Exploring the world around him, from the streets of Mexico to the sky Austin-based singer and songwriter Alejandro Escovedo often finds himself pigeonholed as an alt-country act. But the man who—lest we forget—was a founding member of pioneering punk band the Nuns and roots-rockers Rank and File and True Believers, is a rocker at heart. “If you look at my solo records and the bands I’ve been in, at the core of it all is rock ’n’ roll,” says Escovedo, one of several prominent musicians in a family that also includes percussionists Coke and Pete Escovedo, members of the Zeros and singer-percussionist Sheila “E.” Escovedo. “I love being in a band with electric guitar, bass and drums. From there I work outward into the other sounds that interest me. I’ve always said that my music represents having a vast record collection.”
Big Station is his 10th solo album in 20 years, and his third working with veteran producer Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T. Rex). The album draws upon musical styles from punk to early rock to Chicano pop—for the first time, Escovedo has introduced a Spanish-language standard to his repertoire (“Sabor a Mi,” penned in 1969 by the late Mexican composer Alvaro Carillo). We caught up with the native Texan, 61, on the eve of a tour that will keep him and his band, the Sensitive Boys, on the road for the foreseeable future. “I want to play as much as possible,” he says.
What inspired the album?
[Co-writer] Chuck Prophet and I had talked a lot about how we wanted the characters to experience the world as observers. We went to Mexico a couple of summers ago and saw firsthand how the intimidation tactics of the drug cartels had affected the community there. That led to some of the first songs, like “San Antonio Rain,”
“Bottom of the World” and “Sally Was a Cop.” It was very much about these characters that were part of a community and found themselves in situations that led them to parts of themselves they hadn’t known about before.
How did you choose the songs?
It was a simple elimination process, and it happened naturally. You lose interest in some songs for whatever reason. Some sounded great with Chuck and me but didn’t sound right with the band. Sometimes we’d go through the process of working with Tony on the arrangements and they still wouldn’t translate too well to the recording. Usually we’ll make a decision about which songs to do just before we go in to record.
What does Tony bring?
He brings vast musical knowledge and a great history. He’s a very compassionate man and a master at what he does. I think his sense of arrangement and vocal harmonies is unequaled. He brings out the best in us as a band—which is a key element of being a producer, and one you don’t always find.
How was recording?
We cut all the basic tracks live in about a week and were pretty much done in about 11 days. Many songs were recorded on the first take. We’re pretty well primed by the time we get into the studio. There are some overdubs—the backup vocalists came in after we had recorded the basics and guitar overdubs. The horn players came in and laid down their parts afterward, too. We worked on “Big Station” a lot, trying different arrangements. It changed quite a bit from the origin to the final result. But another song, “San Antonio Rain,” was magical from the very beginning.
Why include “Sabor a Mi”?
It was one of my parents’ favorites. My father sang it all the time. It’s a standard for a lot of Chicanos who grew up in the Southwest. You heard it at weddings, funerals, first communions—whatever occasion there might be, that song seemed to fit. It’s got a beautiful melody and the words are very romantic. It reminds me very much of my family, so it meant a lot to do this song—and to do it in a way that wasn’t straying too far from the essence of the original.
Did your family influence the album in other ways?
My niece, Sheila E., helped me a lot in the beginning with writing. I wrote with her in L.A., and even though none of those tunes made it on the record, it really propelled my imagination as to what we could do rhythmically. She was very influential. I’m hoping that there will be an opportunity for the two of us to do an album
together in the future.
Why the album title?
Big Station struck me as a place where we all come from and where we all end up. It’s a powerful image because it can be many things. We played a gig in Pittsburgh about a year ago, and were running through the Carnegie Mellon University campus. There was an art installation called Walking to the Sky by Jonathan Borofsky. It’s this long pole several stories tall that goes off into the sky, and on it are people from all walks of life—a black man, a white man, a Chicano, a laborer, a student, a mother with her children—and at the bottom of the pole on the ground are people waiting to walk up into the sky. Where they’re going is unexplained. That’s what struck me as the Big Station.
Does the alt-country tag bug you?
It’s very frustrating. I’ve never felt I was alt-country or country at all. I have too much respect for the form of country music to ever think that I was a country artist. I’ve always loved Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, George Jones, Marty Robbins, Hank Thompson and Waylon Jennings. These elements have always been there, but I’ve never felt like it was just who I am. If you look at my albums, you could never say that Real Animal  or even Street Songs of Love  was an alt-country album. I don’t know if that label even exists anymore. What does it mean, really?
How have you evolved?
I keep moving forward and keep being curious and adventurous while trying to find new sounds. You don’t want to be afraid to fall and get up again. It requires a lot of determination and will to create. Everything in the music industry has changed over those 20 years, but at the heart of it we’re still a rock band on the road playing every night and trying to create something that helps people. We give them a couple of hours of fun and dancing, maybe some romance, maybe some drinking songs. It’s entertainment. If we can do that we’re very happy. That’s never changed, and to me that’s the essence of it. Why do it at all if you’re not doing it for that reason?