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Racism, Discrimination and Punk Rock: Alejandro Escovedo Chats About His Experience in Music 6

Texas music legend Alejandro Escovedo is currently in the middle of an international tour for his latest album, “The Crossing.” And he’s coming home to Dallas this weekend for a show at the Kessler Theater.

Want to see Alejandro Escovedo perform live? See him on Saturday at The Kessler in Dallas. Details here.

He stopped by our sister station, KXT 91.7 FM, to perform a few tracks. While he was in the building, he chatted with KXT’s Dave Emmert. The two discussed punk rock’s early days, the discrimination Escovedo dealt with as a Latino and so much more.

Watch two of the three songs Escovedo performed at the KXT studios in the videos above and below this text. You can also hear portions of the interview by clicking the ‘Play’ button in the player at the top of the page. And if you’re a diehard Escovedo fan, read the transcribed interview beneath the video.

Alejandro, your new record ‘The Crossing’ came out just a couple of weeks ago. And it draws on some of your experiences playing punk rock as a Mexican-American in Texas. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?

AEWell actually, it began in San Francisco, California with a band called The Nuns (read more about Alejandro’s beginnings). The Nuns began in 1975, I think. That’s where we met the Sex Pistols originally. We actually played the last Sex Pistols show at Winterland. Then we moved to New York City and lived at the Chelsea Hotel. I was living there at the time that Nancy Spungen was killed. (Spungen was Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious’ girlfriend. He was accused of murdering her.)

After that, I played in various bands with a woman named Judy Nylon in New York. Then I was involved in starting a group called Rank and File with two members of The Dills – Tony and Chip Kinman – and we embarked on a tour on the night that Ronald Reagan was elected president. It was a seven-week tour, but it only had seven shows. And two of the shows we played were in Texas; one in Dallas and one in Austin. That’s when we fell in love with Austin and that’s where we kind of got started.

Once Rank and File broke up, I stayed in Austin. I’ve been there since 1980 basically. 

How did the emerging punk scene react to Mexican-Americans playing punk music in the 1980s?

AEOne of the songs on the new album addresses that. It’s called “Sonica USA .” The line is “I saw the Zeros and they looked like me. This is the America that I want to be.”

The Zeros was my brother’s band. It had four young Chicanos from San Diego. They’d play all around Southern California. In the early days of punk rock, it was very well integrated with women, African-Americans, and Chicanos. But rock in general – as far as the corporate rock-n-roll world – was sort of void of that sort of integration. So there were instances where I was refused entry into the front door of a gig I was headlining, because they wouldn’t believe that I was in the band. They asked me to go through the kitchen door. There were instances in Lubbock where a bunch of frat boys wanted me to serve them beer, because they thought I was the bartender, of course, even though I had all of my regalia on. And when I put out my first solo record, radio stations that would say, ‘We can’t even pronounce his name. How do you expect us to play his music?” I never changed my name. I kept my name. And I am very proud of my name. Another radio station said, “We already have one Mexican band. We don’t need another one.” At that time, the other “Mexican band” was Los Lobos.

My records were never in the “Rock-n-Roll” section at record stores. They were always in “World Music” or “Mexican music” sections or whatever. Merely based on my name.

I was incorrectly booked for shows. Once I was booked for a gig in San Jose and because of my brothers, who were salsa musicians, they assumed I played salsa. So they booked me in a salsa festival. And we opened up with “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by The Stooges. It didn’t go over well. 

You mentioned “Sonica USA,” that’s the first single off of ‘The Crossing,’ and it features Wayne Kramer of the MC5. That’s a really cool pairing. How did you first meet Wayne?

AE I’ve known Wayne for forever. The MC5 were a big influence on me; and all of the Detroit bands were. I loved that Detroit scene. I met Wayne when he was doing the Jail Guitar Doors – the nonprofit Kramer and his wife and manager Margaret Saadi Kramer founded with British roots-punk Billy Bragg about a decade ago, which donates guitars to prison inmates as part of a broader prison-reform agenda. Anyway, we met and turns out we had a lot in common. We’re similar ages, we went through the 60s similarly and we loved the same kind of music.

Alejandro, this is your 16th solo record. That’s very impressive. One of the interesting things about this record though, is that you’re backed by Don Antonio, a group of young Italian rockers. How did you meet those guys and write this wonderful album?

AE I was planning to tour Europe and I was looking for a European band to tour with, because it costs so much to bring an American band to Europe. And my manager in Europe gave me three bands to choose from – two were English, one was Italian. So I checked them all out on YouTube and I fell in love with the Italians. They weren’t trying to be American. They were really immersed in the Italian culture and sound. They were very cinematic in their approach to music. They weren’t really a rock band. I wouldn’t call them that. They play something on the borders of atmospheric/cinematic music and jazz/avant-garde. They’re a great bunch of musicians. We did 35 shows in 40 days in 10 different countries. They were great shows. And then I went back a couple months later to tour Southern Italy. It was then that I started to devise this story about two young men that were based on Don Antonio and myself. Those two characters meet up in Galveston, Texas and they craft a plan to go on a journey to look for the America they heard about on records.

Now, these are kids who love punk music. They love everything that led to punk rock. They also love beat poetry, freak literature of the 60’s and American directors from the 70s. And they go looking for this America and they find something different.

‘The Crossing’ is a bit of a concept album. It pulls a lot of musical flavors from your past projects. And it’s a charged album that touches on race, immigration and it’s all told through the characters you just describe. I heard that you and Don Antonio went on a Texas road trip to help find that inspiration for the album. Would you tell us about one of your favorite road trip memories?

AEWe met at The Belmont Hotel in Dallas (where I live). Antonio had come for a few weeks. And he first went off on his own. He drove to Tucson and came back in couple days. And we just started writing right away.

And I should say, my process of writing is really like hanging out a lot. You know? And we’d eat at El Pueblo and check out all of the people who were getting off of the buses. Sometimes we’d talk with them and listen to their stories. Also, there are a lot of kids who I’ve met here in Dallas who were DREAMERs, so we would go meet with them. Some of the kids work at restaurants, so we’d go eat at their restaurants and tell them a little bit about what we were doing and they would tell us their stories. And a lot of those stories ended up on the record.

Then we went to Austin to hangout for a while. And we took the backroads like 281 and 67 to go through towns like Evant, Lampasas and Hico. We’d just get this feel for the countryside. Don Antonio loved it. We’d be in my pickup truck driving around and just having a real Texas experience. I think that really pushed us toward what eventually became the story of the record. It had a lot to do with it. It really did. 

There’s something to be said  for breathing in the energy of a place, especially a place with energy as unique as Texas.

AETexas is unique. I don’t think you really ever understand Texas unless you do what we did. You’ve got to talk with people.

Well, we’ve talked a bit about your music background and about being around during punk’s heyday. But I want to ask. Is punk dead?

AEI don’t think so at all. We were really the first wave of punk. Like The Nuns I would never classify as punk rock, but we were embraced by the scene. But punk rock at the time had no borders. You didn’t have to be “Skate Punk” or “Punk Funk” or whatever. It hadn’t been ghettoized yet. It was very open to women and all sorts. It was very open in that way. It was very similar to what the 60s movement was like. I mean, if you had something to say and you felt compelled to say it there were listeners. And you have to remember that at the time, radio was very closedminded about what rock music was. I always thank people like Journey or REO Speedwagon for creating punk rock. We were the anti-punk rock. Like Joe Strummer said, punk rock is about being a good person. Being honest. Trying to make the world a better place. And trying to be part of the community.

I don’t believe that punk rock is dead. I don’t want to believe it anyway.

Alejandro, you were recently featured in an article with The New Yorker. The piece was about you returning to the border. Can you share a little bit from that experience? 

AEYea. It was a piece by Nick Paumgarten. He writes about music for The New Yorker. Anyway, he came and stayed with me at The Belmont and then we drove to Austin. I had a gig there. The next morning we drove to San Antonio where I was born. And finally, we drove to Laredo. He wanted to do the interview on the border. And we went to a Triple-A ballgame in Laredo. It was amazing.

But the border was really strange. It was much different than I remember as a kid. We were getting all of these reports that they were denying people entry into the US – even with US passports. They were questioning people’s birthplace and stuff. And it was so weird that when I went running in the morning, I got tailed the whole time! I had only ran about three miles, but I was getting tailed by the border patrol. They were everywhere. And when I got back to the place that Nick and I were staying, he said ‘This is too weird, man. Let’s get out of here.’ And we were supposed to spend the night. But as we thought about having to go back across the border and back again and we thought about the checkpoint – there was this hardcore checkpoint – and that I had only brought my driver’s license with me, so decided to ditch our car and fly home. It’s all in the article. (laughs)

Interview questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.