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Although Joe King Carrasco has lived in Mexico for almost a decade, he will be forever linked with the Texas music scene of the '70s and '80s. This December, Carrasco (born Joseph Teutsch) turns 60, yet his remarkable mixture of Tex-Mex and new wave still sounds as fresh as it did in 1976. Earlier this year, he released a new album of songs he wrote and played with a few of his old El Molino bandmates — a group that includes Texas Tornadoes Ernie Durawa on drums and Speedy Sparks on bass. That album, Tlaquepaque, features as eclectic a range of styles as anything in Carrasco's impressive discography.
Speaking from an adobe house near Llano, Carrasco was kind enough to chat with us about his remarkable history, his dog rescue operation and how he doesn't consider retirement an option.
Are you in Mexico today?
No, I am in Texas today. We have this adobe house that I am working on near Llano. Living in Mexico makes it hard to get up here and take care of this thing. The guys in Mexico helped me build it about 10 years ago. Adobe melts, you know; so you have to stay on it. It's really hot down here. Thankfully, the walls are 18 inches thick, so it feels like a cave.
How many gigs do you do in a year?
I am playing all of the time in Mexico. I play down here with El Molino or The Crowns constantly in Mexico, sometimes two, sometimes three times a week. When I first moved to Mexico in 2006, I was playing five nights a week. It was really hard.
The Crowns reunited and did an album in 2012. Is there another one in the works?
We have a bunch more stuff in the can. I did that, and I've done some work with El Molino. That was before The Crowns. That was in 1976. A lot of the guys ended up playing in The Texas Tornadoes, and I did a gig with them recently. I played guitar for them. That was cool. It was all that same kind of groove.
Where did you come up with the idea of wearing a crown on stage?
When I first started playing, we were playing Raul's in Austin. The music was switching to a more new-wave sound. I was already known as Joe King, so it was easy to wear a crown. I am also a big fan of Clifton Chenier, and he wore a crown. If a guy as cool as him can wear a crown, then that is what I was going to do.
I remember seeing you in the '80s and I was always amazed by the diversity of the crowd, especially the number of punks. Why did your music appeal to those types?
It could have been the energy or just the simplicity of it. It was a cross between Tex-Mex and surf music. I just looked up and thought, wow, how did this happen? I was surprised that what I did got any audience at all, but it did get big, and I am still doing it. I think the energy is appealing. I hope so.
Your music may have provided some fun for people with pretty bleak daily lives.
For the punks, you mean? Yeah, I think so. We were just playing "Wooly Bully" and "96 Tears." I think it was a cool sound.
You even went on to perform on SNL in 1981. What was that like?
It was pretty cool. I think I freaked them out. I was really wild then. Of course, I am still wild now. I think I went outside the range of the camera guys. A producer who later got fired said that there were three acts that would never appear on that show again: me, Captain Beefheart and Miles Davis. I thought that was pretty cool company.
Were you nervous to perform on national TV?
A little bit, but you know, it is so rehearsed. You just show up and do the songs. You hope you get it right. Sure, I was nervous.
How did it happen that Michael Jackson sang backup vocals on your album Synapse Gap?
We were at Studio 55 in L.A. We were on MCA and the Jackson 5 was mixing in one room and we were in the other studio. There was an office in between. Michael didn't hang out with his brothers too much, and he would often just sit in this office. I started talking to him about Bob Marley. I wanted to know what it was like hanging around with Bob Marley. We kind of got to be friends. I had a Walkman and I had been listening to a lot of African music. He didn't have a Walkman and I had been listening to Off the Wall. He spent three days listening to his own album on that Walkman. We spent a lot of time together and one day, I told him that I didn't have anyone in my band who could sing high. He said he would like to sing on my album. His dad walked in, and I think his dad freaked out a little bit. Michael was a real nice guy, and we became good friends. His voice was amazing. He could do these amazing five-part harmonies. I have a tape somewhere of him singing those five-part harmonies.
I can't think of a stranger pairing than you and Michael Jackson.
I went into the control room with him and there were all these guys in suits. It was a pretty weird scene, but he was cool, and he was fun to hang out with.
That was long before his life seemed to become a prolonged tragedy.
I kept telling him to get back to his roots. I was trying to get him into African music, something with more soul. If he would have listened to me, he would probably still be alive.
When did you start up Viva Perros, your dog rescue operation, and what was the inspiration?
I got three Jack Russell terriers. I had some rent houses and people would just leave their dogs when they left. I started taking care of these dogs. I did a benefit for Kinky Friedman's Utopia, another dog rescue outfit. We recorded that show and gave the proceeds to different rescue organizations and then started Viva Perros. I've been doing it for a while now. In the end, I will probably give everything I have to dog rescue.
People seem to have more sympathy for animals than they do for other people.
My dogs have been with me nearly 17 years. They go on the road with me for every show. We have driven all over Mexico. I've known them longer than I've known any woman in my life. I feel like with them, I am paying back a favor. In Mexico, you see a lot of abused dogs and it is really heartbreaking. You can't save all of them. I want to take care of them all.
You've been playing music for almost four decades. Will you ever retire?
When the hearse pulls up. It's all I know how to do. I am always writing songs. It's what I do. I have two bands I play with. I like driving across Mexico with my three dogs.