God Blast American Music: Bill Bateman, Phil Alvin, Keith Wyatt and John Bazz are the 2008 edition of The Blasters, and they’re coming to town this Friday.
By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit November 18, 2008)
We got the Louisiana boogie and the Delta blues/ We got country swing and rockabilly too/ We got jazz, country-western and Chicago blues/ It’s the greatest music that you ever knew.
— From “American Music” by The Blasters
There’s many kinds of genius, and Phil Alvin can tell you about a lot of them — about how, as a kid growing up in Downey, California (home to the oldest surviving McDonald’s, and site of the first-ever Taco Bell), he’d be exposed to the finest practitioners of jazz, blues, C&W and R&B as they all passed through this crucial roadstop on the way to LA.
As time went by, Phil and his brother Dave even came up with a name that tied together all these many and various strains of musical genius — they called it American Music. Made sense as a concept, and as a song, and as the title of the debut album by The Blasters, the high-energy combo dedicated to playing these “howls from the desert” and “screams from the slums” that the Alvin boys formed on the cusp of the 1980s.
After a sweet few years for the band that saw them land a big-time record deal, cameo in movies and win over audiences of every conceivable taste and temperament, Dave Alvin departed for a solo career that still runs solid to this day. Sax guy Steve Berlin would decamp for Los Lobos; pianist Gene Taylor would move to Europe and form his own Blues Band. Drummer Bill Bateman, who got the cover of their third album all to himself, would play with everyone from Mick Jaggerto The Cramps.
And Phil Alvin? Well, therein lies the more traditional definition of genius. The yodeling, yelping singer and musicologist might have downplayed the fact at first, but he’s a full-tilt mathematical wiz; a Ph.D in fact, with a Master’s in artificial intelligence on the side. It’s a pursuit that the frontman has applied to his passions for rhythmic patterns and raucous chaos theory — after all, what is the notion of American Music if not a sort of Unified Field Theory for the roadhouse?
With a couple of well-received retrospectives and a reunion recording to their credit, The Blasters are once again a full-time gig for Phil Alvin and bassist John Bazz, rejoined earlier this year by Bateman in a leaner, meaner lineup that’s rounded out by guitarist Keith Wyatt. Red Bank oRBit caught up with Alvin by phone in Detroit, during a tour that brings The Blasters to The Saint in Asbury Park on Friday night. Here now the news.
RED BANK ORBIT: So we understand you’re still based out of Downey, birthplace of fast food.
PHIL ALVIN: I’m living in the same house I grew up in!
The Rumblers, The Chantays…a lot of bands played and recorded there. Actually, I believe San Bernardino is the home of McDonald’s; the national monument is there in Downey, right on the corner of where I grew up, with the golden arches and the logo of Speedy McBurger or whatever he’s called. I often look at the character of Speedy, forever running in place, and I feel a certain camaraderie.
Downey was a good place to grow up — the bars had a lot of great R&B like Lloyd Glenn, the great piano player and arranger for Ray Charles. A lot of great jazz and blues players, like T-Bone Walker — that’s where we came up with the idea of American Music.
I have to flash back to an old interview you did years ago, which stuck with me because you came out as someone who was very passionate about mathematics; you spoke of it in terms of rhythm, and how mathematicians look for patterns the way a band works out a beat for their song…
Music is intricately related to math; the way it’s notated. You can analyze music as notated, or analyze it for its emotional content.
Do you find yourself downplaying your degrees and accomplishments when you’re on band time?
I still do math; in fact I started back up quite fervently. My specialty is mathematical semantics; exploring the meaning behind things from that perspective. It’s an area that’s still quite open; it’s rooted in what you could call the battle between the set theorists and the “commonsense knowledge” crowd.
It’s a rumble! Sounds like the Mods versus the Rockers.
Listen, I can predict to you now, with a high degree of certainty, that the set theorists will win this thing. Common sense is inside of set theory; they just haven’t figured that out yet (laughs).
I’ve been trying to read up on some of these arcane “derivatives” that got us in the economic trouble we’re in, and wishing I had a better grasp of the numbers behind them. Is this a shining example of how it’s cool to stay in school, and to pay attention to stuff that might have a big impact on your life someday?
I wish the people that played that game had a real grasp of the numbers! There is a real mathematical sense behind the word “derivative,” but these guys with the degrees— well, they started out basically with a certain amount of assumptions, and if the assumptions go wrong, then you’re left looking at a bunch of people with degrees who don’t know what they’re doing.
Just kind of a colossal version of the thumb on the scale at the butcher shop, or a game of liar’s poker?
I don’t know if there’s as much structure to it as poker. It’s just liars (laughs)! It’s a crap game; the rate of change is what they bet on, and well, now that unemployment’s going sky high, I guess you could say they really pulled some change there.
Well, all bets are off as far as things go these days. The only thing scarier would be the music business, I guess. Would you say it’s the End Times for the industry as you once knew it, or have online resources made it a Golden Age for artists?
I think the web allows musicians to compete in new ways that are healthy. As for Golden Ages, they’re usually identified after they’re over. I’ll tell you next quarter whether it’s golden or not!
You have to admit that hard times can result in some great music. Look at all the cool stuff that came out of the Depression years; we could have the nextWoody Guthrie lying in wait out there right now.
Music comes out of necessity; out of change — as for the next Woody Guthrie, he or she may be out there now. Maybe writing a song because California decided that gays can’t get married.
What always impressed me about a Blasters set is that your show can work in all kinds of settings — punk rock crowds, bikers, country fans…
It all comes from American minstrel music; that melding and molding of African and European traditions. They’re all facets of the same thing.
You said once that country stars were like people who put on blackface.
Sure; they put cowboy hats on people, dress them up like a clown in hat, boots. Country is just a shambles. I don’t know what “country” they’re even talking about.
Well, you could say that Country and Western is just this artificial, bastard thing with singing cowboys.
Cowboys didn’t sing before 1920, 1930 — they wrote poetry! And if you told Bob Wills back in his early days that he played “cowboy” music, he’d’a kicked your ass. As far as he was concerned, they played jazz music from Harlem. And Jimmie Rodgers didn’t fit into their plan either. He was the Singing Brakeman, because a lot more people made their way in the world from the railroads than ever rode a horse by that time.
You did a great Rodgers song on your second album, where you really nailed that high-lonesome yodel…
I’m just a yodelin’ mountaineer. I should yodel more, and perhaps I will. Anyway, we’ll be looking out for you at the show; give us a holler when you’re there. Or a yodel!