The hardest road
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Alejandro Escovedo is one of the best songwriters in the country, but mainstream success has always eluded him: His three elegant studio albums (Gravity, Thirteen Years, and With These Hands) have earned him endless praise, and little else. The 47-year-old's musical background is remarkably varied: He used to play in The Nuns, one of San Francisco's first and best punk bands, and he later worked with Rank And File, one of the most prominent cowpunk acts of the early '80s. Furthermore, he's explored roots-rock with The True Believers, as well as flat-out garage-rock with Buick MacKane. The alt-country 'zine of record No Depression recently named Escovedo Artist Of The Decade, and it's hard to argue based on his track record. His most recent album, More Miles Than Money: Live 1994-1996, documents Escovedo's endless touring, but unlike most live records, it's sedate and heartwrenchingly beautiful. Escovedo recently spoke with The Onion about his brushes with history and fame.v
The Onion: How did it feel to be called the Artist Of The Decade by No Depression?
Alejandro Escovedo: It's kind of flattering and embarrassing at the same time. It feels good that they said that, but I'm not quite sure I deserve it. Still, it was nice of them to say that. Of course, it's been the source of endless ribbing from some contemporaries of mine.
O: But it's a great blurb to put on posters.
AE: I was thinking of putting it on a big wrestling belt.
O: Is it tough to have such a rabid critical following and a dedicated fan base, but still have your music sort of overlooked?
AE: You know, I really kind of appreciate the fact that the writers dig it and support me, and keep my name alive, but it doesn't necessarily help sell records. And some people think it's actually more of a burden than a positive thing. But what can I say? I love the fact that they're writing about me. I mean, it's better than not writing about me, right?
O: You played the then-final Sex Pistols show at the Winterland in San Francisco.
AE: Yeah, with The Nuns.
O: At the time, did you realize you were...
AE: Part of history? Oh, yeah, but we did a lot of things that were part of history. We were also making history: We were one of the first punk bands in San Francisco. We were one of the first punk bands to play a larger venue, at least in the States. We opened for Bryan Ferry and people like that. We had a lot of great shows. It was interesting, you know? I had already bought into the whole rock-'n'-roll-as-religion lifestyle, and then to see it made into a farce was weird.
O: You started out punk-rock, and now you're someplace completely different. You're a big Brian Eno fan and a big Velvet Underground fan, yet your music doesn't really reflect either of those influences. Why do you think you've ended up doing the music you're doing as opposed to doing more studio-centered work?
AE: I love playing live. That's really the most important aspect of all this music-making stuff to me. It's really kind of the hardest road to choose, because you have to travel so much, and it's hard on relationships and what-have-you. For me, it's the most immediate response. I don't want to become a recluse in the studio. I like the interaction between the songs and the audience.
O: You're almost always on tour.
AE: Yeah, with the With These Hands album, we went seven months, and about four months with Buick MacKane.
O: Do you get many chances to meet your favorite songwriters on tour?
AE: Daniel Lanois came up to us once when we were on tour. He said our songs were so beautiful he wanted to go home and try to write songs as beautiful as they were. But I already think his records are beautiful.
O: Do you think fans of your acoustic sets who go to the Buick MacKane shows are surprised at what they get?
AE: For the most part, yeah. But Buick has been put to rest for a while.
O: Your solo records are all personal, and even depressing, but you have a dedicated following that has fun at your shows. Do you think people are paying attention to the words, or are they just there for the music?
AE: I think both. I think people who see us for the first time realize that even though the music is kind of personal and morose, there's something positive about italmost something spiritual about the songs. And I think that has more to do with the playing, the instruments, the players that I have. You know, the sound of the cello and the violin. It's easy to listen to. But I was thinking last night, "You know, every song I sing is depressing."
O: Your crowds are sometimes dead-silent, which is remarkable live.
AE: We get a lot of that. We've been playing some songs from inside the audience, out in the audience. The whole place was packed last night and it was still really, really quiet. You could hear a pin drop.
O: For most bands, that's a bad thing...
AE: But for us it was great! We love it.
O: Is that when you break out the Stooges cover ["I Wanna Be Your Dog"]?
AE: Yeah, but that's usually when it gets too noisy. The Stooges cover either shuts them up or scares them off.