Music Interviews

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Interview by Joy Williams
published in Artist Magazine (U.S.)

Dave Alvin/The Blasters c Thom Lukas/Artist Publications

Dave Alvin of the Blasters
The Catalyst, Santa Cruz, CA 12/31/83
photo © Thom Lukas/Artist Publications
digital effects © Joy Williams/Artist Publications

“If the audience isn't digging it for some reason, we blame it on ourselves and we'll come backstage and punch each other out.”

A long time ago, though still within the lives and memories of some of us, rockabilly was born. Today, we have a so-called "rockabilly revival" happening as part of the New Wave/Punk/Post-Punk era. Who hasn't heard of the Stray Cats after umpty-jillion weeks at the top of the charts? O.K., now who has heard of, or better yet, heard, The Blasters? I have, at the San Francisco Civic Center and then again at The Catalyst in Santa Cruz and The Saddle Rack in San Jose. And let me tell you, comparing the two is like comparing that nutritionless fluff called white bread with solid whole grain—the real stuff. That's what The Blasters are, the real stuff.

With brothers Dave Alvin on lead guitar and Phil on vocals, guitar and harmonica; and John Baz on bass, Bill Bateman on drums, Gene Taylor on piano and Lee Allen and Steve Berlin on saxophones, we have the band from Downey, California that took the L.A. punk scene by storm, playing real roots music while sounding like no one else.

Here, Dave Alvin talks to us at The Catalyst in Santa Cruz about The Blasters, rockabilly and the music biz.

Q: Your new album has just been released....

DAVE: Yeah, and there's rockabilly in it, but it just doesn't sound like anybody else. There're songs on the first Slash LP that sound like The Blasters and there are other songs that sound like other people. This one just sounds like The Blasters.

Q: So, how do you feel about this evolution?

DAVE: Well, we've always sort of had our own sound but sooner or later you have to go after it, try to figure out where you're going. Carl Perkins had a sound, Elvis had a sound, and they were different. The problem with a lot of rockabilly bands is that they all sound alike. What we're trying to do is define a style. Our style is based on blues and rockabilly and such, all mixed together, but you can't really point to what's what. We did about five songs from the new album tonight. The topics are a little bit different than usual. When I started writing the songs for this album, it was real hard to write. It was real hard to write conventional sort of love songs or rockabilly songs. Although there are a couple of love songs on it, in general the love songs are sort of sour.

Q: Last time I saw you, when you were talking about the new album you said you couldn't relate to sweet, naive love songs because you'd been reading the paper and it was depressing.

DAVE: Yeah! Well, not depressing, just sort of realistic. So many bands who play roots music like us pass over the realistic side of life. There are some "high school dance" type of songs on the album but there's a fuller view of everything. When I wrote about coming in off the road, I'd found old friends from Downey had been divorced or lost their jobs and so on.

Q: Why don't you tell me a little bit about your background, about your all being from Downey.

DAVE: That's about it!

Q: Now, wait a minute...

DAVE: I mean, we all grew up just more or less playing this type of music. Lee played with Fats Domino, and we were like little white kids in the neighborhood and he and Joe Turner and Jr Walker put us under their wings and taught us how to play.

Q: The Blasters have been together about four years now, but how did you get signed on Slash?

DAVE: In those days the major labels weren't interested in signing anybody. They'd sign only those people they thought had "potential," so they'd pass up us or X or The Go-Go's. They'd drive by and see long lines of people trying to get in to see us and say, "Oh, nobody would want to listen to them." What happened was that Slash was the only record company that would even throw a brick at us. Part of the problem is, record companies tend to blame home taping and video machines, but one of the big things is that record companies don't know how to sell records anymore—what bands are good, blah, blah, blah. And it takes independents, whether it's Slash or 415 or even I.R.S. Warners, now, has been pretty good. They've worked out a new deal for Rank and File and Dream Syndicate and us and a few others, and they've signed The Plimsoles, so they're waking up.

Q: I've noticed things seem to be changing a little.

DAVE: Yeah, slowly. But you go back to the fact that albums aren't selling millions, they're selling 750,000. Part of the problem is that in the '70s everybody defined success in rock'n'roll as how many arenas you filled, and that's not really a healthy way to do it. Like right now, we sell a lot for us. As far as we're concerned we sell too many records, and yet it's not enough. We're amazed that we sell as many records as we do [12,000+ for the last album]. A band like X is amazed they sell as many records as they do. The thing the record companies have to understand is that with the economy as bad as it is now, you have to rebuild the whole structure. You can't expect The Eagles and Jackson Browne to sell a million. Fleetwood Mac isn't selling 8 million anymore, either. But when the economy turns around, the new bands will be there. Right now, I have no financial complaints. I get by. I still drive a '75 Impala. I don't want to be middle class, I'm from the middle class.

Q: What is it you do want?

DAVE: The thing about rock'n'roll is, when you see the old films of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, there's a relationship beyond... it's nothing financial. It's the reason why, after playing some place like the San Francisco Civic, we come and play smaller clubs. The important thing is to see your audience on the same level. That was the whole thing with the L.A. rock scene—it was kind of like everybody was on the same wavelength. Although, that's changed a lot. If we have a hit record, that's fine, but we're not striving for... Places like Rolling Stone magazine—all those people—still value success by how much cocaine you have, and so on.

That's what kills people, and I don't want to die. I want to be like Jerry Lee Lewis, like Muddy Waters or Bo Diddly. I want to be doing this when I'm 50 years old. The way to do it, the reason somebody like Muddy Waters is still around today and somebody who had a major hit record in 1962 isn't, is modesty and integrity. The thing about us, though, is that if the audience isn't digging it for some reason—and you can usually feel it—we blame it on ourselves, and we'll come backstage and punch each other out!

Q: How do you feel about being labeled as part of "new music?"

DAVE: When you look at the old films of early Elvis or even the black blues artists, it wasn't a cliquish thing but a community thing. Rock'n'roll came out of the hillbilly and blues communities. And it was like that when it started in L.A.—the the barriers being broken down. And I don't want to see them go back up with labels like "new wave" or "rockabilly" or whatever.


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