Alejandro Escovedo sounds happy. And he should be: After nearly succumbing to Hepatitis C in 2003, the Austinite is touring steadily, writing songs with friends such as Chuck Prophet, recording them with heavy hitters such as producer Tony Visconti, working with Bruce Springsteen's management company and making some of the best pure rock & roll of his 30-plus-year career. Street Songs of Love, released in June 2010, is Escovedo's tenth studio album — and it's a loud, resilient hymn to love, friendship and rock & roll dreams. Escovedo called from Los Angeles, on a day off before his tour takes him back east.
Roy Kasten: The last time we talked was back when The Boxing Mirror came out. You'd had a pretty serious health crisis. How are you these days?
Alejandro Escovedo: Well, I'm feeling fine. The recovery was a few years in the making. It took a couple of years of not touring, getting better for a year and finally coming back out on the road. But everything is great, health-wise, and I'm very happy with the last record, the band, and I have new management, which is great, a new record company, a new booking agent. It's a bit like starting over again. It feels good.
May I take the conversation in a less positive direction?
If you have to.
I wanted to ask about growing older. You turned 59 this year. There are a lot of exceptions, like Neil Young, Bruce, Dylan, Ian Hunter. But rock & roll hasn't always aged that gracefully, especially the rock & roll you're interested in, punk, glam and garage. But you don't sound like a jaded rocker.
Well, I'm not. I've never been jaded about rock. I've always enjoyed playing it and listening to it. Going back to where the guitars are featured, two guitars, bass and drums, that's where I began, that's where I love to be. It just fit with the songs I was writing. I wouldn't think of myself as anyone who represents rock & roll, but I like playing it and listening to it. For me it's not about maturity, whether you listen to it or not. I just love playing it. I think we do it really well now, and it's even more fun.
I think Chuck Prophet has a similar perspective. Can you tell me what Chuck's work ethic is like?
I'm not familiar with his work ethic other than when we write songs together. We work on the same schedule. We love to get together, and when we do get together, we do the best to enjoy ourselves and to work hard.
If I had been a fly on the wall of the imaginary Chelsea Hotel where you wrote these songs, what would I have seen or heard?
You'd see me lying on the floor most of the time, putting on records, telling jokes, laughing a lot. We'd eat food, I'd get stoned, we'd listen to more records, try to write songs, and we'd always come up with something good. We have a blast. We laugh a lot.
Sounds grueling. People have asked you often about working with Tony Visconti, but is there something about him that people might not know?
The thing about Tony is he is very calm in the studio....What's interesting is when he writes parts, arrangements, he has a recorder with him at all times. He writes these parts out on a recorder and then transfers that to working on the song.
I think you've called this record more of a band record. But you obviously don't play in an official band now, like the True Believers or Rank and File. Is there a difference for you?
It feels like I'm part of a band with these guys I've been playing with for a while. It doesn't feel any different. When I was in the True Believers, you all set out with one goal in mind, and that's to make the True Believers work. So then when we crashed, that was all collective too. With this band, it's not so dysfunctional. It's easier to be in this band than any before.
A lot of songwriters will test out songs live, but it sounds like the process for Street Songs of Love was a little different.
We booked a residency at the Continental Club in South Austin for two months, every Tuesday night. We'd present three new songs a night, in whatever shape they were in at the time, whether it was a verse-chorus, or a riff, or idea. We'd show the audience how the band could come out and help with the arrangement. The audience would witness the songs evolving until they became the songs on the album. Around week two or three, we brought in the background singers. I was staying at the Austin Motel or the San José across the street. We used that as the green room. I'd introduce a new song over there, then we would go across the street and play them. We filmed it, and someday we'll do something with it.
I assume the audience didn't get to vote on the songs.