Whether you blame a delayed midlife crisis or the catharsis necessitated by divorce and a near-fatal bout with Hepatitis C -- a battle chronicled on his last disc, the downbeat but effective "The Boxing Mirror" (2006) -- the Texas musician rocks with a vengeance on his latest, belying the nostalgia of a concept album about his involvement in the early punk era with sounds that are absolutely vital and of the moment.
"The start of this record makes me think back to when I first became ill," Escovdeo says. "I was talking to [underground producer and musician] Chris Stamey when we had just made 'A Man Under the Influence' (2001) and he said, 'You know, this is the time for you to think about the record you have always wanted to make -- your dream record -- if it's something like "Surf's up" by the Beach Boys or "Pet Sounds," whatever it would be, now is the time.'
"I think making 'The Boxing Mirror' with [John] Cale was more of an exorcism or something; I had to get that out of my system. But with this record, I really had time to bring these characters to life--these people who had been in my life as a result of the music I have loved and the bands I was in -- and I wanted to tell that story of my musical journey."
Co-written with Chuck Prophet, a former member of Green on Red turned in-demand hired tunesmith, "Real Animal" was produced by Tony Visconti. The fact that his last two discs have been overseen by two of the most accomplished producers in rock history--Cale, the co-founder of the Velvet Underground who went on to work with Patti Smith, the Modern Lovers, the Stooges and many others, and Visconti, who helmed the glam-era classics from David Bowie and T. Rex -- speaks volumes for the way Escovedo is respected by his peers. But the musician is typically self-effacing about these experiences.
"When I work with a producer, I kind of leave it up to them to guide us. If I wanted to make my own record, I would be the producer. But when I choose a guy to produce, I really trust them with the vision as to where we're going to go with it -- unless it has gone terribly wrong, but that has never been the case for me.
"Cale was everything I expected Cale to be. I think he took us musically where I felt he could take it. I felt that he would bring out more of the chamber aspect of the music that I'd been writing, and his idea at the time was to make the strings sound like they were coming out of some ancient radio that you had dug up from the past or something. Some players were a little taken aback by that, but I was very willing to experiment with any of the sounds that John wanted to create. So it was good for me, and as a songwriter, I felt fulfilled in that sense.
"Tony was completely different," Escovedo adds. This was an excellent record to make -- we had such a great time. We cut that record in 13 days, and it only took us that amount of time because we wanted to stretch it out because we were having such a great time! With Tony, he really wanted to go for more of an organic sound. He loved the band and he wanted the band to play everything that was on the record. Chuck Prophet came in and played guitar, and he also co-wrote the whole record with me. I didn't play guitar; I just sang. It really freaked me out to kind of interpret the songs in a way I felt I hadn't done on any of my previous records."
With Prophet and other members of his regular band contributing -- including Chicago-based violinist Susan Voelz -- Escovedo channeled his "inner Iggy" and tore into songs such as "Nuns Song" and "Chip N' Tony" about, respectively, the Nuns and Rank and File, and the characters he met while touring with those groups, including the late great rock critic Lester Bangs, who shows up with "Vicks Vapor eyes" glowing. (Bangs was infamous for swallowing the wicks from Vicks nasal inhalers for a cheap, speedy rush.)
"When I approached Chuck to write this album with me, I already had the idea that this would be a story to be told in the form of songs," Escovedo says. "So we had the context of the story already, and now we just wanted to flesh out the characters. It took us a year to write the album, and he would come to out where I live, outside Austin, or I would fly to San Francisco to hang out with him there, and whenever we had the chance to meet up and write songs we would do it. We kind of approached it like writing a movie script -- we had a story board almost, with the who, what, when and where."
Appropriately enough, Escovedo's next project will likely be a movie: Renowned director Jonathan Demme has been talking about collaborating on a project along the lines of the films he made with the Talking Heads, Robyn Hitchcock and Neil Young.
"Jonathan is super busy and I'm getting busier, but whenever that happens it will happen and it will be great because I love Jonathan," Escovedo says. "Right now, the focus is on, 'We've got this great record and now we have to go out and play behind it.' And you can't ask for a better gig than Taste of Chicago and Grant Park."