When Alejandro Escovedo released The Boxing Mirror in 2006, it was a gorgeous, dark affair -- not surprising, in that it was the Austin, Texas songwriter's return after a long near-fatal battle with Hepatitis-C. The tragedy of costly victory informs songs like the haunting "Arizona," and the John Cale-produced album ranks among Escovedo's finest. Now he's following it up with Real Animal, out June 24, a glammy guitar-based rocker co-written with Chuck Prophet and produced by the legendary Tony Visconti. The songs represent chapters in Escovedo's 33-year musical history, a history that includes punk band The Nuns, cowpunks Rank and File, the alt-country True Believers (alongside brother Javier) and rockers Buick MacKane. And of course Alejandro Escovedo solo, who just seems to keep getting better.
A couple of the songs on Real Animal are pretty hard-rockin' -- "Smoke" and "Real as an Animal." Was making a guitar-based record a response to making an arty album with John Cale before that?
Well it wasn't a response to that, specifically -- it was a response to just wanting to make a rock 'n' roll record. I don't think I've made a rock record since Buick MacKane, probably. So it's been awhile, and I wanted to get away from that more somber kind of stuff I was doing on The Boxing Mirror. And I felt that this would be a good way to do it. I co-wrote this with Chuck Prophet, which probably has to do with why it's so guitar-oriented -- he and I were both in guitar bands. I've always felt like we were a rock band first, before anything.
So it allows you to explore some more positive themes?
It just fit the story -- the story's about all the bands I've been in. And all the bands I've been in are rock 'n' roll bands. That music, the music that really inspired me -- Stooges, Mott the Hoople, Bowie, T-Rex, garage bands -- it's all that kind of stuff. It seems fitting to put it in a rock 'n' roll context.
Did you initially plan to record an autobiographical account of your life in music?
Yeah, it was the idea at the outset. I wanted to tell the story about all the bands I've been in, and a lot of the personnel in those bands, and characters I've met along the way and some of the people on the records that inspired me to want to be in those bands. So it's like a musical memoir.
As you were writing the songs, were you inspired by the sounds of those eras and groups?
Yeah. "Nuns Song" is definitely in the style we used to write in; the song "Real as an Animal" definitely has that kind of Michigan, Detroit kind of vibe to it. "Golden Bear" has a kind of more Bowie-ish feel to it; "Swallows" has those kinds of waltzes we've been doing for quite a while now, those kind of anthemic slower ballads. "Always a Friend" is just a really fun, '60s-sounding song.
For someone who made a name in alt-country, there's not much country.
You know, alt-country's just this general umbrella that they try to put people under. But if you look at magazines like No Depression, they weren't just about country; [it was about] all the music that we loved, you know? I look at country as being part of the roots of rock 'n' roll, it definitely is. So that's how I see it, and that's what I hear when I listen to the country that I love, the older stuff.
It's more songs and attitude than having a pedal steel?
Yeah, you know Hank Williams and Lefty Frissel were real groundbreakers. Johnny Cash definitely walked to his own rhythm. Waylon Jennings was the same, George Jones the same. All these guys were real strong individuals. Then you've got guys like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard -- they were all kind of freaks, you know? That's what I love about that stuff.
Do you consider yourself a freak?
No, no I don't. I wouldn't mind if someone called me a freak; it wouldn't be insulting to me.
After playing in alt-country-style bands, did you feel the need to expand your range beyond that?
I've always done that. I started out in a punk-rock band; I didn't start out wanting to play country music, I just loved country music. I was born in San Antonio Texas, and my father was a big country-western fan at that time, so it's always been around me. But I've always loved rock 'n' roll. I think other people assume that I'm a country-western artist or a country artist or country-oriented artist, but if you listen to the records, they're not country at all.
That was my assumption until someone gave me The Boxing Mirror. Some have described that as the best introduction to your music -- something not often said of artist's ninth solo records. Are you just getting started here with reaching a bigger audience?
I hope so, I really hope so -- that would be great if it did. Everybody wants their music to be heard by as many people as possible, I would think. I've been doing this for 33 years now -- I've been able to sustain a life with music for a long time now. It's all I do. I see that as success. If you can do what you love to do and survive, that's successful.
In the song "Golden Bear," it seems you're using the image of an old rock venue burning down to talk about your own brush with mortality, shall we say.
It's about the club and the demise of the club and the passing of that era of music. And then it's also about my physical struggles, the things I've been through, questions that I've asked myself -- that's what it's really about. But you use the metaphor of the club to represent this creature that's in my body, and is the creature music, or is the creature a disease? Or are they both the same thing? I dunno. Sometimes it seems like it.
Are you thinking of yourself as an old rock club in that sense?
No, I don't think of myself as an old rock club. But I don't kid myself -- I've been doing this a long time! I don't think of myself as a young rock club, ya know?
All the music that goes through a venue leaves its marks on the place -- bands leave behind a sticker, a signed drum head -- I wondered if you were looking back at all the music that's gone through you.
Well definitely. You ever hear a song by Ian Hunter called "The Ballad of Mott the Hoople"? What he says, "I changed my name in search of fame to find the Midas touch / I wish I hadn't wanted then what I want now, twice as much." It's like an infected thing that happens -- kind of like a sentence sometimes, you know? Just do it because I don't know what else to do, I don't have anything else to do. This is what I want to be doing. So yeah, it's about all those things. Does that answer your question?
Yeah, I think that answers a lot of questions, and invites some more.
Your song "Sensitive Boys" reminds me of Lou Reed's "Coney Island Baby" in the chords and pacing, and in its nostalgia for growing pains.
The inspiration for that song is my brother Javier -- we had a band together called the True Believers. My brother is the true rock star of my family. I remember him being in New York the first time -- he was very young, and I was his older brother, and my mother had asked me to kinda keep an eye on him. He was very innocent. So "Sensitive Boys" is about, not only my brother Javier, but it's about all the guys who played music with Chuck and I during the mid-'80s: the guys who were in Soul Asylum, the guys who were in The Replacements, the guys who were in Green on Red, and Rain Parade and Love Tractor and R.E.M. It's for all those people. It's really about the practitioners of the art.
Kind of "innocents abroad"?
Yeah I guess so. A lot of 'em don't make it, you know? It takes its toll on a lot of people in a lot of ways. That's what the song's about. But I miss them! At the end it says, "I need you more than ever now / The world needs you more than ever now." I believe that the world does need those kinds of individuals -- the Joe Strummers of the world.
Do you need who they are now, or who they were then?
Because of my personal experience, I prefer the ones I knew then. But it's always reassuring to know that the lineage is being taken on by young people.
Alejandro Escovedo 6 p.m. Sun., June 22. Three Rivers Arts Festival Main Stage, Stanwix Street at Liberty Avenue, Downtown. Free. All ages. 412-281-8723 or www.artsfestival.net