Five questions with: Dave Alvin

Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore backed by The Guilty Ones

The Mill — Thursday, Aug. 30 at 8 p.m.

Dave Alvin plays The Mill on Aug. 30. — video still

On Aug. 30 at 8 p.m. (tickets: $25.00), The Mill will host Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, two independent legends who have collaborated on a new album, Downey to Lubbock, and are touring for it, backed by The Guilty Ones. Alvin has had what he calls a “checkered” musical career, moving from the Blasters and X to a career that includes acting and poetry. His true love, however, has always been a good song. Alvin spent a few minutes talking with me with in an unhurried, deep and personal fashion, in advance of their entrance into Iowa City.

You’ve had a long and relatively varied musical career. How do conventional genres of music inform or open directions that you decide to take as you experiment as an artist?

I’ve been called just about everything, and it really just boils down to basically being a blues guy. But I’m a songwriter, and I don’t want to be limited by anything. I’m basically attracted to decent songs, and it doesn’t matter the genre — folk, blues, whatever. I grew up in two sort of golden ages of radio as a kid — the tail end of the ’50s and the ’60s top 40 gave you Smokey Robinson, Sam Cooke, the Beatles … When you’re a kid and soaking all that in, you don’t process it as rhythm and blues. It’s just a great song. I’ve managed to keep that innocence, that open mindedness. When I sit down to play guitar, the modes and scales I use tend to be the blues scale. I love the blues form, and I was influenced by old blues performers (which is something that Jimmy and I share). But I can love about anything and want to play it. But limiting yourself, as an artist — it’s not comfortable for me.

What’s been the most frustrating part of being a musician throughout your career? How have these frustrations fueled your growth as an artist and performer? And has that changed with the internet?

How long do you have? [Laugh] The most frustrating is a combination of being taken seriously and getting attention and airplay. In the old days, when I was in the Blasters, there was sort of a war, a cultural war, between new music acts and FM radio. The program directors of radio stations were only going to play — this is the early 80’s — certain kinds of music. That was frustrating for me and the Blasters and a lot of friends of ours, where 10 years later bands like Pearl Jam or Nirvana, that 10 years previously would have been shunned, were embraced wholeheartedly. You work really hard on limited budgets and limited whatever to make something you want people to hear, and sometimes people hear it and sometimes they don’t. When you’re working the odd side of the musical street, it can be frustrating when you feel like your best work is ignored.

[Regarding the internet] Yes and no. It’s changed in that there’s no longer a monopoly of program directors saying, “This is classic rock,” or, “This is urban.” But with the internet, it’s wide open — and there’s so much information sent out to people. In a way it is easier, but even more difficult: Whether you’re young, middle aged, or old — how do you get people to listen to your stuff? You can put it on YouTube or Amazon or iTunes … it doesn’t mean people are going to hear it …

There are certain rules to the music business and certain old ways of doing things aren’t good, but some things haven’t changed. The power of a publicist hasn’t changed, and the power of a major label hasn’t changed … Most people want to see whether Columbia Records says that something is okay. A few years ago, I did a song for a TV show called “Justified,” and it was amazing the uptick I got after that.

What’s your favorite part of playing music? When is it that one of your songs comes to life in the best or clearest way?

The thing I like most is playing it live — that’s why I’m on the road. I’m addicted to that. The people I idolized as a kid played until they dropped, and that’s my goal … and that of a lot of musicians, especially in roots style. I can’t think of a better way to live your life. There’s a semi-religious, spiritual aspect to playing music live, especially oddball music like I play, the stuff that isn’t on the top 40. The fans you draw tend to be people who like what you like. Whether you’re a Grateful Dead cover band or a punk rock show, there’s a sense of community. You feed on that as a performer, and it’s addictive. Bob Dylan’s either touring because he has a lot of debt, or because it’s what makes you feel immortal.

A song comes to life when you don’t screw it up — if you have a brand new song, and it clicks with the band, or the audience, or you. You don’t really know if a song is good unless you get some feedback.

What’s something that you still hope to accomplish as an artist that you haven’t yet begun to explore?


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The situation for guys like me is limited budgets. Certain things that I’d love to do, I can’t do because I don’t have the budget. When I was in the Blasters, our third record for Warner Brothers, we had a $90,000 recording budget. In X, we had 150 maybe. But as a solo writer — that’s it. I know all the tricks of how to make a $25,000 or $14,000 record sound like a $100,000 one. You can’t compete — but you can try. Certain things that you could want to do, you can’t afford. On the new album, one of my old friend plays accordion, which is nice. Van Dyke Parks is one of the great arrangers, for strings. I’d love to do a whole album with strings, but I can’t afford it … but who knows? Maybe an orchestra will call me up.

How has the best advice you’ve ever received as a person informed that’s your approach to living or performing?

In regard to songwriting: My brother and I followed blues singers, like Big Joe Turner, and I wrote a song in my head. When I went to sing it to him I couldn’t remember. “If you can’t remember it, it ain’t no good to begin with.” I know a lot of songwriters, and a lot of people live by their home tape machine. There’s no rules in songwriting. But: If I can’t remember it, it’s no good. When Smokey wrote “My Girl” or Gershwin did “I Got Rhythm,” they didn’t have a tape machine.

Another one: My late best friend was a singer named Chris Gaffney. He’d imitate a club owner who’d say “Just go do what you do.” And so I do.

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