Dave Alvin: "It’s All About Volume"
Going back to your last CD and the song “Downey Girl”—Karen Carpenter was five years older than you—did you know her?
More than that! [Author’s note: sorry, Dave, 5 years is right.] No. You would see Richard Carpenter driving around town in a van with the Carpenters written on the side—a fancy-ass van. There used to a music store called Downey Music and it was one of those music stores where you could buy a tenor sax or an album in the record area. They also had this semi-circular glass encased rehearsal room and bands would go in there and rehearse. The drawback was while you were rehearsing everyone in the store could watch and listen. I was 12 and I would ride my bike over there and stand around. One time Richard and Karen were in there rehearsing right before they got their deal with A&M. Believe it or not they started out as jazz combo and Richard was a piano jazz prodigy—the chops were high in the Carpenter family. That was the only time I ever saw her, playing drums, rehearsing at Downy Music. The song is more of a tribute to a hometown girl. It might not be my kind of a deal, my musical thing—but we might have eaten at the same burger joint.
I don’t think she was doing much eating.
We drove the same streets.
Having been in X, one of the seminal punk rock bands of all time and also being a guy who’s noted for bringing back American Roots music—what inside you is the thread that joins these genres together?
What it all boils down to is it’s all about volume. Without sounding like an old man, in the old days punk rock, especially the LA scene—there wasn’t a cookie cutter approach to it. To get arcane—until certain bands created a formula-drive approach there wasn’t certain way you had to sound to be punk rock. The music world until the late 70s and early 80s was so different that’s it’s really hard for people to understand how confining and claustrophobic and soul-numbing it was. Punk rock was a way to have fun and not be so goddam soul-killing. I was a child in the 1960’s, eight and nine years old and so I remember playing my mom’s AM radio and being so excited to turn it on and hear what songs came out of it. Eventually it became, “Turn that radio off!”
So, in the beginning of punk rock there was no “one way” to express yourself.
In the bands, in the fans everyone had their weird agenda. It wasn’t like a cult—where we follow the leader and the leader is Siouxsie Sue or Johnny Ramone. There were certainly people like that but the whole movement and scene wasn’t based one or two people, it was based on individuality. The Clash didn’t sound like the Sex Pistols. The Ramones didn’t sound like the¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬ X. Going down the line they all sounded different—at the time that was the case. Black Flag or the Plimsouls or the Go-Go’s or more obscure acts like the Weirdo’s, Scream or Wall of Voodoo—they were all different. The main thing that united everybody was that we were on the outside. To answer your question, maybe finally, what attracts me are things that really aren’t in the mainstream. Roots music flirts with the mainstream, or the mainstream flirts with it—so it comes and goes in relationship to the Pop music world. Roots music lives under a rock and every now and then somebody or something lifts up that rock and exposes it to the sunlight, but to survive it has to scurry back under the rock. Roots like it where it’s dark and shady.
There’s a connection between country singers like Alan Jackson and what is called American Roots music—yet, I find them to be two completely different animals. It’s my opinion that this streamlined sentimental crap called country is not about any country I want to be a part of. When I listen to your record for example, I hear an artistic soul is constantly questioning himself—and to me, that is what being American is all about.
Most music that comes out of Nashville isn’t country music, its suburban pop. If you look at the history of it all you can find both. Hank Williams had “Say it ain’t so Joe,” his anti-Stalin thing. There were World War Two and Cold War songs and before that World War One and Spanish American War songs. The thing that interests me are the songwriters that do ask questions. A lot of people look to songwriters for answers and that might be a holdover from the 60s, but in blues, and the older American songs they don’t have answers they just tell stories—and that has been the core of my influence. My characters and my songs they are trying to figure things out. In my songs you don’t hear somebody go, “Put your hands together and do the twist! It’s going to change the world.” My characters would ask, “Should I do the twist?”
Which is a lot more honest.
There is that attitude in blues. Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, Leroy Carr, Percy Mayfield. And even in people that are considered country like Guy Clark, Steve Young. You find it where you find it. To go back to the modern Nashville thing—there’s very talented people making songs about marketing. In the 1970s there were a lot of great country songwriters like Mickey Newbury, Billy Joe Shaver who could write and sometimes have hit songs sung by other people—that were more realistic and complicated lyrically. It wasn’t cut and dry and it wasn’t about selling to the lowest common denominator. I lived in Nashville for a while and the thing I took away from it was it was no different than living in Hollywood—they are both entertainment industries. Nashville doesn’t want to technically deal with what is a great song, the same way Hollywood doesn’t want to technically deal with what is a great script—they both just want to know—what is the quickest, easiest way to make a lot of money. Although, if you want to get deep about it, Nashville expresses things that a large chuck of the population feel and think—It ain’t my thing, but I also don’t like movies that insult what little intelligence I have.