Wednesday, November 8, 2000

A history lesson from Dave Alvin

 • Blaster-turned-balladeer revisits America’s past

By Steve Stav, for the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, 2000.
After his well-publicized, slightly acrimonious split with his older brother Phil and their fiery, influential rock band the Blasters in the mid' 80s, Dave Alvin became one of Oakland, Calif.-based Hightone Records' brightest and most respected stars.

Twenty years spent sharpening the cutting edge of roots music has culminated in "Public Domain," an effort worthy of a Grammy nomination. With this latest venture, Alvin explores his own musical roots, unearthing mostly forgotten treasures from America's rich blues, folk and country landscapes. Alvin and his ace backup band, the Guilty Men, have polished these reworked jewels into a lustrous, fantastic shine that will mesmerize even those indifferent to "heritage music."

I recently spoke to Alvin via telephone as he was preparing for a two-night stand in New York City. Though he was still a little groggy from the night before, the singer-songwriter still managed to be humorous, candid, and, ultimately, profound in relating his thoughts and observations on the music that he cherishes so dearly.

SS: You've gone a long way to make this kind of music, um, 'accessible'...

Alvin: That's not a bad word.

SS: I imagine that there were some challenges in making some of this material swing without going too far afield from the songs' original feel.

Alvin: There was a little tightrope-walking, but not too much, really. Most of these songs are things that I play around the house, so once we got into the studio I knew what I wanted them to sound like.

The hardest part of the record was "whittling down" to what we wound up with. "What Did The Deep Sea Say" has always been my favorite drinking song. It was an elimination process with my favorite public domain songs -- which ones would be the most effective to make certain points about America's folk music and so on.

For example, "Walk Right In." I had in mind to do a couple of other numbers, sort of hokum blues songs. But I finally decided on that one ... I figured that it would be good to do a song that everybody takes for granted as a cornball song -- it's had all of its dignity stripped away from it, all of its danger and ambiguity and wildness has been taken out of it. "Walk Right In" and "Shenandoah" have been taken out of the folk music morgue, have had all of the blood drained out of them. "Walk Right In" started out as a Saturday-night, too-much-to-drink kind of a song, and it became a campfire, Mitch Miller-type singalong. So I decided that, instead of doing another obscure jump blues song, let's take a song that everybody knows, but doesn't think of in its original form.

With "Shenandoah," I think we managed to make it a new song again - it's been done by everyone, even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But the lyrics are amazing -- they're spare and simple and they tell eight million stories -- every person's going to get a different story when they hear that song. There's a bittersweet, American paradox that the song captures - the longing for home, and the longing for the new frontier at the same time. Maybe the reason why that you're heading for the frontier is that you can't go back home, who knows? I'm pretty proud of our version.

"Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" is predominantly a bluegrass song, but I decided to take it over to Chicago and do a Muddy Waters version of it. We have a tendency to over-label everything, even the musicians do it. There's such a vast reservoir of indigenous music here... but people act like there's no relation between, say, blues and bluegrass music, and there
certainly is.

Society might have been segregated -- might be still segregated -- but the music never was, which is one of the points I was trying to make.

SS: Since some of these songs go way back with you, could you tell me a little bit about your childhood, and how you and Phil first got started in music?

Alvin: Well, I grew up in Downey, Calif., in the far southeast side of L.A. county. It was a melting-pot area, some farm towns that were being urbanized... When I was a kid, it was still about half rural, agricultural based... you wouldn't recognize it now. There was a lot music there, if you looked for it. We were fortunate that we had these older cousins that were pretty hip, musically. I had this cousin Donna, that was a hardcore R&B gal - she was into Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner and stuff like that. And she'd give us her old records when she was done with them. I had this cousin, J.J., that lived on a ranch, he was into Buck Owens and music like that. And we Mike. who played banjo and guitar, he was into Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. When we'd have the family gatherings, he and J.J. would bring their guitars - we were just little kids - and these older cousins would play and put each other's music down, but it was all the same stuff to Phil and me.

Then, my dad was a union organizer for the United Steel Workers of America, so his record collection was everything from union songs to the Almanac Singers to... he was Polish, so he had lots of polka records. I was about 12 when Phil and I started to collect 78s and 45s from junk stores, old warehouses, places like that. We started sneaking into bars when I was about 13. For a four to five year period, we were out three to four nights a week. Our parents were very "understanding." We literally, I mean literally, followed people around, at their heels - guys like Lightnin' Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, people like that. So we learned right from the source.

SS: Who taught you to play guitar?

Alvin: Nobody... totally self-taught. [Laughs] It's been a hindrance, but I'm trying the best I can. My brother is a great 3-4 finger-style, finger-picking guitarist, always has been and I would watch him. And there were guys in the neighborhood.

This one guy, Gary Massey, could only do two things on guitar, but he did them great. He could play like T-Bone Walker and Jimmy Reed, and that was it. I'd watch neighborhood guys, we always had guitars in the house, and they'd come over and play. After they'd left, I'd try to do those fingerings and so on.

SS: Apart from a Blasters reunion, are you and Phil ever going to work together again?

Alvin: Probably not, no. We do some things... a couple of years ago, my band and I were playing in Long Beach, and the encore wound up being a Blasters reunion, because out of the blue, everyone was at the gig. That kind of thing's fun, but as far as rehearsing, making a record, making decisions together, that ain't gonna happen (laughs). The Blasters grew up together, we're still "neighborhood guys" to each other, and Phil and I are brothers, and you can't change that though we've tried on occasion (laughs). We're all still close, we're still the same old guys, it's just that the Blasters stopped being fun... that's really the bottom line. Without sounding too one-dimensional, to make this kind of music work, it's got to be fun. The audience has got to feel that vibe coming off the stage. it can be serious, angry, thought-provoking, whatever, but it's also got to be fun. Phil's got a band called the Blasters, but it isn't the same band.

SS: That's sort of like the Beach Boys without Brian, Dennis and Carl...

Alvin: Yeah, I wish he would call it the Phil Alvin Band, or even the Mike Love Band (laughs). If you missed seeing us all play in the '80s, you missed a great live band, I think... apart from our first album, which we recorded in a garage [1980's "American Music"], very little of the original Blasters' records are available, and they probably won't be reissued until we die.

SS: But you never know ...

Alvin: Oh, but I know. There's so much legalese involved, it will never happen.

SS: How is the tour coming along?

Alvin: Things keep getting better every year. Playing live is my biggest thrill in the world, but the actual touring side of it checking in and out of cheap hotels, loading and unloading your gear, that kind of thing's getting really old. On the other hand, the gigs keep getting better ... I feel very fortunate.

When we started the Blasters, our whole goal was to quit our day jobs and play what we wanted to play. I was very fortunate to be able to quit my day job 20 years ago, and I haven't gone back. Even in the worst conditions... recently, we did this gig in northern Alabama, and it was hotter than hell, and raining, and we were playing an outdoor gig. It was just a mess, everything about it was screwed up -- muddy, filthy, humid, everything that could have gone wrong did. Even under those miserable conditions, it sure beats the alternative.

There is a famous quote -- this may or may not be true - but Willie Nelson was playing these dives in the old days, and one night his drummer asked him, "Willie, how long are we going to keep playing these dives?" And he said, "Hopefully, for the rest of our lives." That is very true for me.

Dave Alvin • Public Domain: Songs From the Wild Land • 2000 • Hightone Records

Originally published in the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, Wash., 2000.

copyright 1997-2010, Steve Stav  

Wednesday, November 1, 2000

Building the perfect Sushi

• Talking rock ‘n roll, fish and the Fastbacks with SushiRobo

By Steve Stav, for the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, 2000.

Above the din of a tone-deaf singer strumming a guitar, I asked this oh-so-clever band, just exactly who or what is a SushiRobo?

"There's a restaurant in Vancouver, Wash., that has a Sushi Robo -- a robot," answered bassist Barry Shaw.

"We thought that it was a mythical thing, this robot that makes perfect sushi every time, but it turns out that it actually exists," Clay Martin, who provides the percussion, earnestly added.

Frontman Rick Roberts sighed. "That's going to come back and bite us one of these days, do we have to talk about it?" he said as his cohorts nodded.

Turning to me, Roberts explained, "There's this Japanese company that cranks out the sushi robots, and they have this cool ad where on one side, there's a master chef's hands building a sushi and on the other, the Sushi Robo. it's a 'John Henry' competition -- at the end, there's the perfect sushi made by each, the one made by the robot is just as good as the master's."

Half of SushiRobo had just returned from New York City when I interviewed the quartet at the Raindancer on University Way. Martin, guitarist David Einmo, his wife Diana and their six-month-old daughter had journeyed to the Big Apple for the recent CMJ conference, where they represented their label, Pattern 25.

The fledgling company has just two bands on the roster at the moment, SushiRobo and atmospheric-rockers Spyglass; with threeforths of SushiRobo playing in Spyglass as well (Roberts is the sole holdout), it's a cozy family affair.

Though Sushi Robo and Pattern 25 have just gotten off the ground during the past year, the names were known to many industry reps at the showcase.

"We were in line to see Tenacious D, At The Drive ln, Granddaddy, and a band called Sunshine, and we met the music supervisor," recalled Einmo. "He was very familiar with the SushiRobo cover, he had seen the poster of it... knowing that cover, it's only a matter of time before SushiRobo is in a soundtrack," he concluded, laughing.

Taken by artist Kevin Freeberg in Portugal, the photo gracing the cover of the band's debut CD, "Action Causes More Trouble Than Thought," has garnered more attention than the band could have predicted. In the eye-catching picture, a helmeted figure is pedaling a bicycle emitting a shower of sparks from mounted fireworks.

"Everyone seems to remember the cover," Martin wryly mused.

Knowing that Einmo, Shaw and Martin go way back together, I inquired as to when ex-Posie, ex-Peach Roberts entered the picture.

"Dave and I were in a band with Jon Auer when the Posies were just starting," Martin recalled.

"The first time I ever saw Rick was at the Moore Theater when the Posies were opening for the Godfathers," Einmo chimed in, as Roberts worked out the group's convoluted origins in his mind.

Satisfied with his computations, the singer replied, "I had leftover songs from jam sessions that I wanted to record ... basically, all of the people who are now in Spyglass, except Dave, we had all been jamming together in combinations. I had these fragments and arrangements, and Clay and Barry brought the rhythm section -- that was almost a year ago."

"He asked Clay and I to do this recording just for fun, it wasn't going to be any kind of ongoing thing, really," added Shaw, whose rugged romance novel looks and long hair volunteers him for the role of sex symbol. "We enjoyed it, we liked the results so much, that we wanted to keep going. I remember your (Roberts') e-mail saying, 'Let's take it to the stage'... we decided to get Dave involved, start doing shows and start functioning like a band."

Einmo, who had observed the album's mixing sessions, was eager to contribute to the band's blend of Tom Verlame-Adrian Belew guitar art and driving, moody rhythm undertones.

"It was very exciting music, I wanted to see where it was going to go," he said.

As the band discussed their unique sonic stylings, Martin theorized, "I think the reason why people notice the rhythm section is that the guitar playing is very selective, every note has a purpose and they hardly ever just strum chords, so if they're coming in at selected moments, you really notice the backbone... to really understand SushiRobo, you have to see us live. With Dave in the band, it takes it to another level, a whole new world of guitar weirdness."

"After every show, there has been a lot of people coming up to us and commenting on how different the band sounds, and how much they enjoyed it," Einmo said. "It's been really fun for me. As a guitar player, one of the most frustrating things for me is... playing the guitar. It's such a boring instrument, everyone plays it. It's fun to play in a band with Rick, he's so inspiring, he takes the guitar to a level where it doesn't sound like a guitar anymore."

The avant-garde group recalled their highly-prized inclusion in the NXNW showcase in Portland at summer's end.

"They were trying to put bands wherever they could, and we wound up playing at nine o'clock in a pizza restaurant," Roberts said.

"But it was a good show," Einmo quickly assured me. He added, "I was actually kind of disappointed with this year's NXNW. There were a lot of good bands there, but there were a lot of really horrible bands as well ... I don't know how they made the selections."

Martin agreed. "It didn't make a lot of sense. Spyglass didn't get in, but SushiRobo did; it all seemed sort of arbitrary."

Roberts remembered "walking around after the show, at 11:30, going to three clubs in a row. All I could find was acoustic singer-songwriters, which was absolutely the last thing I wanted to hear - these morose guys singing these maudlin songs to these comatose rooms, all simultaneously.

"We found this Ukrainian band," he continued. "Eight guys on stage, ranging from around 18 to 40 years old, playing this heavy-metal stuff, and then there was this guy with them that was playing a tuba, he looked 16, and he looked really scared up there. It was by far the most entertaining thing that night."

"The highlight of NXNW was (Seattle singer/performance artist) Jason Trachtenburg," Martin flatly stated.

"Yeah, it was packed and everyone was yakking away, but after he played for 10 seconds, everyone was just glued to the stage, and it just got better and better with each song," Einmo said, shaking his head.

With a noticeable buzz circling the band's every gig, SushiRobo is eager to get back in the studio to record more Roberts originals for a follow-up; they're also in the idea stage of a tour, where a tandem trip with Spyglass would be a logical, yet unorthodox approach.

Shouting to be heard above the highly annoying singer-songwriter behind us, I concluded the interrogation by wondering what they considered to be SushiRobo's most memorable performance.

As his bandmates searched their memories, Martin spoke up. "I can think of a great moment... I know Dave's a huge fan of (Fastback and Seattle icon) Kurt Bloch, I've seen Dave up front watching Kurt at shows. We were doing a show at the Crocodile, and I saw that Kurt was up front, watching what Dave was doing with his pedals and stuff, and I thought, 'this is pretty cool, nice reversal.'"

Originally published in the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, Wash., 2000.

copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav