Thursday, May 22, 2014



An EXCLUSIVE interview 

By Stephen SPAZ Schnee

     To some, the early ‘80s will always be remembered as the era of day-glo colors, Synthpop music and ridiculous hairstyles.  While this may be true to a certain extent, there was always something exciting happening just below the surface.  Apart from New Wave, Synthpop and Punk, there were many other musical movements happening in cities all over the U.S. and around the world.  In L.A., there was a small but ultimately significant Roots movement that eventually collided with Rockabilly, bringing attention to one of the most exciting bands of their era – The Blasters.  Led by brothers Dave (lead guitar) and Phil Alvin (vocals/guitar), The Blasters were not a band that jumped on any bandwagon - they were the real deal.  The Alvin brothers were avid Blues, Folk, Country and Rock ‘n’ Roll fans and wore those influences on their sleeves. The Blasters shared stages with Punk, Power Pop and New Wave bands, releasing their debut album independently in 1980.  By the time they signed with Slash Records and released their self-titled sophomore album in 1981, they had become one of the most talked about bands on the West Coast. Over the next five years, the band released three additional albums before Dave Alvin, their primary songwriter, left the band.  The Blasters soldiered on for a little while longer, and have recorded and toured sporadically throughout the years, but have been on the backburner more often than not over the last 28 years.
     Phil Alvin recorded two solo albums since the band’s split – in 1986 and 1994 – while his brother Dave has pursued a successful Grammy-winning solo career, not to mention stints with X and L.A. Country/Folk ‘supergroup’ The Knitters. From his solo debut in 1987 up through 2011’s Eleven Eleven, Dave Alvin has continued to explore all aspects of Roots and Americana music from rockin’ Blues to gentle acoustic Folk.  However, it is the music he recorded with his brother Phil that started the ball rolling and fans have been hoping for the brothers to reunite and make music together again.  Though Dave has occasionally joined The Blasters on stage, the brothers have not released any new studio recordings together since Hard Line was released in 1985.  The hopes of a reunion were almost dashed in June of 2012 when, while on tour with The Blasters in Spain, Phil had a serious brush with death when he had difficulty breathing after a performance and was taken to a hospital where an emergency tracheotomy was performed. Thankfully, he recovered with vocal chords 100% intact.  With Phil on the mend, the Alvins decided to record together again, but instead of making a new Blasters album, they chose to record an album as a duo.  Wishing to avoid the usual brotherly squabbles, instead of writing a new batch of songs, they settled on recording an homage to one of their greatest influences, bluesman Big Bill Broonzy.  And almost exactly two years after Phil’s health scare, Yep Roc will release Dave Alvin + Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy, an album that will appeal to fans of the Alvin Brothers, The Blasters, and good ol’ American music.  There is so much heart and soul invested in the album that you’d think the boys spent the last 30 years preparing to make it – and in many ways, they did.
     Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to catch up with Dave and Phil Alvin to discuss the album, their influences and much more…

STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE:  Now, how are you feeling about the project and the reaction you’ve received so far?
PHIL ALVIN:    Well, the reaction has been good, so I’m excited about it.  It sort of came up quickly and was done pretty quickly and now things are really rolling.  So, yeah, I feel good.
DAVE ALVIN: I’m really happy. The album was done quickly, which was good in a way. I just decided to do it and my brother agreed, and because of that, I think it’s got a certain ‘in the moment’ feeling. I think that’s a good thing. I’m real happy with the way people are responding.  They seem to be catching the vibe and the mood of it, you know?

SPAZ:  Why did you decide to focus on the songs of Big Bill Broonzy as opposed to any of your other influences?
PHIL:  Well, Big Bill covered all the bases, as a great singer, great songwriter, and fabulous guitar player.  He had long been a favorite of David and mine. It was actually David’s idea to do Big Bill and, again, he has been a favorite of mine since I first heard him when I was like 15 or something.  There is a new biography out on Big Bill, which was very well written and hopefully we can draw some attention to it and what a great artist he is. 
DAVE:  He was a great guitar player.  He was a great singer.  He was a great songwriter, and the fact that he had 30 years of songs with a variety of interpretations.  I love Lightnin’ Hopkins, and our hero, Big Joe Turner, and we could certainly do tribute records to them, but Big Bill wrote a lot a songs and we could interpret them in different ways.  It didn’t have to be done in a specific style – they could be done in a Chicago Blues style or they could be done in a Swing style or they could be done in a Ragtime style, you know?  It just opened it up to showing off what we could do I guess is the egotistical way of putting it.

 SPAZ:  I think the love, passion, and excitement that you guys have for the material really shows in the recordings.  Was a lot of this done live in the studio or did you do a lot of overdubs?
PHIL:  It was recorded pretty much live in the studio and then you go in and patch up on overdubs - that’s sort of the general technique.  And that’s what went down there. You want to get a good live track and I think we did that.  Most of the vocals were overdubbed, and then some guitar parts, but it’s pretty much live.
DAVE:  The studio I worked at was where I made the last few records of mine.    I set up the room at about the size of Sun studio, set up in a circle, and there’s bleed on tracks.  If you listen to the drum track, you’ll hear some guitar floating around in there.  If you listen to the guitar track, there would be some drum… For whatever reason, recording digitally has gotten me more and more into recording live.  You would think it would be the opposite, but no – it makes it so easy to record live and give off-the-cuff performances.   But then, there was none of the arguments and fighting that there was back in Blaster days with my brother and I.   Part of that is we’re not doing original material.  Some of the versions of the Big Bill songs are very different from the Big Bill original songs, and there was a couple times when my brother was kind of like, “Well, is this too far off from what it was?” - meaning that my re-arranging of songs. He thought he didn’t like it because we weren’t being true to the original. Then I explained to him that anybody can go to Amazon or a record store now and you can buy all the Big Bill Broonzy records you want.  It’s not like the old days when you had to go find them on 78s. Yes, it’s a tribute record to Big Bill Broonzy, but that’s only 50% of it.  The other 50% is it’s a tribute record to brothers, to 13-year-old, 14-year-old brothers out searching for old records.  It’s a tribute to brotherly love.

SPAZ: You mentioned about recording digitally – has the way that you prefer to record in the studio changed since the first Blasters record?
DAVE:  Well, yeah.  All the Blaster records were basically recorded live in the studio with vocals done later….there’s even one or two vocals that were the live vocal.  So that hasn’t changed that much.  What has changed is my attitude and my fear…. I think especially for Roots music performers, there’s a fear when you get into the recording studio because so much of Roots music, whether it’s Bluegrass or Rockabilly or Blues, whatever it is, is based on the interaction between the artist and the audience. With the Blasters, there’s maybe one or two tracks where we captured what we did live in front of an audience in the studio.  Sadly, one of them wasn’t released until 25 years after it was recorded, but we had a couple moments where we could imagine the audience.  But in general, you get in there and it’s a whole different world. We were going into these state of the art studios like Ocean Way or places like that, which were great studios, but we were trying to make music that was recorded on two microphones like back in the 40s.    And now you got every square inch of the studio is mic’d you know?  So, it’s a little intimidating.  So, what’s changed for me is, thanks to the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to have a long career, I’m pretty relaxed (recording digitally).  I don’t know what it is psychologically, but when there’s that big reel of two-inch tape, that was intimidating to me.  Each reel cost a lot of money and you had 15 minutes and you better God damn get it right!  With digital it’s like, “Well, we’ve got about five hours here on this hard drive, let’s screw around.  It doesn’t intimidate me like tape did.

SPAZ:   Who plays with you on the album?
DAVE:  On half the album is Bob Glaub on bass and Don Heffington on drums.  I use them a lot when I record out here in LA, at home. The other half of the record is my touring band – bass player’s name is Brad Fordham and the drummer is Lisa Pankratz and they’re great. We did one set of sessions with Bob and Don that were more exploratory - “Is this gonna work?”  Once I realized that yeah, it’s gonna work then it was okay and three weeks later, we did a second three days in the studio with Brad and Lisa. And Gene Taylor played the piano.  Gene wasn’t in the country when we did the first batch.    I think it was the last couple days in November, first couple days in December when we did the first recordings. Then on January 2, we went in and spent like three days recording the other tracks with Gene and Lisa and Brad.

SPAZ:  You and Dave used to sneak into like Blues clubs when you were younger. What was it that initially drew you to the Blues or Americana as opposed to bands like The Beatles and The Kinks?
PHIL:  I kind of like The Kinks. (laughs) Well, we had cousins who were older than us.  One was our cousin Donna, who was maybe 12 years older – she used to babysit us and she was very much into Rhythm and Blues and Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, and Joe Turner. Donna was our favorite cousin so that sort of rooted us there and then. Our cousin Mike was into the Folk scene in the early and middle ‘60s.  I played harmonica and I remember he played me a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee record and that was just overwhelming to me.  I can’t say what attracted me particularly to Blues other than its authenticity and the use of the voice to project everything.  I’d actually had lessons from Sonny Terry when I was 12 or 13 on the harmonica, and that made me a Blues guy.  I’d played in a band by that time, as well.  When I first saw this Big Bill Broonzy album that I bought at a department store, based on the fact that it said Big Bill Blues, but the picture on the cover was so enticing.  The moment I put it on, his voice was so beckoning and so natural. He was a big guy with all of the accoutrements that go with a Blues player, and he became a favorite.  I started doing those songs, a lot of the ones that are on the record, all by myself almost immediately.  I met Eddie ‘Cleanhead’  Vinson when I was a teen and when I met Eddie,  he was singing ‘Just a Dream,’ the Bill Broonzy song. I mentioned I was a Big Bill fan and he told me what a big fan he was and how Bill Broonzy had helped him when he was a young guy, and encouraged him to play the Blues.  That made a very strong bond.  I was not old enough to have ever seen Big Bill, but through knowing Eddie Vinson and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee -everybody spoke so highly of Big Bill.
DAVE:  Big Bill was our first exposure to pre-war Blues and he was a good catalyst because of his variety of songs and the gregariousness of his voice.  Even when he was singing about violent themes, he just had this gregarious voice that just drew you in. I think that’s one of the reasons why he had a long career - 30 some years.
SPAZ:  On Record Store Day, you released 10 inch EP.  Was that sort homage to the old Blues records and that came out in the ’30s, ‘40s, and 50s?
PHIL:  Absolutely.  And the ‘20s!  The whole artistic look of that is a throwback to that.  I think the thing looks great and sounds good.

SPAZ:  Recently I read that you were given the opportunity to play one of Big Bill’s guitars.  Was that a pretty emotional experience?
DAVE:  Yeah, it was a very emotional experience.  It was his 1946 Martin and they had it at the Old Town School of Folk Music because he was the first act to play in the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and when he died, they wanted to showcase the guitar – and it was the guitar that he used on all the European tours.  It wasn’t the one that he used playing the bars in Chicago - it was the one he used on all the Folk recordings that he did in the late ‘40s up to the late ‘50s when he passed away.  He had made handmade stamps that are stamped inside the guitar – ‘Big Bill Broonzy, Chicago, Illinois.’  He was afraid of it being stolen. Then there is a small little mother of pearl kind of decoration that he glued onto the headstock. You sit down with his guitar and play some of his songs, and it’s just like, “Oh my God!”  And the neck was a certain size, you could see,
“Oh, that’s how he did this!” - it was because the neck was a shorter scale and he could reach each note easier than if you were playing on a full scale guitar. But the transcendental quality of touching his guitar and playing it - I’ve never done  anything like that.  I’ve never touched Woody Guthrie’s guitar. I’ve never touched Elmore James’ guitar.  But It was Big Bill’s guitar and your hair is standing up on the back of your neck…
SPAZ:  Are you surprised by the excitement and anticipation that your fan base has for this record?
PHIL:  Yeah, I guess I am.  There’s always excitement whenever David and I do something together and we’ve done a few things over the last few years.  But, yeah, I’m surprised.  There’s quite a tour coming up and all the interviews and everything.  It’s been a while since it’s been that hectic of a pace.

SPAZ:  Now, you said that you guys are going to be doing some shows together.  Is it going to be primarily tracks from the album and old Blues classics or will you also be throwing some Blasters and solo stuff in there as well?
PHIL:  Yeah, there’ll be some Blasters and some of the solo stuff - some of David’s and some of mine.  There’s not a full set of the Big Bill stuff. We’ll do some classic Blues stuff, too.  There’ll be a full swath of the Alvin Brothers collaborations, as well as the solo stuff.

SPAZ:  Though originally shoehorned in with the Rockabilly scene, The Blasters are now touted as one of the first modern Roots/Americana bands of our generation.  How does that make you feel?
PHIL:  Yeah, well, that’s good. We tried to force that by saying that we played American music, you know?  Just about all of that kind of stuff is all rooted in the same area - in the same river of style - to the extent that we were able to shoehorn ourselves into that scene. We played it with great energy, and that was the part that allowed us to play in Punk shows.  So, that’s a great tip of the hat and I’m proud of that.
DAVE:  I’m a songwriter and so when I started writing songs for The Blasters, The Blasters were basically, for lack of a better label, we were a Rhythm & Blues band. We did Junior Parker. Yeah, we did Carl Perkins too.  But, between the way I played guitar and the way we played as a unit, when I started writing songs I knew that I could maybe write songs that were not straight Blues or straight R & B or even straight Rockabilly.  There’s a combination of all that stuff wrapped up. Between my brother’s vocals and the way that the guys played and then my songs, that’s what kind of made us unique from your average Blues band on the corner. I always bristle when labels come up because as a person and as a musician, I’m a Blue’s guy.  That’s what I am.  If you put me in front of the Boston Pops Orchestra, I’ll play guitar like Johnny “Guitar” Watson or Lightnin Hopkins.  It’s just where I naturally go.  But, as a songwriter, I don’t want to be hemmed in by any kind of labels. I try to keep things varied. I didn’t mind in the ‘80s when we were called Rockabilly too much.  Over the 30 something years of my career, whatever I’ve done has been called a lot of things.  And it’s all fine.  But the way I view myself is I’m a Blues player that writes songs that aren’t necessarily Blues. 

SPAZ:  What’s next for Dave and Phil Alvin?
PHIL:  When we finish this tour, I’ll probably do a Blasters record and go on from there. Hopefully, I may make a solo record but I think the Blasters will come first. 
DAVE:  Hell if I know.  We’re touring all year so when that tour is over, I’ll have a better idea.

SPAZ:  Any chance of another album together or is it just a day-by-day thing?
PHIL:  Oh, it’s a day-by-day thing.  Somebody asked us at the Grammy Museum if we would we do another record and David said “Yeah, a Bing Crosby record!”  (laughs)  We’re big Bing Crosby fans, too.   
DAVE: I’m sure at some point Phil and I will do another record together. If we pick something, it might be left field, you know? We’re just not the kind of guys that want to be pinned down.

Thanks to Dave and Phil Alvin
Special thanks to Steve Dixon and Dana House





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