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Monday, March 5, 2012

Interview with Dave Alvin: Survivor of the Fittest

Photo by Beth Herzhaft

Dave Alvin is the first to admit he's not the most prolific of songwriters. He is still, however, a highly regarded writer of life-scape songs. It seems the hectic time-oriented pace of a traveling musician doesn't always allow for quiet corner time.  "There just isn't a lot of time for critical, creative, or any kind of thinking," Alvin said with a gruff little chuckle. "The way I tour it's very hard to write on the road; I've been touring the same way for 30 years." Despite the rigors of this work situation Alvin's songs have been covered by Dwight Yoakam, James McMurtry, and Alejandro Escovedo. Alvin's on-the-go writing process changed slightly in 2009 when he toured with the Guilty Women. "At full force it was an eight piece band," Alvin said. This time around the extra drivers got him out of some wheel duty. "I love to drive one of the vehicles and it's relaxing for me," Alvin said. "But now I could say, 'Here, you drive for a while. I'm going to sit and write some songs.'" The reprieve granted him much needed space to write. Soon after he was bringing in tunes from the road and making things happen once he got home. "I'd have a week or two off back home in California. I'd call up some friends, go in the recording studio, and cut a song. Then I'd go back out on the road." These recordings became the basis for his esteemed Eleven Eleven release. But there is something more to learn about Alvin in that he's something of survivor. So other than having former Blaster saxophonist Lee Allen as an early adviser in the music scene, he seems all right. "Lee taught a lot of us guys life survival techniques," Alvin said. "He showed us how to survive bad times and good times. Both have their pitfalls and perils. He said, try to show up on time--all those little things," Alvin said with a laugh. He says the importance of going into the music business with a sound frame of mind cannot be understated. "It's a weird surreal life sometimes," he admits. "When you're around long term survivors of this lifestyle it will either send you running toward the exits or into more of a full blown embrace of trying to make a living doing this," Alvin said. "Musically it affects you one way but when you know guys personally it affects you another way. The thing Lee taught me and Steve Berlin (Alvin's former band mate in Blasters) of Los Lobos is how to still love doing this." Alvin, with a career spanning thirty-plus years, knows how rough it is out there. "Something you learn from survivors is how to pack up all your blues and troubles and keep moving ahead," Alvin noted. "Whether there's hope or not you have to keep telling yourself there is or you're not getting out of bed in the morning." To his credit Dave Alvin has done several albums of acoustic music and several electric rock releases. He says that in concert, just like Richard Thompson, he tries to negotiate the heady rapids between the two presentations. "It's all the same to me," Alvin said of the songs performed each night. "They are the same notes on the guitar whether they're loud or quiet. But it boils down to what the song wants. I know that sounds crazy but it's the truth. A lot of good songs can be played anyway you want to play them. Night and Day by Cole Porter can be played in a variety of formats. You can do it as a rock-n-roll song or a polka," Alvin said. After all that does he still plan on turning it up in Grand Rapids on March 6? "They'll be some quiet moments but otherwise it will be rocking," Alvin said with a slight laugh. "You better bring your earplugs just in case." 

Dave Alvin and the Guilty Ones at Tip Top Deluxe Bar and Grill on March 6. Doors at 7:00 pm, show at 8.
More info at Dave Alvin's website.

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