Q Magazine

Dave Alvin on the Blasters' Legacy, Playing with The Third Mind, Writing Music for John Waters, and Opening For Queen

"You've never really been booed until you've been booed by 17,000 Queen fans."

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Source: Liberation Hall

The Blasters, as pictured on the cover of their new 'Mandatory' compilation

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When The Blasters crawled their way out of Downey, California and exploded onto the L.A. scene in the early '80s, they might not have shot to the top of the charts, but they definitely proved that they were a force to be reckoned with, helping in no small way to explain the concept of "roots rock" to the masses. The band's early sound was defined by the interplay between brothers Dave and Phil Alvin, and while Dave left the ranks of the band not long after the release of their 1985 album, Hard Line, Phil has continued to keep the band alive, just as Dave has soldiered onward as a solo artist as well as - more recently - part of The Third Mind.

With The Blasters' early catalog getting reissued by Liberation Hall - starting with the 21-track best-of compilation, Mandatory - and the Third Mind releasing their sophomore album, cleverly titled The Third Mind 2, Dave Alvin was kind enough to hop onto a Zoom conversation with Q and chat about the history of The Blasters (including a surprising stint serving as opening act for Queen), his soundtrack work for John Waters and David Lynch (sort of, but you'll have to read onward to understand what that means), and the unique methodology involved in recording albums as part of the Third Mind.

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Source: DaveAlvin.net

Dave Alvin, literally on the road.

It's great to see The Blasters' catalogue getting the remastering treatment it deserves.

I'm thrilled. I may not look like a Blaster right this second. [Laughs.] But I'm still a Blaster, even though I'm not in the band, and I'm incredibly proud of what we did in those days. We took a lot of... I don't want to say "abuse," but there were a lot of bumps and bruises for the sake of roots rock.

For sure. You helped pave the way for a lot of other artists.

Yeah. I will say this egotistically: we don't get the credit that we rightfully deserve sometimes for what we did.

I'll ask the obligatory secret-origin question, even though I know a bit of the answer already: how did The Blasters first come into existence? Obviously, you had a sibling in the mix, which presumably helped.

Well, it may have hindered. [Laughs.] Because of the relationship my brother and I had. We had never been in a band where I played guitar, and really long story (I'll try to make it as short as possible): a friend of ours, a guy named Frank Furillo, got a wedding gig in 1979. Some people were getting married, and they asked Frank, who was a great harmonica player, to put together a band. So Frank did, and he got my brother, and he got a drummer, Bill Bateman, and a different bass player, the late Mike Kennedy, and they couldn't find a guitar player. Because where we grew up in Downey, there had always been great guitar players for some reason, guys like Mike Roach and Gary Massey and Tom DeMonte, all these great, great guitar players. But at this point in time, they were either one of three things: they'd moved far away, they were in jail, or insane asylums. This is true! And there was only one guy left.

Frank, the harmonica player who was tasked with putting a band together, told my brother, "Well, you know, Dave's practicing, and he's getting better..." But then it became that they didn't have another choice except me. So we played the gig, and this magic happened. Because my brother and I had literally never sat around playing guitars together, and now we're onstage playing guitars together, and...that was the beginning. We walked offstage, and Phil was, like, "Let's start a band!"

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How was the initial songwriting process?

Well, we were told that we'd never get a record deal if we didn't have original songs. Because all we really wanted to do was playin Howlin' Wolf songs or Junior Parker songs or Carl Perkins, things like that. So we had this band meeting, and when we left the band meeting, we all agreed that next week we'd all bring in three songs. Then I brought in three songs...and no one else did. [Laughs.] So I became a songwriter.

I know there's at least one song on the first album - "She Ain't Got the Beat" - that you and Phil wrote together.

And that song will prove why we've never written a song together since! [Laughs.] But my brother wrote a song on that first record called "She's Gone Away," sort of a Cajun kind of thing. I had studied writing, and I'd been...not an English major, but a creative writing major during my checkered college career, and I had these great teachers, these poets like Richard Lee and Elliott Fried and Gerald Locklin, who taught us - forced us! - to write.

It wasn't just, "Write some free verse about how you're feeling on this Tuesday." It was, "Come in next week with a sonnet, a traditional rhyming, Iambic pentameter sonnet." So because of that, I had some background in rhyming and knowing what meter was and all that kind of stuff. So, boom, I became a songwriter. You know, I'd written songs as a kid in my head. But the idea of being a songwriter was about as remote to me and my experience that you might as well have said, "And then you become an astronaut!" I have lots of songwriter friends and acquaintances now that, when you talk to them, they're, like, "Oh, man, when I was 12, I was out on the street busking, playing original songs!" Nope, not me!

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As far as Blasters' early career goes, the thing that fascinates me the most is the fact that you opened on a leg of Queen's tour in 1980. How on earth did that happen? You guys were just getting started!

We were playing at this really bizarre place called Flipper's, which was what they called in the '80s a roller disco. [Laughs.] And it was the kind of place that gave you a lot of money to demean yourself by playing in the middle of a roller disco. I remember the one celebrity that was there rollerskating was Suzy Chapstick. It was that kind of place. At that point, we were playing gigs at the Starwood or the Whiskey or Club 88, sort of the happening clubs at that time. You could make money somewhat doing that, but when you got a gig at a place like Flipper's, they had to pay you to get you to play there...and when I say "pay you," I mean, like, "What, they're gonna pay us 500 bucks? Wow, yeah!"

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Source: FlippersWorld - Facebook

The site of the legendary first meeting between Brian May, Roger Taylor, John Deacon, and The Blasters

So we were doing this gig at Flipper's Roller Disco on the corner of Santa Monica and La Cienega, and it was the kind of place where you've got the people doing their roller-rink thing, and you've got the band in the middle, and there were, like, seats and a lounge and all this kind of stuff over there, and it was the kind of place where rock stars would go when they were on tour and were in L.A. But we didn't know that. We were just schlubs from Downey. But I remember you'd look over, and there was Eddie Money! People like that. You'd be, like, "Wow, so this is what they do on their night off, huh? They go to the roller disco!" But Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon, they had a night off, they were there, and they saw us, and they fell in love with us. And they came up and said, "Do you want to go out on tour with us?" And we said, "Sure!"

I have to be honest, we didn't really know... I mean, I knew that Queen was big, and they'd had some hit records, but I didn't really know what Queen was. [Laughs] I didn't know it was QUEEN! I mean, I was more interested in Sun Records or Chess Records. I was just, like, "Okay, yeah, they're famous." And our rule in those days, because we played oddball music that didn't fit in anywhere, was that if you got offered a gig, unless it was really stupid, you take it. It didn't matter who. In that period of time right around then, we had already been on the road opening for Asleep at the Wheel, we'd been on the wheel opening for Ray Campi and the Rockabilly Rebels... So we'd done that. And then we'd opened up shows for the young Go-Go's, the pre-fame Go-Go's, or X, or the Plimsouls, or The Cramps, Angry Samoans, the Dickies... You go down the list, we'd opened shows for them. So it was, like, "It doesn't matter. Queen? Yeah, okay. They're kind of a hard rock band, but whatever. Maybe we'll pick up some of their audience. Maybe they'll like what we do."

So suddenly we're playing arenas where people had no idea what we were. We didn't have a record deal at that time, we were just these four idiots from Downey, California opening for Queen. And the audience...didn't get it. [Laughs.] Let's put it that way. Some of them did. But at some of the gigs, we were greeted...less warmly than you would like. So I will say that you've never really been booed until you've been booed by 17,000 Queen fans! And our attitude was, "Hey, you paid money to come to these shows, so you went to somewhere and handed them your credit card or your money that you made working at the Taco Bell or wherever, and you're booing us? We're hanging out backstage with your pals, and you know what? They're paying us to be here! So we're cooler than you are! You can't boo us off the stage, we're just gonna keep playing, 'cause we're contracted to do 30 minutes here. You're not gonna get 'Bohemian Rhapsody' out of us, you're gonna get Elmore James. Sorry!" In our set in those days, we used to do a Jimmie Rodgers number, a "Blue Yodel" song called "Never No More Blues," because my brother could yodel great. He was a great yodeler in the tradition of Jimmie Rodgers. Queen fans? Not big on yodeling.

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Source: Hollywood Records

Not The Blasters

None of us had ever seen that level of fame and fan devotion. I remember the first gig we did was at the sports arena in San Diego, and we weren't on the bill. It just said "QUEEN." So you've got 21,000 people crammed into this basketball arena, and then the lights go out, it's pitch black, and then these stage lights come on, and all people can see are these four silhouettes. And they're thinking, "Oh, there's Freddie! There's Brian! There's everybody! I can't see 'em, but there they are!" And then the real lights come on...and you get four schlubs from Downey, playing rockabilly and wearing pompadours. It went from people cheering their hearts out, they're there to see their British heroes. "They're from Britain! They're better than we are!" And then they get four guys from Downey. It went from being this adulation to just 21,000 angry, angry people.

I remember we played in Phoenix at this outdoor venue. That one was scary, because the audience really, really didn't like us, and they were throwing beer bottles, cherry bombs, things like that. They were smashing down beer cans into sharp-edged projectiles and just hurling 'em at us. And, again, our attitude was, "We're gonna keep playing! Hey, Brian May likes us! You can go to hell!" [Laughs.] And when we did the Jimmie Rodgers "Blue Yodel" song, the people in Phoenix did not want to hear that...and somebody threw a blanket. And this picnic blanket thing got caught up in the desert winds of Phoenix, and it wafted through the air, and it landed and completely covered my brother while he was doing the "Blue Yodel." And he kept singing. The blanket was completely covering him, but he kept singing. And we were just, like, "We've got another 10 minutes to go, folks...and next is Howlin' Wolf! You're really gonna love that!"

But the guys in Queen were great. They were absolutely wonderful to us.

Yeah, I was going to ask about Freddie, just because he wasn't even there when the other guys asked you to be on the tour. Was he, like, "Oh, all right, that's fine"?

I only met Freddie once. He lived in a different world. The guys were a rock band, and he seemed to be the diva. And rightfully so, I guess. But they were wonderful. And when we met Freddie, he was wonderful and polite. We didn't make it into the movie about him, but...what can you do? [Laughs.]

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When you look back at the Blasters' catalog, do you have a favorite album of the bunch, or are they all like your children?

Well, I have songs. I have mixed feelings about a lot of stuff because we produced ourselves the first two albums, and it worked out okay on the first one, it didn't work out so great on the second one, and the third album that we did while I was in the band was a thing called Hard Line, and that was the first one where we kind of got sonically close to what we did live. I learned a lot about being a roots rock band in the recording studio and the mistakes that can be made, because we made all of 'em. [Laughs.] But, yeah, there are performances that I'll stack up against anybody. And the songs... I mean, I like 'em. I wrote 'em! And I'll stack one or two of 'em up against anybody's songs. "So Long Baby Goodbye" is a favorite of mine.

There's a song that was written and recorded for our last album called "Kathleen" that's the last song on the Blasters' best-of (Mandatory), and that one means the most to me because maybe it's not the best song I ever wrote, but it is the best recording of the Blasters in the studio. It captures what we did live. And it's the full seven-piece band: Lee Allen, Steve Berlin, Gene Taylor, Bill Bateman, John Bazz, Phil Alvin, and me. The producer on that was a guy named Jeff Eyrich, and Jeff was smart enough just to keep the tape rolling. So what was meant to be a two and a half minute Blasters song became close to five minutes of the Blasters jamming in the studio.

And when I went to Warner Brothers and was playing them the tracks that we had cut, we got to that one, and I said, "And this one! This is the best one! This is it! You're gonna flip, this is so good!" We're meeting with the A&R staff, and the A&R guy, who was new to the company, and I don't think he had a long and distinguished A&R career... [Laughs.] But he was new to the company, and he listens...and he listens...and he goes, "Well, you know, it's... It's a good song. And I'm sure it goes over great live. But my problem with it is...it sounds too much like the Blasters." I've never really wanted to kill anybody in my life...but I could've killed him. If I could've guilt-free murdered him, I would've killed that guy. Warner Brothers wouldn't put it on the album because it sounded too much like the Blasters. So that track has become legendary in Blasters World because of that. [Mockingly.] "It sounds too much like the Blasters." And they wonder why musicians are insane...

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Regarding the end of your tenure in the Blasters, I know that at least one of the issues was the relationship between you and your brother, but what actually led you to leave?

Well, it was a lot of things, you know? My brother and I... There's a Bob Dylan line from "Tangled Up in Blue" that goes, "We always felt the same / We just saw it from a different point of view." And that's really my brother and I. You know, musically, we both love the same kind of music, but my brother Phil, he would've been happier if... Well, let's say that if Duke Robillard, the great, great, great guitar player and one of my favorite guitar players, was the guitar player for the Blasters. [Laughs.] Then Phil could've done even more of what he wanted to do!

For me, in those days, despite all my young-buck macho posturing, I was a little insecure about my guitar playing. But I got the point across. I got the job done. But I felt that my real skill, the thing that I brought to the band... Because all these guys in the Blasters were incredible musicians, but what I brought was the songs. And I think at some point my brother just felt he would've been happier singing old songs from the 1920s. Which is what he did.

After we recorded the Hard Line record, my brother recorded a solo album that's brilliant. In many ways, it's a masterpiece. It's called Un "Sung Stories." It's a long story, but we had gotten to know Sun Ra and his Arkestra, and Phil asked Sun Ra, "Look, I want to make this record, I'm going to be doing old pre-war blues and pre-WWII jazz." And we knew that Sun Ra and his Arkestra could play that like nobody else. That's where Sun Ra comes from: '30s big-band jazz. Fletcher Henderson, Don Redmond, those kind of arrangers. So what's really nice that Liberation Hall has done is that they re-released the best of the Blasters as well as my brother's solo album.

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Which I have right here next to me.

Great! Yeah, with that Georganne Deen cover. So anyway, my brother and I drifted apart. Like I said, we still loved Big Joe Turner and Lightnin' Hopkins, but he wasn't that interested at that point in singing whatever I was writing. And I had grown disillusioned. No, not disillusioned. I'd reached the point as a songwriter... You know, if you're writing songs for other people to sing, you have to find that thing that you share. "Okay, we view this the same way." Like, "We both like baseball, so I'm gonna write a song about baseball." Or, "We both like fried chicken." But I didn't have the songwriting skills to say, "Well, I hate prunes...but, boy, my brother loves prunes, so I'm gonna write a song about loving prunes!" I didn't have that. So I'd basically kind of run out of things that I could write for my brother to sing. And if I was going to continue writing songs, they would have to be songs that I would sing. Not that I was a great vocalist, but because I knew I was a pretty decent songwriter, and I knew I couldn't advance if I was still just writing for someone else's voice. And that's whether it was my brother or Barbra Streisand or George Jones or Muddy Waters.

That, and it had stopped being fun to be in the Blasters. I mean, between the record labels and the road and this, that and the other, and musical differences, petty jealousies and all that, it just stopped being fun. We were fighting all the time. And we always fought! [Laughs.] We all grew up together! So we knew each other better than we knew anybody, so we just always fought. But it was that youthful thing...and then it became, "What the hell do you know?" Gene Taylor, the piano player, and I, we both quit the same night.

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How do you look back at the experience of doing the movie Border Radio?

Uh...my appearance in the movie is pretty pathetic. [Laughs.] I'm not John Gielgud, y'know? And I'm not Klaus Kinski. But the movie itself... They asked me to do the soundtrack, and they had a few thousand dollars, and I knew of a good, cheap studio, so I learned a lot. For me, playing music, whatever I'm doing, the typical hackneyed phrase is, "It's a learning experience." Because that's what it is for me. So, yeah, doing the soundtrack for that movie, I learned a lot.

And what was neat, in a weird, funny, odd way, was that about three years later, Oliver Stone does this movie called Wall Street, and what directors do - well, some directors, anyway - they'll film a scene, but they'll play music in the background when they're doing rough edits of the film, and then they'll hand that sort of music to whoever's the composer for the soundtrack and say, "Match this." So they can play Wagner or whatever and say, "Write something that sounds like Wagner." But Oliver Stone... I guess they'd filmed this scene where the characters are having a love scene on the beach, and they used this piece of music called "Burning Guitars" from the Border Radio soundtrack as the "make it sound like this" cue.

I think it was Stewart Copeland from the Police who was doing the music, and he couldn't come up with anything that was as effective as this piece. So the budget for doing the music for Border Radio was $5,000, and Steve Berlin and I - Steve, y'know, from Los Lobos, who'd been a member of the Blasters - we'd come up with this piece which was, like, xylophones and then two feedback-y guitars playing over this chord progression that I'd come up with. Well, Steve and I each got $7,000 from Oliver Stone's production company so they could use that little 40 seconds of music. So that was interesting.

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You also worked on the soundtrack for John Waters' Cry Baby.

Yeah, that was a different kind of thing. He got a hold of me and asked me to write with Doc Pomus, the rock 'n' roll / rhythm and blues songwriter who I was a fan of. And I'd met Doc a couple of times in New York City - he'd come to shows - so he was aware that I was a songwriter and that I could rhyme words. [Laughs.] So, yeah, John Waters was doing a movie called Cry Baby, and he asked specifically for us, so they flew me to New York, and I was there for a week, going to Doc's apartment every day, working on songs.

Now, my hat is off to John Waters, because John Waters knows his music, and he really knows his old music. He said he was looking for hillbilly bop for this particular song. And I knew what hillbilly bop was. Hillbilly bop is a particular way of playing rockabilly. But then the music supervisors, all they were thinking about... You know, it's their job. But John had had a hit with Hairspray, and so now it was, like, he's got this big-budget Hollywood movie, he's got the big-budget Hollywood movie music supervisors in there, and all they're thinking is, "We need hits!" So they went to just about every songwriter in the business, saying, "Can you write a song for John Waters for this movie? We're looking for this." So they got hundreds of great songwriters writing terrible rockabilly songs. [Laughs.]

'Cause there's a skill to it. One, you have to really love rockabilly. And you have to love early rhythm and blues, and you have to love early country music. You have to love that stuff in order to write it. And a lot of these people were looking down. [Snootily.] "Oh, yeah, well, that's three chords! I can do that in my sleep!" But John was hip enough to know that Doc and I understood the assignment. So it was great to write with Doc Pomus, and John eventually had me produce the tracks. My friend Al Kooper had been doing it, and Al did some beautiful stuff with Rachel Sweet doing her best Connie Francis imitation, and Al had arranged all these beautiful strings. But for the rock 'n' roll stuff, John Waters trusted me to get that done.

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There's a movie credit that's listed for you on IMDb that's so nonspecific that I was wondering if it was even accurate. Did you have anything to do with the music for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me?

Um...yes and no. [Laughs.] I used to sit in with this blues band every Monday night. There used to be this club called the King King out in L.A., and the King King had this weird vibe about it. It was a great vibe, but it was weird because...it was an old Chinese bar that this guy Mario had bought, and Mario had been a doorman at one of the swanky dance clubs where celebrities or wannabe celebrities and starlets and all that kind of stuff went in to stand around and be seen. The music was just that loud "DOOSH! DOOSH! DOOSH!" You know that kind of music, right?

I do.

Well, Mario was the guy - he was a great kid from East L.A. - that decided, "You're cool, you go in; you're cool, you go in; you're not, you can't." So he took the money that he had made...because he got tipped a lot by guys going, "Lemme in the club!" And this was a groovy, trendy, B.S. kind of place. [Laughs.] And he loved blues and rockabilly and salsa music, so he bought this old Chinese bar, and that's what he put on. One night it'd be blues, one night it'd be rockabilly, one night it'd be swing music... But because of his connections with all these wannabe celebrities, they all came to this club. So suddenly you had this club that was, like, a roots music club, but with starlets. And when you have starlets, what do you get? You get people who want to meet starlets, right? So you'd have all these young actors and actresses hanging out, and that leads to directors!

So I used to play every Monday night with this blues band called the Red Devils who were playing there, and we were playing Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson, but we're playing to starlets and young Hollywood. Guys like Bruce Willis would show up and sit in and blow harmonica a little bit. And one night David Lynch was down there, and he heard me playing guitar, and he said, "Can you come down and do a recording session?" I said, "Sure!"

So I went down to this recording session, and there were, like, five beautiful fashion model starlets there in the control room. I'm, like, "Wow, this is not your normal recording session!" But there's David Lynch, and there's a bass player and a drummer. So I went out to the studio...and there were no songs or anything! He sat there and said, "Play a slow blues. Play an up-tempo blues. Play a stroll." And I'd turn around and look at the bass player and the drummer, who I did not know, and just say, "Okay, uh, let's do a 1-2-4-5 progression and see what happens...?" And he liked what I did. And I appeared in a band scene with a bunch of... It was, like, a sax player or two from the Count Basie Orchestra, and some other guys who'd been around for awhile. Was that for the TV show or the movie?

That was for the movie.

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Okay, yeah. But then we did these sessions... You know, he's a really nice guy, and he knows his music, sort of like John Waters. Different tastes in music, but he knows his music. And so he had me come in and do these sessions for a thing called Ronnie Rocket, which was a film that was never made but that he was going to make. I brought in a friend of mine, a great jazz bass player named Don Falzone. We also got Stephen Hodges to come and play drums. Stephen had been playing with Tom Waits during the Franks Wild Years era and onward, because Stephen was all about bizarre percussion. He could play the blues, he could play whatever, but he really liked bringing in weird aspects.

So me and Stephen and Don would be sitting there, and David would just sit in the control room, and...I'll never forget one thing. He said... [Doing a spot-on David Lynch impression.] "Okay, imagine this. Imagine a conveyor belt. It's archaic machinery, okay? And then down this conveyor belt is coming liquid metal, okay? It's metal, but it's liquid metal. And then it goes into this machine - and it's a very archaic machine, it's black and white - but when it comes out, it's sparkling energy. Okay? Can you give me that? And make it kind of Chicago blues."

That might be the most David Lynch thing I've ever heard.

Yeah! And so I'd say to David, "Give me a minute." And then I'd turn to the guys and say, "Okay, let's do this, this, and this, and let's do it in the key of E, blah blah blah, and when I lift my guitar this way, change on the five, and when I do it this way, change on the four..." And then we would cut stuff that sounded... I would love to hear it now, because it was amazing sounding, to be honest. It sounded like outtakes from Bitches Brew...but, like, outtakes of Bitches Brew with Muddy Waters on them. [Laughs.] It was great stuff!

Like I said, Stephen Hodges was the drummer, and he'd bring everything on earth to the sessions. He'd bring huge crates full of different cymbals and noisemakers and percussion instruments and this, that, or the other. So he had a whole world set up, right? He's ready for action. So David is describing a scene, and he says, "This scene...is green. Can you make it sound green? Make the music sound green!" And I'm thinking, "Okay, all right... Oh, man, what does green sound like?" So I turned to Stephen and Don and I'm, like, "Well, let's, uh, start with a standard G-C-A-Minor progression..." And then Stephen turns around and starts going through one of his huge crates full of cymbals, and he pulls out this old, decrepit, beat-to-hell cymbal, big chunks out of it, holes and everything, and he holds it up, and he goes, "David?" And then Lynch answers back, "Yes, Stephen?" He goes, "This is a green cymbal." And David Lynch goes, "Okay, then use that one. Because I want it to sound green!" "Okay, give me a minute!" And they were both serious! [Laughs.] I was, like, "I guess it is a green cymbal!"

Anyway, we did, like, three days of tracking that way, three sessions, but the Ronnie Rocket movie was never made. Maybe five or seven years ago at a gig, I ran into the engineer who had engineered those sessions, and I said, "Man, can I get a copy?" And he said, "No." [Sighs.] "Maybe you could come over and I could play 'em for you!" But he said the stuff sounds amazing. So who knows? Maybe one of these days there'll be a David Lynch box set with these tracks on it. I don't know. But I know that in movie-land they do release things that were cut, so you never know.

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I don't want to keep you much longer, but as I said, I wanted to talk about The Third Mind. I was able to check out the new album, and it's great.

Thanks! Yeah, it's sort of like the David Lynch sessions. [Laughs.] It is! Because it's based off the idea of no rehearsals. It's kind of jazz envy, because I'm jealous of jazz guys. My main strength is that when I'm good, I'm a really good lyricist. And lyrics are hard. But I love playing music. So I always envied jazz guys that could just go, "Oh, I got a call to do a session with Hank Mobely and Lee Morgan!" "What'd you cut?" "Ah, we cut a blues and we cut a couple of standards?" "WHY CAN'T I DO THAT?" [Laughs.]

And it really kind of started that way, based off of a biography of Miles Davis called So What, by John Sven. And he goes into a really deep-researched explanation and exploration of how Miles made records like In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson. And the way he did it was, he had the money in his budgets to get Joe Zawinul and Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter and John McLaughlin and David Holland and Harvey Brooks or whoever, and then go in the studio and record for a week and just say, "Do something slow. Do something fast. Do something green." [Laughs.] And he and his producer, Teo Macero, would take the tapes and edit them up and make compositions out of the jams. And I just always was, like, "Man, I would love to make a record that way!"

Well, fortunately, over the years I've been friends with a guy named Victor Krummenacher, who was the bass player for Camper Van Beethoven, the Monks of Doom, and he's playing in the Eyelids now. And Victor felt the same way! He felt like he'd like to try recording that way. But most musicians don't like recording that way. Musicians want to go in and know, "What's the song? What am I supposed to play? How long can I go? And how much am I getting paid?" [Laughs.] The idea of the Third Mind is, we don't know what's gonna happen! The first album was more of this. The second album is like that, but the first album was really, like, "Let's do it in D and see what happens!" And that's really the nature of the band.

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We found like-minded people. Michael Jerome, who plays drums, I'd known him for twentysomething years. He'd just gotten the gig playing drums for Richard Thompson, and I was on tour opening for Richard, so I got to watch Michael every night, and I was just, like, "I don't know how, I don't know where, but someday me and that guy are gonna make noise together!" And then the other guitar player is a guy named David Immergluck, who I had known through Victor and who had played with John Hiatt for, like, five years, and he'd played with Camper Van Beethoven and Monks of Doom and Cracker and those guys. And he's playing in the Counting Crows these days.

But then there was a singer up in Seattle that I loved named Jesse Sykes, and Jesse is this remarkably unique vocalist. She's somewhere between... There was a folk-blues singer in the '60s called Karen Dalton, and some people refer to Jesse as a Karen Dalton kind of singer. And I hear a lot of Blossom Dearie. She's not trying to sound like either of 'em - and she doesn't! - but that's the closest I can say. Because she doesn't sing like Diana Washington or Bessie Smith or Loretta Lynn. She sings like...Jesse Sykes! But the other thing about Jesse is that she likes abstract music, and everybody in the band is both capable of playing abstract music and enjoying it while it's happening. Because the last thing you want in any band is somebody who doesn't like what you're doing, whether it's a blues band or a rockabilly band or a freeform band. You don't want to have a bass player or somebody going, "Oh, God..." Everybody had to be on the same wavelength creatively.

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On the new album, The Third Mind 2, as well as on the first album, our structures were mainly folk-blues, songs out of that world. We covered Fred Neil twice, and Michael Bloomfield is a big influence on the band. On the first album, we did a version of his composition for the Butterfield Blues Band, "East West," and on this album we cover "Groovin' Is Easy," which is a song from his band the Electric Flag. We covered a Gene Clark song on the new record, and we covered another Butterfield song that Paul Butterfield himself wrote called "In My Own Dreams." And we did a version of the old girl-group / folk song called "Sally Go 'Round the Roses." And then Jesse and I wrote a song called "Tall Grass" that kind of fit into that tradition.

The idea is no rehearsal. We agree on the key, and we all just watch each other. We're all in a circle, which is normally how I record anyway, but this is really seat-of-the-pants. So you have to listen to what the bass player's playing, what the other guitar player is playing, what the keyboard player is playing... On this album, we had my dear friend Willie Aaron playing keys on it. So you're listening to him, and you're listening to Michael, but then everything is based around Jesse Sykes and her voice and her acoustic guitar. And the idea is to just give the guitar players free reign to run amuck. [Laughs.]

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My biggest complaint or bitch about contemporary pop music - and even contemporary roots music - is that it's too choreographed. Pop music is all choreography now. I saw Jimi Hendrix when I was 12... I saw him twice, and neither show was the same thing. You never knew what you were getting. You knew it'd be great, but you had no idea what the hell you were going to see. When you go see Bob Dylan now - or then! - you have no idea what you're gonna get. So that, to me, is what's missing from a lot of music: that feeling of "what the hell is gonna happen?"

With my own band, the Guilty Ones, when we're out on tour, in the sets there are at least three areas where we don't know what's gonna happen. And I don't mean we don't what song we're gonna play and I'm gonna come up with something. No, I mean there are songs that we've never finished, that we've never come up with an ending to. And that keeps everybody on their toes, so it's, like, "Well, the drummer might be tired of this song, but now she's getting to that point where she's going to have to listen!" And with the Third Mind, that's the whole thing: we don't know what's gonna happen. And it's a wonderful, liberating release.

Because I'm basically just a blues guitar player. I'm a noisy barroom kind of blues guitar player, but I can play some beautiful acoustic stuff. But boil me down, and I'm Johnny Guitar Watson. So for me, it's fun to see how many places I can put my guitar style into, and the Third Mind is another way of doing it. I describe it as, "Imagine if Magic Sam had sat in with Quicksilver Messenger Service." [Laughs.] That's really what it is.

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Is there a gateway song that you'd recommend to people to get the feel for what the band is?

Yeah, from the new album, I'd say "Groovin' Is Easy." Or "Sally Go 'Round the Roses." But "Sally" is, like, 10-11 minutes long, whereas "Groovin' is a consumer-friendly eight minutes long. [Laughs.] The thing about the Third Mind is, I have a very wonderful, understanding, supportive record label in Yep Roc Records. In my time back with the Blasters and when I was in X, and then in the beginning of my solo career when I was on Epic Records, doing anything was grief, because you had to go explain every note you were playing to the record label and explain what you were trying to do. And then for years in the '90s when I built up my solo career, I was on a label called Hightone, and Hightone got me, and they understood what I was trying to do. And then I moved from Hightone to Yep Roc, and Glenn Dicker and the folks at Yep Roc get what I'm trying to do.

I've been really lucky and blessed throughout my career, starting from the Blasters to now. I've had fans who've stuck with me through everything. It's all a learning process. That's what it's all about. How do I become a better musician? And the recording studio... You have to learn how to do that as much as you have to learn how to play your instrument. There's all this stuff you have to learn over the years, and most people don't get that chance. A lot of people I know that are incredibly talented never got the chance to do that. Either they believed that the record companies were telling them, or they didn't pan out for a major label, or the major label just drops them and says, "See you later." But I've been really lucky, in that I've been able to do this for this long. And when I was in the hospital with cancer and all that, I was laying there thinking, "I've been a lucky MF'er." You know, for a schlub from Downey.


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