AMERICAN MUSIC: How did you get started in Music?
JERRY ANGEL: I started playing drums because one of my older brothers was a drummer. There was a drum set there and the inspiration was there. My brother was the only one who played an instrument but there was always music playing in our house. I was the second youngest of six and the older siblings were continually bring home 45 records. What ever was the top 40 of the day. We had stacks of 45s, everything.
AM: What was your first big break?
JA: Early on I played with a lot of musicians who are putting out great music now like Cheryl Lynn. My first break was when I was 21. I got a gig playing with Leon Russell. I was playing a night club with his Sax player and he said Leon's auditioning drummers. So I went out and played and I was invited to stay. I got to rehearse and record at his home studio for a few months. There is an underground railroad of musicians that nobody ever hears about. Every city has them. It's a network of musicians that circulates around town and I'm one of them.
AM: You've played with Carole King, The Divinyls, Dwight Yoakam, Brian Setzer, and Dave Alvin and the Allnighters. How did you get into those situations?
JA: A lot of opportunities come from connections through people you meet. One thing leads to another. Like for Brian. I had been working with the Paine Brothers. They knew Setzer and when Brian was going to record his second solo album he was looking for more of a raw rockabilly sound. So they got me connected for an audition. I played a couple of songs, I think a Johnny Burnette song and then Brian says, (in Jerry's best Setzer voice) "Ah right. This is really cool," and that was it. We did the record, did a summer tour opening for Thoroughgood. With Carole King, I was working here in L.A. at the Central, which no longer exists. It's now the Viper room, Johnny Depp's club. I played there with Chuck E. Weiss. I was part of the rhythm section but the guitarist's wife was the personal secretary to Carole King. So that guitarist Rudy Getts, got involved working with Carole. When it came to touring they needed a drummer, so I was asked. I remember getting together the first night in a rehearsal studio and we were going to do the Johnny Carson show. It was incredible to meet her and play with her. We did the show, had a good time playing, nobody made mistakes and from that time on we were her band. The Divinyls were in town looking for a drummer to do a video and my name came up and I was invited down. Next thing you know I've got the gig and they send for me down in Australia. So for the next year they were sending for me like every other month down there.
AM: How did you get in Dave Alvin's Allnighters.
JA: Back in the 70s I was part of the house band in a club down in Redondo Beach. Sax player Steve Berlin was part of the house band. Now he is with Los Lobos. We were playing soul music with about 9-12 people on the stage at one time. The band was called Soul Wave. Steve and I became really good friends. Steve was always working in 3 or 4 bands including the Blasters then later Los Lobos. I knew who the Blasters were because we played shows with them. When Dave left the Blasters and decided to record his first album (Romeo's Escape on Epic records 1987) Steve Berlin and Mark Linett got involved. So Steve pulled me in to play Drums. He also pulled Greg Leisz in and Juke Logan, Gil T. from Top Jimmy's band. He just knew all these players in L.A., again the underground thing.
AM: How did you get involved with Dwight Yoakam?
JA: I got a call from Pete Anderson (producer). Before Pete started working with Dwight, Pete was around town playing his own music and we knew each other from that. They wanted to switch drummers in mid-tour and my name came up. At that time we had just recorded the Dave Alvin solo record and we were waiting for that thing to release. So I did Dwight's Hillbilly Deluxe tour and when I finished that we did the Allnighters tour. It was a lot of fun.
AM: You were involved in the Pleasure Barons album and the first tour?
JA: The Pleasure Barons were a hybrid of the L.A. and San Diego heads of state. Anything below the Orange County line is Country Dick Montana Land. Over the years bands would play there and here. I don't remember a time of not knowing who Country Dick was or the Beat Farmers. I don't remember how we got involved but it was Juke Logan, Gil T. and me. It was the regular rhythm section and they just yanked us down there (to San Diego).
AM: To tour or record?
JA: This is how it was described to me over the phone, We're doing a run from border to border, San Diego to Vancouver. Probably no nights off. We're going to run our asses into the ground doing one nighters. Then record the thing when we end up in Vegas, if we make it.
AM: What was the show like?
JA: It was broken into two programs. The first half was us, the backing band called the Shovel Heads. Everyone in the band did a few songs then there would be a short intermission and the real show would kick in. We would transform ourselves into this Vegas show review with all of us in tuxedos. That was the Pleasure Barons and leading the way was Country Dick.
AM: I'm sure you saw a lot of Country Dick adventures?
JA: Every night something would happen. I remember Country Dick had this coat with fake fur on the lining and it was always drenched in beer. It would never dry out because we would play every night. Then you have Mojo on his shoulders holding onto Dick's head while his hat which has been saturated by beer is being pulled over Dick's eyes. There's Country Dick trying to keep his balance with a beer in his hand and Mojo on his shoulders squirting beer all over everybody.
AM: A lot of Beer, huh?
JA: It was insane. We played the Commodore ball room up in Vancouver and they were taping down the monitors with garbage bags because they knew the beer would be flowing. When Dick stepped out on stage, sure enough it was a fountain of beer! And there was Dick standing in his glory.
AM: How did you get involved with the Blasters?
JA: Ha, Ha It was the tragic freeway drive of O.J. Simpson on June 17 1994. That was my first gig at the House of Blues. I had been called about 4 days earlier from James Intveld and I knew him for a long time. I've played for him at his gigs as did Keith Wyatt. So he asked me to join. It was easy for me to fit in, I already played with Dave Alvin and earlier I played around L.A. when Bateman and all the guys were playing. I knew the Blasters were an institution. I know Phil, after that first night, was very happy with me. He said, A plus! Then I knew I was in.
AM: How did you prepare for the show on short notice?
JA: James is really good with that, he gave me a tape to check out. I knew most of the songs anyway. Me and James got together over at his house for a little rehearsal. He broke out his guitar and I played brushes on a snare. So then we did the show. I used to play with the Dickies and with them there is a lot of energy, a lot of fun and it is fast. So I tried to incorporate that energy into the Blasters because in the early eighties they had great roaring energy. Bateman was back there just kicking up a lot of music and the band was just awesome! Johnny Bazz is just great. I love his bass playing, Its just thick and heavy. I love that! That's how I approached the Blasters.
AM: You went to Europe on tour soon after?
JA: Yeah, I love going abroad because the people there are really hardcore rockabilly fans and they love the Blasters. We opened for Dwight Yoakam in Manchester and London and then we did some dates on our own. It was great! I love playing with the band. I love the music! Its a lot of fun, its something that I relate too. I love the people that come out and I love everything about it. While we were there we recorded some stuff for the BBC. First its like walking into Capitol Studios, it's overwhelming just the history alone. It's a huge complex. We did this thing for the BBC in London. We recorded a few songs and then sent a live feed up to Scotland to a guy who puts on a live rockabilly show there. They did an interview with Phil and we never got to hear a copy of it. In the vaults they have everybody in there from the Stones to the Beatles... and I remember watching our little reel being rolled up and put in this little box for filing back in the vaults.
AM: Tell me about your involvement in the County Fair recordings.
JA: When I got involved with the Blasters, James was still running around with Phil trying to complete that CD. Dave Carroll and Kenny Sara had already done some drumming, but Phil was adamant about having the Blasters involved in the recording of the solo album. We went out to Cesar Rosas's home studio and tried to come up with something. We came up with Blueline. I remember because if you know Phil Alvin you know it's going to be a marathon session. We went over and watched the Chavez fight on Cesar's big screen TV, ordered a pizza, then went back into the studio and wrote the song. Also I played at Bruce Witkins's studio on Satellite Man. They needed some brush work on that song.
AM: You played a lot of drums for the Beat Farmers in their set while on tour with the Blasters. How did that happen?
JA: The Beat Farmers are a different band when Country Dick's up front, so he asks me...you know a throwback to the Pleasure Baron days. I said, Sure I would love to. It was fun. I never get tired of watching him perform. I would get there early every show just to see Dick. He would knock me out - Funny as all hell!
For facts about the Blasters, don't ask Phil Alvin.
It might be his band, but the Southern California singer has a way of twisting and turning a conversation into several dissertations comprehensible only to Mensa members. He'll verbally force-feed you the Encyclopedia Britannica rather than tell you about the new Blasters album due out this winter.
To wit, in a recent 50-minute phone conversation, the throaty singer and math wizard managed to speak at length about:
He refused to be pinned to a single topic, just as his band refused to be pigeonholed into one type of music. Once described as "Hank Williams mets the Cramps," the Blasters (which plays the Ogden Theatre tonight) broke out of east [sic] Los Angeles in the early '80s as an unlikely addition to the punk scene.
Mixing souped-up blues, country and rockabilly, the band made a quick stab at commercial success before fading into an on-again, off-again exile while Alvin fed his "mathematical habit" at UCLA.
"In 1993, they put my picture up on the wall at UCLA, and I left. I finished my thesis, and all I wanted to do was play music," said Alvin, who tried, but failed, to explain the premise behind his thesis in simple terms.
To get back into the Blasters frame-of-mind, Alvin took his act back to the bars.
The group will return soon to the CD bins with At Home, a collection of live performances recorded at three small Southern California clubs.
"Actually, this album is about 'My good gal done thrown me down.' Most of the songs hint that someone's been cheating on someone. And I don't know why that is, brother, but it might heave something to do with what's been going on in my life," Alvin said.
He hopes the album will be out in late October, but admits it might have to wait until February.
In the meantime, he's touring with longtime Blasters bassist Joe [sic] Bazz, drummer Jerry Angel and guitarist James Intveld.
Note that Alvin's younger brother (and gifted songwriter), Dave, still hasn't returned to the fold after leaving the Blasters a decade ago.
Phil insists they get along. And to prove his point (as well as his intricate theory that the brothers share the same speaking voice, but have different singing voices because speaking and singing emanate from different sections of the brain) Phil handed the phone to Dave, who happened to be visiting and doing his laundry.
Dave announced that everything's fine, he'll have a new solo album out next fall and that, indeed, he sounds much like his brother on the phone.
"I'll give you back to the genius now," Dave said understandingly before handing the phone to his brother. "And good luck."
Good luck indeed. By the time this one-sided conversation was over, Phil also managed to sneak in references to Homer, St. Paul's Paradox, his theory of semantics, finding computer programs in the public domain and how he'll soon be able to send complete albums over the Internet for 25 cents.
"I'm not the normal Blaster interview?" he asked at one point, guessing at the pregnant pause at the other end of the line. "Yeah. But I play like a poor boy, and the band will speak for itself."
Most days, this job is a piece of cake. Here's how it works: you find someone whose music is sufficiently interesting that you want to learn more about it. You give him or her or them a call. You steal a bunch of the interviewee's insights, add a few of your own to make it look like you've been working, and send the story that results down the editorial pipeline. It's so easy that you're almost tempted not to take a paycheck (almost).
The again, there are those days when you get more than you bargained for. Such was the nature of my telephonic encounter with Phil Alvin, who was touring with his current edition of the Blasters (sans brother Dave) in support of his recent solo album, County Fair 2000. With Alvin and band slated to play the Electric Lounge on Sunday, I had hoped we could talk a little about the album, the Blasters, American Music, fraternal rivalries, whatever.
Over the course of an hour's harangue, Alvin bent my ear with more than I wanted to know about mathematics, miscegenation and minstrelsy, all of which he considers essential background for a discussion of County Fair 2000, while never quite getting around to the album at hand. His high-decibel, rapid-fire delivery made me feel like I was in the middle of a performance piece, with Alvin riffing on me like some combination of street-corner revivalist and leftist Rush Limbaugh.
To give Alvin the benefit of extenuating circumstances, he expressed frustration at the start that his publicist had shoe-horned him into a series of half-hour phoners. (A loquacious man, in the best of times, he can spend half an hour saying hello; he was running well-behind schedule when we started, and much further behind when I begged off the phone.) With an eight-year interval between recording projects, perhaps he was making up for the lost interview opportunity. And since much of that interval had been spent completing a Master's thesis in mathematics, he plainly had plenty of steam to blow.
"So," interrupted the intrepid interviewer, after ten minutes of hearing about Alvin's thesis frustrations, "tell me about this County Fair project."
"This County Fair project," replied Alvin, lowering his voice to stage-whisper gravity, before returning to full-steam. "I'm a mathematician, and I started the Blasters originally because they told me what I was doing wasn't mathematics when I went to get my Ph.D. And I said, 'Oh, fuck you, it isn't mathematics. I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll go out and play music, and I'm going to build a computer and bring this back, I don't care how long it takes me, and I will set it down on your fucking table, and it's going to talk to you. And when it talks to you, brother, you look me back in the face and tell me what I was doing wasn't mathematics!'
"After humiliating myself and having people think I was crazy and me to the very point that I questioned my own sanity, doing mathematics that I couldn't tell to anyone 'cause no one understood what I was doing. No, there is no sensitivity in the average words that we string together. They don't even know what I am saying. Other people ask me questions, and I'm trying to give them real answers, and they can't wait for them. They don't really want real answers.
"And I'm sitting there with my painting, the theory of natural semantics, and they need it, they've been asking for it, and they told me it wasn't mathematics! Tell my girlfriend that! I had drove myself broke writing a Master's thesis at Long Beach State, this guy that could sing and make money. Tell the girl that wanted me to buy a house with her and marry her. They told me that my music wasn't music, and they told me my mathematics wasn't mathematics.
"So I had to go into humiliation to write a Master's thesis because nobody accepted my technique. I finished my thesis August '92, keeping the Blasters always on the road four times a year, but not making records, because if I make a record and don't go out and push it out on the road, then why don't I just piss on it? The songs I got, are they only going to last that year? Well, I don't sing songs that only last a year. That's furniture. That's for the Victor Furniture Company.
"A musician's job is to collect our culture. Homer did not write the Iliad and the Odyssey. He was the bad boy singer of the Aegean. They didn't have no records, man. Homer had to play it a hundred times to hear the words that carried the history of your culture. And you had to hear Homer a hundred times and to hear Homer a hundred times, you had to follow him around. To let him follow you around, you had to pay him. That's street, man. Music's 500,000 years old. Writing's 8,000 years old, max....
"I don't say, 'I wrote this song, I wrote this song.' I wrote half of the Blasters songs, but my name isn't there because publishing contracts tear bands apart. I know this because I happen to have taught business mathematics. I didn't want to, but that is the one that they pay you for. The rich man will pick which classes are taught at the University. But I digress. The County Fair is a metaphor for our music."
As more than metaphor, County Fair 2000 has a coherence and an eloquence beyond Alvin's raving. In its thematic ambition, it feature performances by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, street musician Jerome Bowman (whose Keep in Touch is the album's highlight), Chicago bluesman Billy Boy Arnold and the tap-dancing Fayard Nicholas and Eddie Baytos, along with the current incarnation of the Blasters. In doing so, it offers a Utopian vision of its title concept, one that transcends the racial and musical divisions. The album culminates in a new Orleans funeral medley, in which Danny Barker and Sun Ra find common bond in the great beyond.
Though Phil was once considered the mouthpiece for younger brother Dave's material, the album showcases his writing and his multi-instrumental facility to impressive effect. Dave had mentioned a year ago that he might be involved in the next Blasters project, after leaving the band in the late '80s, but it was hard to get a straight response from Phil.
"I love my brother, fine guitarist, good arranger, he is an exquisite and important poet," he said, once again lowering his voice in dramatic reverence at the mention of his brother. "David understands different dynamics than I do. I would not want to be my little brother. Do you think anyone would beat David up? Do you think David had to learn how to fight? NO! Because nobody would touch David, because I'd be all over their fucking ass! So, I wouldn't want to be my little brother, because I want to learn how to fight.
"I was very upset when David left The Blasters. He told me last. I understood why he left, but I expected him to be stronger. My brother is not a singer and has no business doing it, and I think he ought to recognize that he is hurting his music."
Though Phil never quite got around to discussing whether there were or had been plans for the brothers to make music again, the subject of Dave's singing sent him flying on a whole other tangent: the validity of white folks singing the Blues. Not that this interviewer had raised the issue.
"Now, County Fair 2000," he said, pausing briefly. "I've been singing the blues in my family in this country for 350 years. You want to tell me about white fucking blues, you send me the black man that sings as even as me! I'm not looking at his color. I know better. My family was here. George Bush's family shot at my family. I know what it means to be American, Mr. Gingrich. Contract with America. I got your contract with America, you dope, you fucking coward. History!? What the hell did you read? I'm a mathematician, and I know more about it than you do. What's the matter with this country?
"I've been singing the blues like a white man. I knew Joe Turner very well, I knew black people well enough for Joe Turner to look at me when I was 17 years old, and Joe Turner - the astute, brilliant, loving Joe Turner, my friend - looked me in the eye and said, 'Quit embarrassing me and you. Sing like yourself.'
"Now Kim Wilson (of Austin's Fab T-Birds) apparently didn't get that message. Now what do I do? Do I pretend that these guys who don't sing in their real voices are singers? They are not singers! The are not singers! That's not singing! They must not have known any African-Americans well enough for them to tell you, 'Quit embarrassing yourself.'
"No one has the business to stand in front of the band with a harmonica if they can't sing. I was taught by Sonny Terry, and I can play anything by any harmonica player who calls himself a blues harmonica player. I'm talking about all of them, and I can do it with no hands, I swear to you..." Yadda yadda yadda....
AMERICAN MUSIC: You mentioned in past interviews that you haven't made any records since 1986 for various reasons. For the benefit of the fans who have not been informed, tell us some of those reasons both professionally and personally.
PHIL ALVIN: When David (Alvin) left the Blasters it was important to me to establish that, with as great a contribution as David's songs are to any band, including the Blasters, cause he's such a high level song writer, that the sound of the Blasters had not a great deal to do with David. The first time that David had ever played in a band was with the Blasters and all these sounds had been being put down by me and the guys that I had been playing with for 15 years before that. My intention was to then make a very fast record with the Blasters but first-I don't like to have bands that haven't played with each other so we went out and we played immediately once David left, Hollywood Fats got the Gig and we went out on the road to develop the style with Fats in the band. In December of 86 was when we were planning to start to make a record that Fats died. David (Alvin) came in and we had some gigs that we couldn't have done without. Then there were gigs in Italy, Spain, and Finland and some other places in Europe that Billy Zoom came and played on. Billy never really joined the Blasters. He was just helping out during the time that Fats had died. Billy was tired of the music world and went back to school right after that time period.
AM: Was there any tour specifically connected to promoting the Blaster Collection CD?
PHIL ALVIN: No there wasn't. The record company did that and I'm glad they did. But it all came real fast. I hadn't been watching the contracts otherwise I would have anticipated that - Because what they needed to do to keep the rights for our masters, they had to make such a release every seven years. I had been so wrapped up in the mathematics that all of a sudden our manager got the call, they wanted to put this thing out.
AM: Has there been any discussion of releasing the original Warner Bros. albums on CD?
PHIL ALVIN: No there hasn't because they (Warner) pretty much covered what they wanted to on the collection CD. There has been discussion of releasing my solo record on CD, which has only not happened because Slash has been so nasty about it and they had violated a contract of that so much that I had to take them to court for it. We settled and that's all I'm allowed to say according to the settlement. They had been unhappy about it but they may find me on the telephone with them again because there are some other parts they have not done which include the fact that, when Sun Ra died, just even right before that I was trying to get them to release that and get some money to Sun, and had a lot of trouble. That wasn't Warner Bros. at all that was Slash. The independent labels are much more ruthless than the big labels, as funny as that may sound.
AM: Explain how mathematics were able to consume so much of your time in this period?
PHIL ALVIN: I had originally started the Blasters in 1979. I was a mathematician and was at UCLA to get my PHD. I couldn't find any advisors at UCLA who would allow me do my thesis on the area of natural languages. The tools that I used to study natural languages was a kind of set theory. They neither liked what I was studying or the set theory I was using to study it. They told me this stuff is not mathematics. I knew that was not true because I had proved the stuff but they wouldn't take the time to look at it. So thats when I said, "the hell with you I'll go play music and get the money to build computers that will show you guys this is mathematics." So thats when I started the Blasters originally.
A thing called Cellular Automata is very much related to the kind of natural language studies I was doing. In 1986 there was a conference at M.I.T (Boston) on Cellular Automata. I went to that conference and found out they didn't know what I do. And I thought, well its my duty, I'm gonna have to go back and write a master thesis at Long Beach state and people who know that I'm a good mathematician will leave me alone. This is in a sense a humiliation because for someone at UCLA in a PHD program to go back to Long Beach State to write a masters thesis instead of a PHD thesis, and then at the same time to slow down his musical career, people say, "Well god, what kind of nutty guy is that, he must have just lost his mind."
And it took quite awhile still with keeping the Blasters alive. I finished my thesis in 1992, August at Long Beach State. It took so long because I was on the road and I could only take one class here and there and also that the guys who had graciously consented to be my advisors, did not understand what I was doing. When I finished the thesis (Individuals and the Anti-Foundation Axiom), I called the head set theorist in the world, a man by the name of John Barwise. This guy is such a big shot! He called me February 3, 1993 and he said he had no idea, this is fantastic, this is not a masters thesis, you can publish this here, you can publish this there. Within a weeks time at Cal. Tech., "Yeah we've heard of that guy." UCLA the guys who said it wasn't mathematics just sucked me in! Because I've gotten so wrapped up in these two (musical) projects, I've ditched my whole second quarter, but I felt like playing music so much that when I was highly vindicated on this thing, I didn't even think about mathematics anymore then all I wanted to do was play music.
AM: Tell us about your jazz band called the Faultline Syncopators.
PHIL ALVIN: My real intention is, with Joey (Altruder) and these guys is really make a lot of good two beat charts. There is a lot of horn stuff going around the world now. The one thing that has always bothered me about the horns, post 1936 for 4/4 time is a very lazy thing. And the hotter music, hot jazz is 2/4 that you count one two, one two, one two. And that makes the players really have to work. If you have four beats you can take a long time to phrase stuff. As we now with a four beat tradition look back, you'll never be able to sell horn bands to youthful, energetic people. Two beats is what its gotta be, I don't need to hear Frank Sinatra doing a Tommy Dorsey arrangement. I will not have it, if I can do anything about it. And so hopefully I can use some of the money on this record to get some charts up, which is what Joey and I are doing and then make an L.A. Jazz band. We'll call them the Fault line Syncopators and were gonna play two beat music to dig it into your ground. So far we just had our first rehearsal the other day with Fayard (Nicholas), other than that everybody has been meeting at the gig and just doing a great job under those conditions. That's gonna be sort of a side project hopefully for the rest of my life.
AM: With all you have accomplished musically, do you have any other aspirations for the future?
PHIL ALVIN: Well with all my sympathies, originally Sun Ra and I on this record, our intention was to get kids from colleges, good players and link them up with some of the older players and more experienced players to make sure that two beat music was handed down properly. If you look at history, you'll find that there are certain parts of art that are lost, things that have not been passed down generation by generation. To me the greatest musicians that ever existed as ensemble players are the Harlem bands- Fletcher Henderson's band, Ellington, Mills Rhythm Band, and even some of the Chicago bands. People do not know how to play like that anymore and its getting to the point that those who do know how to play like that are dying daily. So one project that will be ongoing with me and the Faultline Syncopators is the beginning of, to make sure that, to the best of my ability, that style is not lost.
Return to Dave Alvin page.
Return to Scot's page.
Last modified 03Dec96.
Blasters Interviews/ Comments/Questions