The Flying Nun

Former punker Alejandro Escovedo returns to the roots of rock

While making a dirt-cheap movie about a hapless rock band, the young Alejandro Escovedo and his friend Jeff Olener decided to bring their fictional creation to life. Not long thereafter, their San Francisco punk group the Nuns found itself filling an opening slot at Winterland for the Sex Pistols' infamous "last-ever" gig.

"I loved the Sex Pistols' singles," Escovedo, now 45, recalls from his home in Austin, Texas. "And I was a big fan of the [New York] Dolls. I bought into the whole rock lifestyle as a kind of religion." But the grim frenzy surrounding the Pistols' final date assured Escovedo, like thousands of others, that punk's first incarnation had run its course. "It was a big gobfest, of course," he says, laughing. "The silly thing was, we tried to spit back."

One of 12 children from a multi-talented household -- brothers Pete and the late Coke were longtime percussionists with Santana, and niece Sheila E. is famed for her association with Prince -- Escovedo says his early art didn't shock his family: "My brother Coke would come to Nuns gigs. He was just excited that we were doing something. Even Carlos Santana would pat us on the back. I think they were curious about it -- like, 'They're pretty whacked out, aren't they?' " he laughs again.

After a brief attempt to keep the Nuns together from a base camp at New York's infamously seedy Chelsea Hotel, Escovedo shed his punk roots, exploring rock music first as an elastic fusion of country and reggae, then as a blistering form of blue-collar expression, and finally as the rootsy chamber-music hybrid of the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra, the songwriter's primary outlet since the late 1980s.

Escovedo traces his aural restlessness all the way to his earliest memories. "I was born in San Antonio," he says, where the radio "until we left in '57, '58, was amazing. It was Mexican radio, the beginning of rock 'n' roll, and a lot of country music. When we got to California, my brothers were into jazz. And then surf music came along, and I really dug that."

After his punk foray, Escovedo moved back to Texas, to Austin this time, embarking on tours of duty with the country-influenced Rank and File (with ex-Dils Chip and Tony Kinman) and the beloved but ill-fated True Believers (formed with his younger brother Javier). Dishearteningly, neither band would achieve the success that had been predicted for them.

After a brief flirtation with retirement, during which time he worked in an Austin record store and at the University of Texas library, Escovedo launched his orchestra, a rotating group of musicians supporting the bandleader's solo career. Critical acclaim and a cultish following recently led to a record deal with Salem, Mass.-based Rykodisc, which has just released With These Hands, the follow-up to two extraordinary albums (Gravity and 13 Years) put out by Austin's Watermelon Records in 1992 and '93.

With These Hands continues Escovedo's pursuit of unusually rich and dignified arrangements that never lose sight of the rock 'n' roll "religion" that still sustains him. The mix-and-match pieces of the orchestra -- at times featuring tuba, bass clarinet, and timbals in addition to a core unit comprised of cello, violin, two guitars, bass, and drums -- allow for various strata of atmospheric textures. "I don't know if what I do now is really country, or folk, or anything," Escovedo says. "I like to think it's just my own thing. It's definitely all over the map."

The presence of several of Escovedo's musical heroes can be felt throughout his body of work. Willie Nelson lends sandpaper harmonies and a trademark south-of-the-border guitar solo to the new album's "Nickel and a Spoon," and the interlocking, gospelly zealous stringed instruments of the Faces and Ronnie Lane's later projects appear throughout the record. "The Faces were always like the prototype for me," Escovedo says.

The songwriter's impeccable sense of restraint is something he learned in part, he says, from Brian Eno, with whom several Escovedo colleagues have worked. Leaving space between notes, he says, "is a thing that I really try to stress to everyone I play with. You get a lot of great players who don't understand that. Through Eno, I learned a lot about minimalism, and the way to build on simple melodies and rhythms. And of course the Velvet Underground did the same thing."

The album's final song, the meditative "Tugboat," is dedicated to the late Sterling Morrison, the Velvets guitarist-turned-UT professor whom Escovedo befriended on campus and off. "Sterling's sense of guitar-playing was perfect, as far as I'm concerned," Escovedo says. "I think he was very underrated, and he never made a big deal about it. I was kind of in awe of him, but we had him over here to the house for parties and stuff. It was just real sad when he died."

Death is a subject with which Escovedo is all too familiar. By now, many fans know why his first two solo albums were so wrenching: In large part, they chronicled the breakup of his 13-year marriage and the subsequent suicide of his estranged wife. As candid in conversation as he is in song, Escovedo says he's pleased that his music has guided others through similar misfortune -- and also that, with a new wife and an extended family, he needs to move on.

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