FOREWORD: Dual Calexico front men Joey Burns and John Convertino continue to release sundry albums, singles, and EP’s when not backing up other musicians as respectable sidemen. Mixing Spaghetti Western with Mexicali blues in an unfettered way, Calexico have refined their approach and now garner minor mainstream attention. After this ’03 interview, they released ‘06s more straight-ahead Garden Ruin, their most successful chart record. But I prefer ‘08s marvelously campestral Carried To Dust, featuring Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam and Tortoise’s Douglas Mc Combs. Who knew in ’95, when I caught them live at Mercury Lounge under the banner of Friends Of Dean Martinez, that they’d make so many musician friends and overcome indie rock obscurity.
Living humbly in Tucson’s expansive Southwest environs since joining cosmic rocker Howe Gelb as Giant Sand’s rhythm section for fascinating underground treasures like ‘92s Ramp, ‘94s Glum, and ‘00s Chore of Enchantment, South Bay Californian Joey Burns (vocals-bass-guitar-cello-organ) and Oklahoma-bred John Convertino (drums-vibes-marimba-organ) first set off on their own leading samba-inspired side project Friends Of Dean Martinez to record ‘95s instrumental The Shadow Of Your Smile.
Making Craig Shumacher’s local Wavelab Studios their own desert retreat, the twosome concurrently gained a solid reputation recording and touring with singer-songwriters Richard Buckner, Barbara Manning, and Victoria Williams before embarking on another fascinating joint project.
As Calexico, the dynamic duo wandered through elliptical Jazz-noir on the ’98 American debut, The Black Light, creating dusty sun-soaked imagery perfectly complementary to the wide open terrain of Arizona’s sprawling arid wilderness. Offering less variation than future endeavors and only one true mariachi number – the trumpet-punctuated, string-laden “Minas De Cobre (For Better Metal)” – this developmental cinematic affair found its multi-instrumental proprietors knee-deep in ethereal splendor. Delving further into surreal ‘60s-inspired spaghetti Westerns, ‘00s cryptic Hot Rail brought crisper Latin Jazz rhythms and poignant Mexicali Blues into the kaleidoscopic blend.
But Calexico’s most diverse, cohesive effort was just around the corner. The exquisite Feast Of Wire brings sturdier ethnic flavoring and better detailed settings to more concise arrangements. The accordion-led folk ballad “Sunken Waltz” slides gently into the lucid acoustic sway of “Quattro (World Drifts In).” The mysterious “Black Heart” aligns Ennio Morricone’s dirgey spaghetti Western themes with Portishead’s downbeat trip-hop influence while Paul Niehaus’ pedal steel colors mariachi border songs such as the punctual string-soaked instrumental “Close Behind” and the sympathetic “Across The Wire.”
Recently, busy-bodies Burns and Convertino remixed tracks for England’s Two Lone Swordsmen and Goldfrapp and worked on indie rocker Jenny Toomey’s new record of Franklin Bruno cover versions. Available on-line at www.casadecalexico.com, but not in stores, the 68-minute live set, Scraping, gathers mostly improvisational San Francisco performances.
I spoke to Burns via the phone while he was in Germany.
AW: Who were your early influences and how’d you get your start in music?
JOEY BURNS: I grew up with my brothers playing music and listening to major radio artists Led Zeppelin, Kiss, and the Beatles. I played jazz in high school and Classical in college to further my knowledge. I was intrigued by it and wanted to dive in as deep as I could. After college, I wound up working for SST Records and played in some L.A. bands. That’s when I met Giant Sand. They needed an upright bassist. I had a flexible schedule working at the label. Being at a record company, you can understand why I’d want to leave. That’s also when I met Victor Gastelum, who does a lot of our albums’ artwork.
He provides stark imagery for the music contained within.
He’s dealt with a lot of personal shit. He’s looking to combine different elements that aren’t necessarily on the same poster in the same room. He grew up going to punk shows, worked at SST, and he’s good friends with Raymond Pettibone. So he had that critical biting commentary on the social aspects of what’s going on around him. His parents are Mexican-American so he grew up in a tight blue-collar family with traditional values. He’s part of an interesting Los Angeles community of artists and musicians.
How did Calexico come about?
Black Light was recorded in ’97 and came out of home recordings of the vinyl-only German release, Spoke, which was gonna be the band name until a d.j. at our WFMU acoustic set told us a different band used the name. Things began to take shape. That album was inspired by our move to Tucson and seeing all these combinations of influences making connections between film composers Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota with Link Wray, surf music, twangy Country Western, mariachi, and Latin Jazz from New York. Lyrically, the album was influenced a lot by writer Cormac Mc Carthy. The next album was an extension of that, developing more ideas of that combination of Spanish mariachi and delving into European influences like Erik Satie. John was listening to a lot of his stuff and took inspiration and started playing melodies on accordion. We even got Chicago musician Rob Mazurak to sit in on “Fade,” which is a long 8-minute song. We even made fun of ourselves with “Ballad Of Cable Hogue,” which takes the idea of being a spaghetti Western band and turning it upside down. We even made a silly video to go along with it. It captured the attention of Europeans. So we did a lot of touring after those records. That’s why we took our time making the new one.
Feast Of Wire has more varied moods and different soundscapes.
The records we buy are diverse. We’ve always been interested in different types of music besides punk or rock. There’s Country, Blues, swing. Over the years, we’ve branched out more. We’re listening for different sounds, rhythms, and expressions. That’s the result of much traveling. Last night I was in Paris hanging out with the group, the Gotan Project. They’re a bunch of d.j.’s and electronic musicians combining beats and samples with Argentinean tango players. They do an interesting mix of bringing traditional form into more contemporary electronic forum. They e-mailed John and I to remix one of their songs with instruments as a cover song or an interpretation. The press, audience, musicians, and labels over here (Germany) are open-minded and always welcome different things.
“Attack El Robot! Attack!” is a Jazz-smitten departure reminiscent of Soft Machine intruding upon the Latin Playboys best Mexicali material. Unlike most Calexico compositions, it’s not earthy and folk-grounded.
We’re trying to get different sounds and environments. It was clearly going away from more traditional stuff. The Jazz element and the improvisational aspects helped carry us out that way. John’s drumming is fluid and spontaneous subconsciously. This, combined with putting a drum machine on the record just to fuck with that sound and distort it, took it elsewhere to meet us in the middle.
How much of your arrangements are improvised and intuitive versus prepared and pre-constructed?
A lot is made up from minimal sketches. Then, we’ll bounce ideas off each other til we get form or at least improvise on a take of a song. So we have a very open skeletal version of the song. From there, I could tell where parts might grow dynamically depending upon if I feel like putting words to it or keeping it instrumental. I like the experience of being in the studio and allowing each aspect of the construction to be made from ‘being in the moment.’
“Close Behind” is a beautiful pedal steel instrumental with mariachi trumpets.
That rhythm comes from spaghetti Westerns and took that form all the way – add strings, orchestral bells, and timpani. We’d been talking about doing that in the past and we’ve done some song like that on a tour CD once and people seemed to like it. We had fun doing it in a different way without being so minimal and filling out the orchestration.
“Sunken Waltz” makes good use of the accordion.
That’s always been an instrument John and I have had a certain attachment to. His father, before he past away, was playing the accordion and piano more from an Italian background. My grandfather gave me his accordion before he died. He comes more from a polka background going all the way back to upstate New York. He played parties with his dad who played fiddle. There’s more of a German-American background there. It’s interesting how the instrument pops up in France, Germany, and Ireland and the influence bounces around the globe depending on the culture making use of it.
How’d the gentle acoustic seduction, “Not Even Stevie Nicks,” get named after the vampish Fleetwood Mac singer?
After playing guitar, I was thinking of Fleetwood Mac Rumours for some strange reason. In the song, I’m thinking of this priestess.
It sounds more like Fleetwood Mac’s next album, Tusk, to these ears.
That’s John’s favorite Fleetwood Mac album. At the same time, Stevie Nicks’ name kept popping up, whether in the news or by someone professing their love for this mysterious personality. I went to a friend’s house and it’s almost a shrine dedicated to her. There was a scarf hanging over a portrait picture of her. One of our friends says she has a house in Scottsdale, Arizona. I know Linda Ronstadt lives in Tucson and was wondering if these people travel in the same circles…probably not.