Tag Archives: Dave Alvin

Dave Alvin

 

Dave Alvin

 

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].”

 

 

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Dave Alvin (click for larger version)

 

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.

 

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. —Dave Alvin, on opening for Queen

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.

Dave Alvin


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May 11, 2001

A founding member of the immortal roots-rock band The Blasters, Dave Alvin has built a stellar solo career around impeccable guitar playing and timeless songwriting. The garrulous Alvin paused from packing for relocation to a more pine tree-friendly section of Los Angeles to address the mysteries of American music, electricity, and life in a California home guarded by cartoon heroes Yosemite Sam and the Tasmanian Devil.

B&W:
Have any rolling blackouts hit you yet?

Alvin:
No, in L.A. we have a different power company, and they actually planned ahead [laughs]. So while Bakersfield or Fresno or San Francisco lose power, we’re fine. It’s the one thing in L.A that works [laughs].

B&W:
Besides reliable electricity, what’s the attraction of living in L.A.?

Alvin:
A few things. Silly things. Mexican food’s the best. And when you grow up out here, that becomes real important. I haven’t found better Mexican food anywhere else. My Texas friends and I always debate that. And the weather. And also the fact that within half an hour I can be in the mountains, or within an hour I can be in the middle of the desert. It’s good for a writer.


B&W:
What was the coolest thing about radio for a kid in California in the ’60s?

Alvin:
Well, the greatest thing was the border radio stations, because you could hear 50,000 watts, clear channel, just across the border in Tijuana. At night it would be r&b. You could hear everything from Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bobby Blue Bland, doo wop, whatever.

B&W:
Were you going to shows as a kid?

Alvin:
Oh, yeah. My brother Phil and I–when I was about 12, I guess–we started sneaking into bars. We found out that one of the great things about California is that every type of music was here. When I was a kid, I saw Lightnin’ Hopkins 45 or 50 times. People like T-Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner became actual family friends because we were these little white kids that pestered them. So that was my education.


B&W:
At what age did you and Phil begin playing in bands?

Alvin:
Well, he started a band pretty early on, and I was never good enough to be in it. So I was always in bad bands [laughs]. It wasn’t until we started The Blasters that we finally played together. I mean, not even around the house. There was a hierarchy. There were a lot of great musicians in our hometown. There were guys who could play exactly like Jimmy Reed or exactly like T-Bone Walker or exactly like Eric Clapton. And they’d come over and play guitar, and we always had guitars in the house. They’d play, leave, and then I’d pick up the guitar and imitate what they did.


B&W:
What year did The Blasters begin?

Alvin:
We started in March of 1979 but didn’t really come up with a name until, like, July [laughs]. Our first regular gig was playing for free beer in a biker bar in Long Beach. It took us about eight months to just get a gig, because Downey was so far from L.A., a different world, you know? It’s on the east side, and the east side is more or less the blue-collar area. L.A. “proper” is the west side.


B&W:
Would you tell me a Ramblin’ Jack Elliot story [Alvin did a stint as Elliot's guitar player]?

Alvin:
My favorite Jack story that’s printable was when just he and I were riding one night on the interstate that runs by the Mississippi down by St. Louis, and it was raining. Tornado weather. Hot and raining, thunder and lightning. Just a vicious, stormy night. I asked him if he knew a good Billy the Kid song. He knew a lot of Jesse James songs. And he did a half hour, a capella, of Billy the Kid songs. A private concert.

B&W:
I’ve always been impressed by performers that keep playing regardless of their age.


Alvin:
Well, there’s no reason not to keep doing it. If there’s one thing I learned from Lightnin’ Hopkins, is that those old guys played for love. You play because it’s your sanity. Without getting too psycho-babble on you, when you’re on stage and it’s a good gig, and the musicians are all connecting nonverbally, nonvisually, there’s no feeling like it, because–and here’s the psycho-babble part–time kinda stands still. There’s no past, there’s no future. It’s just the present. And there’s people that you love that have passed away that are still alive for a few minutes. I’ve talked to people that have run 26-mile marathons and all that. It’s kinda like a runner’s high. I think that’s why so many musicians wind up getting involved in drugs and heavy alcohol use and all that. Because the feeling you get playing is so amazing, that when it’s over, it’s like, “Let’s go play another gig,” you know [laughs]? As long as you’re playing, you’re alive. And as long as you’re playing, you’re working. You’re not sitting around resting on your laurels. You’re not a non-contributing member of society. You’re sharing. It’s hard to let that go and just sit around the house.

[At this point, Alvin excuses himself to address a distant female voice asking where he hid the door key. He can be heard saying, "Yeah, I put the key under Yosemite Sam, there. Oh, I'm sorry, I meant the Tasmanian Devil." The woman finally locates the key, and Alvin returns.]


B&W:
I read a quote where you said that you heard the song “Shenandoah” [one of the songs on Alvin’s latest release, Public Domain, a collection of traditional American music] before you were born, and you’ll still be hearing it after you die.


Alvin:
Yeah, that song and maybe one or two others out of our folk tradition are genetically encoded. And that’s a good thing and a bad thing. The bad thing is that people take it for granted, they think it’s corny or sappy. So every now and then you have to put the picture in a new frame and go, “Wow!”


B&W:
I’d like to toss out a few names and get your reaction. Let’s start with Buck Owens.

Alvin:
I interviewed Buck about two years ago for a magazine called Mix, which is for producers and engineers. Buck Owens is one of the architects of contemporary rock ‘n’ roll. To me, the great thing about California country is that it’s willing to take chances. Buck Owens is a paradox, in that he’s a guy that believes in art for art’s sake, and yet he’s also a businessman. He’s a rebel, and he’s also a conformist. I think he’s amazing.

He told me during the interview that one thing he could never, ever say during the ’50s and ’60s was that his two biggest heroes were Bob Wills and Little Richard. Those were the two guys he modeled himself after.


B&W:
Johnny Cash.

Alvin: An icon. My favorite stuff of his is what he did at Sun Records. I don’t think people realize that he created that sound that we all take for granted–that Johnny Cash sound. Those records, to me, still sound like they came out of the mud. They weren’t made in a recording studio. They just kind of grew organically.

B&W:
Any thoughts on Carole King?


Alvin:
[Surprised] Carole King? Wow! I wish I had her songwriting skills. I’m a true sort of folk-blues songwriter, so I write when I’m moved to write. And I really admire people like Carole King, the whole Brill Building gang, that could get up every day and go into the office and write on demand.


B&W:
Jonathan Richman.

Alvin:
My drummer and keyboard player did a couple of albums and tours with Jonathan a few years ago. He gave me, not a lecture [laughs], but advice about a problem I have, because half my audience wants to hear the lyrics and the quiet songs, and the other half wants to hear the rock ‘n’ roll stuff. The rock ‘n’ roll people usually outnumber the quiet people. And Jonathan goes [imitating Richman with a New Jersey accent], “No, you make ‘em listen. And if they don’t listen, to hell with ‘em.” Jonathan hates loud music [laughs].


B&W:
I’d be remiss if I didn’t get some thoughts on Joey Ramone.

Alvin:
Oh man . . . I met him once in New York about 15 years ago. He was a real sweetheart. We have a lot of mutual friends. To me, the Ramones were one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands ever. When I heard the first Ramones record, that was like hearing Chuck Berry for the first time when I was a kid. They were the real deal. They had the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. The Ramones invented the Sex Pistols [laughs].

B&W:
My first exposure to “American Music” (an old Blasters hit) was as the opening theme for “New Wave Theater” (early ’80s cult cable television program that featured live performances). The host, Peter Ivers, was a strange man.

Alvin:
Yeah, we did that show two or three times. I never could figure Peter Ivers out. He was a nice guy. You know, he got murdered. I think he was a little crazy to leave his door unlocked, living in downtown L.A. I remember seeing him on social occasions–in a bar a couple of times. And he was always talking about what a great harmonica player he was, and how he wanted to sit in with us [the Blasters].

B&W:
Did y’all ever let him sit in?

Alvin: No [much laughter].