Spending ‘Lost Time’ With Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin

Dave and Phil Alvin talk with Pollstar about their latest album and their fall tour supporting it.  The siblings also delved into their history as part of Los Angeles’ late ’70s / early ’80s punk scene and cleared the air as to which brother is the most stubborn of the two.

Speaking with the Alvins (Dave is 59. Phil 62) is like talking with two national treasures.  Not only are they the co-founders of The Blasters, but Dave spent a year playing guitar in seminal L.A. band X.  Phil continues to lead The Blasters through the new millennium while Dave focuses on his solo projects, including train-based music adventures. The result is two artists that have built careers doing the music they want to do.

Lost Time is the new disc from the brothers, arriving Sept. 18 on Yep Roc Records.  The album features the Alvins paying tribute to some of the blues masters that have influenced them.  While the brothers honor several musician throughout the course of the album, four songs are associated with Big Joe Turner – a testimony to the Alvins’ love and respect for the blues man who they met as teenagers and would eventually mentor them.

But the conversation wasn’t solely about the album or the brothers’ past achievements.  Phil talked about how the dynamics of singing differ on this tour compared to Blasters’ shows and Dave gave us the backstories on how some of his songs ended up on television shows like “The Sopranos,” “Girls” and “Justified.”

The brothers also talked about who was the most stubborn, who might have been bossier back in the day and their years as teenagers discovering new music.  But regardless of the topic, the one thing that comes across when talking with the Alvins is that they are brothers that love working together – no simple accomplishment in a business that has given us battling siblings in acts such as The Kinks, Oasis and The Everly Brothers.

Photo: Jeff Fasano

How did you choose the songs on the album?

Dave: Most of them are songs he’s been singing since he was 13, 14 years old.  I just wanted to get him on tape because he’s such a great and unique singer. 

Who’s the most stubborn of the two?

Phil: We’re both pretty stubborn.  I’m a little less stubborn than I used to be.  David has mellowed.  There are no fights, or anything.

Dave: You have to be a little stubborn in my line of work to be playing the kind of music we’ve been playing for a few decades.  A lot of people would say, “You’re not going anywhere playing that stuff.”  You have to have a certain positive stubbornness just to do what we do.

But, collectively, the fans have followed both of you through the years, from The Blasters through solo projects. 

Dave: That’s kind of what you shoot for.  Part of that comes from being affiliated with the L.A. punk rock, do-it-yourself scene at one point.  It goes back to, like, The Grateful Dead.  They could tour and make money and go 8-10 years between albums.  The shows were different than the records.  You could go back all the way to Ernest Tubb or Bobby “Blue” Bland.  If you deliver live you can establish a bond of community between you and your audience that surpasses the normal new record – tour, new record –tour, that sort of thing.

The Blasters always had that.  We always were able to tour and survive financially whether or not we had a new album out.

Phil: I survived for a long time without [a new album] (laughs).

Dave: You look at X.  X is out there doing three, four nights at places. They haven’t put out a new record since …. Was Clinton President? Or was it Bush the first?

What part of your punk roots from the early years still travels with you today?

Dave: It’s the do-it-yourself thing.  It applies to punk rock, it applies to realms of folk music.  There are audiences out there that are not being catered to by mainstream pop media.  I’ve got nothing against Katy Perry or Taylor Swift.  They’re doing their thing and that’s great. But there are people who need something else.  It’s a certain kind of stubborn streak.  And that applies to us or Ralph Stanley.  It doesn’t matter. We’re going to do what we do.  You can call it Americana, you can call it the blues … whatever name they attach.  We just do what we do.

Do you still run into other musicians from the early Los Angeles punk rock days?

Dave: Yes and no. There are people I’ve seen, and I know Phil sees – Peter Case [of the Plimsouls] has a great new album coming out with Ben Harper on it.  I see Stan Ridgway from Wall Of Voodoo.  I hate to say it but a good chunk of those people are dead.  It was kind of burning the candle at both ends during that time period.

About two years ago after my brother’s health issues in Spain, we needed help paying his medical bills.  I made some calls and everybody was like, “Yeah.  We’ll be there.”  We did a show at The Observatory in Santa Ana – X, Los Lobos, The Knitters – that bond that came out of that era doesn’t change.  The nature of hanging out has changed in that everybody lives on the road and when they’re home they’re ensconced in their home life. Not a lot of going out, crawling around bars ’til 2, 3 in the morning like 30 years ago.  There’s a bond there between all these acts whether they’re famous, semi-famous or unknown.

Do the two of you consider yourselves to be survivors?

Phil:  Sure. So far.

Dave: We’re lucky but we got good genes.

Phil, is touring with Dave easier if only because you’re not singing every song?

Phil: For sure.  That makes it a lot easier. With The Blasters I’m singing all the time.  If not singing, playing harmonica or something. … Easier on my voice.  Easier on my energy level.

Does touring with Dave allow you to bring something to the show that you wouldn’t be able to do on a Blasters gig?

Phil: There are a lot more dynamics on this show.  I can sing a little quieter at times. … I love playing with The Blasters but this is a really great band. Lisa [Pankratz] is an excellent drummer, got a lot of dynamics.  Just the range of the material is a little broader. 

How about the instrumentation on the tour?  Do you play more than when you’re with The Blasters?

Phil: Yeah.  There’s a little more to do.  And that’s good.  Try to keep my chops in some kind of shape.

Dave: I have to add that my brother is a great harmonica player.  But, in a strange twist, he doesn’t really enjoy playing harmonica and I force him to play [it].  I have to say his harmonica-player chops  probably haven’t been this good since we first started The Blasters. His harmonica playing has become unbelievably good.

Growing up, was one of you more bossy than the other?

Phil: Oh, no (laughs).

Dave: Not me (laughs).

Phil: I was a lot bossier.  I wouldn’t use the word “bossy.”  I would use the word “persuasive.”

Dave: My brother was a great older brother in many ways.  These two records mean a lot to me is [because] we had a lot of adventures discovering old music together.  Shopping around, hunting down old 78s and 45s.  The music that we were attracted to in those days. You couldn’t go to Spotify, Pandora, Amazon or a record store and buy a CD box set of Charley Patton. … So we had a lot of adventures like that.  In that era we grew up influencing each other.  Phil would say, “Here.  This is Little Walter.” Then maybe a year later I would say, “Here. This is John Coltrane.”

Were the two of you pretty wild as teenagers?

Phil: I was pretty wild. Dave was a little more subdued at the beginning of teenage life. 

Dave: Phil, because he was bigger than me, was an easier target.  If he did something wild and stupid, he tended to get busted for it.  If I did something wild it tended to slip by while he was getting raked over the coals for whatever he did.  That’s why, sometimes, it pays to be a little brother.

What’s moving the Alvin Brothers from town to town?

Dave: A Ford 350 Econoline 15-passenger van.  There are usually rental cars … we’ll have another vehicle for merchandise and all that. We’re in the record distribution business.

Photo: Mary Andrews / ConcertLivewire.con
The Flycatcher, Tucson, Ariz.

Other than the band, how many people are on a tour?

Dave: It depends. Usually … there’s a road manager, Danny Bland, and our merch guy.  That usually does it.  Sometimes we have one or two other guys if we’re doing festivals.  We’ll have a couple of other people to help deal with whatever insanity is coming.  I’ve been touring nonstop, really, since 1990.  The Blasters first started touring, heavy, out-of-town, hit-the-highway kind of touring since around 1981. We kind of got it down by now. 

You learn this early on.  If you rent a bus, you’re not going to make any money on the road … doing clubs, unless you have the world’s greatest booking agent that gets you $100,000 for playing Bob’s Place in Winnemucca.  You keep the overhead low.  And there’s all sorts of little business things I’ve learned, mainly by trial and error but also watching other friends of mine make touring mistakes.  If I ever crapped out as a musician I could be a tour manager.

Couldn’t you also be a music publisher and pitch songs to TV and movies?

Dave: I don’t do it intentionally, too much.  One time I pitched a song to somebody face-to-face and I just felt wrong doing it.  For movies, TV shows and things like that, I’ve been really fortunate with my songs because a lot of directors and producers are fans.  So in a show like “Justified,” they put me in the show and they used a song called “Harlan County Line.”  They had come to me and said, “Would you write a song for our show and be on the show?” and I said, “Sure.”

But there are other things. Like “The Sopranos” used my song, “Fourth Of July” almost the entire song, for the ending of one of the episodes of the last season. That just came out of the blue.  Well, they all come out of the blue.  You get a phone call saying, “‘The Sopranos’ are going to use ‘4th Of July.’” “What?”

The same thing this year.  “Girls” used “Marie, Marie.”  You get a phone call.  “This show, ‘Girls,’ wants to pay x amount of money for ‘Marie, Marie.’”  “Fine.”

I did some work with Jon Waters and David Lynch way back when.  But to be one of those guys who does movie music, you have to give up being on the road.  To me, it’s more fun playing live.  I kind of thrive on that sense of community and you don’t get that sense of community when your name appears in very small print at the end of a movie. … It just ain’t the same.  Everybody has left the theater and are heading to their cars. It’s a nice financial path but the addiction that I have is playing live.

Is selling your art the hardest part of being a musician?

Dave: At times it can be.  With The Blasters early on it was really difficult for us to get a record deal. Maybe they didn’t like pompadours, or whatever.  Post Blasters, I did a record on CBS/Epic and after that it was kind of difficult for me to get a record deal for a while.  But I didn’t want a major label deal.  If you sell 25,000, 30,000 copies on a major label, your record is out of print the next year.  Whereas if you’re on an independent label selling that, guess what? You’re doing great.  They will keep it in print and in stock.  For artists like me and my brother, and people lumped into roots rock or whatever category, that’s really the way to have a long-term career.  In that sense I’ve never had a problem getting a deal with an independent label that lets me do what I want.

The business world of The Blasters and  Dave Alvin as a solo artist aren’t quite the same.  For example, The Blasters are booked by Atomic Music Group (AMG) and Dave Alvin is booked by Brad Madison at Mongrel Music.  How does that mesh when touring together? Do you flip a coin to decide who books the dates?

Dave: It’s Brad; it’s Mongrel Booking.

Phil: It’s always Brad.  I think, at the very beginning, something was worked out with Atomic.  But they’re not too happy about it (laughs)

Dave: They were just making you more famous, Phil.  That’s good for them.

Phil: It’s not like Dave Alvin is Celine Dion.  He’s my brother. … “Hey, you want to make some music, together?”  Everybody else, whether it’s Brad or whomever, they have to deal with that.  You can’t let business stuff decide what you’re going to do.  You can take advice, suggestions, do this, that or the other, but we’re brothers. If we want to make music together, we do it.

How did the train trips come about?

Dave: There’s a songwriter named Tom Russell.  Tom and I have written a lot of songs together.  Tom did a couple [train trips] through Colorado. He approached me about doing a train through Mexico for about a week and a half to two weeks and eventually ending up in an area called Copper Canyon, which is Mexico’s Grand Canyon. It would be on our own steam train.  The train shows I do in the United States, we attach vintage rail cars from the ’30s and ’40s to modern Amtrak trains. But for the Mexico train we had our own steam-powered locomotive.  At times we would have guys on the front and back of the train with rifles as we went through bandit country.  We ended up at Copper Canyon and that was amazing.  I was like, “You know what? I like these.”  I’ve never done a cruise because I don’t like the idea that I can’t get off.  But with the train, you can jump off at 75 miles per hour (laughs).

The trains suit a lot of music we do, blues or whatever.  The rhythm of the train and seeing everything from that perspective, it’s a great way to tour. Most of the people who go on it, 99.9 percent of them are respectful of the artists and keep their distances.  They don’t come into your cabin at night and say, “Hey! Let’s party!”

What’s next for the two of you?

Phil: There may be another project on the horizon.  I’m not sure what it is.  Maybe I’ll sing some of David’s songs.

Dave: Yeah, we’ll do a tribute album to me (laughs).

Phil: One of the things we have in common is that we’re not really planners.  I’ve known people who are planners.  When they’re 12 years old they’re like, “I’m going to be a singer/songwriter when I grow up.”  Some of them become big stars, some of them don’t.  I knew Dwight Yoakam before he became famous.  Before he had a record deal or anything he had already had two and a half albums planned out. … He had a pretty firm idea of what was going to be what in his career, how it was going to progress. 

With me, it’s always organic.  When I sit down to write a song, I don’t go, “I’m doing a psychedelic record so I got to write a psychedelic song.”  I might get up in the morning and write a polka, I may write a psychedelic song, a country song, a blues song.  I think in both of our careers it is what feels right at that time.

Hollywood does The Alvins’ story – who should play Phil and Dave?

Dave: Ed Harris could play Phil and Patton Oswalt could play me.

Phil: I think it would be a great vehicle for Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz.  I’d go see that.

Photo: Photo by Jeff Fasano
“You can’t let business stuff decide what you’re going to do.  You can take advice, suggestions, do this, that or the other, but we’re brothers. If we want to make music together, we do it.”

Upcoming dates for Dave and Phil Alvin:

Sept. 10 – Los Angeles, Calif., Grammy Museum
Sept. 16 – Denver, Colo., Soiled Dove Underground
Sept. 18 – Salt Lake City, Utah, The State Room
Sept. 19 – Salt Lake City, Utah, The State Room
Sept. 20 – Garden City, Idaho, Visual Arts Collective
Sept. 23 – Spokane, Wash., Chateau Rive at the Flour Mill
Sept. 24 – Portland, Ore., Aladdin Theater
Sept. 25 – Grants Pass, Ore., Rogue Theatre
Sept. 26 – Napa, Calif., City Winery Napa
Sept. 27 – Grass Valley, Calif., The Center For The Arts
Sept. 29 – Virginia City, Nev., Red Dog Saloon
Sept. 30 – Quincy, Calif., Town Hall Theatre
Oct. 1 – Sacramento, Calif., Harlow’s Night Club
Oct. 2 – Santa Cruz, Calif., Moe’s Alley
Oct. 8 – Minneapolis, Minn., Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant
Oct. 9 – Minneapolis, Minn., Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant
Oct. 10 – Stoughton, Wis., Stoughton Opera House
Oct. 11 – Springfield, Mo., Casey’s
Oct. 13 – Evanston, Ill., SPACE
Oct. 15 – St. Louis, Mo., Off Broadway Nightclub
Oct. 16 – Nashville, Tenn., City Winery Nashville
Oct. 17 – Atlanta, Ga., The EARL
Oct. 18 – Carrboro, N.C., Cat’s Cradle
Oct. 20 – New York, N.Y., City Winery NYC
Oct. 22 – Bay Shore, N.Y., YMCA Boulton Ctr. For The Perf. Arts
Oct. 23 – Shirley, Mass., Bull Run Restaurant
Oct. 24 – Northampton, Mass., Academy Of Music Theatre
Oct. 25 – Beacon, N.Y., Towne Crier Café
Oct. 27 – Brighton, N.Y., Downstairs Cabaret at Winton Place
Oct. 28 – Albany, N.Y., The Hollow
Oct. 29 – Philadelphia, Pa., World Cafe Live
Oct. 30 – Annapolis, Md., Rams Head On Stage
Oct. 31 – Alexandria, Va., The Birchmere
Nov. 5 – Austin, Texas, The Continental Club
Nov. 6 – Houston, Texas, The Continental Club
Nov. 7 – Dallas, Texas. The Kessler Theater
Nov. 12 – Solana Beach, Calif., Belly Up Tavern
Nov. 13 – Pioneertown, Calif., Pappy And Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace
Nov. 14 – West Hollywood, Calif., Troubadour
Nov. 17 – Phoenix, Ariz., The Rhythm Room
Nov. 18 – Tucson, Ariz., Rialto Theatre
Nov. 20 – San Francisco, Calif., Slim’s 
Nov. 21 – Santa Barbara, Calif., Lobero Theatre

For more information, please visit Dave Alvin’s website and Facebook page and the brothers’ home at Yep Roc.