My bizarre brush with the universe started when I saw a picture of Alexis on stage, screaming into a microphone. He was playing a custom Telecaster, which I would later learn was built using parts salvaged from a guitar shop fire (more on that later). After seeing that picture, I felt like the universe kept trying to force me to cross paths with Alexis Sanchez and his band, The Van Sanchez.
One day while scrolling through my news feed, pictures of the band and a promo video for their new EP randomly appeared. A few weeks later, I purchased tickets to see a local show at The Kessler Theater only to discover that The Van Sanchez was the opener. Ok, universe: I watched the band and decided I definitely want to write about Alexis – now back off.
But the universe didn’t back off.
Soon after the Kessler show I went to Adair’s to watch local favorite Cody Foote play some tunes, and who did I find playing lead guitar alongside Cody? Alexis Sanchez. On a different night at The Free Man, I again spotted Alexis playing lead guitar – this time for some dark and dirty Cajun Blues with Charley Crockett.
But Alexis wasn’t only popping up at live shows. Once while getting my haircut, I was chatting with my stylist about my pursuit to discover and write about local talent. Sure enough, he recommended I check out a guy named Alexis with his band, The Van Sanchez.
Ok, universe: You win.
I ended up watching The Van Sanchez play two live shows and one rehearsal, and each time I came to the same conclusion: the band consistently delivers pure, unfiltered rock that’s written from the heart and played from the gut. But I don’t think I realized just how well crafted their sound actually is until I sat in on one of their rehearsals.
These days, a lot of “rock” bands will advertise themselves by using a series of sub-genre titles in an attempt to validate or better define their sound. Other bands prefer a familiar, more simplistic label – one that signifies an association with the formulaic and mainstream. But The Van Sanchez doesn't need a tedious string of titles to characterize their sound, and their music is anything but mainstream. They draw inspiration from rebellious punk rock, blues, honky-tonk, Americana, and soul: a recipe of influences that has helped them cook up a sound completely unique to them.
The first time I watched the band play live, I noticed that both Alexis’ guitar playing and his vocals seemed to echo the emotions of a bipolar stray dog. Some songs felt like lonely, gut-wrenching pleas for affection and rescue; others projected a passionate hatred for captivity and a longing for solitude and freedom, no matter the cost. You can hear this kind of emotion in the guitar as much as you can hear it in the lyrics.
Alexis crafts his guitar sound using a simple mix of overdrive, fuzz, slap back, and reverb. Other than the occasional boost from a fuzz pedal, it’s mostly just the familiar tone of a Telecaster being overdriven into a good old-fashioned combo tube amp.
Alexis and co-guitarist Jerry Drew have almost polar opposite styles of playing that, in theory, should not mesh well. Alexis uses raw overdrive and fuzz to make his mark on a song while Jerry uses a broad blend of effects to create polished accents or a specific mood. They manage to combine their separate signature sounds in a cohesive manner, creating great solos and catchy riffs.
Since Alexis is the lead singer of the band, I expected him to assume the primary role of rhythm guitarist. However, in continuity with Jerry and Alexis’ meshing of sounds, they ignore traditional expectations of lead and rhythm and instead focus on what’s best for each song. Their approach results in an almost-equal distribution of lead and rhythm from each player.
And while the lead guitar definitely stands out, the rhythm guitar proves to be just as interesting. I found myself fixated on Alexis’ strumming patterns rather than the actual chords being played. He and Jerry incorporate large amounts of negative space which allow the vocals, bass, and drums to come front-and-center in the songs. Because of this, each song featured a mix of catchy verses and unique bridges that left me humming their tunes the whole ride home.
Although I knew Alexis played in multiple bands, it didn’t occur to me just how often he played. Finding free time to meet up proved to be difficult. We tried during rehearsal, but most of the band’s time was spent preparing for their upcoming show (as it should be). We tried again before his set at The Denton Blues Festival, but our encounter was cut short when the set times were adjusted. I thought it might be easier to meet up outside of shows, but Alexis maintains two jobs to help pay the bills. On and off the stage, this guy stays busy. We eventually found time to sit down at one of my favorite dive bars, The Lakewood Landing.
Our night started with a mixture of whiskey and a few games of pool. As we continued playing, Alexis filled me in on why The Van Sanchez exists. “I do it because I just feel like it has to be done,” he professed about playing his brand of music. “There’s either not enough of it, or I don’t see it, hear it, or feel it enough. So I just feel obligated to do it.”
Alexis paused mid-shot to tell me the song playing overhead was “Freddie Freeloader” from Miles Davis’ record Kind of Blue. He claims it has “one of the best piano solos.” He remained focused on the music throughout the course of the night, which in turn filled our conversation with short pauses and remarks about what makes a song great, or why certain songs resonate with him. “I discovered Gram Parsons eight years ago and haven’t been the same since,” he confessed. “From Buck [Owens] to Hank [Williams] Sr. to Justin Townes Earle – I sure do love real country music and honky-tonk.” It became very clear that his roots in music ran deep, and his love for music went even deeper.
Influences are often described in terms of music styles or genres. With Alexis, it’s more accurate to say he’s influenced by music that has authenticity and emotion. He believes these elements matter more than the genre itself, which is one reason why his playing has so many interesting elements.
Alexis’ love for playing guitar started around the age of ten when his mom’s boyfriend – now his stepfather – introduced Alexis to the accordion and familiarized him with styles of Conjunto. Later, the two visited a rundown flea market where they discovered a used acoustic guitar. Alexis hadn’t ever thought about playing the guitar but could tell his mom’s boyfriend really wanted to buy it for him. So they haggled over the price, and in the end – for just fifteen dollars – Alexis got his first guitar.
The next morning was the first time Alexis heard the guitar being played. His stepdad sat across from him and began playing slide guitar and some blues riffs. “Whatever was happening, it sounded really Hawaiian,” Alexis said. “He didn’t know how to play slide. He didn’t know how to play guitar. He was just fucking around. He was playing what he kind of understood [to be the] blues.” Those sounds resonated with Alexis and helped ignite his interest in guitar.
Alexis’ gear was soon upgraded when his aunt – who didn’t play guitar, but saw little potential in his flea market find – gifted him a slightly less shitty Kay Acoustic Guitar, which just happened to have a 1960’s black-and-white Mel Bay chord book in its case. “I just grabbed that [chord book] and started learning chords,” he said.
Eventually he received his first “real” guitar: a Yamaha Classical Guitar. “That was the beginning of me figuring shit out and writing,” he explained. He became obsessed with picking up new songs and techniques from anyone else who played.
While getting to know his new acoustic, Alexis was given two of the biggest catalysts for his guitar obsession: Nirvana: Unplugged in New York and Jimi Hendrix’s The Ultimate Experience. “It wasn’t even “Purple Haze” or “Voodoo Child” that really struck a chord with me; it was songs like “Remember” where he’s playing these old soul tunes. That’s the shit I would listen to over and over and over again.”
His love for soul made perfect sense. While growing up, long before he played guitar, Alexis’ mom would play Motown greats while she was cleaning. Listening to those records led him to his first major love in music, Smokey Robinson. To this day, he emphatically praises the haunting and beautifully simple “Ohh Baby Baby”. He believes it’s “one of the most important songs ever written.”
The first time Alexis really felt the raw power and cohesiveness of a rock band was when he picked up a copy of Led Zepplin IV. The strength of that album stood out to him in a way none before had. Shortly thereafter, he finally transitioned to an electric guitar, purchasing an Epiphone Les Paul Special II and a Solid State Fender Amp with a headphone jack.
Alexis was learning a lot of blues-based music but didn’t fully realize what he was playing until he was jamming with a friend. His friend, who was taking formal lessons, would share whatever he learned with Alexis. One of the times they were playing together was the first time Alexis officially played the blues. He learned to play the 1-4-5 in E, and by the second time he went to the turnaround, everything just seemed to click. Alexis finally understood that much of the music he loved playing was rooted in blues. He was now able to deconstruct the songs he listened to, note by note; music started to make sense. Learning different scales and chord progressions helped him listen to music with a new perspective, and his newfound knowledge of song structure helped his playing improve at an exponential rate.
It wasn’t long before Alexis started playing gigs, incorporating a mix of blues, indie rock and singer/songwriter material. He began frequenting the legendary blues jams, sharing the stage with host and mentor Hash Brown – “The King of the Dallas Blues Jams.” He performed at open mic nights where he played a mix of original music and covers by the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Ryan Adams, and Muddy Waters. His years of experience as a working musician have led Alexis to his current niche: The Van Sanchez. Alexis describes his influences, his gear and his playing style in this revealing Q&A:
(All answers written directly by artist)
First off, your guitar is incredibly cool and very unique. How did you come across it and how was it made?
This is a long one: The short version is I had a guitar that was getting repaired at Jimmy's Guitar Repair that used to be in Expo Park. Jimmy has been my dude and only guitar tech for close to nine years now. Jimmy's caught on fire one night while I was bartending at Amsterdam Bar and an old piece of shit "Franken-Tele" that my buddy gave me was in the shop for the second or third time. My previous and main guitar was stolen. It was a ‘95 American Strat.
Anywho, my “Franken-Tele” was burned; one of the only guitars that was completely obliterated from the fire. Jimmy promised he would build me another. He promised to do so as he had no insurance and he's one of the most stand-up dudes I know – not to mention, a genius.
So, a few months later he calls me up to tell me he had finished my Tele. I was elated, to put it mildly. He "charged" me $30 to pay for the new bridge and labor. Jimmy used the Bigsby, the backing bridge-pickup plate, and the jack plate off of the burned guitar and put it on my custom Tele.
It's my Excalibur. It is my sword in the stone.
Tell me about the time Gary Clark Jr. played your guitar.
My friend, Jeff Dyer, brought him to a Trophy Wives show one night at City Tavern. [Trophy Wives] is a blues cover band I used to play in. Gary walked into the bar with Jeff and we shit our pants. I had just seen him play Hangout Fest five months before in front of 10,000 people, ya know?
Gary asked to play with us and of course we obliged him. He grabbed David Ponder's Les Paul and I took it off of him and basically made him play my Tele. Jimmy had just set it up and brought it to the gig.
Gary and I talked about my guitar in length between sets. I told him the story. He made me promise him to never sell, pawn, or get rid of it. Haha!
What kind of amp do you play through? Do you use the same amp in your other projects, or just The Van Sanchez?
I play a Peavey Classic 30. It's not the amp I envisioned playing for the last two-and-a-half years but she's been good to me. The amp has so much versatility and spark that I can just really utilize and manipulate its inherent qualities. I also own and occasionally play a ‘72 Fender Bassman. She's my temperamental baby -- sounds great, some of the time. I love it but it just needs new speakers and what not. I'll always love her. Haha!
What are your pedals and their signal flow?
How do you utilize your Soul Food and Swollen Pickle Pedals?
The Pickle is getting utilized more. It's kind of an intimidating pedal, to be honest. We're finally writing material that really calls for it. I use it sparingly but I'm glad I have it as it will be getting used more.
The Soul Food gets used quite a bit. I use it as a clean boost with other projects and with TVS it's a distortion pedal through and through. I use it in TVS as a boost with distortion.
Are your reverb and delay pedals always on, or just for specific parts?
Specific parts only. Hall of Fame gets used a lot but not every song and not every part. The delay is getting used more as well. I use it for a rockabilly vibe that gets called for a lot with guys like Sugarfoote or Charley Crockett, but with TVS I really let the delay and signal go to get those deep, rich delay swings.
How would you describe your sound and playing style?
I have an obvious blues background from playing and growing up as a young punk in the blues jams of Dallas. And though I love the blues, I remember the first time I really heard punk music. The time I really heard The Clash…it changed my life. They were really saying something, ya know? It was the feeling and the message, not just the guitars or amps they were using. There was a swagger, a “fuck-you-we-are-gonna-do-this-our-way” attitude and I did my best to swallow that pill. Still am.
What are some of the most important influences that have shaped your personal style of playing?
I mean, Hendrix is everything, right? He changed everything. He was such an alien; tone, style, look, attack, interpretation of songs, his songwriting, his lyrics, his love for Bob Dylan. It's really hard to put into words exactly how much his music has affected me.
Then there's the Miles Davis' record Kind of Blue. That record to this day holds a part of my being.
John Coltrane is everything. Bill Evans is the saddest and most beautiful musician to me. Every song on that record has had to have had an influence on me just because I have spent so much time listening to it. I'm no jazz player. I'm no jazz player at all, but that music just speaks to me in such a tangible way. It's pure, it's beautiful, and I am grateful that record was made.
I would say that, plus so many other blues, punk, and country artists…but as a player, these people have had the largest impact on me.
You and your co-guitarist Jerry have very different styles of playing. What are some of the struggles and benefits of playing with that dynamic?
It's honestly really hard to put into words the dynamic that we have together. It really doesn't make sense. Even our close friends, killer musicians and producers in town, tell us they don't get it. I don't get it. I don't think Jerry gets it. I know I don't. There are really no struggles to our dynamic together. It's all so fluid. I'm very technical and Jerry just isn't. He finds colors and shapes to bring to our music. He finds noises that coincide with what we're doing and it just works. I can say this about the entire band; our closeness as friends and as brothers is what makes this music. No one can fuck with that.
Other than The Van Sanchez, how many different bands do you play with?
Honestly, just Charley Crockett. I don't play with Sugarfoote much these days. I'm an occasional stand-in for Hazardous Dukes and when Somebody's Darling is in town we try to "get the band back together”, but Charley is my dude. I love playing with him. He's really a fine musician and his style I just love. It's a little honky-tonk, blues, folk, soul – just groovy-ass shit.
How do you balance playing in your band, other bands, and working two jobs?
My bosses are the best. My managers at Braindead [Brewing] fully support me 100% and I often see my co-workers at my shows. My other manager is legit too. He totally lets me have time off to play.
Not to sound indifferent or arrogant or whatever, but I don't know anything about balance. All I know is I Iove playing music more than anything. Without it I wouldn't know what to do with myself. I don't think I could be myself. The way you balance this shit is to just say, "I'm gonna figure it out. I'm gonna do it. I don't care what it costs. I can't afford it anyway."
So who is Alexis Sanchez? Based on my experience, I’d say he’s a hardworking musician both on and off the stage. He loves music, plays the hell out of his guitar, and puts on a good show. So be sure to go down to Three Links on Saturday Nov. 28th to grab a drink, listen to him play, and pick up a copy of The Van Sanchez EP.