Longtime rock legends True Believers make their first appearance as a band at ACL Music Fest.
By Leo B. Carter; Photo by Mike Fickel
Hidden away from the midday heat during the second weekend of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, ATX Man sat down with local rock legends True Believers in the back of the Austin Airstream trailer. The band, which broke up in 1987, was poised to be one of the biggest rock bands of the ’80s. Last year, they finally reunited, making their first-ever ACL appearance at this year’s festival with members Alejandro Escovedo, Javier Escovedo, Jon Dee Graham, Denny DeGorio and Rey Washam.
Their Saturday afternoon set filled the Zilker tent with a wall of sound that left little room in your brain to process much of anything else. The cool confidence of lead man Alejandro Escovedo can only be found in a rocker with decades in the biz, and the powerful trio of guitars rang out triumphantly over the spectators, who were a good mix of diehard fans and new converts lucky enough to stumble on to something they never expected. True Believers may not have garnered as much national attention as some of the blockbuster headliners, but these guys showed the eclectic audience exactly how hard Austin rocks. If you missed them, you missed out. They proved that they can still hang with the youngest and loudest, and most importantly that rock ’n’ roll, like fine wine, only gets better with age.
ATX Man: Why, after 25 years, did you decide to get back together?
Javier Escovedo: The reason we got back together was to honor a friend of ours who passed away. And because of that reason, we weren’t thinking about ourselves or really the band. We were just thinking about honoring our friend, so I think that’s the reason why things clicked this time and came together in the way that they have.
Alejandro Escovedo: Part of the reason that it took so long is that Javier has his own career, he’s got his band, he travels to Europe all the time; Jonny tours constantly when he’s not reading the packages.
Jon Dee Graham: [Looking at a package of kale chips] I’m just curious ’cause you know, kale is a lot bigger deal than you would think.
AE: Yeah, it is. And myself, it’s the same thing. Denny’s got his thing. Took him awhile to get sober; 26 years is a long time. [Laughter]
JDG: It takes what it takes.
AE: He got there eventually.
Denny DeGorio: Who’s counting? It’s just one day.
AE: So, we were all doing stuff. We tried to get together various times before, and not ever nearly as successfully as this has been. And I’m talking about on every level: creatively, socially, every part of it.
AM: Why do you think it didn’t stick the first time around?
JDG: Different world. We were different people.
JE: There were a lot of factors the first time. We had a good run actually.
JDG: Better than most.
JE: We traveled a lot, made records in big studios on major labels. We did accomplish a lot. It wasn’t time wasted.
AE: No, not at all.
AM: What’s left of the True Believers of the 1980s?
AE: It’s exactly the same band.
AM: Nothing’s changed?
JDG: Well, you know, I can tune my guitar now. [Laughter]
AM: What is it like playing the ACL Music Festival for the first time as a band?
AE: The [Zilker] tent was great.
JE: Yeah, it was perfect for us.
AE: There were about 3,000 people there. That’s a great size audience and they were in to it.
JDG: What I liked about it was [seeing]the split. True Believer super-fans that you could see singing along, interspersed with other people going, “Wow, what the hell is this?” It was good. It made me feel like we made new fans and pleased the old fans.
AM: I was in the audience and a couple of people came up and asked me, “Who are these guys?” You guys sounded great; the wall of guitars was hypnotizing and the sound was held in tight by that tent. At ACL, you’re drawing in people from all over the U.S. that maybe would never get a chance to see you.
AE: Last week there was a review in the Houston Press and it voted us one of the top five acts of the weekend. And the person who wrote it was this young kid. This person said, “Suddenly I was in this tent surrounded by people 20 years older than me who are rockin’ out to this band.” He or she goes, “It was great and I got in to it.”
JDG: He said, “It made me rethink my idea of what rock ’n’ roll was.” So we’re sort of missionaries in that way. [Laughter]
AM: Do you think ACL gives people from all over the country a good idea of what the Austin music scene is, or is it a little bit skewed toward traveling acts?
AE: It’s a little bit skewed because Austin—the music scene—exists in clubs, exists in beer gardens and exists in little places. It’s not about this international thing. The Cure and Depeche Mode are great bands, but what do they have to do with Austin? It’s not that kind of thing. It’s so big now; it really just takes place in Austin. It doesn’t feel like this is specifically an Austin thing.
JDG: I think it should have more Austin bands involved. If they’re truly trying to represent Austin, they should maybe have a few more bands from Austin on the bill. That’s just my personal opinion.
AE: I think they should venture out into the clubs and do some things there. Just hit the major clubs—Antone’s, Cactus for folk, The Continental for roots, Emo’s for punk.
AM: Where do you guys like to play most in town? What’s your favorite venue?
JDG, AE, JE: Continental, yeah The Continental.
AE: It’s the best club in America.
AM: What do you hope a first-time listener at one of your shows takes away from the experience?
AE: Just to have had a great time and to believe in rock ’n’ roll as much as we do. To love it as much as we do…guitars and drums and good songs.
DD: It’s a good day to be a guitar player.
AE: We’ve always been about that. When we first started, Javier came with all the songs that he had, we learned all of them and Denny and I slowly but surely started to write. We did a lot of covers of our favorite songs. I don’t know anyone else who did Southern Pacific off of Re-ac-tor by Neil Young.
AM: You’ve all played in many bands spanning genres, decades and geographical expanses. What makes Austin a unique place to be a musician and an artist?
JDG: I think it’s because the level of commitment and dedication that musicians have in this town is so high that they set the bar high for each other. Most bands that stick it out here don’t just f*** around. They know that they have to really write and they have to really play. There’s always a place for you to play in Austin, so it’s a chance for you to work. My friends who moved to Chicago are playing once a month. I play twice a week.
AE: There’s a high level so you have to be really good. And the other part of it is, and all of us can attest to this because we’ve been part of scenes like the punk rock scene in California. In Austin, I can’t tell you how many next-big-thing bands we’ve seen come and go. There are some that come off with this attitude like, “Oh we’re going to be rock stars, man,” “We’ve got this f***in’ attitude,” and you never see them again because it just doesn’t work in Austin. That attitude doesn’t work. You get a reputation as an a**hole and it just doesn’t fit you well here.
JDG: You’ve got to be able to back it up. You have to be able to deliver the mail, or else it means nothing here.
AM: Do you have any advice for a young Austin musician who may feel pressure to leave for a bigger city?
JE: Write good songs.
AE: That’s the main thing. If you write good songs, it doesn’t matter where you are. If you pay attention to what you should, you could live anywhere.
AM: You must be pretty eager to get back in to the studio and start writing again. What can we expect?
JE: I think everybody just wants to make the best record we can at this point in our lives.
AE: There’s a feeling in the True Believers that we never made that record, the True Believers record. We were learning, you know? So I think now that we’ve all had a lot of experience making records, we can make a really great record. I hope it happens. That’s my last remark and I refuse to say anything else. [Laughter]