It’s a week before Alejandro Escovedo is due to return to the road in support of his first new studio album in five years, A Man Under the Influence, and what will surely be one of the most important elements of the show is making its debut appearance at a rehearsal. “I just got it this morning,” keyboardist Bruce Salmon says of the virtual analog synthesizer standing before him, the freshly opened box and packing foam off to the side. “I chased the delivery guy down on the way here.”
Considering that Escovedo has opted not to tour with a cellist or violist this time out and that the focus of today’s lesson plan happens to be Escovedo’s intricately orchestral 1993 album Thirteen Years, Salmon’s new toy seems to arrived in the nick of time. And though unlocking all of the instrument’s features is a matter of trial and error — Salmon exclaims with delight when he stumbles upon a gothic organ sound, then furrows his brow as he tries to figure out how he got it — it quickly becomes apparent that the synth, combined with Luis Guerra’s stand-up bass and Paul Brainard’s lap steel guitar, will be more than up to the formidable task ahead of it. It takes the band several runs through the starkly beautiful “Try, Try, Try” before they find the song’s elusive pocket, and the rocker “Mountain of Mud” takes a couple of passes before Escovedo hears the right mix of Stones and Ramones in the groove, but by the look on the seasoned musician’s face come practice’s end, he likes what he hears.
“I love synthesizers,” Escovedo enthuses. “Originally, when I first went solo, I started out with a synthesizer and a stand-up bass player. I’ve always loved atmospheric stuff, texture, and I wanted to bring it back. This tour I think is our Tangerine Dream or Roxy Music phase — that or Kraftwerk. I’m not quite sure which way it’s going to go.”
He’s joking, albeit only mildly. Given Escovedo’s eclectic background — which covers everything from punk (the Nuns) to cowpunk (Rank & File) to rock (True Believers) to the haunting, almost unclassifiable Velvet Underground-as-a-chamber-orchestra sound he’s perfected over the last ten years as a solo artist — a little bit of techno thrown into the mix probably really wouldn’t seem that out of place. “I didn’t want to do the same thing over and over again,” he explains. So he pulled together a new band (only drummer Hector Munoz remains from his old crew) and changed the instrumentation just enough to keep himself interested. “I hate to repeat myself,” Escovedo says.
Still, rest assured, Escovedo wouldn’t dream of ever forsaking the guitar. This is, after all, a man still so under the influence of the glam rock he loved growing up that the new album finds him singing the line “My hands are turning numb/But still I gotta strum/My velvet guitar,” a man who describes his on-again, off-again flings with his unruly garage rock side project Buick MacKane as “a really bad relationship with a girl that you just love to have sex with . . . it’s never really over.” And right now, as he gets ready to return to the road after a rare four months off, Escovedo figures he’s due a good, versatile touring guitar.
“Wanna go to the music store?” Escovedo asks suddenly.
“Can you give me a ride?” he continues, earning a whoop of approval from his bassist. “Oh man,” Guerra exclaims in admiration. “He got you S.A. style . . . San Antonio style!”
Escovedo smiles. “My friends always say they’ve been ‘Escovedoed,'” he says proudly. “My family left San Antonio for California when I was eight, but I’ve still got the style . . . I still know how to get a ride somewhere.”
Ten minutes later Escovedo is shopping for a new guitar at South Austin Music a few blocks around the corner. He’s looking for something in a reasonably priced Strat or Telecaster that will give him a “clean, rocking sound, but not real distorted.” He lovingly strums a battle-scarred 1974 Strat, but balks at the price and settles on a perfectly serviceable, $400 baby blue number. He walks out with it with the owner’s blessing to try it out on his own amplifier before buying it, a deal based not on Escovedo’s “S.A. style” but the respect afforded him in this musician’s town he’s called home for the last twenty-one years.
“We did this amazing tour when I was in Rank & File,” the fifty-year-old singer/songwriter begins when asked about his arrival in the city. “We left on the night when Ronald Reagan was elected president . . . with a bag of pot, and a chicken . . . a roasted chicken. We had seven dates in seven weeks, which took us from New York City all the way to Vancouver Canada and then back to New York. When we came here, my friend Lester Bangs was living here, and I just thought it was the coolest place. I had been in New York for awhile, and I had lived in San Francisco, Hollywood, Seattle . . . I’d been everywhere. But I thought I’d always go back home.”
Later this summer, Escovedo really will be returning home, moving with his girlfriend and three young children to his native San Antonio an hour south. “I got ran out of town,” he explains later over lunch at an empty Mexican restaurant. “All the ex-Orchestra members finally got to me. Lynch mob.” There’s also the matter of the divorce he’s going through, one of many painful circumstances that directly or indirectly influenced Escovedo during the writing and recording of A Man Under the Influence.
“There was a lot of turmoil,” he says. “Things were getting tossed upside down everywhere I looked. My band was breaking up. My relationship went sour. I wasn’t sure about a lot of things. It was a tough time. It wasn’t a difficult time making the record, but difficult times surrounded the making of the record.”
Whatever went into it, the results are stunning. Though similar in style to the other five acclaimed solo albums Escovedo has released since the break-up of Austin’s beloved True Believers in the late Eighties, A Man Under the Influence stands as his most accomplished — and tuneful — collection of songs to date. Highlights include the freewheeling, Faces-worthy rocker “Castanets” and “Wave” and “Rosalie,” a pair of screen-worthy epics lifted from “By the Hand of the Father,” the multi-media play Escovedo co-wrote based on the life of his father. (Escovedo says a full soundtrack to the play — a love letter to his parents that has kept him busy for the last couple of years — should be forthcoming later this year).
“I love ‘Rosalie,'” Escovedo says with exceptional pride. “To me it sounds like an old song — like I wish Sam Cooke was alive to sing it. It’s a cool song to write, and I mean, no one writes songs like that anymore.”
Occasionally, Escovedo will check himself and ask, “Am I allowed to talk about my own songs like that?” But those benders with Buick MacKane aside, this is not a man who takes his craft lightly, given to padding his albums out with filler. Even though he winces when he thinks of the compressed production that he feels marred his last studio album, 1996’s With These Hands, he stands by the songs and notes that he never works on songs he doesn’t like — which may explain why he didn’t write his first song until he was thirty, six years after he first picked up guitar.
“I wanted to be a baseball player,” he says of his late start despite growing up in a very musical family. “But I wasn’t big enough, and then I found girls and pot, and that ruined me.”