Alejandro Escovedo and Richard Buckner
Two Men, Sorrow Songs, and Where the Night Goes
February / March 2000
By David Ensminger
The wet, bone-chilling wind, a Houston anomaly, sweeps across the roof of Rudyards as Alejandro Escovedo and Richard Buckneron tour togetherstir languidly in almost matching worn brown jackets. With easy-going poise, they put up with camera flashes that white out the wire and dead potted plants crammed near their feet. The photographer keeps them pinned in two rickety chairs adjacent to a partially crumbled wall, a rather dubious spot that reveals the raw neon loam over the empty street below. "Do you think the interview went well?" Escovedo asks in his low and elusive voice, eyes serene as a rock-&-roll Buddha. This 48-year-old legend's style is still very much in the punk vein, and he is honest, uncompromising, and hopeful, with an air of inscrutable coolness. I begin rambling like a giddy, suburban boy at a baseball card convention, "It was really great." Buckner looks amused, almost. Living up north has made him tougher. Tonight he's a bit edgy, not to mention enigmatic, partly because he's trying to suck down a whole bowl of salad between barking about music labels, answering my questions when it's obvious he doesn't like interviews, and looking on in horror as Lee Ann Rimes duets with Merle Haggard on a TNT special.
Photo by Lana McBride.
Have you guys been playing music as long as you can remember?
Escovedo: Actually, I didn't even play in a band until I was 24. I wanted to be a actor, and I knew a guy making a movie who needed the world's worst band, so I became part of it, and the Nuns were born. But I didn't write my own songs until much later.
What about Rank and File and True Believers?
Escovedo: I played with them, but I never wrote the songs. I was 30
when I wrote my first song. No one believes me. I was on stage in Oregon with Peter Case and Freedy Johnston and we were all supposed to play our very first songs. Peter did a song from his 1960's garage band, and Freedy did one about his dog, but I did a True Believers song. They all thought I was lying.
Buckner: I was not any different than a lot of 19-year-old guys who love music.
Escovedo: He's was a roadie for the Nuns (laughs).
Buckner: I went to community college for awhile, and took psychology classes so I could know myself (laughs). I really had a great time. There were former G.I.'s and 40-year-old housewives and just some real freaks.
So how did the music start?
Buckner: I sat around my room singing along to my favorite recordsELO, Supertramp, and similar stuffand finally started writing my own songs. Later in college I got a band together.
Was your family musical?
Buckner: Not at all. No one in my family played music.
You guys seem to have trouble reaching a critical mass of listeners. You have a loyal, even rabid fan following, but your records don't generally sell well.
Escovedo: I think you're wrong. You see us in Houston. But we sell out in Chicago and Washington D.C. I'm really happy with what we do. I don't want to do stadiums, you know. I don't have any idea about what that world is about. I left all that kind of rock-&-roll stuff years ago. I was probably 13 when I stopped listening to those kinds of bands. In fact, I don't think rock & roll exists at all like it used to.
Are there people out there who, if given the opportunity, could be turned on to what you are doing, but simply can't get to the music right now?
Escovedo: Yes, but I've seen my audience grow and grow, and become
stronger, and both Richard and I have become more established. We can wake up every morning and look at ourselves in the mirror, smoke a joint, and-
Buckner: And wonder why we didn't write that damn hit song. Fuck him, I could've done that.
Alejandro, you've been compared to sensitive songwriters in the vein of Jackson Browne.
Escovedo: People make weird comparisons all the time.
Buckner: I never would have let Daryl Hannah slip through my fingers.
Richard, are you happy not being on MCA right now?
Buckner: I'm proudly label-less.
Escovedo: Richard Buckner. Fiercely independent guy.
Buckner: I love not being on a label.
You're not on Ryko?
Buckner: No, they re-released Bloomed. That's all.
But are the five extra songs new?
Buckner: No. Between Bloomed and Devotion And Doubt, MCA gave me $2,500 to make a demo for them, so I went to a cheap studio, recorded 20 songs in a couple of hours, and walked away with $2,400 dollars in profit. I recorded them bam bam bam, very quickly. Everything was eventually released except those five songs. I had them and wanted to use them on something, but I don't really want to play them much because they're old songs and I want to move on.
But the re-release has brought back some attention, especially after Since sold only a few thousand copies.
Buckner: I don't know how many it sold.
Spin loved the first record, but totally panned Since.
Buckner: Fuck Spin. Whatever.
Why do you think they disliked it?
Buckner: C'mon. What's their motivation?
Do you listen to critics? Does it matter to you at all?
Buckner: Of course it does, that's why I don't read that shit. I don't want to hear what their version of my ideas is.
Escovedo: I never pick up Spin. That would be the last thing I pick up.
Richard, other critics have said that you write lyrics that confuse obscurity with meaning, and are in part in love with your own alienation.
Buckner: I feel weird that he has figured out my little secret. Now it's out in the open and people know what my real deal is. That's too bad.
Escovedo: Rock critics don't matter anyway. [Pause] Rock writers do. I used to really read a lot of reviews. But I hardly ever do anymore.
Lester Bangs, was he a writer or critic?
Robert Christgau (of the Village Voice)?
Buckner: Christgau? Fuck him. I hate Robert Christgau. I sent him a personal letter once.
Your songs remind me of miniature Raymond Carver stories. They are all about people who are kind of helpless, kind of confused, trying to find a space in which to live, and falling down as they try.
Buckner: That's everybody, man. What else would the songs be about?
But they often feel like vignettes.
Buckner: All it comes down to is I get really stoned and I write, then I put it together, then get high again and try to mix the music down, that's all it is. It's about completely letting yourself go and putting out whatever it is. And for some reason, even if you don't know what you're writing, you feel better afterwards.
But the songs on Since are different than the other two records, they're a little more fragmented.
Buckner: I agree with that.
I've heard that the reasons that the songs feel that way, like they don't have beginnings and don't have ends, is because they were written while you lived in your truck.
Buckner: I like to pull stuff back and keep them like that. I'm kind of a rough writer too. I like songs that get to the point. One of the things I hate most is a song that is too long, I just wanna say "Fucking stop it, man." Not that I'm a pro-short song guy, but make them however long the point takes to get. Five minutes, two minutes, it doesn't matter. But it's true, I was in my truck for almost three years touring non-stop, so it did have something to do with the process. Things like that do get inside and change the process.
Both of you always tour with different people, and thus present the music in unexpected ways. Why?
Escovedo: I like change. I tour eight months a year. That's my life. And I always want to give people something different.
Buckner: I love touring in various forms, and changing the arrangements based on that form.
Alejandro, you have been singing songs for a long time, since the 1970's-
Escovedo: Before Richard was born (laughs)!
How do you sit down and write? Do the songs still just come to you?
Escovedo: Yes. That's just what I do. I don't make myself do it. I'm a
songwriter. It's just as simple as that, I'm sorry.
You were an original San Francisco punk. Penelope Houston and the Avengers are back playing shows and rehashing what they did years ago, but when I look back at old Search and Destroy magazines, if there's one person who dominates the photos, well, besides Chip and Tony from the Dils, it's you. But you've never re-grouped the Nuns, never run across the country and played all-ages clubs and made some money. Has it ever been a question for you?
Escovedo: It's never interested me at all. Wouldn't even consider it.
But you guys made a lot of firsts, like playing with Roxy Music and the Sex Pistols.
Escovedo: Yeah, people tell us we were the first band of our kind to really play bigger, arena type places.
Do you respect what Penelope and company have done?
Photo by Jennifer Esperanza
Escovedo: I really love Penelope. I think she's great. Whatever she wants do and makes her happy, that's fine with me.
Has the Gun Club song, "Sex Beat," been part of your repertoire for long?
Escovedo: Actually, no. We were going to do a split single with Trailer Bride and I knew the song, but hadn't heard it in a long time. I picked it out from the record, and went to the studio, and I came up with that sound, and cut it after the second take.
Was your effort in part a tribute? Did you like the Gun Club when they were around?
Escovedo: I loved them. I knew them very well because they used to hang out with True Believers. I love that period.
You've been doing Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes" for a long time.
Escovedo: Yeah, well that's like how people used to do "Louie Louie."
And the Iggy and the Stooges songs?
Escovedo: Same thing.
And you've been doing Mott the Hoople songs for a long time.
Escovedo: Oh yeah, I'm the worst. I've been listening to that stuff
forever, and I can listen to it over and over.
Mott spoke to the post-glam generation and the punk generation, and obviously they spoke to you, but I don't get it.
Escovedo: It's a generational thing.
Escovedo: I mean Mott is a brilliant record. My record collection is kind of pathetic, because it's all this 70's classic rock and blues.
Richard, what do you listen to? You rarely do a cover.
Buckner: I do covers. I do a Townes Van Zandt song. I rarely get my shit together enough to memorize a cover.
Your music has been dubbed "poet rock" by a writer for the Bay Insider. It's not just simple jingle jangle material, but has a literate quality that is different from other writers. Do you agree with that?
Buckner: I don't know. It's weird to see your album from the other side, so it's hard to comment on it, because you don't know what the other side is.
You can't step back?
Buckner: All I know is that I record the song.
Alejandro, you once held a singer songwriter workshop for young kids, and that really spoke to me beyond the performance. Was that a one-off event?
Escovedo: It was part of a program. But I do a lot, because I have kids who go to the elementary school where I did it. I try to give as much as I can back to the community because I love the kids and I love the people. It's a great neighborhood. Marcia Ball, Charlie Sexton, and a lot of other musicians live there.
It's interesting that between the Zeros, the Plugz, the Offs, Weirdos, and other punk bands in late 1970's San Francisco that there was a blend between the anglo and Chicano rockers.
Escovedo: People are always amazed that there is this rock cross cultural thing that happens, but in places like California, or even Austin, Chicanos play with white guys who play with Asian guys. It seems pretty natural to me.
But because there is still so much weirdness and hostility between races, rock & roll seems a special place where people come together and get along.
Escovedo: But it's always been like that, look at the whole roots of rock and blues. I really don't get any of that shit from anybody inside music, but I do from people outside of it. I mean we go through shit when we tour, like down in the South.
Buckner: Like last night in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Escovedo: Yeah, it was like a police state there. Personally I do have a sense of fear, and I don't feel comfortable.
Does rock & roll keep you from understanding those kinds of people and shield you away from the world? People on the outside may feel that what you are doing by playing together is something very unique, but people like yourselves feel that it is perfectly normal.
Buckner: I don't think it's odd at all.
Escovedo: What Richard does and I what I do are two very different things, but we share something in terms of the music. The places where the music comes from is completely different because my music does come from a more traditional rock place. I can do a Roxy Music song, a John Cale song, a Stooges song. Then I can do a song like "Broken Bottle" and a song about an arrhythmic castanets player, but Richard's music is different. What I love about Richard is that his lyrics are really beautiful, and his voice is very rich and deep. And that is a place where you wanna go, and that's where people rarely take you.
Is that where we can locate the powerin the voice? If we took away the guitar and everything else?
Escovedo: You'll still have a great song. I know he could still entertain and capture us much better than a guy with a bunch of synthesizers, so that's where the beauty of it is. I personally think that a song is in the voice.
Richard, what do you hear in Alejandro's songs?
Buckner: The stories, and the range of the songs, especially since the live versions and recorded versions are so different. And they have amazing arrangements that are full of emotion.
Are you going to make the gospel record you were planning?
Buckner: No, I abandoned that because I got more interested in another project.
Alejandro, how is your relationship with Bloodshot?
Escovedo: Much better than Ryko, much better than Watermelon. I'm really happy right now.
Does it matter how much the new record sells?
Escovedo: Well, when you tour as much as we do, of course you want people to buy the record and to be able to play for more people.
You've changed a lot over the years
Escovedo: I personally like change. I enjoy it. It's always been a part of my life, and I will probably die in the midst of some change.
But the music hasn't changed that much, because you're still playing songs by Mott the Hoople and True Believers. You're still listening to the same stuff in your record collection. Is the music a form of stability, in which you may change, you may fall and pick yourself back up, but the songs are always there?
Escovedo: The songs are always influencing me, they're always a big part of my life.
If you can depend on anything, you can always depend on the records or on your writing?
Buckner: What do you mean?
If your life falls apart, music is still something that you can anchor to.
Buckner: It's the only thing. That's it. There's nothing else I want to do.
Does it scare you?
Escovedo: That's a bit dramatic, I think. It doesn't scare me. I've had
this conversation with my brother Javier, I mean about going through all these emotions. But I say it's all about the songs. He disagrees. I tell him that the only things I can really depend on are the songs, because they won't fuck me over or beat me up emotionally somehow. I truly believe that. That's all I live for...Well, not all that I live for, but you know what I mean, because obviously there's people in my life I care about. That's why I've been doing it for 24 years, and Richard's been doing it since he was a kid.
When you write the songs, are you writing for an audience?
Escovedo: I never write for an audience. I wouldn't know what to write for an audience.
It would never matter if it left the room?
Escovedo: No, it wouldn't. I love to write songs.
Don't you want somebody to hear it?
Buckner: You're going to do what you do nothing can change that. You can't think about that.
Have you had doubts? Have you stood on stage and wondered, "What the hell am I doing?"
Buckner: Every night. But then the next wave of the marijuana comes and you snap right out of it.
Escovedo: With me it's very rare. But we played a small town the other night in a restaurant that turned into a theater at night. They were real nice people, but they were having a play about POW's apparently, so the stage was at an angle and had machine guns up on it, and the audience was just weird that night.
Buckner: There was a weird separateness.
Escovedo: You couldn't connect with them. Twenty people got up after my first song.
Does it matter if five people or five hundred people are at the shows?
Escovedo: I would rather play for one person than five.
What's the next record going to be like?
Escovedo: A combination of the garage feel of Bourbonitis and Thirteen Years, which was very lush, but not overproduced. But now I want to go home and rewrite every song I have written for it. I've put a lot into them, but they're not really done yet. I feel I need to still kickstart the songs.
When somebody hears your records, what do you want them to feel most?
Buckner: I want them to be intrigued by the sound.
Escovedo: I want them to get the story, my blood. Really, I think the
greatest songs are the ones that damage people.\