Interview: Animal instincts? Rocker Escovedo gets reflective
When Austin-based rocker Alejandro Escovedo was informed that his 2001 single, "Castanets" appeared among the most-played songs on then-president George W. Bush's iPod in 2005, the politically-active musician refused to play the song for months. Only recently, after performing at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, being named "Artist of the Decade" by No Depression magazine, and finding widespread success in the aftermath of his ninth studio album, Real Animal, has Escovedo warmed up to performing it again.
With Real Animal, Escovedo took an introspective turn, combining thoughtful reflection of the people, bands, and sounds that informed his nearly 34-year-long career with hopeful projection for moving forward. "We approached it like writing a screenplay–- we have a list of characters, a timeline, different phases, and different bands," Escovedo says, "The experiences were all there."
In particular, after battling Hepatitis C for years, Escovedo endured a near-death experience in 2003, took a few years off, and emerged feeling revitalized. He reflected on the years that brought him from club performances with his early punk group The Nuns and a roots rock outfit called Rank and File to national tours with Bruce Springsteen and Dave Matthews.
The Hook: Real Animal is said to be your most retrospective album yet. Why now?
Alejandro Escovedo: Because I've been doing this for a long time–- what spurred this whole thing on was the fact that I became ill. It was an intense and frightening illness, and in the process of fighting that disease, it was the first time I'd stopped long enough to think about what I had done.
The Hook: Where did it begin?
Alejandro Escovedo: Growing up in San Antonio, listening to the music of my father, my mother, my cousins, that's where the bug hit me. It was a way of dressing, being, talking; but it wasn't until I was twenty-four that I finally started playing.
The Hook: Which of your various sounds came first?
Alejandro Escovedo: I just wanted to be a rocker. I wanted to play this music that seemed so full of life and sweat and blood and sex and just this pent-up frustration, this joy in liberation.
The Hook: Producer Tony Visconti once remarked that your audiences seemed to expect a religious experience at shows. Do you agree?
Alejandro Escovedo: When everyone connects in a room, you're not singing to them, you're all singing together, they're part of the process of communicating ideas. The sheer joy of playing a loud guitar and all of us dancing in one place–- that's the spiritual aspect of it.
The Hook: Are you religious yourself?
Alejandro Escovedo: If you were to tie me with anything, it would be Tibetan Buddhism. It's a difficult thing, but what I love about it is that it's a path–- I try to be a good Buddhist every day.
The Hook: You've done particularly well during the last couple years.
Alejandro Escovedo: The larger tours are like another world entirely–- we've played clubs for thirty years, and this is a gigantic beast of an experience. I felt really small as a result of not being used to it–- it's like suddenly you really gotta work on something again. To break into the psyche of a big concert audience was hard, but great.
The Hook: So does putting out a retrospective album mean you're satisfied with your career?
Alejandro Escovedo: No, there's still a lot to experience in my life, things that I need to say. There's a sense of fulfillment, in that the record was a true work of love, perseverance, and faith–- it took two years to get the record together, up against people who didn't feel the story was worth telling. But there's more to feel, experience, learn, sing.
The Hook: When you were sick, friends and peers rallied to help you pay your medical bills–- you've been very politically active in the past, so what's your take on health care reform now that you've really had to depend on the system?
Alejandro Escovedo: It was beautiful to see that there was such a large community ready to support and help–- it was really disheartening to see what the medical landscape was like when really thrown into it. I experienced so much bureaucracy and papers and not enough happening. It's insane that we don't support each other. If I had been left to the medical industrial wasteland, nothing would have happened.
Alejandro Escovedo performs at The Jefferson Theater on Sunday, January 17. Roman Candle opens. The show starts at 7 pm and tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door.