By Lynne Margolis
(LSM May/June 2013/vol. 6 – Issue 3)
When it comes to rock ’n’ roll reunions, the only time “never” should be uttered is in the sentence, “Never say never.”
Though Alejandro Escovedo didn’t quite use that “N” word in reference to his legendary ’80s band, the True Believers, when he spoke to LoneStarMusic last summer, he didn’t put much stock in the possibility of the band ever coming back to life. (“I don’t like that thing where we just get up and play the old stuff,” he said of past attempts.) Besides, Escovedo and his brother, Javier, who formed the band’s original nucleus, both have healthy solo careers, as does third frontman Jon Dee Graham (who also has a growing art career keeping him busy.)
But that was before South By Southwest creative director Brent Grulke, who had also served as their tour manager and sound engineer, passed away unexpectedly on Aug. 13, 2012. Less than a month later, the Troobs, as they were affectionately known, reconvened with original bassist Denny DeGorio and drummer Rey Washam to headline Grulkefest, a tribute to their late friend. That supposed one-off performance has since turned into three SXSW gigs, two newly recorded songs, spring and fall tours and a potential album.
Even though the band disintegrated decades ago, Graham says, “There was this tacit acknowledgement among all of us that that was a singular collection of people and the stuff we did together was some of the most deeply powerful that any of us had ever done.”
That “stuff” was rock ’n’ roll incarnate, driven by three distinct voices with equally formidable songwriting and guitar skills, plus a rhythm section able to carry the hefty weight of backing them. Their take-no-prisoners punk attitude and Texas-tuned musical sensibilities thrilled audiences, and blasted them into legend status after their demise. On the rare occasions when Graham and Alejandro have performed together since, the power always surged back on. “I’ve never had chemistry like I have with him,” Graham says. “And he feels the same way.”
But even they were shocked by the intensity of the band’s Grulkefest set, for which they hadn’t even rehearsed.
“I had no idea that it would be so much fun. I didn’t think it would sound that good, honestly,” Escovedo says. “We’d done the occasional reunion, but sometimes Javier couldn’t make it or Rey wasn’t there or someone’s pissed off or whatever. I think this is the first time that it really felt like this is our band. This is the band that we wanted to be in when formed the True Believers.”
“It was like, god-damn! We were backstage [afterward], and Joe Nick Patoski, our manager back in the day, walked up and said, ‘Gentlemen, if you don’t do this again, you’re making a foolish mistake.’ So Al said, sort of bluffing, ‘Well, we’ll do it if you’ll manage us.’ And Joe Nick said, ‘You guys are unmanageable! But I will do whatever it takes.’”
The ball started rolling, and picked up momentum. Their two-week, $5,000-goal Kickstarter campaign raised more than that in four days, covering Javier’s plane ticket from San Diego for SXSW and a one-day session at the newly reopened Arlyn Studios, where they’d recorded their self-titled first album. (Their second, Hard Road, shelved after their record label dropped them, was released with a True Believers reissue years after their split.) Their recording goal was one release-worthy song; they wound up with three, and released two: “Gipsy Sun,” written and sung by Javier, and “Dedication,” written by Graham and sung by Alejandro. Its first verse is about Grulke. The second references Oklahoma City musician Basile Kolliopoulos, who died in January.
“The third verse is about how here it is, 25 years later, and we’re still in the ring,” Graham says. “It’s part of the human condition — and I think it’s also really part of the rock ’n’ roll mindset — to think that there is no clock. But Brent’s passing, as untimely as it was, was a really good reminder that the clock’s ticking. I don’t know how many more records I’m gonna get to make. And I’d love to make this one.”
There have been other reminders; hepatitis C nearly felled Escovedo in 2003 and Graham had a near-fatal car accident in 2008. Both have since experienced new levels of creativity and success.
“Everybody’s at the peak of their game,” says Graham. Escovedo agrees, adding, “I’m having the time of my life right now.”
He says he’s getting along great with Javier, who’s been touring behind his solo release, City Lights. Though details were still nebulous at press time, they’re doing regional dates in May and expect to tour Europe this fall. If further recording occurs, all three have plenty of songs and Graham’s sure they could rapidly knock out an album’s worth.
“We’re just taking it a little at a time, making sure that everything’s working at each stage,” Escovedo says. “I don’t want to go out there and just beat ourselves up again like we did in the past. We were a very, almost naïve bunch of young guys … and I think that the record industry got the best of us. I don’t want us to go through that again. I just want us to enjoy what we have, and the ability to make music, right now, with those guys, is pretty awesome.”