Phil Alvin of the Blasters on death, Sun Ra and the greatest horn player in rock and roll
The Blasters, due at the Lion's Lair tonight, May 6, and tomorrow, May 7, were founded in 35 years ago in Downey, California, by brothers Phil and Dave Alvin along with drummer Bill Bateman and bassist John Bazz. Steeped in American music traditions, the band easily traverses through blues, rockabilly, early rock and R&B, as evidenced particularly on the band's early-'80s releases on Slash Records like American Music and 1981's self-titled effort. Although Dave Alvin left the Blasters in the mid-'80s to pursue a solo career (with Keith Wyatt now filling the vacated guitar spot in the band), the two brothers have collaborated on other projects since then. We spoke with Phil Alvin, who has a Ph.D. in mathematics, about how math and music are related, his brush with death in 2010, saxophonist Lee Allen, and recording with the great jazz mystic Sun Ra.
Flickr user Kent Geib Phil Alvin co-founded the Blasters in the late '70s.
Can you tell me about the new record you did your brother, Dave -- Common Ground: Dave Alvin + Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy?
It's an homage to brotherhood and to Big Bill, who was always a big favorite of ours and who's a great guitarist, a great songwriter, and a great singer who played all kinds of American music -- blues, swing, jazz, folk music. That was a great opportunity to point some fingers at Big Bill.
I was curious about your brush with death. That sounds like it was a pretty heavy situation.
Yeah, it was a heavy situation. I'm tired of talking about it. Yeah, it's nice to be alive. It was a surprise, that's for sure. A slap in the face. But I'm pretty much recovered from that. I mean, all recovered from it physically. Just seeing your mortality is a pretty big issue, and that's affected me a lot.
Yeah, everything's okay now. Everything's a little shook up but all right.
Lee Allen, who played sax with the Blasters, grew up in Colorado and played with the Stones in Boulder, was a pretty important part of the group.
Yeah, he was seminal. I met him when he was fifteen, and he became a good friend. We backed him up since then. And when the Blasters started rolling, I called him up immediately. He was the greatest horn player of rock and roll, in my opinion.
I was curious about your solo record [Un "Sung Stories"] where you teamed up with Sun Ra and Dirty Dozen Band.
Yeah, I couldn't believe that he did it, but we got along really well. It was like a dream. He sat in the studio for eighteen hours and got up once to piss. That was a truly mystical experience with the master of mystical jazz.
I played a few gigs with Sun Ra. He asked me to be the vocalist. He was going to go to France and be a composer-in-residence, but that never came about. It was a great honor that he would ever consider me.
Yeah, Sun Ra was a great master. Fletcher Henderson, that's where we got along. When we first met, he said, "I played with Gatemouth Moore" and was mentioning some R&B artists, and he said, "No, I was thinking more like Fletcher Henderson or Duke Ellington." And then Sun brightened up... it was great. It was a fantastic experience. That was a great record with a lot of great musicians on it.
Do you have any interesting memories of playing in Denver or Colorado?
I used to love to play the Rainbow, which I guess has been closed for about twenty years. Then we played with Eric Clapton at Red Rocks one time and he had us come out on stage, and that was a great experience. And you know, my father was an organizer for the United States Steelworkers, and I spent a lot of time in Denver and Boulder and Leadville and places when I was a kid with my dad. I always loved Colorado -- a beautiful place. I haven't been to Denver with the Blasters for eight years or so; I can't remember the last place we played.
I know you're quite the math scholar. Does that seep into the music at all?
Mathematics is related to everything with patterns in it. The sort of ephemeral nature of music and the ephemeral nature of math [makes for] a longstanding relationship. There's the famous saying by Pythagoras [about how] there's music in the spacing of the spheres and geometry in the humming of the strings. Pythagorean scale is related to the string stretched around a right triangle. There's that kind of relationship between math and music. But mostly they are patterns of ideas. That's what math is, and music as well.