Interview with Alejandro Escovedo

We chat to writer Alejandro Escovedo and guitarist Antonio Gramatieri during their recent tour about music, their influences, and range of styles.

FT:  Your music covers a spectrum of styles and I imagine influences, who did you listen to, and who influenced you as a writer?

AE:  It’s so funny too, even within myself I struggle sometimes , I think all the bands that I loved and followed, bands like The Count Five, The Midnighters, Solomon Burke, Ike and Tina, all that soul stuff, James Brown of course. Growing up in Southern California as an adolescent, and that turned into garage rock, the nuggets album, and then there was a love for The Pretty Things, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and that lead to Bowie, and T- Rex and Roxy Music and Brian Eno. And a love of classic music, I learnt through the Velvet Underground. I learnt from John Cale about Barton, and Shostakovich Eric Satie. So then you got this kid, who getting all these weird signals from a lot of different places, and he’s Mexican, in Southern California, being a surfer and trying to look like Keith Richards, feeling very out of place in his culture. Loving the MC5 and I was crazy about the New York Dolls. And then when I first starting writing songs, eventually, I didn’t write my first song until, I was 30 years old. And it came out as “The rain won’t help you when it’s over”. Which comes out as this kind of melodic tune with abstract lyrics, and no one is really sure what they mean. I kept writing in that style. I think people like Ian Hunter became more influential. He’s always played around with dylanesque lyrics. I also felt it was kind of important to write literate rock n’ roll, where you could write narrative and tell stories through rock and roll.

{We are joined at this point by Antonio Gramatieri, guitarist par excellence, and co-writer with Alejandro on ‘The Crossing’}

AG:  We thought from day one about doing a story that more than music. We wanted to write about what was happening in the moment, not just in America, but all over the world, and Italy especially. The rise of the right wing and immigration. And yet the fear of the emigrant, and fear of diversity, is not a trademark of the right, maybe they use it as a propaganda thing, but it’s embedded in the human, and that fear of diversity is something that has to be conquered by culture

AE:  And education.

AG: Yeah. So the album is political in a way, it gives our take on some things, but it is not party political. We didn’t want it to be a radical chic left take on things. We wanted it to be about real people, whose hands were dirty. So we drove around the country, and listened to different people and made our vision a little wider.

FT:  On the album, the two dreamers, Salvo and Diego go looking a mythical America that they know of from songs, film and literature, but they find that that America no longer exists. Is that how you see your country now?

AE:  At this point, America is a very troubled country, and a much divided country. It’s like what Antonio was talking about, about the lack of culture and education in America, has driven it to a place where a third of the country stands behind a horrible man, a hateful man. A man who wants to destroy all that America was. And these boys are like all of us at that age, they want have adventures, they want to see where Elvis Presley came from. And they go seeking these things with open hearts and eyes, and imagination, that part of their growth gets stunted, and for Salvo, it ends.

FT:  Three years ago, I watched you play a gig in The Real Music Club, pre-election, And you prefaced a song with, for want of a better word, a speech about Trump, and how if he had been president when your father came to America, you would not be here now, as an American. So to have this album, ‘The Crossing’, which is essentially about that very issue, it’s not directed at Trump, you’re too good a songwriter to launch a verbal tirade in song at him, but he’s central to this album, he’s all over this album!

AG:  Also Salvini, who is now Italy’s minister of external affairs, he comes from a racist party. He wasn’t even in charge when we wrote the record. The record applies across countries and time. It’s about people on the move, and people being afraid of others on the move, and losing their identity, it applies to the people who moved from Italy to America at the start of the last century, and it applies to the African guys that are coming to Italy now. That fear of losing their identity, for a country like America, is almost incredible, because it’s a country made of immigrants. You fear immigrants in America? Really, I mean come on!

AE : As if America belongs to anyone, no one owns the land, that’s bullshit.

FT:  There’s a line in ‘Rio Navidad’ on the album, when Diego says ‘Come to think of it, the border crossed me, I didn’t cross it’.

 AE:  Exactly!

FT:  l had the god fortune of interviewing Willy Vlautin in January this year, who wrote the “Rio Navidad” track, and he spoke of you giving him the idea of the racist confrontation, and asking him to write the track. Why did you get Willy in particular for that track?

AE:  I knew Willy’s band, Richmond Fontaine, from touring with them back in the day. I’ve always been a fan of Willy, I love Willy, he’s amazing, very talented writer. We actually asked another gentleman to do this narrative for the record, but I think we may have approached in the wrong way, in that we asked would you be the Trump like figure, and no one wanted to be the bad guy, and no one wanted to be the bad guy! For other reasons, this gentleman (nods towards Antonio), declined and so I wanted Freddy (Trujillo from The Delines) to narrate it. I had written a little piece about the Texas Ranger, and the confrontation about the Mexican name. And that’s a true story that happened to me in South Texas. So I just had that little snippet, and so we gave it to Willy, and he fleshed it out into that whole beautiful piece.

FT: You’ve spoken in the past about others trying to pigeon hole you and your music. Being viewed as a Mexican American, and someone suggesting the market already had ‘Los Lobos’ and having no need for another Chicano band! Is that still prevalent?

AE:  They’ve always done it. Since my first records came out, you’d never find them in the ‘rock’ section of record stores. You’d find them in the World bests, salsa, anything but rock. I would have taken folk music over that. Because of the way I look, people don’t know what nationality I am. I’ve been viewed as Native American, Chinese, Pilipino, and Tibetan. The Tibetans always think I’m Tibetan, and they love me for that. Hawaiian, surfing in California, I got that a lot too.

FT:  The mix of a strange Italian avant-garde, hard Italian Jazz band, and you out front, singing these songs, it’s a strange mix? It really shouldn’t work, but it does

AE:  You would think it looks a strange fit on paper. You think, Don Antonio, Italian theme movie soundtrack, avant-garde, jazz, group, and then you go with this American songwriter from a Mexican descent from Texas, how’s that going to work. But it was very simple. It was like putting on a pair of comfortable shoes, it was perfectly. There was never a point when either of us thought, this isn’t going to work.

FT:  You’re very much seen as a rocker, but many people, myself included, find your slower ballads, and solo sets very affecting?

AE:  As much as I’m intimidated by the solo performance, I’ve learned that people really love hearing stories, so I’ve become more of a storyteller than actually a singer/ songwriter it’s funny I was talking to a group of Italian kids, punk rockers who said they loved the ballads. The ballads give you space to play with the words, and the words in my ballads are very minimal, but they’re expressive.

FT:  You ‘ve collaborated with some amazing people over the years, John Cale, Ian Hunter, Chuck Prophet, Peter Buck to name a few. And Springsteen! Springsteen has only released two songs as singles that he hasn’t written, one was a cover of ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ and the other is your own ‘Always a friend’. That’s quite a compliment from the man.

AE:  When we did that song together, the album wasn’t even out. He heard the song and told his manager to contact Alejandro, and ask him if he would want to play with us tonight, and we played in Houston with him. He was so cool to a lot of us. There’s a lot of us could tell the same story, he’s just that kinda guy. Bruce played the guitar I’m using tonight, and he gave David (Pulkingham, guitarist in Alejandro’s band at the time) and I both guitars.

 FT:  Well the next time you talking to Bruce, tell him Folk and Tumble would love to talk to him, and put in a good word for me.

AE: (Laughs)

FT:  Thank you Alejandro for taking the time to talk to talk to me; it’s been a real pleasure for me.

AE:  Oh, thank you!