Alejandro Escovedo – Not Slowing Down

Third annual Moody show on Saturday whips up a hurricane

Alejandro Escovedo – Not Slowing Down

Ten days into 2015, Alejandro Escovedo takes the ACL Live at the Moody Theater stage Saturday night to present another elaborately-produced, highly personal show. Teaming his Orchestra with Elias Haslanger and Church On Monday featuring Dr. James Polk, ATX’s rockin’ raconteur recounts a year of love, marriage, and a honeymoon in a Category 4 hurricane.

Revealing that his winter tour cancellation was caused by fatigue, the 63-year-old Escovedo is nursing himself back to health, meeting up in his West Austin home office two days before New Years. He’s natty as ever, black socks with white polka dots peeking from between cuffed Levis and chukka boots, scholarly specs on the bridge of his nose. As he outlines another overbooked 2015 schedule after protesting the need to “slow down,” it’s clear he’s not sure how.

Talk begins with Ian McLagan’s recent passing. The two longtime Austinites collaborated on a track for last fall’s celebrated All ATX British Invasion collection. They covered Ray Davies’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” and it’s obvious that McLagan is still very much on Escovedo’s mind.

“For me, it’s been one of the hardest things to deal with,” he sighs. “It was like Ronnie [Lane] was dying again. It was like getting hit twice. I got to spend some time with Mac. Jody [Denberg] and I went to his room the day that he passed, and I put on that album, Ooh-La-La, ‘Silicone Grown’ and all that good stuff.

“I was blasting it on my iPhone, and his leg started to kick a little bit. It was pretty amazing, a beautiful thing that happened to Jody and I. I’m writing a song for Mac called ‘See You When I’m Looking at You.’”

Austin Chronicle: Let’s talk about the Moody Theater concert. Are you writing another rock opera?

Alejandro Escovedo: [Laughs] It’s more like when I did By the Hand of the Father. It’s a hybrid of different... what’s the word for it?

AC: Multimedia?

AE: Yeah! In By the Hand of the Father, we used different mediums – visual mediums. We had screens, we had actors, we had narrative, we had dialogue, we had seven musicians onstage with two actors and myself. That taught me that there’s different ways to approach it. I changed my whole outlook on performing and the possibilities of music becoming stories. I’ve always had an idea that I’d like to revisit that place again.

When Nancy [Rankin] and I fell in love, we had a wonderful year-long courtship, got married almost at the end of the year, and then we were involved in this hurricane. There was nothing more profound that I’ve experienced to write about. I thought this would be perfect, because it’s so multi-layered, this story. This would be the perfect way to express this.

Yes, I could write a screenplay and wait for someone to film it, or eventually try to produce it somehow myself. But I thought this was a great way for me to be involved, for me to be in control – write the songs, write the music that will eventually become an album. Hopefully, next year at the Moody Theater, we will put on a show that will be what the second set [on Saturday] will imply.

The older songs we’ll be using are all redone. Like “Mountain of Mud” is now a soul samba/Les McCann kinda thing. They all take on a different flavor. And I want the songs to really breathe, so they’re going to be longer. There will be more soloing and stuff.

Church On Monday are so good, man! They’re amazing. And they’re so supportive in a way that took me by surprise. ’Cause I felt like I had wandered into the wrong playground somehow [laughs]. I was that kid: “What are you doing here?” But they embraced it. They really took to it. They’ve given it a lot of love, a lot of forethought. They’re the kind of musicians who all, every last one of them, are very sensitive and intelligent about what they play.

So, this is a different take on these songs. I love the idea of creating in front of people. Like not really knowing what I’m gonna do, but having enough confidence in this music and the people involved to go out and do it. And if I fall on my face, I’m just gonna get back on the pony again.

This relationship led to marriage. Church On Monday was very important during my courtship with Nancy. We would go see them [at the Continental Club Gallery’s free Monday night residency] as often as we could, and it became the soundtrack to our relationship. They had a song I asked Elias to write for last year’s show at the Moody, called “For Being There,” a beautiful instrumental that they did that night. It was our first dance at our wedding. I want that to be the opening song.

I want it all to be like musical theater. I have Elias’ band, four female backup singers wearing black with white wigs, then Brian [Standifer] and Susan [Voelz]. The band will be dressed all the same. It’s gonna be pretty tight looking. Then I’ll come out, and the set continues with images of the hurricane and the aftermath. I’ll also read, so there’ll be some spoken word.

AC: So, the whole thing is you and Church On Monday?

AE: Absolutely. But there’ll be little segments where it’ll be Jake [Langley], the strings, and I. Or with the singers. Or maybe just Dr. Polk and the strings and I. Or maybe Daniel [Durham] and Scott [Laningham], bass and drums, tapping out a rhythm while I do beatnik rambling [laughs].

AC: These Moody shows are becoming a tradition now, where you’re doing an extended production once a year there. In 2013, you told the story of your career. Last year, you encompassed the entirety of Austin music. Now you’re telling this very personal story.

AE: I think it’s time. Also, it just seems to be that’s what’s happening in my life. As you know, this year has been tumultuous and beautiful, undoubtedly. I say “tumultuous” in that it’s been a wild ride. A hell of a ride, but beautiful. Nothing but good has come from it.

But at the pace I was working, and the pace that I was trying to keep up – this schedule I’ve had for 40 years – it finally got to me. It wrestled me down, got me in a headlock, and whispered in my ear, “You’ve got to stop, brutha.” That’s what happened.

Turns out I had adrenal fatigue. The only way to cure adrenal fatigue is through rest, sleep. You eliminate a lot of things that are causing stress in your life. You’ve got to take a really hard look at what it is you want out of this. What I want more than anything else is my health. And to live a long, happy life, and to be able to do these shows. And I can’t do that if I keep at the pace I was going at.

AC: To play the sort of rock & roll you play, you have to be a road dog.

AE: Yeah. It’s a contact sport. And I’ve always said rock & roll is not understood until you get into a sweaty club at 2am and everyone is drenched in sweat. You don’t even know where you are anymore – what state, what city, what the club’s name is. You’re just elevated to this rock & roll place. And it doesn’t happen in arenas. It may on some other level, but I’m talking about that fucking down and dirty level, where it all begins.

To me, that’s the source: the garages, the little teen dances I used to go to where they used to set up in the corner of a high school gym and play, on the floor. That’s the beauty of it, to me. And it always will be. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shed that from my being.

AC: That’s the thing: You oftentimes get classified as a singer-songwriter, but you’re a rock & roller.

AE: Yeah. When people ask me, “How would you describe yourself?” I would often say, “I’m a rock & roll songwriter.” There’s a lot of songwriters that try to write rock & roll songs, or rock songs. And they don’t rock, man. They just don’t. You can’t fake it. We all know. You and I know. People know. You look up on a stage, you see what the truth really is.

AC: So, are you cutting down on your road schedule?

AE: Somewhat. If I tell you what I have planned for the next year, you’re just gonna laugh and say, “You’re a fucking liar!” [laughs]. [He’ll be at City Winery in New York straight from the Moody, playing his first three solo records: Gravity, Thirteen Years, and With These Hands. In February, he records his next album with the Peter Buck Band. That’s followed by shows with Los Lobos. Then comes “my last South by Southwest shows.” Afterward, he’s traveling to to Cuba to write and record a record in Spanish about his hurricane honeymoon, called Luna de Miel. “I’ll do it with Cuban musicians, but in my style – not like Alejandro Visits the Buena Vista Social Club or anything like that.”]

AC: You say you’re slowing down, but you’re not!

AE: It’s hard to slow down, man. I feel guilty if I’m not working. And I don’t think that’s necessarily healthy, but it’s just the way it is. Having gone through these extreme situations, whether it was the Hep C in 2003 or the hurricane last September, life is short and very fragile. As Ronnie [Lane] said all the time, “It’s a short movie.” And it is.

You want to do as much as you can. The hunger for me is in telling the story, in any way I can. If it got to the point where I couldn’t play guitar, I’d just tell it: write it, film it, do something, y’know?

AC: You started out as a scriptwriter.

AE: Yeah. I’m addicted to the joy in working and playing with musicians and creating. Seeing people happy – that’s a big part. When I slowed down in 2003, I started wondering who I was. When they take away what seems to make you – this guitar, this lifestyle, playing in front of people, watching people having a great time – it’s frightening. Who am I, then? I know that being a person is the most important thing, but don’t take away my electric guitar!

AC: You’ve had this adrenal fatigue. I can see you’re still a little frail. So, how is it that you keep at this pace without killing yourself?

AE: I don’t know. I’ve come so close so many times [sighs]. You want to think that there’s maybe a reason for being here. And the reason is multi. There’s reasons for being here: Your children, your family, your friends, the love of your art and creating. Now I’ve found a person to share all that with. Not to put down any past relationships, but this one – it feels different.

It’s amazing. It’s different. To finally have that after so many years, it sometimes puts a little pressure to keep going. But I also want to enjoy this. You can’t enjoy this if you’re sick and you’re on the brink of death. It’s a hard thing to juggle. I’m still coming to terms with it. I don’t know how to deal with it exactly, because I’m a working class musician.

AC: You’re doing a private Kickstarter program now, a sort of patronage program?

AE: I am. It’s called Always A Friend. I’m not sure how it works, quite honestly [laughs].

AC: There’s different levels people can give at and receive passes to the Moody show and different things like that.

AE: Well, we want to make the Moody show a tradition. I want to keep doing it. And in talking about slowing down and how we’re going to do this exactly? Let’s say someone asks me to produce a record. My strengths lie in arrangements and getting bands together, getting songs together – the most important parts. Those are the basic elements. It’s like fundamental baseball: You’ve got to hit, run, throw, catch. You’ve gotta learn all those things first. Then you can work on all the other things. But those are the things I can do really well.

And I can curate a show. I can produce a show. I know how to put it together. I know how to stage shows. I think that in doing these kinda things I’ll be able to find something that satisfies me on all levels. Something that won’t require having to go do the one-nighters every night.

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Alejandro Escovedo, Church on Monday, Elias Haslanger, Dr. James Polk, Jake Langley, Daniel Durham, Scott Laningham, Brian Standifer, Susan Voelz, Peter Buck, Ian McLagan, Ronnie Lane, Jody Denberg, Les McCann, Ray Davies

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