Twangin'!


Dave Alvin

Interview by Jim Catalano

Dave Alvin is one of the great American rock 'n' roll songwriters. As co-founder of the Blasters -- one of the seminal roots-rock bands of the 1980s -- he penned such classics as "Marie, Marie" and "American Music." And some of his other songs -- "Long White Cadillac" and "Every Night About This Time" -- have been covered by Dwight Yoakam and Joe Ely, respectively.

But while Alvin wrote the songs for the Blasters, his older brother Phil sang them -- a situation with which Dave eventually grew dissatisfied and led him to leave the band in 1986.

Alvin then briefly joined the Knitters and X before embarking on a solo career. Between 1987 and 1993, he released three albums -- Romeo's Escape (Epic, 1987), Blue Boulevard (Hightone Records, 1991) and Museum of Heart (Hightone, 1993) -- that carried on the roadhouse rock tradition of the Blasters while he gradually, and literally, found his own voice.

Alvin's breakthrough came on 1994's King of California (Hightone), a stripped-down, mostly acoustic affair that featured some of his most poignant playing and singing to date, especially on the title track, on remakes of the Blasters' "Border Radio" and X's "Fourth of July," and a cover of Tom Russell's "Blue Wing."

Not wanting to lose touch with his rock-and-roll roots, in mid-1996 Alvin released his first live album, Interstate City (Hightone), on which he blazed through a mix of solo material, some vintage Blasters songs, and a few choice covers accompanied by the Guilty Men, one of the tightest, most versatile bands around.

Alvin also has produced several up-and-coming roots-rock bands, including the Derailers and Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys, and with Russell co-produced Tulare Dust: A Songwriters' Tribute to Merle Haggard. And last year, Alvin published his first book of prose poetry, Any Rough Times are Now Behind You (Incommunicado Press), which features writings from 1979 through 1995.

One of rock 'n' roll's most garrulous interviews, Alvin took recently took some time to chat in a phone call from his Los Angeles home before he embarked on a solo acoustic tour of East Coast "listening rooms" in early March.

Jim Catalano: So what's the status of your next album?

Dave Alvin: I'm trying to finish the last few songs. Right now, it's past the point of song writing and at the point of song fighting. I play a song and it's okay one day, but the next day it stinks. I've been up since 8 a.m. -- when I get up early, I'm usually more optimistic. [Laughs] Catalano: What direction the new album will take?

Alvin: It will be like "King of California," more acoustic oriented than electric. The semi-acoustic setting is better for my vocals, although the live record I put out last year is pretty loud. I still love to play that stuff, so if I can balance the two, I'll be a happy guy. All my career, because I like to mix up blues, country, and folk, it's confused people. Now that I'm playing both electric and acoustic, it makes people even more confused.

Catalano: When I reviewed King of California three years ago, I wrote that it seemed like you were reclaiming some of your Blasters songs.

Alvin: That was kind of the idea. Some of the songs I would never record over again, like "Marie, Marie" or "American Music." I tend to do them live like the Blasters did them, but we already did the version that won't be equaled-I can't sing them as well as my brother.

But others songs like "Bus Station" and "Long White Cadillac" --sometimes you write a song and don't really know it for a year or more. Sometimes your first album is really good, because you wrote the songs three years before you cut the record -- you play them live , and know them inside and out. But a year later when you have to make your second record-it's "uh-oh, I don't know these songs as well." Some songs I wanted to go back and reclaim, especially songs like "Bus Station" or "Leaving" that were left off the Blasters Collection. I thought they were some of my better songs, but had disappeared somehow.

Catalano: The acoustic setting really highlighted the lyrics more than on your previous solo albums.

Alvin: That's why in the studio I'm veering more in that direction, because I think my voice is better. I've learned a lot about of singing over the past few years and I know I'll never be the next Wynonie Harris or Big Joe Turner-you know, the belt-it-out singer who doesn't need a mic and soars above the band. I sound better when I can relax my voice.

Catalano: I noticed that, too, especially when Razor and Tie reissued "Romeo's Escape" on CD. It sounds like you were screaming on that album at some points.

Alvin: I had never sang except when taking new songs into Blasters' rehearsals. Then my brother would learn them and I'd never sing them again. To be honest, I was drunk when I did the vocals on that album. The producers, Steve Berlin and Mark Linett, got some vodka and a case of beer and we cut the vocals. When I wrote the liner notes for the 1995 reissue, the main thing I said was that I'd love to be able to redo those vocals!

Catalano: You've been around a part of the roots-rock scene for sixteen years. In some ways, you're evolving into an elder statesman of this whole alt-country movement...

Alvin: Well, I'm definitely elder! [Big laugh]

Catalano: What I was wondering is what you think of this whole alt-country "craze," for lack of a better word, and why you think the original wave-which included the Blasters, Los Lobos, Rank and File, among others-never caught on commercially back in the early 1980s.

Alvin: The reason it didn't catch on back then was the same reason punk didn't -- although punk is now a billion dollar industry. It boils down to this: bands made mistakes, record labels made mistakes, but the biggest thing was that the radio stations back then weren't going to play anything they didn't consider acceptable rock music.

These days, it's not quite like that. If you were a struggling young punk band in 1994 that put out an indie EP, labels were more interested in hearing you. and radio stations were more interested in playing you. People recognized that there was a market out there for anything that was alternative, to the point now where alternative is really mainstream. It really boiled down to that.

When you look at the people from the 1980s scene who did have some success, Los Lobos and Robert Cray had some good runs, and Dwight Yoakam was the one who became a major star, because he had a place where his music could be heard. But there was no place to hear the Blasters or X on mainstream radio. Today, on mainstream radio you hear good stuff, and there's more of an openness.

Catalano: And what do you think of the Americana format/genre?

Alvin: It has its good points. If someone like Dale Watson or Katy Moffett or Joe Ely made a new record ten years ago, no one outside of their fans would have acknowledged it. But now there's a way of acknowledging that there are stations and shows that play this music and that people like it.

The bad thing about Americana is that it's musical segregation. For my last studio record [1994's King of California], Triple A radio wasn't so closed as it is now, so what happened is that all of sudden I started getting airplay with this acoustic, folky record on Triple A stations. But what the Americana list basically did was to destroy Triple A stations' chances for diversity. A station that used to be Triple A that played from Sting to Steve Earle would be considered an Americana station, but a station that played more Sting would be Triple A and you'd hear much less Steve Earle or Dave Alvin.

Catalano: It does seem, though, that a few rootsy bands like Wilco and Son Volt are on the verge of greater acceptance. Of course, they're much louder than the Blasters ever were.

Alvin: It's a generational thing. If you're a young handsome white kid who looks like Johnny Depp but plays like Otis Rush, you're going to get a ton more airplay than Otis Rush himself. It's the nature of the beast. But I also think Wilco and Son Volt are making incredible and timely music. They have a major label behind them, but whatever they get, they deserve. But I also think if one of them broke out in major way-say, to doing stadiums-than it can only help everyone else.

Catalano: I recently picked up your poetry book. Did poetry writing come before your songwriting?

Alvin: I started writing poetry before I started writing songs. In my checkered college past I was a creative writing major at Long Beach State University, which had a great writing program, and that's where I learned all the nuts and bolts that helped me out in songwriting. They forced us to write in traditional forms -- sonnets, iambic pentameter -- just so we could understand that writing wasn't just splaying free verse all over the page. But then the more songs I wrote using all those poetic forms, the more my poetry become like prose, almost to the point of journalism [laughs].