June 17, 2004
Dave Alvin staked his claim as a guitar-ripping hero during a rockabilly revival on the West Coast in 1980, forming The Blasters with his brother Phil and a couple of friends from their hometown of Downey, California. Their song “American Music” found a home as the theme for the campy, late-night television show “New Wave Theater,” a sort of post-modern “American Bandstand” that featured some of the art punk world’s more obscure acts, with a little frantic California rock ‘n’ roll tossed in for good measure. Alvin’s incessant feuds with his brother were legendary, as battles often erupted in public, like the famous bout that occurred on NBC’s “The Today Show,” which forced the band’s manager to forbid the two from giving interviews together. Phil Alvin quit playing for a few years in the late 1980s to pursue his dream of writing a mathematical thesis, while Dave eventually joined the band X and its offshoot, The Knitters, before settling into a solo career in 1987. His songwriting has drifted brilliantly through lovely Mexican ballads, country-flavored folk rock, and bone-crushing rockabilly blues. On his latest album, Ashgrove, Alvin returns to his electric guitar roots.
Black & White: What prompted you to return to electric guitars on Ashgrove as opposed to the acoustic style you’ve used for the past several years?
Dave Alvin: I always let the songs dictate the way they wanted to sound, whereas years ago in The Blasters it was the other way around—the band sort of dictated how the songs would sound. I’ve done a couple of live albums to placate the fans who like the loud stuff, and then in the studio I’ve sort of enjoyed doing the more acoustic stuff. But part of it was also economics. It’s difficult to record loud live in the studio. But we found a great little studio to cut the basics in, and it was very inexpensive with a good, young engineer and the right players and everything . . . It was right for me. I had the amp right next to me. I knew that the bulk of the songs were saying, “Play me loud [laughs].”
The Blasters opened for Queen during the early days. That’s a very odd pairing.
They were very nice guys. I can’t say the same for their audience [laughs]. The three guys—Brian May, Roger Taylor, and I can’t think of the bass player’s name right off the top of my head—but they came into a club one night where we were playing. And we hadn’t made any real records yet on a national label, and they saw us and decided to put us on their tour. Yeah, there were some brutal nights when you had 17,000 people booing you. But I’ll say one thing for that kind of experience when you’re a young band. It’ll either break you up or make you stronger. In our case, it made us stronger. Our deal was always, “Hey we’re getting paid to be here, and you people paid to be here! Who’s cooler?” [Laughs] In those days, we were working for maybe 75 bucks and free beer. We were getting paid 500 bucks opening for Queen—five nights a week. We were eating steak every night.
Was there a good bit of camaraderie in the early L.A. punk days?
Yeah, there was. When nobody’s really rich and famous. L.A. had so many bands back then, and there wasn’t a cookie-cutter approach to music. It was all kinda lumped under punk rock, which a lot of it was. These days, punk rock means something else. We did shows with people like the early Go-Go’s, before they became the famous, wealthy Go-Go’s. Then we did shows with Asleep at the Wheel, Queen, Black Flag. I think a lot of times club owners or concert promoters these days—maybe it was true back then, too—tend to think the audience is not very smart [laughs].
Did your song “Border Radio” come from fond memories of listening to Mexican stations when you were growing up in California?
Those stations were definitely a huge influence on my life. There was just something wonderfully magical– and there still is–about finding a good station in the middle of the night when you’re driving in the darkness; this stuff coming at you in the dark. Especially as a kid, we traveled a lot throughout the West. And you’d have the transistor radio, and you’d get stations from 500 miles away, and you’d hear Howlin’ Wolf or Sam Cooke or Hank Williams.
You have defined time spent touring as “elastic time.”
Well, it’s a good thing, and it’s a bad thing. It’s a good thing when you’re actually playing, you know, you really do live in the present in the best sense of that phrase in that, for me, if I get to that—I’m going to sound very California here—to that place in my brain where you don’t feel anything. You get like a runner’s high or something. All the old songs are brand new, and all the new songs are old. Everybody that you’ve loved and who’s influenced you and taught you who has passed away, are up there alive for a little while. Your parents are alive, Big Joe Turner is alive, Lightnin’ Hopkins is alive, Hank Williams is getting out of the Cadillac to come over and see you. I think that’s one of the reasons a lot of musicians that don’t need to tour still do it. I don’t think Bob Dylan needs to tour.
Rockabilly legend Ronnie Dawson [who passed away last year of cancer] was a label mate of yours on Yep Roc Records. Were you friends?
Yeah, I knew Ronnie. We were talking for a while about me producing a record for him. Ike Turner had a band in the early ’50s called the Kings of Rhythm. It was a horns, piano, and guitar kind of outfit. And Ronnie was a big fan of that sound, that Kings of Rhythm sound. So we talked about doing a record like that, an R&B blues record. But with schedules and this, that, and the other, it never came to pass. I remember the first time I saw him when he played this little club here in L.A. He completely blew my mind. I was just stunned, because you tend to think of guys who made records in the ’50s as being 10 years older than Bob Dylan and all that. So I’m watching him and sort of did the math and realized he was 15 when he did “Action-Packed.” And I realized he was maybe two years older than Bob Dylan and basically a contemporary. I was watching these clips of Eddie Cochran from this show out here called “Town Hall Party,” which was a local country and western TV show. And so I was watching Eddie, and the kid had everything. He could play, he could sing, he had charisma, he had the looks, he just had everything. I was sitting there thinking what a tragedy it was that he passed away so young. Then I did the math on that and realized the same thing with him, that he was only maybe one or two years older than Bob Dylan. So if he would have lived he could have become like a Bobby Darin kind of guy. Same thing with Bobby Fuller . . . So in Ronnie’s case, the tragedy is that he had another 10 or 20 years of great music.
I read that your dad’s death influenced one of the songs on Ashgrove.
There’s one song on there called “Man in the Bed” that’s definitely about him, but it’s about anybody who’s sick in the hospital.
Was he a fan of the band?
He only came to one gig, but he was a fan. Especially later in life. His main concern was, like all parents, can you pay the rent doing this? [Adopting a grumpy, authoritative voice] “Are you making any money, are you paying your bills?” Being a musician has always been an unstable career choice. You don’t know if you’re gonna make the next mortgage payment. But when I was a kid, the pressure was to get a job in a factory or go to school somehow and get a degree and become white-collar. The sad reality is that the blue-collar jobs are basically gone, and now the white collar jobs are leaving [laughs]. In a way, I made the right choice [laughs]! They’ll figure out a way to outsource singer/songwriters at some point [laughs], but they haven’t done it yet.
How did The Blasters reunion gigs go last year?
They were fun . . . to a point.
Did you and your brother get along?
To a point . . . pretty much. We don’t go camping [laughs]. But he’s my brother, yeah, I love him. All the guys are like brothers. We’re five guys who literally grew up together. So, to paraphrase the World War II TV show, it’s “a band of brothers,” and everybody screams at each other. The very last gig we did, the piano player tried to kill me [laughs]. We had a brotherly disagreement.
What did you disagree about?
Awww, the way a song ended. The thing about The Blasters is that you get away from them and you become yourself, then you go back to them and you become that other guy. But it was great. We’ll do it again at some point. The thing was, Rhino Records was putting out that anthology of all the stuff we had recorded. I have no interest in going and making a studio record. You know, writing 10 songs for my brother to sing. But it just seemed silly that we couldn’t play together and go out and do some gigs. And it just meant the world to a certain group of people, to see five schmoes from Downey on stage together.
Do you share your brother’s love of mathematics?
I respect it from a distance [laughs]. He went back to school after I left [The Blasters] and got his master’s degree and taught for a little while. But the thing is, when you’re teaching a math class or doing some sort of theorem or something, you can’t dance to it. Once you get that in your blood, it’s difficult to give up having that kind of effect on people. &
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men perform at City Stages Sunday, June 20, on the Blockbuster Stage from 5:45 to 6:45 p.m.