space, and sat in the middle of the room while we all played. He just leaned
his head back, closed his eyes and made a couple of suggestions here and there.
Then he just basically said to Al, “I’m in.”
AL: Tony’s a very musical guy, but even more
than that, you feel comfortable working with him. I’ve never felt so confident
in the studio, which was a result of the way Tony was conducting himself and
the way that he dealt with everybody else in the room. This experience was very
special for me, and Tony was a very giving person. We created a very strong
bond making this record. It felt important to both of us.
CHUCK: Tony’s got that
film director kind of presence. He’s got a very reserved, cool confidence that
you feel when he comes into the room. People who’ve had his kind of success can
get stubborn, but Tony embraced everything. He embraced everybody and he embraced all the players. I didn’t agree
with him all the time, but it made for a more lively process.
TONY: When I met Chuck in Austin,
I found him to be an extremely opinionated man. I don’t know if I’m dreaming
this up or not, but there was almost a level of distrust on his part. He came
on a bit heavy in the beginning, but I could see immediately that he knew what
he was talking about. After a couple of days in Lexington
home to Saint Claire studio] Chuck and I got on a good roll. His guitar playing
is always right on and extremely appropriate: he always knows the right thing
to play for every song.
CHUCK: Sometimes, you
lean a little bit on the craft and other songs have that mysterious kind of
charisma that makes you return to them. But if they come from a place — a true
place — they’re always better. I think Al and I had that advantage on this one,
so if you get lucky enough to find somebody like that that you can pull songs
out of the air with, well shit, why not? Maybe we’ll get lucky again. I’d love
to do this with Al again.
AL: I think this album is so much more joyful
because of Chuck’s involvement. He really brought some lightness and humor to
it and helped me see the good times in the journey. With help from Chuck, I
could step away a little bit and look at it almost from like a cinematic kind
of way and not such a personal view. Hopefully I’ll write more songs with
Chuck. There are still a lot of things that we haven’t touched upon.
[For a review of the Real Animal tour plus exclusive live photos, go to our concert reviews section or click HERE.]
Credit: Todd V. Wolfson]