Text by Joan McNulty, 1982
Introductory text by Robert Barry Francos, 2010
Live photos by Robert Barry Francos
© By FFanzeen
Other images from the Internet © excluded
The following article/interview with Boston rock’n’roll cult icon Willie “Loco” Alexander was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #9, in 1982. It was conducted by Joan McNulty, a regular on the scene in those days. She was also the publisher of the Buzzcocks’ official fan magazine, Harmony in My Head (and then-girlfriend of singer Pete Shelley).
When Joan did this interview, her photographer friend Gay Fast took a photo of Willie wearing one of my FFanzeen tee-shirts, which I still have and treasure. Oh, and I also have one of Pete Shelley.
Willie has been a mainstay in the Boston scene, having fronted a few seminal bands, such as the Lost. He was also Lou Reed’s replacement in the Velvet Underground when they toured Europe in the early ‘70s. He also recorded a single with VU drummer Mo Tucker and Jonathan Richman.
I had the opportunity to see Willie play in Boston a few times during the 1980s, including at the Paradise during one of Joe Viglione’s amazing Spectaculars, where I went with noted photographer at the time, Rocco Cippilone (aka Peter Parka), who went on to publish the excellent Bang! fanzine. – RBF, 2010
Willie Alexander has been an important part of the music scene in Boston and in general for many years. He has been involved in a number of bands, one of the best known being the Boom Boom Band. When they disbanded in the summer of 1978, Willie dropped out of sight for a number of years. He came into view on a few occasions with various single projects, but didn’t emerge fully until November 1981.
Since then, a solo album, Solo Loco, has been released on RCA Records in France and Bomp! Records in the States, full of new material with a different twist. It’s still new and exciting but experimental in areas he’d never before explored; self-produced, as well.
Most recently, he’s gotten together a new band called the Confessions, consisting of himself on vocals and keyboards, Walter Powers on bass, Mathew McKenzie on guitar, and Ricky Rothchild on drums. In the past few months, they’ve been playing an assortment of live dates around the East Coast – including a few opening for the J. Geils Band – and have gone over extremely well. The future looks better than it ever has before. Willie has settled down in both his personal and business life. Since he’s already, in previous interviews, answered all the straight questions about his work, we decided to chat with him and find out his inner thoughts and feelings on himself at this point in his life.
FFanzeen: How did the break-up of the Boom Boom Band affect your mood? What did you feel at that point?
Willie Alexander: I felt… shell-shocked. I guess I had just about had it at that point. The whole business side of it all, and everything else combined.
FF: You stayed out of action for quite some time after that.
Willie: Yes, I needed some time to get better control of myself and what I was doing. I needed the time off to think about what direction I was going in.
FF: Then you decided to get back into the swing of things [“B.U. Baby” single; “Gin” single]. What prompted this?
Willie: Different people more or less asked me to do them, so it was made easy for me.
FF: Were they projects that would have come out on independent singles promoted by you at some later date anyway?
Willie: No, some of them I wouldn’t have ever thought of doing. Like “B.U. Baby.” I’d never have thought of that, or “Gin” either, but I was approached, and after doing it, I felt it came out really great and I was happy with it. I was glad they got revived. I got a lot of mileage out of “Gin,” for instance. At that time, especially, it was really good for me.
FF: Since it came at a time when you were perhaps still disillusioned, did these projects make you more optimistic, maybe motivate you towards getting a band together, getting out –?
Willie: Yes, it really did. It was nice to see my name in the papers again. That way you’re establishing contact again. People probably say, “Gee, it’s been a long time between engagements for this guy, but at least he’s still making records – that’s good.” It’s a way of staying in there without actually having to put a band together.
FF: Were the thoughts of a solo LP lingering in your mind for some time before it actually materialized?
Willie: Yes, I had some things I didn’t think would be band material, so I did them in a solo way. Now that I have a band, I look at them like they’re band material. Definitely; I mean, I changed them.
FF: What actually motivated you to get moving on the solo project, especially as it sounds completely different from your previous work? Was it the freedom of doing it yourself and having it turn out the way you wanted it to, especially having produced it yourself when you could have gotten someone to do it?
Willie: I wasn’t really looking at the time. I felt it was something I had to do at the time. The solo LP concept came up when I was with the Boom Boom Band doing the second LP [Meanwhile, Back in the States – Ed.] . I was talking with (producer) Craig Leon and I told him I really didn’t like the way things were going with it, and he kept saying, “oh, don’t worry, we’ll do a solo LP after this.” Then it turned out later it didn’t work out; we tried a couple of cuts. I seemed to do much better myself, doing some of the same songs. Some of them I just went in and did totally experimental. I used the studio as a medium, sort of, some of them are like sketches, but most of them are pretty flushed out.
FF: Did you think at the time, that maybe you couldn’t find musicians or a producer, to get a cross the type of sound you wanted?
Willie: I didn’t even know what type of sound I wanted. I didn’t know what was going to happen in there.
FF: Were you perhaps surprised at the outcome? Possibly, that you went in to do demos for songs and they more or less ended up finished projects?
Willie: Well, I was thinking of it as a real album. I mean, I was doing it cut by cut. I really didn’t have an overall plan for it. It was a do-or-die thing.
FF: Were you pleased with the outcome? What are your thoughts now that you look back on it? Any changes you would like to have made?
Willie: It’s the way I wanted it to come across. I wanted to convey a lot of different influences, not the usual type of thing that people were used to hearing from me. You know, guitars, bass – to me it’s more of a jazz-oriented feeling throughout, with my choices of instruments and the improvisations of melody lines. I really didn’t have songs written out; a lot of things would be improvised. And leave it like it was a jazz piece.
FF: But, then, strangely enough, you went out and put together a band: guitars, bass and drums. Why?
Willie: Yes, but I used a lot of the riffs from that, the ones that came out of this context.
FF: You didn’t have any thoughts of doing it solo, standing up in front of a packed crowd with backing, tapes and you singing?
Willie: No, I don’t think I would have been comfortable doing that. It had to be a real rock’n’roll band, as that’s as much fun as doing a solo LP.
FF: Being so comfortable with the band now, would it have made a difference if they had been accessible at the time you were recording?
Willie: No, I had to do it the way I did. I just walked into the studio alone most of the time. I used Ted St. Pierre, the engineer. He played bass and guitar, so we did most of the stuff ourselves. I’d, like, play drums and piano, start with one or another, and gradually add bass, sometimes guitar, synthetics, and things.
FF: Then that was the sound you liked all along?
Willie: Because it was so unplanned. I really couldn’t teach people too many parts to these things. It more or less just fell together. Even I didn’t know all the parts; I have to learn them myself to make them work in a band context.
FF: When the French deal [with New Rose – RBF] came about for the LP, what were your thoughts on it?
Willie: A ray of hope. I was a bit leery of all the business connected with it, but the way it was approached, I wasn’t selling my body and soul to a company, more like selling a product I’d already finished. I got to maintain my artistic freedom.
FF: What made you actually get back to playing live, and getting a band together? All the hype from the LP?
Willie: It was something I think I really had to do, to make me feel better as a person. It also would help the album as well. Promotion in general, that was the main purpose. I reached a point just going into the studio alone and all. I think I needed the combinations, friction, interaction of different people.
FF: You must feel better about yourself, then?
Willie: Yes, I feel more in control now, more productive in my own way. I don’t feel depressed thinking about the future anymore. It seems more hopeful now, not like an obligation to fulfill. I feel comfortable for the future.
FF: Concerning the band you’re working with now (The Confessions), what made you believe that these were the right people to add? How did it all fall into place?
.Willie: Some of them I’d known for a while; I knew what they were capable of doing. I figured it was about time to do it then. I had played with Walter Powers in a lot of bands, and I played with Mathew McKenzie in a band. It just had to be the right people this time around. Not that the other guys weren’t right for that time, but I can talk a little easier to Mathew than the other guitar player, nothing personal. I know him, we’ve shared a lot of things, we can be honest, and most of all, we can bounce ideas of one another.
FF: Do you, as an artist, find it hard to keep a band together, especially since you write the songs and the band almost serves as your vehicle? Is it a tense situation at times?
Willie: So far, so good. We’ve got a good interaction going. We struggle with the songs, I’ll bring in a part and we’ll keep trying new ideas out on it. With a lot of my material, I’ll lay down the skeleton of it and I know how Mathew will work it out because I know his style. But, he never fails to surprise me. I think he’s got a lot of jazz influence, even though he might not think so. He’s got a certain reckless abandon in his playing sometimes, like a number of the great jazz players. I’d rather work with someone like that than a standard rock guitarist. I never know what’s really going to happen with him.
FF: What’s your attraction to jazz playing? Is it the fact that often times they’re learned musicians?
Willie: When I started out, I wanted to be a jazz musician, so I still kind of think of that. When I didn't like where rock’n’roll was going, I started listening more to jazz. When I was in high school, I was more interested in playing jazz drums than in trying to play the type of rock’n’roll on the radio at that time. Every five years, rock’n’roll gets good again. I really liked the ‘50s. Then it got good again mid-‘60s.
FF: What parts of it didn’t you like, specifically?
Willie: I think it was the sound at different times. It started to sound too manufactured. It was lacking the rawness. It was too slick and sophisticated for me. I seem to have a lot of complaints. What’s funny is that the slickness is what the majority of people like. These are people who consider my stuff and I think that’s pretty good because lots of times I do my best to keep it sounding primitive. The album sounded that way, but with only 8 tracks it would be hard to get it too slick. Maybe the next time when I get 16 tracks or with 24, my troubles would be over.
FF: Then we can all hate it.
Willie: Yes, but it would sell millions.
FF: What are your thoughts about touring?
Willie: In general, it can be fun, but it’s still work. You get to see the country. It’s necessary, I know. We’re going to be going to France, hopefully, in the spring, which is a lot better than saying, “Hey, would you like to go to Indianapolis or St. Louis for the weekend?” Sure, I like touring. Going to France is pretty hot stuff.
FF: Do you find it exciting that you’re going to some place where, as a solo performer, you’ve never been, and your material has sold extremely well and gotten good press?
Willie: It’ll be pretty wild. It’s almost surrealistic in a way. I went through France with Walter (Powers) when we were with the Velvet Underground in 1971, and all this wasn’t even a glimmer in my eye then, just guys on bicycles with berets and cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and turtleneck sweaters. I never thought they’d be buying my album. I had heard, though, that they liked American music, jazz and rock’n’roll. I guess it sold because we had sent the singles over there and the right people got them and wrote about them. There were also, around 1977-78, big articles over there about the Boston music scene, and they talked a lot about the Boom Boom Band, garage records… I think that’s what started it. It’s great to be popular in your home town, but imagine a foreign country. It’s crazy. And they’re only going by records. I make records and they’re accepted in another place. I’m conveying my thoughts and getting something across, which is something you always hope for when you do it.
FF: Do you think your record sounds different than a lot of things today?
Willie: No, not to me, because I see where it’s coming from and the influences. Basically, it’s rock’n’roll with Latin-American overtones. The freedom of jazz with rock’n’roll rhythms.
FF: Although it may be hard to tell because the LP just came out domestically, do you feel you get better promotion overseas?
Willie: I haven’t actually witnessed the promo there, but it gets press and I hear that when it came out, you know, it was in stores with big displays and all that. I had that with the first Boom Boom Band album [Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band – Ed.], but this is different.
FF: What do you think when you look back and listen to the Boom Boom album?
Willie: It’s kind of weird. I don’t play it that much at all. I was real close to it then and I’m so far from the person singing sometimes. Although I know it was me and I’d never go back on anything I ever did, I can just see it differently now. Even with the solo LP sometimes – but if I’d stayed in the studio, the record wouldn’t be out now.
FF: Do you feel that it’s a valid piece of history? A stepping stone?
Willie: Sure, because the songs needed to be out. There’s a few I’d like to even record again, I don’t know when.
FF: Is there a real obsession to get certain songs out on an actual piece of vinyl?
Willie: Yes. I look at an old song and think, gee, I never recorded that and I should. Sometimes, I forget my thoughts. It really makes it final. Sometimes, I think I’m not that prolific. I have to look in old notebooks, but when I look around, at one point I had, like, 100 songs, but I lost that list. When I rewrote it, I only had 30. A lot I forget. We do 22 in the band right now. I don’t finish things right away. I write bits and pieces and they eventually fall into place. Some of the riffs, especially on “Take Me Away” (on the solo LP), I’ve been fooling with for 10 years. It changes when it’s done live, as well. I went in the studio for the wild and crazy changes. People either like it or they don’t. It doesn’t represent my whole life or anything, just a small part of it.
FF: What are your lyrical influences?
Willie: Everyday life, all the thoughts that run through my head. It is amazing when you’re thinking of something and it’s that good that you say, “That’s a song!” I’ve got dozens of notebooks with lines in them. You’ve got to exercise your thoughts. The next project for me will no doubt sound much different than this. They’ll be a constant thread running through it all – me, and my trademarks through the years.
FF: How do you think fans will take to the constant changes?
Willie: I’m not sure, especially new fans. What they think of the solo LP. It’s all a constant progression or digression. I stick with a number of some things so well, the really heavy beat for starters. It’s easy for me to adapt any of my songs for the unit I’m in at the moment. Or drop the song maybe, or the band changes the song to fit them. It’s fun. I know what to look for in musicians now. I’ve been around a long time. It all evolves. It depends on the song itself.
FF: Do any of the others in the band write songs? Will they get filtered in?
Willie: Mathew writes a lot of great songs. I don’t’ know if I could do someone else’s material. We do a few covers, you never know, it’s always possible. I like it better if they’ve been dead for 20 years.
FF: Do you view the band as a long-term project, or do you like variations?
Willie: It’ll be a long-time thing for a while. It’s just starting so I can’t see any end. I can see recording with them; other things I want to do solo. Both, I guess. It’s all a very comfortable atmosphere.
FF: What are some of your upcoming plans for the future?
Willie: Rochester, New York, Saturday. No, seriously, video I’m quite interested in. It’s all exciting to think about, all the open options. I have ideas for videos, nothing really formulated as of yet. We did a few with the Boom Boom Band and they were horrible. I said, “Next…”
FF: What is your driving force after all these years?
Willie: I really like to do it; I can’t picture myself doing anything else. It’s all new to me now, with the band. I’m also a little more cautious. I know what I don’t want. It’s a new ballgame and it's scary sometimes. But so is crossing the street.
FF: Is success all that important to you
Willie: Right now, to me, I feel as though I already have it. Any little thing that happens grouped together is success. I wouldn’t mind having a hit record. That means my ideas have corresponded with so many more people, but I have to keep my credibility. I mean, I still think of having a hit record after all this time in music. The audacity of myself, sometimes. That may be the force.
FF: How did you feel about your first comeback show at the Paradise [Boston] this year when it sold out and you got a standing ovation? What were you thinking?
Willie: I was stunned. It was wild and great. It becomes unreal – I was extremely happy, especially since I’ve been out of it for a while. It made it all worthwhile for me as a person. That’s why I do it all. I still get nervous that no one will show up. When I reflect back on it as a whole, I really feel proud. I keep my fingers crossed at all times. If I didn’t get a response, I wouldn’t do it. I’d stop. It makes it all seem right.
FF: Why do people go to see you? What do you think it is?
Willie: It’s hard to say, it’s all still a fantasy to me, the whole rock’n’roll trip, and going on stage. It’s real life and I’m still getting used to it. I worry if I’ll still be popular the next day. I had to learn to cope with it all.
FF: Are you self-motivated?
Willie: Yes, I think so. I probably need a push here and there. If I decide to do something, I do it, and vice versa. The fantasy is all real now, yet it still surprises me to walk out on a stage or have things click at rehearsal. The element of suspense keeps me going. Sometimes, I think, “Oh, this can’t last.” It’s already gone so much longer than I thought it would in the beginning. Thank God, it’s happening.
FF: Do you think that you settling down to your personal life made your music settle as well? That you were more in control of both?
Willie: Yes. They both interacted with each other, I think. It helped the music. I feel very happy and content at the moment. There's always some days, but – it all balances out. I was really screwed up before. There’s a fine line between being in and out of control. I guess I label it: The Edge. I believe I’m on the right track now. It’s kind of like that old John Sebastian song, “Do You Believe in Magic?” That’s what music is all about.
Willie in the 1980s: