“My strength is my songwriting, but it hasn’t been an issue when I produce other artists,” declares the multi-talented Dave Alvin. “One reason I was so attracted to producing a band like the Derailers was that their songs were so uniquely theirs and they didn’t need any song help. Tom Russell and I have written songs together, and the type of songs I write wouldn’t make sense for Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys to do in their style.“My strength is my songwriting, but it hasn’t been an issue when I produce other artists,” declares the multi-talented Dave Alvin. “One reason I was so attracted to producing a band like the Derailers was that their songs were so uniquely theirs and they didn’t need any song help. Tom Russell and I have written songs together, and the type of songs I write wouldn’t make sense for Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys to do in their style.
“As far as guiding the projects when I produce and helping select the songs, it depends on whom I’m producing. Tom Russell is a great songwriter and whittling down the songs for his The Rose of San Joaquin album from 30 songs took a long time. It can be touchy, but usually I have to have some kind of control as producer or why am I there? When I make my own records, my nose can be too close to the canvas and it’s easy to lose the big picture, so I like to have someone there to give perspective,” he adds.
The HighTone Records artist, whose own latest album Interstate City was released this summer, is recording a studio album at the end of the year which is due out in March or April. Alvin jokes that the release date of independent albums is rather flexible. “They don’t come out so much as they fall out!,” he laughs. “The Interstate City album captures the raw energy side and approach to my music done live, but the next album may be more like my King of California (unplugged-style) record. Later on, I might get a little more spacey. I’m a big fan of Bill Frizzell, a rootsy, avante garde guitar player, and I wouldn’t mind doing something like that. I’d also like to have a string band and also to do an album in Ireland. That’s the home of the sad song, don’t you know? They really appreciate the lyrics there because of the long tradition of Celtic music.”
The favorite place to record for this founding member of The Blasters is Austin. “I’ve done three albums there and really like working there. It’s easy to get around and the musician pool is deep, with great and soulful players. On the lazy side, though, I live in Los Angeles and like to go home and sleep in my own bed at night. But there’s something relaxing about Austin that appeals to me.”
Does he have any special techniques for studio relaxation for the artists he produces? “It depends on the artist. Usually, I feel that is important. But not with Tom Russell because he’s recorded a lot and is comfortable with it. With the Derailers and with Big sandy and His Fly-Rite boys, for example, it’s important to create the right atmosphere. They should know they’ve earned the right to record in the studio. It can be scary to hear your voice the first time it’s recorded. ‘Is that what I sound like?!’ I’m a good cop/bad cop all rolled into one. I think heavy alcohol use or drug use in the studio is self-defeating and I don’t allow it. I think recording should be done sober.”
Discussing independent labels vs. major labels, Alvin feels the major difference these days primarily is the money. “It seems that some of the major labels are letting their artists follow their instincts, which is healthy. Maybe the success of alternative music has helped make it easier for labels to allow more freedom. Jimmie Dale Gilmore, for one, has done some incredible things. It does seem the majors are becoming more willing to let artists experiment.
“As far as the budgets making it more difficult for independent labels to record competitively, it is hard to make a record on a 15 grand budget sound like $200,000 record, and 15 grand record is an average budget for an independent album. It’s difficult to get a 15 grand record played on the radio. It can be done but you wear yourself out physically and mentally because you’re stuck in the studio making music for every second of your time. A $25,000 budget is usual on my records, and that doesn’t allow for the luxury of spending two months doing vocals, though that would be wonderful. My King Of California album only had a budget of $14,000. It got lots of Triple A radio airplay but I had to call in a lot of favors to borrow gear to make it sound the way it did. The difference between major labels and independents boils down to favors. ‘Can you come and play for $50 or for $300 a week?'”
One album of which he is justifiably proud is Tulare Dust: A Songwriters’ Tribute To Merle Haggard, which Alvin co-produced with Tom Russell. “It was Tom’s and my idea. Tom’s original idea was to do an album of Merle’s autobiographical songs about California, the hits and the more obscure things. Then we heard about the Mama’s Hungry Eyes album, so we decided to dig up the more obscure songs, which are sometimes even better written than the hits, and to do a tribute to him by songwriters who feel his influence strongly in their own work.”
Alvin himself became interested in songwriting while studying creative and poetry in college. “The teachers were strict and put us through the wringer, not just letting us do free verse about clouds. So I understood rhymes and iambic pentameter and all of that. I started writing songs when I was with The Blasters because we needed the songs. We did blues, rockabilly, R&B and obscure country covers, but we really needed original songs.”
Though he’s excited about all the acts he produces now, Alvin says the transition of Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys form rockabilly to western swing really “piqued my interest. I think Big Sandy is one of the best singers I’ve heard, and the more material he can do to bring out the depth of his talent, the better. It’s been nice and satisfying to see the resurgence in that type of western swing/honky-tonk sound, and I think they’re partly responsible. It’s just too good to go away, and there’s nobody better as revival group for that sound.”
Any tips for those who’d like to break into the business? Alvin advises, “Stick to your guns, hire a great lawyer and keep your publishing.”