“I don’t tour that much anymore,” claimed Alejandro Escovedo when I finally caught up with him by phone while he was in Chicago.
It’s a relative assertion: Escovedo is currently in the middle of a three-week string of U.S. dates following a month-long stint in Europe. He’s not an easy guy to reach, and his answering-service mailbox tends to remain full.
Of course, he’s been doing this for a while. Now in his early 50s, Escovedo is 25 years into his music career — which sounds like a long time until you do the math. Escovedo was a bit of a late bloomer: He didn’t even pick up a guitar till he was 24 — and that, he notes, was a fluke.
Escovedo was an aspiring cinematographer at the time, putting together a film about a down-and-out character who winds up in the world’s worst band. Escovedo strapped on a guitar for the sake of the project, and ended up forming the ’70s San Francisco punk group The Nuns in the process.
During the ’80s, Escovedo joined the country-rock band Rank and File, then went on to start the guitar-driven True Believers. His solo career took off in 1992 with Gravity (recently re-released by Texas Music Group).
That’s a lot of musical chairs for a guy who once told the press, “Even though I was in a musical family, [music] wasn’t my choice for creative expression.”
Nevertheless, it seems to thrive in his genes. His elder brothers Pete and Coke both made careers as Latin percussionists, and his niece is pop star Sheila E. (yes, as in Prince — now you know what the “E” stands for). But the link to music goes further: Escovedo’s Mexican father, a former prizefighter, played in Mariachi bands, among other odd jobs, to support his 12 children.
Though Escovedo himself has never played in a distinctly Latin band, he found that when he began to focus on songwriting, imagery from his family’s native culture crept in unawares.
“In my particular art, I feel that [my culture] has influenced me in ways I don’t even know yet,” the musician mused via cell phone as he searched for the hotel he was staying in that night.
“I was really influenced by rock — The Yardbirds, Bowie, The Stooges — I consider myself a rocker. But when I finally started to write my own songs, images started to come into my music — weird stuff that was just there. I found myself leaning toward stark arrangements as influenced by my brothers.”
In the middle of our conversation, Escovedo’s cell phone goes out. When we regain communication, he elaborates on this idea: “Culture,” he says, “just pops into the music, even if it’s not intentional.”
Case in point: On Escovedo’s A Man Under the Influence (Bloodshot Records, 2001), which dabbles in several genres, he comes into his own with songs like “Wave,” about his father’s immigration. The track received a fair bit of airplay.
There’s no trace of accent in Escovedo’s speaking voice, but his songs are haunted by the ghost of the immigrant, the sense of standing outside looking in. Influence is fraught with emotion and longing, with enough well-crafted lyrics and lush instrumentation to hook listeners — and then keep them hooked.
Influence brought Escovedo to North Carolina — Chapel Hill, to be exact — where he recorded with Chris Stamey, formerly of the DBs.
“I have a lot of friends [in North Carolina],” he says. “It goes back to the True Believers — we used to hang out in North Carolina a lot.”
Escovedo met Stamey through his label, Bloodshot Records, and through Stamey he met producer Mitch Easter (R.E.M.), another important hand in the Influence project.
If Escovedo found his voice with Influence, he raised it high with his multimedia project By the Hand of the Father (Texas Music Group, 2001). More than just a collection of tunes, Father began as a song-cycle based on the life of Escovedo’s dad, who is now 95.
“It was supposed to be a 90th birthday present,” the musician explains when we resume our conversation a day later, as he’s getting ready to head to Madison, Wis.
“Family and friends were going to perform music, drama and dance,” he continues. Instead, Escovedo’s work caught the attention of writer, director and producer Theresa Chavez, who collaborated with him to take Father to a new level. The theatrical production is a tapestry of accordion and string arrangements of Escovedo songs melded with live spoken-word pieces.
“It’s now the story of five different men, all relatives of people in the play,” Escovedo clarifies. “I’ll be doing the play a lot this year, in addition to my own touring. When I’m working with the Hand of the Father band, I get to work with a lot of instruments I don’t usually work with in my regular band.”
These days, Escovedo’s own touring group includes two violins, two guitars and a cello. He’s playing a mix of songs from his previous records (in all, he’s released seven solo albums) and some new material as well.
The striking thing about Father is that it brings Escovedo back to where he began. The guy who started out working on a movie about a band ends up being a musician writing songs that work as a play.
“It’s a real interesting aspect to me,” he concedes. “I was a student of film. When I started writing songs, I wanted to get images that told a story, like a film.”
While Escovedo’s youthful attempt at filmmaking flopped, The Nuns took off, eventually going so far as to open for The Sex Pistols’ final appearance in ’78. Despite Escovedo’s low-key attitude toward his first band, The Nuns were a noted influence on such later, seminal punk groups as The Dead Kennedys. And though The Nuns never made any real progress, that fateful Pistols show made them part of history.
Escovedo isn’t hearing it, though. “That was a circus,” he says now. “It wasn’t about music — it was more of a fiasco.”
It’s true that Escovedo is serious about his work. In a 1996 Rolling Stone interview, he admitted, “I want to survive playing music. I want that to be the way my family feeds itself and I pay the rent.”
But speaking from the road nearly seven years after making that statement, Escovedo retorts moodily, “That wasn’t what I meant. Music is the only thing I know how to do.”