Dave Alvin

Photo by Chip Duden

Dave Alvin is a fighter. In the 1980s, when Dave and his older brother, Phil Alvin, shared studio and stage as co-founders of Los Angeles punkabilly band The Blasters, they frequently fought each other. They also fought musically, tussling over every note as the four-man band wrangled many great tunes. In that respect, their working relationship may have been similar to the sibling push-pull output of Ray and Dave Davies in the Kinks and Liam and Noel Gallagher in Oasis. Consider "American Music," "Marie Marie," and "Border Radio," all from the band's 1981 sophomore album The Blasters, as examples of how internal conflict can lead to successful collaboration.

In the years following Dave's departure from the Blasters, in 1986, the brothers often sparred anew as they drifted through the transom of their shared lives—sometimes via Blasters re-ups, other times in self-aware duets like "What's Up with Your Brother?," from Dave's 2011 solo album Eleven Eleven, or in joint projects like 2014's Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy and 2015's Lost Time, the latter featuring down-home covers of songs from Big Joe Turner, James Brown, Willie Dixon (pictured with Alvin below), and others (footnote 1).

Through all the sibling conflict, the one constant, which had intertwined the brothers since they grew up together under the same roof in Downey, California, was a shared passion for music—and, for much of that time, for record collecting. Teenagers as the 1970s got underway, the Alvin brothers were notorious as the youngest, savviest 78 collectors in Southern California. "Phil and I, we started collecting 78s and 45s real early in our lives, and we became really adept at 78 collecting," Dave told me during our interview. "That was something my brother and I shared. For us, that's really where we bonded as brothers—besides all the blood feuds," he concluded with a knowing, brotherly laugh.

Eventually, Dave carved out a fine career as a solo artist and songwriter steeped in the deep-rooted traditions of the blues, country, rockabilly, and folk. With Romeo's Escape, his flag-planting 1987 solo debut on Epic, Alvin established his solo lane, leading to a decade-plus of genre-driven works on Hightone before settling in at Yep Roc, his label home since 2004.

"You never know what people are gonna like," Alvin says, "but I do feel like I've written a few songs that don't have a cultural expiration date."

In addition to the other conflicts, Alvin has had to fight for his own life in recent years, battling cancer into a state of remission. "The past three years have been what I call Cancer Life," he explains. "The thing I learned after all the surgeries and recurrences is, you don't really beat cancer—you learn to live with it." Residing constantly under the sword of Damocles fueled fervent musical explorations that look forward and back at the same time, exemplified by his recent shepherding of a special edition of his 2011 Yep Roc effort, Eleven Eleven, released, of course, on November 11, 2022. Eleven Eleven 11th Anniversary Expanded Edition is available, as these things often are, in several versions including an expanded, resequenced CD and a double 180gm black vinyl LP set. What's behind the clever 11/11 symmetry? For one thing, 11/11 is Alvin's birthday.

In a thorough and thoughtful interview, Alvin recalls the halcyon days of collecting 78s with Phil, cautiously navigating the adult world of record collecting, the ways his taste in playback equipment has changed with the passage of time, and the valuable lessons he learned from the many recording engineers he's worked with over the years.

Mike Mettler: The care and detail you put into the presentation and packaging of your solo records, like the newly expanded version of Eleven Eleven—that came out of your record collecting experiences growing up, didn't it?

Dave Alvin: Yeah. I remember when I was a kid, when you'd get an album, you could always tell when somebody was just throwing something together. You'd go, "Wait a second!" You just knew. [laughs]

Mettler: For me, it all started with 45s. Back in the day, 45s were the test demos that got you ready to get into the entire album. If you liked both sides, you'd invest in the 12".

Alvin: Right. There used to be a place in my hometown in Downey, California, called Downey Music, and they had everything from saxophones to Stratocasters. They had a rehearsal space, and a little record store where the guy who was running it would go, "Do you want to hear this Elmore James record?" "Oh yes!" And they had those special listening rooms where you'd go listen to those records.

Mettler: Did you and your older brother Phil buy records together or separately? You guys were only a couple years apart (footnote 2), and I know sharing records growing up can be dicey. Did you guys share records or did you say, "This is mine, and that's yours"?

Alvin: It depended. There were things I liked that Phil hated.

Mettler: Like what? Give me an example.

Alvin: I loved the guitar sound on "Get It On (Bang a Gong)," by T. Rex (footnote 3). I love that guitar sound! [laughs] But Phil, he was not so much the T. Rex fan. The thing is, I could listen to Blind Lemon Jefferson, Archie Shepp, Merle Haggard, and T. Rex. I mean, why not? But I know that confuses people.

Due to our older cousin's taste in music, we had already been exposed to everything from doo-wop, hardcore R&B, Ray Charles, and Big Joe Turner. My cousin Mike played banjo and guitar, and he was into Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin' Jack [Elliott], Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and all that. By the time I was 12, we had Sonny Boy Williamson records—and I already knew at that age there were two Sonny Boy Williamsons.

Then we started figuring out there was this whole world of music on 78s. In those days—the late '60s and early '70s—there were some reissues, but in general, no, there really weren't. It was not like today where you can just click on Spotify, type in "Charley Patton," and find everything Charley Patton ever cut.

Phil and I had all these misadventures in the world of record collecting, and it led us into a very adult world—a strange adult world of strange adult 78 collectors. There were also cool people like Bob Hite of Canned Heat, who had one of the greatest 78 collections ever, and there were also these oddball guys who would have all the Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven and Hot Five 78s, but they wouldn't play 'em! We were all about the music. It was like, "Well, we can't find this music anywhere, and we want to hear it." But a lot of collectors were just the serial number collectors.

Mettler: If I can afford to do it, I will sometimes buy two copies of certain records—but with the intention of playing them both, not hoarding them. If the first copy wears out, then I have a backup I can put on instead.

Alvin: I respect the two-record policy.

Mettler: Could you and Phil afford to buy both a playable copy and a backup copy? Or was it practically impossible to do so?

Alvin: With old 78s? No. When you find an old Robert Johnson 78 of "I'm a Steady Rollin' Man"—we found that one for 55 cents in downtown Long Beach at a thrift store!—you just can't go, "You have another one of these?" [laughs heartily]

Looking for 78s, we discovered a couple of places. We became well-known among adult record collectors as "these two dumbbell kids out in Downey" who were finding all these amazing records. We found a place out in Bell Gardens, California—a little town next to Downey—and the place had a false front. I don't even want to name it, just because. [chuckles] From the outside, it looked like a one-story building, but it was really a two-story building. The first floor was full of old stoves and washing machines, and things like that. The second floor was all 78s. None of these guys, the collectors, knew this place.

The great thing was, it was the equivalent of Spotify, so we had access to everything from the blues—a lot of West Coast blues like Charles Brown, Texas blues, and Chicago blues. It had bebop 78s—like small label, early Dexter Gordons and Charlie Parkers. They also had early jazz 78s.

Mettler: Wow. How much did they cost?

Alvin: I scored in there for 25 cents. They would be like, "You guys want to take that old music?" "Yeah, we do!" I scored one of Louis Armstrong's recordings with Fletcher Henderson & His Orchestra, "Prince of Wails," though I don't recall the label. It was a dance band arrangement. It wasn't one of the Hot Fletcher Henderson recordings, but it was a good record (footnote 4).

Apparently, because of what we had on blue lacquer, and everything else—and because what we had was in, I won't say mint, but in excellent condition—we started having guys showing up at our house in Downey, and they came with records.

Mettler: So they just knew you two were "the guys"?

Alvin: Well, they heard about us finding these 78s. Especially about me, this 13-year-old dumb kid, they'd go, "He doesn't know what he's got!" But I did. I knew. And these guys would show up with every kind of record you could ever want. At that point in time, I had kind of sucked dry the Western swing 78s from that secret 78s place—and they had a lot of 'em.

There was a couple of Bob Wills reissues, and that was it for the Western swing I had. I told this one collector, I said, "I'll tell you what. You give me some Chess blues records and all the Western swing you got, and the Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson is yours." The guy comes back five days later with a lot of Chess records and about 75 Bob and Luke Wills records, and I was like, "You got it!"

Mettler: Why did you make that trade?

Alvin: Because I'd listened to the Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson, and I had already got what I wanted out of it. It was like, "Okay, now I've got 75 Western swing records and some beloved Chicago blues records, so I'm happy." But then the word got back, "That guy, he's an idiot! He traded the kid 75 Western swing records!"

Mettler: What equipment did you play all those 78s on, growing up?

Alvin: It was a set from the '50s. Later on, Phil got a real, state-of-the-art 78 player.

And I just played 'em all—all the records we had. To me, it wasn't about the condition; it was about the music. We found a Blind Lemon Jefferson that was just trashed, but it didn't matter. You just put your ear up to the speaker and listened.

Mettler: Where did you get the money to buy your records? Did you have to mow lawns and do yardwork, or did you parents give you an allowance?

Alvin: It was kind of all of that, you know? A new album in those days was, what—two bucks? I liked all kinds of music, but I'd have x amount of money set aside for them. I didn't save up.

Mettler: It was the same thing for me. I mowed lawns each week in the summer, so I had just enough spending money to buy one used and one new album whenever I went to the record store.

Alvin: Yeah. We're the same guy, Mike. [both laugh]

Footnote 1: Two of Dave Alvin's albums have been featured as Stereophile's Recording of the Month: Black Jack David in August 1998 and Out in California in October 2002.—Ed.

Footnote 2: Phil was the oldest, born in 1953, two years before Dave.

Footnote 3: From 1971's Electric Warrior.

Footnote 4: "Prince of Wails" was released in 1924 on Puritan 11367, but some pundits think Armstrong's horn is not discernible, or even present, on the recording.


MFK's picture

Mr. Alvin is a musical treasure: outstanding songwriting and musicianship. Plus, he's a very nice man. Have been fortunate to see many live shows in diverse configurations. A killer every time. Thank you so much and long live DA!

Glotz's picture

I remember playing it for a party at our home in the 80's while she was visiting. I was prepping the sound, and despite her age in the 80's, she came running down the stairs to exclaim "Oooh, I LIKE that SONG, Jeffy! Who IS THAT??" Lol..

I've seen The Blasters and Dave a few times and they always please.