10 Questions: Dave Alvin

Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women

After various projects (The Blasters, The Knitters, The Guilty Men) Dave Alvin has a new band, the Guilty Women.

The 8-piece group (Dave plus Cindy Cashdollar, Nina Gerber, Laurie Lewis, Christy McWilson, Sarah Brown, Amy Farris and Lisa Pankratz) formed for a one-off show at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival last year. Their set was so well received, they went on to record an album, which they are touring to support.

Dave took some time last week to answer a couple quick questions with a “couple long answers” about his different musical ventures, the first time he heard himself on the radio (it was here in Colorado) and what people should expect at the shows.

Q: So you’ve got all these women with you on tour, how is that different than touring with your other bands?

A: The biggest change is that the band size fluctuates because of various members’ commitments, but the main reason is economics. The full complement is eight people, and that is so expensive. So what that led to is, some of the legs of the tour are brutal. We’re talking six nights a week for two, three weeks. We’ve been out for six weeks now, and the first couple weeks out on the West coast were kind of easy going. But then once you get into the Midwest and the East, to pay the salary, to pay for gas, pay for hotel rooms, blah, blah, blah, it’s a lot of hard work. That’s been the biggest difference, the overhead.

On a gender basis, none at all. Maybe guys complain more, they say women have a higher pain tolerance than men and I would say that’s true to some extent based off this tour.

Q: Besides your instruments, what do you have to have with you on the road?

A: Usually a carton of cigarettes, if I can find them in a cheap cigarette state. I don’t take that much, I’ve been on the road for 28 years and my motto is “the less you carry, the easier life is.”

I don’t carry a laptop, I did for awhile and I’m probably going to go back to carrying a laptop because it’s the only way to communicate in some ways, now. I carry the guitars, I carry some dirty laundry and hopefully a clean shirt, that’s really about it. And occasionally a book. I wish I had a really snappy answer.

Q: What does your songwriting process look like?

A: I’ll take it any time it comes. I have friends who will get up every day and write songs and some of them stink. If I write a song and I feel like it’s a stinker, I’ll throw it away and go get a hamburger. So my songwriting process is slow, it’s messy, I’m hypercritical and there are times I wish I wasn’t that way but that’s really how I am. I’m not the most prolific songwriter but when I sit down to do it, I’m pretty good, (jokingly) “he said egotistically.”

Q: Is there a different musical approach to each of the bands you’ve been in, or is it more the combination of the musicians that make each one special?

A: You judge everything off the musicians, and what they’re capable of and what you’re capable of with them. You play with somebody and then you sit down, whether you’re going to make a record or go out and tour and you make certain judgment calls. Like, “So-and-so doesn’t like playing polkas, so let’s not play any polkas.” And it’s really that basic. I do like to make people stretch a little, because I like to make myself stretch musically. I will sometimes make people play something that maybe they normally wouldn’t play but nothing out of their comfort zone just things they wouldn’t normally play.

I’ve wound up in studios where I’ve been pushed. I’m a curve-ball thrower and like most pitchers I’m not much of a hitter. I love to throw the curve-balls, but I’ve been in recording studios, called in by certain people, thinking “What am I doing here?”

A good example is, a few years ago I got a call from Tom Waits to play guitar on a song. The whole way there and the whole time in the studio waiting around to play I was just like, “What am I doing here? I don’t belong here.” And then when it came time to do the guitar playing it was easy. There was a lot of build-up of “this is going to be different” and Tom would tell me what he was looking for and I went, “Ok, I’ll try something,” and that’s really the deal.

Over the years I’ve thrown a million curve balls. Maybe the biggest curve ball is the Guilty Women band itself. I put the band together over the phone for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco last year. Part of the band is from Austin, Texas, part of the band lives in the Bay area of California and part of the band lives in Southern California and the singer, Christy, lives up in Seattle. I knew rehearsing was out of the ballpark, there was no way the band could rehearse and so the only time to rehearse we had was literally right before we walked out on stage. I sent them eight songs and then I added a couple when we got there. We walked up and, literally with no rehearsal and in front of 12,000 people, played an amazing set. Once you’re dealing with musicians on that level, you can do just about anything.

Q: There’s a quote on your website about how you play both kinds of folk music, quiet and loud. What do you consider to be the difference?

A: One’s louder, it’s that simple. It’s the same notes. The definition of folk music is something that’s very difficult to define and people will start fights and wars over it and my definition is that if you come out of the roots tradition, meaning if you could out of blues and spirituals and murder ballads and all the things from the 19th century and before and the early 20th, if that is your musical background then you can play it just about any damn way you want whether you play it on an acoustic guitar, whether you plug it in and play the exact same notes on an electric.

To me, by defining it that way it expands it from just being some guy or gal in the corner coffee house with an acoustic guitar singing songs that they wrote about their girlfriend leaving, it expands it to the whole realm of American traditional music, whether it’s blues, electric blues, rockabilly, doo-wop, Western swing, that’s all folk music to me.

You don’t have to be a sensitive singer-songwriter, that’s not all folk music is but I think that’s a lot of the way people define it. I am a sensitive singer-songwriter, so I can say this but you get what I’m saying. There are a lot of people that hate electric, loud music and I know a lot of acoustic musicians in the folk world that hate electric music and I respect that, I think that’s great, I think that’s fine and valid. But, that’s no reason to not say that some rockabilly band down the street isn’t playing folk music, too. It all comes from the same exact place.

Q: What were your life ambitions before you decided to become a musician?

A: I wanted to be cool, that’s about it. I wanted to play music from an early age which is one of the reasons why when I was a certain age I started sneaking into clubs. I had three older cousins, they were like 10, 12 years older than me, we’re talking about when I was like five and six. My cousin Donna was a wild girl, with a beehive hairdo and a jacked up ’49 Ford and she was an R&B chick. She liked Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner and doo-wop and rockabilly and things like that. My cousin Mike played acoustic guitar and banjo and he liked Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and folk blues kinds of things. And then my cousin JJ grew up on a ranch and he liked Buck Owens.

My view of the musical universe was really based on my older cousins’ tastes and by the time I was 11 or 12, I was collecting old records and by the time I was 13 or 14, my brother and I were sneaking into bars. It was like, “We like this music, where can we go hear it?” At the same time, my mom would drive me to see Jimi Hendrix and a year later we were coping rides from guys to get to a club like the Ash Grove or to neighborhood bars. In those days, where we lived, you could find blues and honky-tonk music and all that stuff in neighborhood bars and that was my education to a great extent.

Q: Where were you when you heard yourself on the radio for the first time?

A: For the first time ever? Unknowingly? Meaning, there used to be a punk rock show on in the late ’70s, early ’80s in LA called “Rodney on the Rocks,” but you would kind of know in advance if Rodney was going to play you.

But the first time I ever heard it, unprompted or not going into a radio station and saying, “Hey, we’re the Blasters,” was between Denver and Colorado Springs. We had played, I forget the name, it wasn’t the Rainbow but we had played somewhere in Denver and the next morning we were driving down to play Santa Fe and it was a big bright sunny day out there where the Rockies meet the plains we heard a song that I’d written called “American Music,” this would be about 1981 or something. It was some college station. And that was it, you know, foot on the accelerator and we jumped up and down because there you were, a long way from home and suddenly you’re on the radio.

It’s the best feeling in the world, especially when it’s a surprise. It’s kind of corny to say, but you do have like a five second delay, “Hey, that sounds familiar… I know that voice… I know that song… Hey! That’s me!” It really does happen that way. Either that, or I’m really dumb.

Q: What are your musical guilty pleasures?

A: Tons, I love music. I’m a fan more than anything. You mean awful songs that I shouldn’t like? Things like the Chi-Lites… (sings) “cause I see her face everywhere I go, on the street or in the picture show, have you seen her?” Like ’70s R&B, that’s a guilty pleasure. For the past couple days I’ve had that song, (sings) “Darling, you are my shining star, don’t you go.” Bing Crosby is a guilty pleasure of mine, I love Bing Crosby. I go all over the place. Most musicians are like that, most musicians hear anything, whether it’s Arcade Fire or Thelonious Monk and go, ‘What can I learn, what can I get out of this?’ I have tried to like some acts that people have said are good and I just can’t find a thing about them that I like. At the worst case you say, ‘The drummer’s great, what a drummer. The song’s horrid but boy, what a drummer.”

Q: What should people expect at the Swallow Hill show?

A: A little bit of everything, you’re going to get some quite folk music and at the end you’ll get some loud folk music.

But what’s amazing about these shows is watching the audience. There have been a lot of great women bands, the Go-Gos, Sleater-Kinney, L7, and there’s even been all-female bluegrass bands but there’s never really been an all-women, roots rock, muscular band. Sometimes you look out at the audience when Cindy Cashdollar, the steel player, is going to town, or like I said, the set runs from very quite, wistful, tearful and then twenty minutes later, it’s a brawl. And to look out and see the looks on women’s faces is amazing. I don’t mean to sound like a male feminist, but it’s really something. It’s like an empowerment thing where the gals in the audience are going, ‘Oh my God, these women can kick ass’ and on the other hand I look out, especially when it gets very muscular, musically, I look out and the guys are enjoying the fact that it can still rock, you don’t have to tame it down because it’s “women” and so that’s what I look forward to every night.

You’re going to get a lot of the songs from the Guilty Women CD and some of my songs from other projects and a lot of laughs. It’s a damn good show.

Cindy Cashdollar will be playing steel, Christy McWilson will be singing, she’s my vocal foil. Amy Farris will be playing violin and singing, Sarah Brown will be playing bass, Lisa Pankratz will be destroying the drum kit. Laurie Lewis is not going to be with us, but Nina Gerber might. Sometimes I don’t know until I get there.

Q: Is there anything people listening to your music need to know?

A: Yeah. “Women rock.” How’s that?

Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women will be recording an e-Town special on 8/12 and they’ll be at Swallow Hill for a full show on 8/13.

Check DaveAlvin.net for more info.

Photo by Todd Wolfson

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