In one sense, Arizona nearly killed Alejandro Escovedo; in another, it saved his life. In April 2003 he collapsed after a Tucscon performance of his musical drama, By the Hand of the Father. He'd been living with hepatitis C since the late '90s (although most people didn't know). He still drank and smoked weed, though he'd kicked most of the harder drugs. But just before taking the stage, he was puking bowls of blood and could barely stand.
Internal hemorrhaging, advanced cirrhosis of the liver, hep C: He should have died that night. But after two years of recuperation, the most influential songwriter and rocker from Austin has returned with his most varied and demanding album, The Boxing Mirror (produced by longtime hero John Cale) and a full band tour. He took a break from lunch in downtown Austin to recount his resurrection.
How is your stamina?
Alejandro Escovedo performs at the Granada Theater on Saturday, August 19, with Milton Mapes.
Better all the time. I'm almost completely there. I can't tour like I used to. But I don't really want to. It's my personal health.
How did you handle hep C at first?
Back in the '90s, there wasn't that much known about it. The interferon treatments were very difficult on the body, and I wasn't a good candidate. It was really expensive, I couldn't afford it. I tried the holistic route. One doctor wanted me to become a vegan, but I was touring, and it's hard to be a vegan in the Midwest. I tried my own path, the path of moderation, but it didn't work. I was oblivious to what I was doing. Two days after breaking down in Arizona, I was supposed to get on a plane to Europe to play festivals. If that had happened on the plane, we wouldn't be talking.
You've known John Cale since 1978, but what surprised you most about working with him as a producer?
How easy and comfortable it was. How much we laughed. He put me in a place where I felt very confident, which not every producer knows how to do. With John, it's not some theory he has; it's his presence. It requires that you step up a few notches to just attain that same presence. When we were sitting across from each other, I wanted to be as strong as he was. What was unique about his recording philosophy?
We started with voice, piano and guitar. We didn't start with rhythm tracks, which is how most records are made. But starting with voice, it establishes the emotional content of the song. The rhythm section has to dig what's happening lyrically. In my opinion, this is the best drumming that Hector [Muñoz] has ever done.
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The Boxing Mirror doesn't sound like any record you've ever made, but it still sounds like an Alejandro record.
Some producers make records that sound like them. But I'd been such an admirer over the years and emulated him, so it just ended up being a good match. We spoke the same language. We wanted the same things from the album.
Do you still want the myth of rock 'n' roll? Is that myth dead for you?
If you were to hang out with me, you'd hear me slag a lot of bands because they're not rock 'n' roll enough. For me, though, it's not really about being in a rock band. For instance, we use strings. That's not very rock 'n' roll. But we bring a certain placement and attitude and expression to them. Before, when I was a kid, if you didn't look rock 'n' roll, I wouldn't think you were rock 'n' roll. Now what's important is the experience you bring to it.