Usually, with a new album on the way, hard-working blues-rockabilly guitarist Dave Alvin would be out on tour. On his own or with his various bands — X, The Blasters, The Knitters, The Flesh Eaters or alongside Jimmie Dale Gilmore or his vocalist brother Phil Alvin — he’s never wasted time getting the word out. But 2020, of course, has altered his routine. As his latest anthology “From An Old Guitar: Rare and Unreleased Recordings” was released Nov. 20, he was relaxing at home in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood, savoring one of his favorite comfort foods: old-school, nothing fancy doughnuts from a local mom-and-pop shop he’s been frequenting for years. He’s enjoying sentimental favorites from childhood, like silver frosting with chocolate sprinkles on white cake, even though, during the pandemic, he has to point to what he wants to a guy behind the counter in gloves and a mask, and there’s a big plexiglass shield between him and the customers. Lockdown has given Alvin time to reflect on his colorful 43-year career, he adds, since COVID-19 canceled spring concerts for his latest project, The Third Mind, with Camper Van Beethoven bassist Victor Krummenacher, which was scheduled to play The Chapel in San Francisco on April 15. Mentioning that he was “always gone” last year, he says this year has been the polar opposite.
The L.A. punk scene that birthed The Blasters in the early 1980s — with X, Rank and File, The Gun Club, Lone Justice — was just a magical time.
Yeah. And later on, Dwight (Yoakam) and (Los) Lobos came along. I kind of view it that way, too. And once The Blasters started touring heavily, it was always a drag to leave L.A. because so much was going on. Then you’d be gone for three or four months, and you’d come home and have to reacquaint yourself with the scene. But for a while there, from about ’79 to ’84, it was always inspirational. You could go out on a Tuesday night and see some great band playing to nobody. I remember going to the Palomino one Monday night and seeing Dwight playing to 20 people. And right then, I knew he was going to be a star. We took him out on the road to open for us.
Do any of these “Old Guitar” songs date that far back?
I think the oldest track is “Mobile Blue,” the Mickey Newbury song, and I recorded that when I did an album called “Public Domain” (2000) — it was all traditional folk songs. So we cut it for a Mickey tribute album while we were in the studio doing that. But most of the record is from around 2005 to 2016.
And who knew the cartoon Krazy Kat had his own anthem via your “Krazy and Ignatz”?
Ha! Exactly! I wanted to come up with some kind of duet for me and Cindy Cashdollar when we were making the album “Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women” (2009), and I just thought, “You know, I play guitar sort of like Ignatz — I throw bricks. And Cindy’s very feline, so we will play the parts. I will play Ignatz and she will be a beautiful kitty!”
But you had a surprise cover early in your career when the British rockabilly cat Shakin’ Stevens covered The Blasters’ signature “Marie Marie,” as I recall.
Yes. And “Marie Marie” was such a huge hit for him everywhere on earth except the United States. And why that was I really don’t know. But it was such a big hit internationally, it started getting covers by all these other guys — even a couple of women — based on the Shakin’ Stevens version. So it was great to hear it sung in all these different languages, everything from French to Finnish to Japanese. As a songwriter, it tickled the hell outta me.
I went to the Chapel on April 15. You weren’t there!
Yeah. Apparently there was a — ahem — bug in the air. And that was really frustrating. We’ve had to cancel two Third Mind tours now, and Victor and I had been wanting to work together for a long time. When he and I went into the studio, the only thing we agreed on beforehand was what key we were in, so the whole idea of “we don’t know what we’re recording” was very liberating. But I’ve been very lucky and blessed in my career, because I have a following that will follow me down certain paths — acoustic music, loud electric music, straight blues records like I recently did with my brother Phil, and even free-form music like The Third Mind. And people have stuck with me over the years, so I can always go into a studio and record these songs.