Alejandro Escovedo has been making music for decades: His band The Nuns opened for The Sex Pistols on the final date of their notorious 1978 U.S. tour. He later played with Rank and File and True Believers. The first of his 14 solo albums, Gravity, was released in 1992, and Escovedo was declared by alt-country bible No Depression the “artist of the decade” for the 1990s.
While he’s beloved by critics and fellow musicians—Bruce Springsteen, who appeared on Escovedo’s last album, Street Songs of Love, is among his many fans—big mainstream success has proven elusive. And this despite the fact that Escovedo’s music is enormously accessible: Listening to Big Station, his latest record, one is likely to think not only of Springsteen but of Eddie Cochran, Iggy Pop, Tom Petty, and any number of other canonical rock and rollers.
Brow Beat spoke with Escovedo about the new album—co-written by Chuck Prophet and produced by long-time David Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti—as well as Mexico, the “curse” of the alt-country tag, the meaning of “punk,” and whether Escovedo will ever record an album with his niece Sheila E. (he hopes so).
Slate: Your last album, Streets Songs of Love, was very introspective. This new one, Big Station, is outward-looking—it feels like a new direction for you.
Escovedo: Definitely. That was the purpose. Chuck Prophet and I wanted it to be an outward look into what is happening in the world around us. Originally, it was going to be about a couple—and not just the internal things that they go through within their relationship, but also the outside world and how it was affecting them and their psyche and their relationship. It didn’t happen that way, but that was the initial idea. Then when we wrote “Sally Was a Cop” and “Bottom of the World,” we got a sense as to what direction the album was taking.
Slate: “Sally Was a Cop” is about the drug war in Mexico. Where did that song come from? How did that song get started?
Escovedo: Chuck and I spent some time in Mexico when we wrote Street Songs of Love, and Chuck’s been back since, to do that Peter Buck concert. That’s where we’d go to surf and hang out. I’ve been in Mexico quite a bit throughout my life, and I’ve experienced it on all sorts of levels, from the interior to Baja to the borders, you know? My father was from Mexico. But for Chuck it was a real eye-opener—to him it seemed like a real hardcore, third-world country in a way. And the things we were seeing obviously were as a result of kind of fear in the public, the intimidation that the cartels have imposed on the people there. There were a lot of cops, and a lot of militia-types driving around and protecting the tourists. And there was a lot of poverty. So it just affected us—especially when we read about the 35 bodies that were just strewn upon the highway in Mexico. It’s just a different world.
Slate: That kind of engagement with the world reminds me a little bit of Springsteen, who’s a fan of yours, and who played on Street Songs of Love. Did you feel his influence at all?
Escovedo: Oh, always, absolutely. And Bruce on this new tour is on fire, man. He’s got a message and he’s determined to shout it out to the masses. As a songwriter, there are times when I feel a little too self-conscious about always singing about what I feel and what I think and what someone has done to me. I think it’s important to spread the word sometimes. The Dylans, the Neil Youngs, the Bruce Springsteens, we took all of them for inspiration. We also drew a little bit from you know international groups, like Tinariwen. I love using all those different rhythms and mixing them together with rock and roll to see what you come up with.
I did a little bit of writing with Sheila E., my niece, and I get a real sense of rhythm from her, of course, ’cause she’s incredible. The songs that we wrote didn’t make it to the record, but I’m hoping to do something with her sometime in the future, a whole record together.
But like you said, there are a lot of introspective records in my catalog, and I wanted it to be more than people just listening, I wanted people to move and dance a little bit and find something a little more joyous, more like a celebration.
Slate: There’s one song on this album, “Headstrong Crazy Fools,” that might be best described as a dance song. I could almost imagine hearing it in a club.
Escovedo: You know, I was hoping that we could get some remixes done on these things. I’m trying to get the guys in Thievery Corporation interested—or somebody, anyway, to do a remix.
Slate: In your career you’ve spanned these different kinds of popular music. You started in punk, and then in the ’90s you were championed by the alt country scene—
Escovedo: That’s kind of a curse, that alt-country thing.
Slate: How so?
Escovedo: My music isn’t really alt-country, you know? Especially now. And the thing about punk rock that was so good is it was all about our record collections. We’d put on Lefty Frizell records and then put on a Stooges record and then Charles Lloyd and whoever—it was all about the great stuff that inspired us. I still always draw from all of that. And I think punk rock, what was important to me, is it just left the whole palate wide open.
And it’s funny, people see me sometimes as this guy who’s kind of an NPR performer, as someone who can play theatres and do sit-down shows with strings and all that. But even at the core of that is punk rock. I still always want to rock. Electric guitars are big for me, I love big drums. I love Iggy Pop and the Stooges. Iggy is a major influence.
Slate: Why do you think people end up misunderstanding you, or putting you in the wrong category of music, so to speak?
Escovedo: Well, I’ve done such a variety of things. I’ll give an example: When I first started playing my solo albums, Gravity and so on, they were never in the rock section—they were in “world music” and “salsa,” strictly because of my name. So there was that confusion. And even though I’d come from rock and roll bands, The Nuns and Rank and File and True Believers, which was kind of a garage band—I mean we were loud and crazy. And then after my wife died and I did those real introspective records, I think some people thought that’s what I should do all the time, maybe because of the age of my fans. I get a pretty diverse audience, but a lot of these people want me to still play with strings, and I’m not ready to do that all the time. I’m really getting into guitar and the four-piece band. I just love that format.
Slate: Sometimes there’s a rush to categorize.
Escovedo: There is. And when you’re not easy to categorize people get a little frustrated. I know radio gets frustrated with me.
Slate: This album has a real throwback feel. From the first riff on the very first song, “Man of the World.”
Escovedo: Oh yeah, that’s totally Eddie Cochran. It’s really “Summertime Blues.”
Slate: And then you’ve got songs calling out for remixes. It kind of sketches a path from ’50s rock to something you could hear in a club today. And you also recorded an old tune, “Sabor a mí.” Is that the first song you’ve recorded in Spanish?
Escovedo: It is. It was my father’s favorite song, he sang it to my mom all her life. It’s an iconic song for those of us who grew up not just in Mexico, but in the Southwest. I’m trying to think of an American song that would compare—maybe a Frank Sinatra standard or something. It’s an important tune. And we wanted to make it different, so we don’t do it the traditional way—it’s kind of cut in half really, we don’t even play all the chords to the melody.
Slate: Is there some reason you wanted to do this song now in particular?
Escovedo: Well, I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. Part of it was that just I finally felt like I had all the tools necessary to do it. I wanted it to be special.
Interview has been condensed and edited.