Javier Escovedo zeros in on Austin once again
"When I was a teenager, the band I loved was the New York Dolls."
The gent seated across the table on the patio at Kerbey Lane's South Lamar location resembles an ex-New York Doll, his black shag hairstyle perfectly tuned to his mix-and-match vintage wear: black evening jacket and vest, brightly colored floral print shirt, narrow-cut trousers with navy blue pinstripes, and a gold Aztec calendar hanging around his neck from a matching chain.
He could pass for Johnny Thunders' son.
Which, in a spiritual sense, Javier Escovedo – former Zeros frontman, former True Believers co-leader, and member alongside brothers Pete, Coke, Mario, and Alejandro, as well as niece Sheila E. of the vast Escovedo musical dynasty – is. Add "solo artist" starting with 2012's surprising chamber pop debut, City Lights. On his new Kicked Out of Eden, Escovedo returns to the post-Dolls rock & roll he's specialized in since his teenage band the Zeros.
Born in San Antonio, raised in California beginning at 6 months, he speaks of his sisters and older brothers' record collections, and fondly remembers Alejandro's first band, surf-instrumental combo the Riptides. He was dazzled by British power blues guitarist Alvin Lee's epic performance of "I'm Going Home" with Ten Years After on the Woodstock soundtrack, then adopted Jeff Beck and David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson as his first heroes.
"Then the New York Dolls came along," he nods. "I heard Johnny Thunders and I was just like, 'That's it!' I thought, 'Maybe I can form a band. Maybe I can write songs. If this guy can do it, maybe I can.' With Jeff Beck, it was like, 'Nah! I can never get to that level!'
"But with Johnny Thunders, it was like, 'Well, maybe I could.'"
Beautiful older sisters in a brood of five children (his father had a total of 12) attracted local musicians, so Escovedo learned his first chords from them while growing up in the Baja California coastal resort of Rosarito and later Orange County seaside spot Huntington Beach in Los Angeles.
"I'll never forget one guy who dated my sister Dolly taught me to play the riff to [the Standells' 1966 garage-rock classic] 'Dirty Water.' My life changed dramatically when I could master that riff."
From there it was but a short rip current to the Zeros in his senior year at Chula Vista High School. Originally the Main Street Brats, formed via the collision of Escovedo and future wife Rhoda Lopez's guitarist brother Robert (today El Vez), plus her cousin Baba Chenelle on drums and bassist Hector Penalosa, a still fledgling Bomp! Records signed the quartet the following year after they played one of L.A.'s earliest punk events at the Orpheum Theater with the Weirdos and Germs in the latter's ramshackle public debut in 1977. The Zeros released a handful of crucial singles, became darlings of Hollywood's CBGB analog, the Masque, and were even grumpily rhapsodized by Tom Waits in a Rolling Stone profile as "these Mexican kids with pointy shoes."
"We were lucky. We were one of the first California punk bands to have a single out," smiles Escovedo.
Four years later, a guitar-theft-marred NYC tour stop left Escovedo Zero-less and washing dishes back in California, writing songs that eventually found a home in the True Believers (revisit "One Big Guitar," Feb. 22, 2013). Called to Austin by older brother Alejandro, Javier stepped off a Greyhound bus in 1982 dressed head-to-toe in white denim, with a Les Paul Jr. case in one hand, suitcase in the other. He'd soon spur his sibling to write his first songs, beginning with "The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over."
Roping in fellow dishwashing rocker Jon Dee Graham, bassist Denny DeGorio, and former Scratch Acid dynamo Rey Washam, this triple-guitar army with advanced compositional smarts became Eighties Austin's most storied rock & roll contenders. Alas, one poorly promoted debut LP and an unreleased sophomore effort later, they'd become a dissipated legend, celebrated in their occasional reactivations.
Time generated other bands: the Lost, Chariot, PCH, Sacred Hearts. After sobering up in 2000 and some aborted solo recordings with Ryan Adams and ex-Dils/Rank & File bassist Tony Kinman, Escovedo found himself with "a really good job, making lots of money" at Barney's New York in Beverly Hills, a designer boutique. He sunk the proceeds into the elegant City Lights, Phil Spector-esque in its scope and vision.
"I wanted to do something different," he explains. "Showing different influences other than punk rock and Johnny Thunders."
When the briefly reunited True Believers played ACL Fest 2013, Escovedo made a point of stopping in on the Hickoids' more homespun counterpart, the Austin Corn Lovers Fiesta, put on by San Antonio punk entrepreneur Jeff Smith, whose Saustex Records put out City Lights.
"Jeff asked what I was doing, and I told him I wanted to do another record," Escovedo recounts. "I said, 'I don't know whether to make another pop record or another Johnny Thunders record.' He said, 'The Johnny Thunders record – that's what people want from you.'"
Cut in an epic local session last March and a June follow-up in San Diego, Kicked Out of Eden slams with ex-True Believer Hector Munoz's drums, grinding guitars from Escovedo and Keith Urban's Brad Rice, and the fat bass of Billy Joe Shaver sideman Michael "Cornbread" Traylor. Post-Dolls power chords and Sticky Fingers-esque honky-tonk grooves abound, while "Gypsy Son," written for the True Believers' comeback, gets a definitively meaner treatment. All of it points Escovedo back to Austin.
"I'm staying with Jeff in San Antonio right now," he shrugs. "All my stuff is in storage. I'm gonna be out here for South by Southwest. Hopefully, I'll be on the road, but it looks like I'm coming back. The band is here. They're so good, and I don't know that I can put together anything better anywhere else. And Jeff is here, as is the label."
Frequent reunion appearances from the Zeros look to produce new material as well. That he's moving back to Austin just as Alejandro's departed is par for the course.
"When I moved to San Francisco, he moved to New York! It may be me – sorry, everyone! But I made a decision to concentrate on music and not let anything get in the way. I'm moving back for the band, for the music. Wherever the music takes me, that's where I'm gonna be.
"That's what I'm focused on. I've only got 29 summers left, as Tom Waits said."