He's a Grammy award winner; a songwriter and guitarist extraordinaire, equally adapt at acoustic country blues and electric gut wrenching rock and roll, and so enormously respected by his peers that he plays in four, count 'em, four bands. But, don't you even think for a minute that Dave Alvin is ever going to go mainstream. "There's just no reason to go downtown in the music industry, " he said with a laugh after a recent show in Massachusetts, " because that where Britney Spears lives." "There's just no reason to play the game," he added. "I just can't play it and win. It's just not possible. You just have a longer career working the outskirts. You know, you go downtown, you're gonna get jumped. I just don't even bother with that. I just play the music that I like." "Look, about a billion people go into a record store and buy guitar strings," he said, "And, of that number, a very, very small percentage become Madonna. And, an even smaller percentage gets to make a career of out music. I've been very fortunate in making that choice." Suffice it to say that's been a wise career move for Alvin who, just prior to being interviewed, managed to get some in a sun-drenching crowd, broiling after sitting for four hours in a hot mid-July sun, up and dancing to his rock and roll band, the Guilty Men. That was only a couple of hours after he captivated them, along with two contemporaries, with an hour-long, acoustic, country blues tribute to the late bluesman Mississippi John Hurt. Yet, playing two sets of similar, yet different music in one afternoon shouldn't seem like much of a stretch for Alvin, who, in addition to producing a number of artists' studio recordings, also currently plays with the Los Angeles- based Knitters, along with X alumni John Doe and Exene Cervenka, and just completed a reunion mini-tour in California with the Blasters, his original band, with his brother Phil, from the early to mid 80s. Somehow, he also manages time for the Avalon Blues Tour, the Hurt tribute with fellow songwriters and guitarists Peter Case and Chris Smithers, along with a healthy number of shows, crisscrossing the country, with the Guilty Men, with whom he has played for several years, and, with whom, he has recently released a live album, "Out in California," on Hightone Records. Plans are also afoot to release other live cuts, on an album to reportedly be called "Outtakes in California," to be sold exclusively at live shows later this year. And, despite a schedule, both in the studio and on the road, that might make a lesser musician blanche, Alvin seems to thrive on his work. "It's really all the same, it's just louder," he said of the afternoon of electric music, following his acoustic showcase. "There are some stylistic, cosmetic differences, but I just like playing with people, learning things. Anytime I get a chance to play with Peter (Case) and Chris (Smither), I learn something." And, despite such a stellar reputation as a powerhouse guitarist, and, as a songwriter, a chronicler of the "grayer" sides of life, Alvin maintains a humbleness about his obvious musical gifts. "I've got a long way to go before I get good, and I mean that," he added. "It's a learning thing, and I mean, I can be pretty stupid (musically) and I've got a lot to learn. I'm getting better, but there's still a long way to go." Fans of Alvin's prodigious output might disagree with that. From his early days with the Blasters, which rose like the phoenix out of the punk era in the late Seventies-early Eighties Los Angeles music community; to his work with X, another great LA band from that era that led to the Knitters; back to his acoustic shows; on to the Guilty Men; back to the Blasters; well, it's been a hell of a run, both for Alvin and for his fans. The Blasters were the absolute class of the late punk scene in Southern California, combining the best elements of that genre with a healthy dose of rockabilly, culminating in Alvin's incredible songs and guitar playing. Besides Alvin, the band also featured his brother Phil's impassioned vocals, all topped off by the spectacular sax section of Lee Allen, who played on Fats Domino and Little Richard's early Fifties hits; and Steve Berlin, who now plays with Los Lobos, a group that got its start opening shows for the Blasters. "Lee Allen was amazing," Alvin remembered. "He taught us a lot, things we shouldn't know, and a hell of lot that we should. Both he and Big Joe Turner were like musical father figures to us. "But, for me, the Blasters were like high school, and that's not an insult," Alvin added. "We were a great band, and we are still a great band. And 'X,' well, that was like post-graduate work." Alvin left the Blasters in 1985, continuing his journey through the "outskirts," picking up new opportunities, and new fans, along the way. Some of those fans simply followed him from the Blasters, and some, initially exposed to his post-Blasters' output, came along later. Although, Alvin notes that there has been something of a backlash toward his solo work after leaving the Blasters. "There was always that rift between the 'Phil' fans and the 'Dave' fans," he said about his post-Blasters career moves. "Some people never forgave me for leaving the Blasters, and the fact that the new music wasn't exactly like the Blasters' music may have had something to do with that. But, I think they are getting over that now. The audience is now probably about half old Blasters' fans and half new fans." Interestingly, his decision to leave the Blasters was a fairly easy one, he said. "We just weren't getting along anymore, and it wasn't fun," he said. "The only reason to do this is for fun. All the artistic and that stuff is all well and good, but if you're not having fun doing it...." Despite that, the band reformed earlier this year for a series of reunion shows in California, to promote the spring release of the Blasters' boxed set, "Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings," on Rhino Records. The last reunion show, on June 11 at the House of Blues in Hollywood, was recorded for a live album, which is scheduled to be released on Hightone this fall. "It was a ball, it was fun," Alvin said of the reunion. "I had a little trepidation about what we'd sound like, but we just plugged in, and by the second chord of the first song.... . When you've got five guys who grew up together, I mean, the bass player (John Bazz) has known my brother Phil longer than I have." However, fans should not expect any further studio work from the group, Alvin said. "It's like going home for Thanksgiving and Christmas." he laughed, "You don't want to live there, but it's still a gas while you're there. We are better now than we ever were before. If we were as good back then as we are now, we would have been millionaires or something. We had a lot of energy then, and we still do. "But, we just can't be in a room together for too long," he continued. "We'll probably do a few shows, in New York, Chicago, D.C., back to LA, San Francisco probably (to promote the live album). It's good (to work with his brother Phil), because our parents are gone now, but I will not be sitting down and writing 12 songs for my brother to sing." No matter what musical forum he's in, Alvin's masterful, personal songwriting style has shined through, as he writes what he describes as "personal, sad songs," a natural evolution from the songs he wrote, in the early days, for the Blasters. "There's a tendency when you write a lot of songs to sit down and write the same one over and over again, but I can't do that," Alvin said. "You gotta try different songs, about different themes. "And, I guess was 24 when I started writing songs, and you write different kinds of songs at that age than you write when you are 44," he added. "Even with some of the so-called 'happy songs' that I write, there's always a sort of bleak image in there," he said, with a chuckle. And, while he can be topical, Alvin doesn't feel comfortable in writing about the "issue of the day" in his songs. "'Finger pointing' songs just don't last," he said. "Once the issue fades, that's it. So, if you write about something closer, like a broken heart, or a broken contract, you can tie it into something more universal, and that feeling lasts." "I just don't write political sing-along-songs, and that's what people in politics want," he said. "And, while that's understandable, I just don't know how to write 'em, so I don't." Much of his songwriting background comes from influences from his late father, Cass, Alvin said. "He was a union organizer, and took us on trips through the Southwest when I was little kid," he said. "That makes a big impression on you when you are small. It was always his point that there was more than one side to the story. Phil and I sort of extrapolated that into our musical tastes." Such a personal and heartfelt style seems to fit comfortably into the aftermath of September 11, as many of the kinds of people who populate Alvin's songs feel the horrible, lasting effects of those events. "The ultimate about September 11 is one dogmatic, intolerant group of people trying to inflict pain on innocent people, who are just trying to pay the rent, and I try to write about people who are just trying to pay the rent," he said. "I've been in enough bars to know that evil exists in the world, and sometimes the only way you can fight intolerance is in blood," he added. "I don't want to blow up anybody, but on the other hand, what are you going to do?" For Dave Alvin, the answer is clearly to keep writing and playing, no matter the style, but clearly with substance.
As co-founder, along with his brother Phil, of the seminal 80s band The Blasters, Alvin blazed a trail into American music's future via the past. He is one of the key architects of the L.A. 80s post-punk, roots rock revival that set up the playing field for today's alt-country performers. Alongside John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom and other visionaries, Alvin and the Blasters imprinted the American musical psyche with a sound that was vintage, yet excitingly real.
"Back in the days of the L.A. scene we all lived close to each other and played the same clubs,"says the gravel-voiced pioneer. "It was a real Us vs. Them attitude." Since the disbandment of The Blasters, Alvin has continued to focus his music through the lens of the past. Over the course of four solo albums, tempos have slowed, amps turned down, or even off in some cases, but the songs have grown. Alvin has spent the last decade honing his skills as a singer-songwriter on par with the likes of Springsteen and even Dylan. His latest HighTone Records release, Blackjack David, is a master stroke of crafted songs built on the tremendous base of his past.
Alvin get a bit of a chuckle in his voice when the dreaded "singer-songwriter" tag is mentioned. "It depends on what gig you show up for," laughs Alvin. "If it's an acoustic gig, you're a singer-songwriter, if you bring a band and pull out a telecaster, it's different." Singer-songwriter is a mantle that Alvin should get comfortable with, however. On this year's Monsters of Folk Tour he will sit along side such luminaries as Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Tom Russell. When broaching the subject of his new material, Alvin hints that this transformation from rocker to singer-songwriter may not be as hard to swallow as one might think. "When I make records," explains Alvin in a now more reverent, serious tone, "the song is always more important than anything else. I let the song be whatever it needs to be. I guess there is a conscience effort to push the songs in [a singer-songwriter] direction."
Alvin's voice itself is one of the key elements to the strength of Blackjack David. His "cigarette damaged" pipes have the kind of presence that conjures up legends such as Cash, Haggard and Nelson. It is a voice that belies the experience Alvin has gained through extensive touring over his nearly 20-year career. "I just got back from Italy... it was very... Italian," deadpans an obviously jetlagged Alvin. He goes on to explain a strange phenomena. Alvin has a very loyal fan following in the boot-shaped country, and tours there regularly. "Italy is my strongest place, [there's] a lot of fans of [American music]. It's strange for a country that doesn't speak English."
The conversation turns toward Europe and the question of whether American artists are held in greater esteem across the pond comes up. "It's a myth," Alvin is quick to answer. "It comes from the late 50s when artists like Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Slim went overseas and were successful. In The Blasters, before I ever went to Europe, people would say go over there and you'll never have to work another day in your life!" laughs Alvin. "You have to remember," he cautions "it's the place that brought you technopop."
As the subject turns back toward the road, Alvin is very ingenuous about his feelings. "Maybe one gig out of 10 might be blah," confesses Alvin, "but not the playing. The carrying suitcases up stairs to the hotel room, that is old hat." Alvin has constantly toured, and hit larger success with his last solo effort, 1994's King of California. The disc did well on the Adult Album Alternative (AAA) chart. Blackjack David is not doing as well however, due to the Gavin Reports addition of the Americana Chart to their rosters. "Once Americana came out," explains Alvin, "you're an Americana act, not a triple-A act. It hurt Blackjack David a bit. The plus side is that friends of mine that are making records, before Americana wouldn't even be acknowledged as existing."
Alvin doesn't seem to mind being pigeon-holed as an Americana act, however. He sees it as the music he does best. "Americana is fine. I wrote [the song] American Music and was identified with it. I don't do Be-Bop," laughs Alvin, "cause I can't. There's always someone people want you to sound like. When The Blasters were touring, the big band at that time was Cheap Trick. I met the guys, they're nice guys, but everyone back then was saying 'You gotta sound like Cheap Trick.'"
Obviously Alvin didn't take the advice too seriously. He has blazed a trail of American music that continues today. Twenty years after his L.A. beginnings, Alvin still sees those as his formative years. "Everybody [from the LA scene] lives in different worlds now. Some people are dead, some have 18 kids, some just quit playing. I spend 8 months of the year touring. I'm not in L.A. anymore. [But] when I do see John [Doe], it's like we just saw each other yesterday. In some ways those days [in L.A.] were like high school." Dave Alvin plays October 19th at Lynaghs, 255-6614.
Dave Alvin Blackjack David
Beginning with a stunning arrangement of the traditional song from which this disc takes its name, "Blackjack David," and working its way 11 tracks later to the instant classic "Tall Trees, Blackjack David should be called an alt-country masterpiece. However, confining this disc to the alt-country ghetto is unfair and inaccurate. Blackjack David is a country album with folk tinges that places Alvin, standing head and shoulders, amongst more classic peers such as Cash, Nelson and Haggard. The twisted tale of Mary Brown is a story on par with any of Haggard's American anti-hero ballads. 1968 gives a vivid view of the Vietnam conflict's effect on its participants at the same level of Johnny Cash's "Talking Vietnam Blues." "New Highway" is a jaunty, cheerful romp in the same realm of Willie Nelson's "On The Road Again." The point being, Blackjack David should be played on contemporary country radio and yield singles galore. Sadly the unfortunate label of alt-country may keep this record out of the mainstream and America's collective conscience. And, what a shame-Blackjack David deserves to stand alongside history's great country recordings. -RH
California is a multifaceted entity for Dave Alvin, and his songs offer an insightful commentary on contemporary life here. Although one might think that California is no longer wild, something of the old west remains, and it intertwines with the contemporary urban west in Alvin's music--particularly in songs like "King of California" and "Out in California," as he notes:
"To me, California hasn't changed that much. It's a leap of imagination, but the west is still pretty wild, in some respects. Some of the subject matter or characters in my music are also in old folk songs from the nineteenth century. Those same people are still around, but they're just no longer named Stagger Lee or John Henry. Take a song like King of California. I wrote it to be like an old folk song, and the idea is the same now as if it was written back then--'California, land of opportunity.' Maybe it is and maybe it isn't, but I try to use themes of alienation and other modern anxieties within traditional music forms and traditional archetypes."
Alvin's lyrics also speak of the inevitable alienation of living in this state. The juxtaposition of his own "Jubilee Train" with Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi" on his latest album, for instance, endows "Jubilee Train" and the California it describes with a noticeable subtext of disillusionment. This disillusionment, however, is not associated only with California, Alvin comments.
"In some songs I tend to use California, just because I'm from here, and I'm a fourth generation Californian. But to me it's a nationwide thing. It's happening in Chicago and Atlanta and Boston. We're becoming less of a republic. A lot of people live in gated communities, and a lot of people don't have faith in political parties or political ideologies. People are more interested in themselves than in the common community good. "In American mythology, in the 1930's or the nineteenth century or the Revolution, it was more the common good of the republic. These days it's just 'I got mine!' And a blind pursuit of that leads to a sort of alienation. So the myth's definitely falling apart. I think that we're in a period now where everyone's very alienated, and everything is gray, and nothing is black and white. So I try to write songs that reflect that--songs that live in that gated community."
Alvin's lyrics, such as those in "Wanda and Duane," are in many cases fraught with expressions of the heartache and lack of romance of a middle-class suburban LA existence. He has also written plenty of songs like "Gospel Night," however, that are about finding romance in the midst of a lack of it. Many of the characters Alvin constructs, including Wanda and Duane, are written somewhat autobiographically, and yet they manage to transcend personal experience to stand for the Everyman and Everywoman.
"The standard writing rule is that the more personal you make it, in general, the more universal it can be. Those kinds of characters are just people I grew up with--people I knew. So it's a little bit of both. Wherever I go in the world, I always carry the southeast side of LA with me," he concludes.
Yet thought LA is always there for him in that way, in other ways the area grows more disappointing for him with time:
"There's no music scene in LA--not like it was. I do spend a lot of time in Austin. I like it there. There is a music scene, and there's a lot of great musicians. It's a smaller town. Everything's right nearby, and it's real easy to get things done. So when I produce records, I like to do it out in Austin because everything's easy, the people are friendly. There's a great bar scene. You can go see great music every night.
"In LA it changed a lot a long time ago, and became too much of an industry town. It went from the days of the Germs and early X and Black Flag and Fear and all those bands who said 'Fuck record companies...we don't want to be rich...fuck you,' to now, when everything is based on the deal, and 'I want to be rich too.' And when you have that you can't have a healthy music scene, or at least good music. That whole No Depression scene with Wilco and Son Volt and all those could never have developed in LA."
He does, however, have some hopes for the increasing acceptance of progressive country music, in LA and elsewhere.
"I think there's a big market for it. We knew when we started the Blasters a million years ago that we didn't like anything they were playing on the radio. The only thing that I could relate to besides old R&B and blues and rockabilly records was punk rock. But we knew that there were other people just like us. And it was difficult to access them because of the way that the media was set up. You couldn't get on TV, you couldn't do anything if you were playing that type of music. And these days, maybe four or five years ago when Nashville country music became creatively bankrupt, there was a large market out there for a lot of people, whether it's someone like Guy Clark, an older-generation, or Lucinda [Williams] or Steve Earle or me, this middle-generation, or the Wilco and Son Volt stuff.
"One of the healthy things about it is that there's not a set 'sound.' It's not like Guy Clark and I sound a lot alike, because we don't. It's not like Lucinda and Wilco sound a lot alike, because they don't. There's not one cliche sound, so it's going to be harder to trivialize it and make it into a cliche On the other hand, there are a lot of bands coming out now that sound a lot like the old Uncle Tupelo records. That'll kill a scene right there."
When asked to explain what it was about the 80's punk scene in LA that was favorable to the emergence of the Blasters and their rockabilly sound, Alvin answers, "It's pretty simple. We played really fast and really loud. Part of it was that we couldn't get gigs, and in the very beginnings of the band, we played every Wednesday night for free beer at this place called the Sundance Saloon in West Long Beach. That was our gig--we had made it. We were playing this biker bar for free beer. We would go to top forty bars and try to get gigs, and when we would audition they would just laugh. One of the sillier things we did was to play a place called the 'Cow's Corral' in Lawndale, and every Tuesday was talent night. There were all these people doing Patsy Cline songs and George Jones songs, and we went up there and played Jimmie Rodgers and Carl Perkins. We had such a defeatist attitude that we just played and left. A year later, we found out that we had won. Some guy who was in the house band came to one of our shows and said 'You guys won that talent show, and you didn't pick up your fifty bucks.'
"We finally somehow scammed our way into a gig in Santa Monica--it was the first time we had played west of the Hollywood freeway, and we played and we were really good, and that started certain people talking. Then we got a gig opening for X down in San Diego, and X saw us and there was an instant bond. So two weeks later we opened for them at the Whiskey A Go Go, and we finally started getting more popular in LA. It reached its peak in '81 or '82, in the Olympic Auditorium, and the headliners were Black Flag and Fear and Saccharine Trust, and that was a rough one. We played real fast and real loud. But at the same time, we did a west coast tour with Queen. We played with everybody, and then at the same time, we'd go play with Asleep at the Wheel at the Palomino or something. So it was pretty mixed up. But as far as the punk thing goes, we played fast, we played loud, we sweated, and we didn't screw around."
Alvin currently occupies a special place amidst the progressive-country scene. "Compared to a lot of the 'alternative country' people," he says, "I'm more of a blues guy. I have a lot of country and folk influences, and a lot of blues purists wouldn't consider me a blues guy, but when I pick up a guitar to play, I'm basically playing blues. Because of that, it's just different. I'm a pretty good songwriter at times, but a lot of the influences on this scene aren't as blues and R&B as I am. A lot of the younger bands listen to a lot more Neil Young than Hank Williams. And that's fine. But that's the difference."
From his auspicious beginning as songwriter/guitarist for the amazing Blasters, to his string of sensational solo albums for the Hightone label, Alvin's portrayal of blue collar America meshed with his true (red, white, and) blue American Music might be just the path to a wider audience that so far has eluded him as he's criss-crossed the country.
On the eve of yet another tour, this time to promote his new live album Interstate City his fifth solo recording, I spoke with Alvin, about music, poetry, and, well, American music. His lazy, affable, cigarette deepened voice, quick wit, and articulate answers made this seem less like a press interview and more like a chat between two friends across a few brews. If you eliminated the phone, it seemed that we were in one of the bars that litter themselves through Alvin's songs like beer cans on the side of a rural highway.
Hal:You're on the road, if not constantly, then a lot. Do you enjoy that?
Dave:Yes and no. Overall I enjoy it for a lot of different reason, but I've just had the last month and a half off and I'm really enjoying that!! (laughs). I've even got a tan. I went to the beach which I haven't done in I don't know how many years. But now the pendulums starting to swing back....
Hal:Do you write songs better, or at all, on the road?
Dave:I barely write on the road. It's real hard. When you're touring with a band, and you're not in Lear jet or bus, in your own private room, it's hard to create....You get up at nine to drive six hours to the next city, get there, load in, soundcheck, eat, play the gig, go to sleep, get up at nine...there's no time. Occasionally during sound check I'll try out some musical ideas, but the writing. I'm a real anal retentive writer..I'll go over lyrics, beat up lyrics forever till I'm happy.
Hal:Is that something you were schooled in, or did you pick that up as you went along?
Dave:Writing or being anal retentive? (Laughs) I studied poetry in college...my checkered college career. The teachers that I had were not only great writers, but they forced us to write in poetic forms, like sonnets and verse. So, after going through that, when I was with The Blasters and I started writing songs for them, I knew meter, iambic pentameter, and I knew kinda how to rhyme. So it was helpful knowing that stuff.
Hal:You released a book of poetry just recently (Any Rough Times Are Now Behind You). Did you ever have a poem turn into a song? Or vice versa? Do you sit down to write a song and it becomes a poem? How does that process work?
Dave:Well usually a poem will be the last resort. Usually when my brain thinks I'm making up a song, I look at it and think "Awww, that ain't nothin' but a poem". And sometimes you look back on it a year later and you find a song in there.
Hal:It seems that since most of your poetry doesn't rhyme, that would be a problem turning your poems into songs.
Dave:No..if anything, it helps. A poem's kinda a way of getting the big picture across. They're basically prose poems.
Hal:Are you going to be doing any poetry readings on this tour?
Dave:Naw..to be honest I don't really like doing them. I like going to poetry readings and hearing great writers read. It's too confusing for my audience... It's hard enough to get some parts of the audience to be quiet during the quiet songs let alone for a bunch of poetry. I try to keep the two separate. The poetry is more personal.....
Hal:Have you heard other peoples versions of your songs? Are there any covers that you really like?
Dave:Oh yeah! I l like many of them.
Hal:Are there any versions that you didn't like?
Dave:No. (pauses)...I'm too blown away by the compliment to get judgmental.
Hal:This new live album sounds really live. Are there any overdubs?
Dave:Yeah, we put bits of tambourine on a couple of songs. Then on about four songs we redid the vocals. What happened was that one of the nights at the Continental (the club where the album was recorded) the monitors were shot. So the band sounded great and I was totally over-singing in order to be heard. One of the things I've sworn NOT to do on my records is over-sing and I was dreadfully over-singing.
Hal:About your song Mr. Lee (debuted on the live album) you wrote that Lee Allen (legendary New Orleans sax player who worked with the Blasters) taught you important life lessons. What were they?
Dave:I learned some good and not so good life lessons. The good things I learned was why you play music....how to deal with the ups and downs. And to play like....yourself. To sit back and relax..! the more you relax, the better you play. Overall it was how to survive in the business.
Hal:On a different track..Americana, triple A radio has been much more popular lately. Has that helped your radio exposure?
Dave:Yes and no. When King Of California came out, they hadn't divided up triple A yet. And it did really well. But what's happened is they've sliced up the format, some of the NPR stations aren't considered triple A. More commercial stations are Triple A. A lot of the problem is a ghetto-ization of the music...In a more perfect world, they'd be a way for everyone's record to be on the radio (laughs). But for this record...I don't know. I mean it's hard for radio to play nine minute songs. But I don't expect a lot of airplay. I went into it not expecting a lot.
Hal:Do you see an increase in the crowds you play for, radio play not-withstanding?
Dave:Yeah..I think that's due to non-stop touring. And King Of California did get a lot of radio airplay. There's a whole little surge going on now. It's great. It's tri-generational. People in their 50s like Guy Clark and people like Steve Earle are all doing well. It varies by city. There are cities that are music towns. Where people read the press. And the press is good. The writers know what they're talking about. In general it's getting much more encouraging.
Hal:Are there any musicians who you'd like to work with that you haven't yet?
Dave:Oh ..there's a ton. I'd love to do an album with Hank Ballard. There's a guy I'd love to work with..totally obscure...named Ray Collins. He was a lead singer with the 60s Mothers Of Invention. I dont know where he is. I heard hes alive. He did all the doo-wop stuff. He had a beautiful voice. Id love to do an album of LA style doo-wop. A real talented singer but he did nothing after leaving the band.
Hal:Have you seen your web page yet?
Dave:Nah...I'm computer illiterate.
Spoken like a true blue collar American.
[Ed:]While touring somewhere in the East Coast, the band found themselves in an Internet bar in between gigs and Dave remembered the page and called it up. I heard he liked it fine, especially the Poll Results section....
My name is Dave Alvin and I've just recorded my first live solo album, Interstate City, at the fabulous Continental Club in Austin, Texas. For the past three years, since the release of my CD, Museum of Heart, I've been touring the bars and nightclubs along the great American interstate highway system in rented or borrowed vans and cars. Sometimes I toured with just my acoustic guitar but mainly I was with my blues/folk/rock/R&B band, The Guilty Men.
One of the reasons I chose to record a live album was because there were nights on stage when The Guilty Men blew me away with how good they are. These guys are as good as anyone I've ever worked with and I've been a member of some pretty good bands (The Blasters, X, The Knitters and I've worked with and recorded some pretty good people (Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Syd Straw, The Iguanas, Big Joe Turner, Sonny Burgess.) The guilty Men consistently make me proud to be on stage with them.
Steel guitarist Greg Leisz, who produced my last CD. King of California, has been playing with me since my first solo album, Romeo's Escape, in 1987. He's now one of the most in demand studio musicians anywhere, recording with k.d. lang, Gillian Welch, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Matthew Street, Smashing Pumpkins, Joni Mitchell, Victoria Williams, Eddie Floyd, and Rosie Flores to name a few. Drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks is a member of the legendary Midwest band, The Skeletons, and has recorded and toured with Steve Forbert, Jonathan Richman, Syd Straw, Martha Reeves and, uh, Boxcar Willie. Bobby is also one of the most soulful singers around. I've known bassist Gregory Boaz since the old LA punk rock scene in the early eighties when he played with the hard-edged Tex and the Horseheads. He has since become a rock solid blues bassman playing with Mick Taylor, Hook Hererra, Juke Logan, and blues chanteuse, Brenda Burns. Pianist, Rick Solem plays like his fingers are haunted by the ghosts of boogie woogie powerhouse Pete Johnson, country rocker Moon Mullican, New Orleans genius Professor Longhair, and sometimes even Thelonius Monk. Rick is so good, he scares the hell out of me. As you can imagine, The Guilty Men have no problem following me whether I feel like playing blues, country, rock and roll or folk ballads. (It's all the same to me anyway.) By the way, I'd like to thank Interstate City special guests: Austin harmonica wizard, Ted Roddy and Fort Worth's country/soul queen Katy Moffatt.
Another reason I wanted to do a live CD is that after the release of the mainly acoustic King of California, I've noticed a split in my audience between people who want to hear my lyrics and those who want to see me sweat and bash on a loud guitar. Since my next studio recording will be in the quieter style, I wanted to do something for my rocking fans.
Some of the songs like Long White Cadillac, Thirty Dollar Room, Romeo's Escape, Dry River, and the Jubilee Train/Do Re Mi/Promised Land medley have been live favorites for a long time. Other songs like Interstate City, Out in California, and Mister Lee (a tribute to great New Orleans saxaphonist Lee Allen) are newer. Waiting for the Hard Times to Go was written by the late and under-recognized California songwriter/singer Jim Ringer. Almost all the songs are "road" songs in that they're about people in motel rooms and barrooms, on highways and interstates and street corners, a long way from whatever homes they left behind, looking for something they lost or never had to begin with.
During the short breaks in the endless touring I managed to record King of California as well as produce two CDs for Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys and CDs for The Derailers, Tom Russell, Chris Gaffney, The Forbidden Pigs and co-produce with Tom Russell, Tulare Dust, A songwriter's Tribute to Merle Haggard. I also put out a book of prose poems titled, Any Rough Times are Behind You Now (Incommunicado Press). Occasionally, I also manage to sleep.
It sometimes seems like a long time since my brother Phil and I formed The Blasters in our hometown of Downey, California in 1979. We just wanted to play the music we'd grown up listening to (country blues, city blues, rhythm and blues, honky tonk, rockabilly, hillbilly, fold singers, gospel singer and surf guitar slingers) and hopefully be able to quit our day jobs and still be able to pay the rent. I haven't been a fry cook in a long tine.
I hope you'll enjoy Interstate City and I'll see you down the road.
Formation: The Knitters was kind of an excuse for John and Exene to get out of their role in X and it was for me, to put it bluntly, to get drunk and have some fun and really play together. We became really good friends. The first couple of gigs we played were benefits. It was just me, John, and Exene and the next gig we added D.J. (Bonebreak) then Jonny Ray (Bartel) fell in. Then we stared taking it a little more seriously, just a little.
Song selection: It was kind of from everybody's record collection mainly John and Exene's. Like Poor Little Critter on the Road was a song on a record that they bought up in Bakersfield and with that title they knew that had to have it. John always wanted to do a Merle Haggard song, so we did that, John and I wrote Wrecking Ball while watching the Super Bowl one year. Other than that I didn't get much into writing for them at all.
The arrangements: Those were all kind of loose arrangements. In Baby out of Jail, it was my idea to put the Raunchy guitar lick, you know, the Bill Justis record. I did some arranging but it was mainly a group effort. A lot of the arrangements kinda happened while we were playing a gig. "Oh yeah that works! We'll do that again."
The album deal: Once we had D.J. and Johnny Ray and it was a band, we started playing gigs and we did really well because everybody wanted to see this thing. So Slash saw it as a way of making money, I was kinda at the tail end of when I had sort of wide-eyed optimistic idealistic ideas about Slash records. It was a way for John and Exene to stay with their punk identities because they had just signed with Elektra records and there was a little backlash like the sold out.
Dave approached the guitar parts with Scotty Moore in mind: Scotty Moore and I'd say Luther Perkins, Johnny Cash's guitarist on the old Tennessee Two records. I couldn't play like Albert Lee but I didn't want to. I liked the simplicity of Luther Perkins and it fit the band more.
In the studio with a different band:It was very liberating because we (the Knitters) never argued. It was always fun so when they asked me to join X it was like the really loud Knitters. Some of the things that developed in the Knitters shows went over into the X shows. Like the Knitters did Long White Cadillac for a while and it worked its way to the X repertoire. Billy Zoom was technically the producer. I think we cut it in two days and it took a day to mix.
The Knitters become X: The night that Gene (Taylor) left the Blasters was this gig in Montreal (Nov. 1985) and it was maybe the worst gig I ever played. It was obvious that this wasn't working anymore. The Thunderbirds had opened up the show and Gene just walked off stage at the end of the night and went right out the back door and got on the Thunderbirds bus and left. That night I decided I'm quitting. Everybody was so pissed off at each other. I flew to New York the next morning to do a Knitters gig at Irving Plaza and when I got to the gig, John said, "Billy (Zoom's) leaving the band, you want to join?" I said "Yeah!!" (without hesitation). Once I became a member of X, the Knitters became X.
The Radio Tokyo Tapes compilation LP: The was the first thing we ever recorded (1 track) and it was a medley ofHonky Tonk angels and Wild Side of Life. It was different songs than the album and was done a couple of months before the album. It was on Enigma records. We did a track for a Jonathon Daily movie. We recut a track from the Knitters record, Someone Like You. We had peddle steel and a phony string section. That came out long after I was in X and when I was leaving the band.
Knitters reunion: We got back together and did a tour in the winter of '91/'92 doing the west coast cities and everything was sold out.
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