Question in the Form of An Answer: An Interview With Calexico

“So excellent they’re almost tiresome.” Those are the words an editor of mine used to describe Calexico, the Tucson Tex-Mex collective semi-permanently gathered around singer-guitarist...
By    October 31, 2013


“So excellent they’re almost tiresome.” Those are the words an editor of mine used to describe Calexico, the Tucson Tex-Mex collective semi-permanently gathered around singer-guitarist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino.

He had a point. When a new Calexico album comes out you almost look to avoid it, simply because you know the music will compel you to invest in the release for weeks, if not months. Last year’s Algiers was no different. It may have been recorded in New Orleans, but the undulating, hypnotic songwriting, intricate musicianship, and cross border concerns remained. Indeed, the album was almost the band’s most spirited yet, Burns, Convertino and company continuing to reflect the vexed discussion over immigration and race that dominates the south of the United States.

Before a recent Australian tour, I interviewed Burns for an Everguide Q&A. This is the unabridged Q&A. – Matt Shea

It’s my understanding that you first recorded [debut album] Spoke for Hausmusik in Germany, is that right?

Yeah, that was recorded in Tucson at home and released in Landsberg, of all places, in Germany, a tiny little town where Johnny Cash was actually stationed during his time in the military.

From this far away it seems you have a special relationship with that part of the world. Is that the case?

Yeah, sure. And a bunch of new places too. Like, we just played Belgrade for the first time on this tour, which was great. People that have been listening to our band since the very beginning, which is really fascinating, if you think about them listening to our music: Wow! NATO and America’s bombing their cities. It’s kind of crazy. But really the music goes deep and the people are just incredible. Then we went to Croatia and Budapest, and again just everyday: incredible experiences and meeting new people.

Talking about live and I guess taking Algiers into the live area: the album was recorded in New Orleans. I think the city is renowned for music, and particularly its live music. I wonder if you’d noticed that having an effect on how these songs have translated live over the last year, whether they’re easier to convert live than some of your older material.

This has definitely been a record that’s been easy to take on tour and perform in front of people, and some of the songs we’ve added in extra sections just to kind of give them a little bit of a different frame to stretch things out sometimes. It’s a lot of fun doing that. So songs like ‘Puerto’ really feel and sound a lot better live than they do in the studio. There’s more room, there’s more breadth. ‘Fortune Tellers’ – I love the song, I love the melody and yet, for me, that song has so much variability when we perform it live. The last time we played it was Belgrade – it was a faster tempo, which I like and I was surprised to hear the rhythm section let go and let me push it. They weren’t been holding me back [laughs].

If not on Algiers then at least from album to album, the Calexico records seem to have increased in scale over the years compared to your earlier releases. Your earlier releases were more minimal. Do you find that, more and more, your records are attuned to live performances?

I guess to some degree. I’m really not thinking, “OK. I want to take seven musicians on the road”. Like a lot of other musicians, you just let the song dictate what the song needs. I definitely had a conversation with our new record company [Anti] before I went to the studio. It was just to get their feedback, their ideas and what they might like to hear, or just to basically have a brainstorm session. And they said, “Don’t be afraid to keep it minimal. You don’t have to have so many textures or layers all the time.” That’s why, for me, a song like ‘Hush’ is very minimal. ‘The Vanishing Mind’ – it’s sparse. ‘Better and Better’: that’s just guitar, ukulele, and a little bit of drums and keyboards. I like that song for that reason. It’s just kind of gives you a pause and it’s very important.

The album perhaps does that a bit more than Carried to Dust, I suppose. It swells in some places and contracts in others.

You’ve gotta change. We go to the studio not to replicate what we do or to keep the same kind of minimalism that we might have done back in the day when were limited to either eight or sixteen tracks. That’s one of the things technology kinda dictates sometimes: how much you can or cannot do. That’s cool to a certain degree and then going through that period of time when you could put out 70 minutes worth of music and we did that. Then around Carried to Dust or so, Touch And Go Records’ Corey Rusk and I had a conversation where he said, “You don’t have to fill it up, actually. You’d probably do better with reviews if you didn’t take up so much time with journalists having to listen to 70 minutes worth of music” [laughs]. I thought, “Yeah, that’s a good point.” Then we started thinking more in terms of vinyl. That’s always in print, and just this idea that, “Hey, a long player is just 45 minutes max. In fact, maybe less.”

I spoke to an old-school Australian music journalist a little while ago when there was that debate about how the album was under threat. He said, “I reckon the CD screwed it up, because everyone started releasing 75 minute albums. An album should be 45 minutes long.”

Yeah. That same kind of philosophy applies to arrangements, performances, and so on. Everyone has their own aesthetics, their own interpretation of what’s enough and what’s not enough. That’s one of the things where I’ve really benefitted from working with John Convertino. He’s got great aesthetics. He’s really not dialled into listening to latest new indie rock stuff at all. He tends to kind of skirt between some world music, blues, jazz – especially a lot of jazz, and especially since he is a fan of that era of drums as well. And players like Elvin Jones, Max Roach.

The vehicle itself, the drum set – the classic 60s or 50s drum sets – [John] is just a big fan of working on them and fixing them, and then giving them or selling them at whatever price he got them for – to friends like Iron & Wine, Neko Case. There’s even one of his drum sets in Japan. He’s given a lot of our friends incredible deals on these vintage kits. That’s part of it too – the attitude.

I did some interviews with our new bass player and also this Spanish guitar player that we have been playing with for a number of years, Jairo Zavala. Those guys have been with us on tours – and Jairo brought up this notion of colour. There is a lot of colour, a lot of variety in the music. Of course, there are a lot influences too. That is something unique and yet I think working together with John and lot of these musicians, there’s been this kind of umbrella of style. There are certain things that you don’t do. So it’s funny. Whenever our bass player is at sound check and is starting to mess around, he’ll start slapping the bass. You turn to him and he smiles, “I know you don’t like this, but I’m just getting it out of my system now and not during the show.” [laughs]

Talking about New Orleans: You had a great experience there. Would you record in New Orleans again?

Of course, especially that studio – The Living Room Studio. It’s one of those places that has that vibe. It’s got a great array of instruments there for people to use. I bought a guitar for the studio as a gift to say thanks. They have a vibraphone, they’ve got a couple of old keyboards, a couple of guitars, just enough. You fly in and if you need something extra, you’ve got it there. The neighbourhood is off the beaten path. It’s not in the tourist zone. It’s kind of one of New Orleans’s best kept secrets. It’s just a great little neighbourhood. You can get there from the French quarter by taking a ferry. It’s a very short ferry ride across the Mississippi. So it’s got this charm and it’s just as old as parts of New Orleans.

We went there in the wintertime, which for New Orleans means it’s cold and grey. It was a good time to kind of reflect, I think. Had we gone there in spring maybe it would have been a different sounding record. Maybe there would have been the presence of the New Orleans sound or signature, but we were going there to just see what we could come up with writing in a different space and different part of the world. It seemed to match up beautifully because of the influence of both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Author Ned Sublette wrote a book called ‘The World That Made New Orleans’. I took that book to heart and took it with me to the studio. It talks about such a big influence of Haiti and Cuba, and New Orleans being the northernmost edge of that Festival and Saints Belt, as he calls it. I think if you continue that belt to the west you are going to find that Tucson in Arizona is in line and parallel with that. And that’s because of that southern influence – more of a Hispanic-Latino influence.

Talking about the Hispanic influence: it’s growing in the south of the United States, both generally speaking and then politically. In that way, your continued success, as Calexico, seems to have a certain logic to it. I was wondering if you’ve noticed Calexico’s popularity in the States moving in tandem with that over the last fifteen years – like a growing knowledge or growing acceptance of the Hispanic influence on the United States in turn opening people up to your music.

Yeah, I know what you are saying. I just got a message from a councilwoman in the actual town of Calexico. She goes, “Hey, you haven’t played here in a while. Why don’t you come back for a visit?” [laughs] Because we’ve been doing it for so long and been consistent, it’s helped. All of the collaborations certainly have helped. Doing shows with Lonely boys and Ozomatli and Nortec Collective and Los Lobos, and doing different projects with different people, both in and around our community of Arizona, trying to do things that are encouraging for pro-immigration.

It seems so silly to have to say that but it’s come to the point where in our state of Arizona things have gotten pretty extreme. So much so that you’ve got people like Manu Chao coming specifically to Phoenix to protest and also play a free concert to help raise awareness and money for one of the immigration groups called Alto. It’s great that he is that kind of a guy on that level that will do that. I got to hang out and see the concert and say “Hello.” He is a big source of inspiration, and yet all this really stems from a love of music and culture and people. The biggest thing that we can do is continue to do the music and continue to do these collaborations, which is what we naturally love to do. It’s strange for me that there are people who are resistant to that. I think that they just need more encouragement, more education.

It’s interesting. Because there’s a similar conversation about refugees in Australia as well.

Of course. No doubt. And if you think about what’s going on in our state of Arizona and all the business that’s been lost, the policies of some of these conservative politicians is astounding – they’re hurting their own constituents’ economy. That’s just crazy. To me it feels like these things are based on fear, which is a big factor that’s present everywhere in North America. In the west, where there’s a little bit more openness in general, I find that the crowds are mixed and there’s an appreciation from many different people of various backgrounds. It’s great and at the same time, I love collaborating. I imagine that’s something that will be fun to delve more into and take further out on the road – to not only bring it to Chicago and New York, but to bring it to places like Kansas City or maybe New Orleans, which is seeing an increase in its Latin population post-Katrina – a lot of work’s available there.

I was fascinated to hear about Gabrielle Giffords arranging ‘Slowness’ to be played as a wake-up call for Mark Kelly on [the space shuttle] Endeavour’s last mission. Were you guys involved in that at all or did it come out of the blue?
Yeah, we’re friends. We were friends before the shooting took place and we’ve remained friends during and after. And it was actually Mark who asked me for a song because Gabby was still in therapy. So he reached out to me at that point, because she had dedicated a song to him a couple of years earlier. And I suggested the song ‘Crystal Frontier’ because it’s got this obnoxious trumpet line opening the song – if you really need to wake up your husband in space, this song should do it.

‘Slowness’ is definitely not a wake-up call. It’s more a soothing, loving wake-up call that everyone really wants [laughs]. You can find a version of it on YouTube if you type in all the essentials. You’ll hear ground control talking to Commander Kelly, and then you hear the reverb-y echo going on with the delay. The astronaut and the station. And it’s beautiful. That snippet. It’s gorgeous. So Mark had reached out and I suggested that song because it’s more of a love song. And it’s pinpointing places in and around Tucson, which I thought would be great for Gabby to hear.

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