Phil Alvin likes to talk. But unlike many who have the gift of gab, the frontman for legendary L.A. band the Blasters actually has something to say. Having a master’s degree in artificial intelligence and a Ph.D. in mathematics doesn’t exactly hinder his ability to wax intellectual about pretty much anything, yet the singer, who was once asked by a record company executive to sing with less emotion, is as amiable and down to earth as he is brilliant.
Alvin and his brother Dave founded the Blasters in the late ‘70s, and along with bands like X, James Intveld and the Paladins, accidentally spearheaded a roots revival that ultimately spawned various subgenres of what the Alvins referred to simply as “American music” — including the now robust rockabilly scene.
In 1986 Dave left the band to go it alone, leaving Phil to steer the ship. Since then, Phil Alvin has somewhat valiantly soldiered on with a revolving lineup and his own solo itch to scratch. The Blasters will make a rare appearance this weekend at the Ventura Nationals official afterparty Hoe Down. Alvin talked to VCReporter from the road, and kept his cool despite numerous signal interruptions and a bird hitting the windshield at top speed, and he told us a little secret: If you yell for “Freebird,” you might just get it. It seems the band recorded its version of the Southern rock classic (or as Alvin says, “totaled it”) for an in-game jukebox feature on the video game Starcraft II. A sometime Blaster guitarist is, not coincidentally, employed by the game’s manufacturer Blizzard.
VCReporter: The Blasters have been credited with pioneering the roots/Americana movement from which a number of healthy subcultures have emerged. What’s your take on the state of American music?
Phil Alvin: I think it’s really healthy. It’s so funny, the notion of anybody pioneering incorporation of what came before into what is now. It’s always pointed out that — pick a time period — there was always somebody that was doing that, so it was always going on, even before they made records. Nonethless, aside from that [laughs], there was Bing Crosby. Bing Crosby in the 1920s was the guy who brought so-called black music to white teenagers. I’ve seen people playing killer claw hammer traditional, for lack of a better name, roots. It’s ugly, roots is really ugly.
VCR: You don’t like the term roots?
I get what they’re saying. Roots are below ground, and I think what they mean is trunk music. That’s a better way to look at it. You know, leaves fall off, twigs break off but the trunk stays the same. Roots are nice, but how come I’ve gotta have my head stuck in the ground or something? In the mud upside down. It’s like disconnected in some way.
I’m not going to guess at what the roots of music are, something to do with the section of the brain and encoding of music and patterns. What brings meaning to music when you’re an infant, before you can talk, but with respect to the part of the music that is always at the core of any of the leaves or branches, I would say trunk music. Now it sounds kind of funny, but once again I belabor semantics. I think the Web has done a great deal for people’s ability to access manifestations of the music worldwide. It doesn’t matter what country it comes from.
VCR: Or what time period.
True. But it used to matter what time period. It usually has to do with economics. If I talk to you about art, most people think of a painter. And if I say contemporary art, that may or may not be art. If you’re a modern painter and I would talk to you about Picasso and you don’t know who he was, it’s like, “What the hell’s the matter with you?” But if you do that with a musician, that’s fine (laughs). You don’t have to know who Fletcher Henderson is. You don’t have to know what any of that shit is. That’s fine, though it’s changing. The Web has made it so you can compete against time. How could you hear King Solomon Hill unless you knew some guy that collected records, and even with those guys you have to find the one who knows he’s got it. I remember Henry Townsend, who was an old country blues guitarist who was there in the early days, was telling Gene Taylor, piano player for the Blasters, how much things changed when you could pick the needle up and put it on a lick, over and over again. He was saying how great it was to be able to pick up the needle, which I’ve done a thousand [multiplied by] a thousand times in my life. Before that, you’d have to be able to hear it a thousand times or have the guy show it to you — either follow the guy around, or be his kid or cousin or something. I remember records I hunted down for years just so I could hear them. The speed with which you can do that now makes everybody a little freer as to what kind of influences and directions the music takes, and it seems to take the paths it should have, and would have, which is down through the trunk (laughs), and everyone else is just a leaf hanging off it — the analogy falls apart completely.
VCR: On that note, what are your thoughts about downloading?
I knew that was coming for 30 years. Honestly. The money made during this time period when they had things called records, that wasn’t made by musicians; it was made by the companies who were not the musicians. In the past, what a musician sold was his performance. That is exactly what you didn’t get paid for in the record business. That’s why you didn’t make any money. There’s also publishing which is about royalties and that comes from the fact that it went back to the kings and slowly — through social democratization — trickled down into some of the most entrenched investment networks in the world. Michael Jackson bought Paul McCartney and Paul McCartney bought Michael Jackson. You play on the street corner, you get paid when you play and if people want to hear you play. And that’s still how people make their money. The Grateful Dead in the late ’70s couldn’t get a record contract; they didn’t care.
They used to tell people to hold up their tape recorders. Record companies get upset about the downloading. Any musician who gets upset about downloading is concerned about publishing, not about performance royalty because he never got that anyway. I believe in the long run, that’s what is going to occur: music performances are what’s going to sell. “Here I’ll play “Marie Marie” for your wife and you on your anniversary,” ya know. “Give me five bucks, we’re gonna play a live version of that tonight. Send a donation. Stand on a street corner and watch us play.” And as for the publishing, I’m not exactly sure how that ends up, but it was always a stretch to consider that they calculated the value of a song based on half the words and half the music. Instrumentals don’t go down too much anymore. Really, now songwriter means who wrote the words. There’re only so many melodies in the first place. And they don’t really monitor them.
VCR: But they are cracking down in night clubs on people who are performing songs they don’t have rights to.
The animal kicks real hard when it’s dying. If what it means is that when you write a song or perform a song that you believe is done in such a unique and unrecapturable way that you somehow have to choke access to it so people have to pay before they can play it . . . there’s a variety of techniques that are done, and I know a little about computers and there are no perfect security systems. It’s going to be a business that’s back in the hands of the producer.
VCR: Not the musician?
The producer is the musician. That was a way for the record company to pay for a guy who controls the budget. I’m not talking about Quincy Jones. He’s a composer conducter. I don’t think Simon Cowell was necessary for music; you can tell him I said that. I’d like to get him in a phone booth (laughs). So I think what we’ll do is make music act more like it acted originally. It has a job, ’cause evolution doesn’t play around. The bringing forward of the collective knowledge of those who came before you in a language that has context, because words by themselves have little meaning. Somewhere, some context has to be pointed to, and music allows context. You can’t sing “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” to the sound of a field holler and expect an English person to not think you’re being sarcastic. It makes you memorize your ABCs, which is absolutely random. The communication of any notion is aided by [music]. How do you steal a song? If I can kick your ass, I can sing your song.
VCR: So the bottom line is, the music industry is not bouncing back, but music will be just fine?
I don’t think music is hurt by this at all. I think it’s helped. It has ripped a parasite from its body that has been debilitating. The thing we are calling music was never music. I don’t know what’s right or wrong about taking this or that direction in music, but music stays. What was called the music industry truly didn’t send any of its assets, or very little of them, to music and acted like a parasite. For Christ’s sake, we’re watching American Idol — this stuff is ridiculous. It’s embarrassing to make words that even identify it. Before you had any media, you just had you, and there were those around you; and if you were determined enough, you could go to a bunch of people and the idea was, you could collect money, but I don’t think that was the only idea. The value of the storytellers, those who held the history, was, to society, something other than to just aggrandize themselves into rock stars all pumped up on drugs and adrenaline.
The Reverend Martini presents The Blasters, Saturday, Sept. 4, 8 p.m. at the Ventura Nationals Hoe Down at the Ventura Bowling Center, 1888 E. Thompson Blvd. Also playing are Albert Lee, Chris Sugarballs Sprague & His 18 Wheelers plus more. Tickets are $15, all-ages. For more information, visit www.primernationals.com.