For the better part of two decades now, Tucson’s Calexico has been quietly proving themselves to be one of the most consistent bands in America. Beginning with 1997’s Spoke, the group has released a steady stream of records at once lush and minimal — steeped both in American rock music and south-of-the-border Latin influences — as well as maintained a prolific rate of collaboration with artists including Amos Lee, Neko Case, and Iron & Wine.
Recent years have seen the band branch out into scoring, composing and recording the soundtracks to the 2010 documentary Circo and the 2011 black comedy The Guard, before releasing their seventh studio album, Algiers, in September of last year, which landed the #44 spot on LA Music Blog’s list of the Top 50 Albums of 2012. Named for the New Orleans neighborhood in which it was recorded — a departure for a band that has hitherto recorded primarily in their hometown — Algiers brings an oceanic pull to the group’s sun-baked sound.
I recently spoke to Joey Burns — one half of the duo that forms the core of Calexico — in advance of their first show of 2013 at Los Angeles’ El Rey Theatre, which is taking place tonight, January 16th (tickets are still available).
To begin, congratulations on Algiers. That is a fantastic record.
Thanks a lot.
It seems to me to be a little lusher — if that’s the word I want — than previous Calexico records, maybe reaching out beyond that dust-coated Southwestern milieu. Was that a conscious decision? Was that something you were going for when you were recording it?
That’s a great point to bring up, and yes, every time we go back to make a record we try to go somewhere new with the music or with the arrangements, whether it’s special guests or we trade instruments… We’re constantly pushing ourselves, and part of that was, “Hey, let’s go down to New Orleans.,” because just being in a different environment — just being in a different air, being below sea level — will make for a different sounding record.
Just the tone of the drum being in that old Baptist church… That’s what The Living Room Studio has been converted from: a Baptist church originally built in the ’30s. Big, huge, high ceilings, and it’s really close to the Mississippi. These things really contribute to the feel [of the album]. John Convertino and myself were influenced by them, and these subtleties really make their way into the playing, into the production, into the general mood of an album.
You’re describing this converted Baptist church on the bank of the Mississippi River. It’s a pure Southern gothic kind of thing?
[LAUGHS] In a lot of ways. I was looking for something that would take us away from whatever it is that influences us. As much as we love it in Tucson, I found this common ground because New Orleans really is and has been a major port city over the years, and so, much like Tucson where there’s a lot of traffic coming east and west and especially south and north, I felt there was a kinship, there was a connection.
It’s what this writer named Ned Sublette — he wrote a book called The World That Made New Orleans — calls the Saints and Festivals Belt. It’s not the Bible Belt, it’s not the Sun Belt, it’s the Saints and Festivals Belt. They still have a lot of influences that are Catholic and early mission period, conquistadors, colonial…
In New Orleans you’ve got streets with Spanish and French names mixed up, and I love that. I love some of those qualities, and that character of New Orleans. It’s what I like about going to Europe. I love the mix of languages, especially along the Mediterranean, and this is something that I felt, for the core of the record, would help inspire some of the songs.
It seems that there would be some spiritual kinship there between New Orleans and Calexico. To me they both speak to that very all-American spirit combined with those foreign influences.
For sure, there’s a foreign influence, and it’s that window that faces south. We’re always looking to the south, whether it’s here in the New World or back in the Mediterranean area. That’s just the feel that we have, and it’s been a common thread. We have one foot in tradition and one in the contemporary — experimenting with song forms, instrumentals, soundtrack music — or one foot here in the Americas and one foot in Europe. There’s this straddling of influences, and somewhere the picks that we make become our signature sound and feel.
John and I were asked to go down to Cuba to perform and record with a Spanish female singer named Amparo Sanchez. She invited us to record with her on her solo record, but for many years she fronted this band called Amparanoia, who are contemporaries of Manu Chao and Mano Negra; in fact they’re good friends. I was really drawn to her music because she was mixing things up. She’s a Spanish singer, but she also had a lot of Mexican, South American, and Afro-Cuban influences in her music.
She started here in Tucson, and she wound up in Havana because she’d fallen in love with someone and was getting married. She wanted us to be there for the wedding and to record in the very famous and legendary EGREM Studios where Ry Cooder and the Buena Vista Social Club recorded. We went, and while we were there we couldn’t help but feel this connection to New Orleans and Havana. That’s when I picked up the book The World That Made New Orleans, which talks about that very connection.
It was always a dream to go there, but at the same time for me, as much as I wanted to go there, I knew it had already been done, and sometimes when you’re close to something or you really admire something, you don’t want to embody that. By going there with another project it was, “Yeah, let’s go. I’d love to help out in any way,” and I immediately felt this connection to that part of the world, the Gulf of Mexico where all these countries and cultures are all really close together.
Over the years they have really influenced one another a lot, and only recently — the last 50 or so years — has it been cut off, so I’m looking at this history and this area and wondering, “Gosh, how soon ’til things open up? And what kind of ghosts remain, either in the water or in these port cities like New Orleans and Havana?” That’s enough for me to start writing songs and thinking about things.
Yeah, it’s totally evocative.
Yeah, and it connects to who I am and where I come from, which I think is the universal question: “Who are we and where do we come from?” I grew up in Southern California, but I was born in Montreal, so I spent my whole childhood wondering, “Why am I here? Where do I come from?” It wasn’t until years later that my parents were going to the UK and found out that we had relatives in Manchester and also in County Galway in a little village called Gort.
In 1992, we took my grandmother there. She got to meet her cousin for the first time, and while we were there, we were all hanging out, singing, and staying up way too late. I remember stepping outside and looking up to the stars and finally feeling like, “Hey, this makes sense. I now have an idea of part of where I come from.” It just felt good and reassuring to be with family and to have an insight into part of the genetic makeup of where I came from.
I also think that there’s this other side to us that has nothing to do with the physical. I don’t know what you’d call it, maybe spiritual or cosmic. You mentioned this spiritual connection between our band and a town like New Orleans and that European influence. There’s something there that keeps pulling me back to places like New Orleans or areas like the Mediterranean. That’s why it was so interesting when we went to New Orleans. We’d decided not to record in the French Quarter, and we found this fantastic studio just full of instruments, which meant we could fly there. We didn’t have to drive and bring our van full of gear, so that made it a lot easier and more affordable.
We found this great studio, The Living Room Studio, in this neighborhood, appropriately named Algiers. Coming from this year of massive change in Northern Africa with the Arab Spring, I just thought, “Wow, this is a big, huge road sign that, if you were in a car, you couldn’t help but notice it and be inspired by it.” So there were a lot of different things at work, and sometimes they’re more subtle. I know that for a lot of critics or writers or even audiences, the music we make involves a lot of subtlety, and I think in this day and age, it’s just harder for people to get that deep.
You mentioned that you originally came to Havana because you were collaborating with another artist. You guys definitely have this established niche within the music scene. If somebody wants the Calexico sound, they go straight to you, whether it’s Sam Beam or Amos Lee or Amparo Sanchez.
Yeah, and that’s great. I love doing that, and that’s still a very big part of what we do. We just did some work with Neko Case, and I imagine we’ll continue to do that. That’s always one of the benefits of going on the road: you’ll meet more musicians and eventually get some friendships going, and then you’ll want to hang out and do some music. Music can be a great excuse and vehicle to meet up with people in various parts of the world.
Speaking of, I was recently listening to The Guard soundtrack. I’d seen the movie when it came out, but I’d never listened to the music divorced from that context. It’s got that Sergio Leone thing going on. How did you become involved with that project?
We got an email or a phone call from John Michael McDonagh. I told him that we’d be heading his way to the UK, where he spends part of his time — the other half he lives in Ireland — but he told me he knew it would be a great fit, and he just seemed so calm and sure that it would be a great fit. It was just a matter of finding time when schedules would line up.
We met at Heathrow Airport. I think we were staying at an airport hotel there, and he just came out, had a drink, explained to me what he was looking for, and named a couple of movies that he was inspired by. He was looking for some contrasts to take it out of this typical Irish or Celtic mold. He was looking to break the mold.
Do you have any other prospects or interest in doing more scoring work?
Without a doubt. Yeah, for sure. I’m really looking forward to doing more projects where we get more room to experiment. This is also why we make these tour-only CDs. Recently we compiled all these albums, printed them on vinyl, and made a box called Road Altlas. This collection of material contains both leftover takes from albums and studio recordings that were intentionally made to be sold on the road and given directly to fans. There’s no label. We are the label. We are the importer. We’re bringing them with us.
We were inspired by the Dirty Three, whom we toured with back in 1998 as a two-piece here in North America. They were selling them out the window. They were going super fast, and the fans of the Dirty Three were all so happy to get a copy because it was something from that time period. It still felt fresh and connected somehow to the new album at the time, which I think was Ocean Songs, so that’s what inspired us.
We kept on doing that every few years. We have this outlet where we can do experimental, soundtracky stuff. We’re also into completely minimal, ambient, almost free jazz as well as electronic, drum machine, weird recordings. It gives us the opportunity to spread our wings.
[LAUGHS] Well, we live near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. It was inevitable.
It’s really awesome. I say that as somebody who was never a particular fan of the original, but I’ve listened to your version of it a bunch.
Well, thanks. I’m so glad, Ben. That makes it all the more worth it. I know that my wife was very excited hearing the many different versions coming out of the kitchen when I was getting ready for that session, and it’s not easy going up against a top-notch version like Kenny Loggins’. It almost makes it easier, you know?
We have a long history of doing, quote, unquote, “remixes.” I’ll never forget doing one for Alison Goldfrapp. The song was “Human,” off their first record [Felt Mountain]. This was all started by Andy Weatherall asking us to do something for his project, an electronic group — Two Lone Swordsmen was its name — so we said, “Hey, we did this thing with Andy, and we want to do this with you. Love your band. We’re going to do a version, and we’re going to ask a local mariachi singer to sing the lyrics in Spanish.” And she goes, “Oh, that sounds cool. Just make sure he doesn’t make it sound too good.” I love that track. That’s one of my favorite tracks, our version of “Humano,” both instrumental and with vocals in Spanish.
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