He’s got the California Blues: An Interview with Dave Alvin
When I fantasize about a career in music, I think about being in some amazing bands that mix roots music flavors with punk rock energy and attitude. It would be cool to bring a sophistication to the way I play this high-octane music. I’d also like to write amazing songs that would not only be great for my band but would be able to be covered by other artists who make them their own. After a while, I think I might go solo and make the kind of blues and roots music that’s always been my passion, and I could also pick original and talented people to collaborate with, the kind of collaboration that would bring out the best of everyone involved. Then I’d realize I just want to be the great Dave Alvin.
After forming the Blasters with his brother Phil Alvin, Dave went on to join the Knitters and then eventually X. He went on to a solo career that has allowed him to explore blues, country, rock, and anywhere else his musical whims took him. Alvin talks about all of that and his recent album, Downey To Lubbock, with Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
SLUG: What’s it been like to share the bill with Jimmie Dale Gilmore?
Dave Alvin: I’ve known Jimmie for so long—30 years or so—we’ve just never played together. Last year, we did some acoustic tours, and it was pretty obvious that, musically, there’s a little bit of difference between us, but not much. We were surprised that we both had fans that didn’t know the other guy. We just assumed that everybody that would know Jimmie Dale Gilmore would also know Dave Alvin and vice versa, so it’s cool to spread the word for both of us.
SLUG: What clicked with you and Jimmie the made you want to work with him?
D.A.: Same roots. One of the things that we discovered is that Jimmy, when he was 19, left Lubbock, Texas, and came up to California and used to hang out at this blues club called the Ashgrove, which was where my brother and I used to go to when I was only 13 years old. So, we probably crossed paths and didn’t even know it. That’s where my brother Phil and I met and got to know Lightnin’ Hopkins and Son House and all these great bluesmen, and Jimmie knew them all too. That’s something I wanted to bring out on this record: Jimmy has a great folk blues side, and I wanted to get him doing that. It hasn’t really been explored very deeply in his records, but he does that material very well.
SLUG: Who are the guitar players to get you to pick up the instrument?
D.A.: Oh man, millions [laughs]. Since I was a kid, I always loved it. When I was a little—kid I’m not exaggerating—there was like 100 great guitar players in my area in the ’60s. I remember getting up on Saturday mornings and [hearing] surf bands playing in their garages doing “Wipe Out,” and I would just stare through window or just sit in their driveway watching these guys. The main blues guys for me are Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Magic Sam, two great electric-blues guitar players. When I was 13, I saw Jimi Hendrix twice, and that sealed the deal for me. I was blown away. I don’t really try and play like him because I don’t believe anyone else can, but it made me want to play.
SLUG: What did getting to know guys like Lightin’ Hopkins and Big Joe Turner teach you?
D.A.: To make it simple, it taught me that there are various different sides to every story and that you’re not often told about these other viewpoints. We learned that there’s an African- American viewpoint, there’s a Hispanic viewpoint, a working-class viewpoint, and on and on, and we learned to appreciate them. Those artists had to struggle to do everything they did, and that was an inspiration. We would try and imitate them note for note, but we learned pretty early on that we couldn’t play like Lightnin’ or T-bone Walker, but that’s what led us to follow our own path.
SLUG: What does your own sound mean to you?
D.A.: I like that you can hear my guitar playing a mile away and I don’t mean volume—you can hear me, and it’s like, “Oh, there’s Dave kind of screwing that up,” [laughs] but I’m screwing it up in my own way. There’s an album coming out next year of a band I reunited with called the Flesh Eaters, and it’s really odd, different music. When it comes to my solos, I’m doing all same things I always do. It’s the same influences, it’s just me.
SLUG: Blues and roots artists aren’t usually from California, how does being from California affect that sound of yours?
D.A.: California has always been of melting pot of music. I interviewed Buck Owens once, years ago, and he said in regards to the difference between West Coast and East Coast country music, he said it was “belt-buckle-polishing music” on the West Coast, meaning that they were dancing so close they were rubbing their belt buckles. In the South, they would dance at an arm’s length from each other, for propriety’s sake. People forget that Merle Haggard lived here his whole life, which is pretty good, and many of the Texas guys like T-bone Walker moved out here and stayed. So that was my childhood, getting to absorb all of it.
SLUG: Do you think of yourself as a singer, songwriter, or guitar player first?
D.A.: When I’m dead and gone, if I remember at all, it’ll be as a songwriter. When I write a song, it tends to be pretty good—not saying that they’re all good, but they’re good when they are. Like “Marie Marie,” I couldn’t believe I wrote when I first read it— I still can’t believe I wrote it. It’s one of those songs that just plays itself—that’s probably why it gets covered a lot. Buckwheat Zydeco recorded it, and he was, at the time, a reigning king of zydeco. So now all these Louisiana bar bands cover it, and when I meet some of these guys, they won’t believe me that I wrote it. The song has just gone on to live a life of its own.
Dave has always been a true original. He’s followed his passion for music, and it’s taken him through an incredible career that is to be envious of. Catch Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore onstage together at the State Room on Tuesday, Sept. 25.