The 'Zen' Sound Of Calexico
Toronto -- Though images of the Wild West would seem to go with the
Americana sound of Calexico, guitarist/singer Joey Burns has other ideas.
"Whenever people ask us about references to geography and the landscapes,
instead of identifying with cactus and old Western clichés, I just [feel
more of a connection with] Japanese Zen gardens," Burns said as he sat in
Las Iguanas, a Tex-Mex bar and grill located not far from Lee's Palace, the
club where the group would be performing in a few hours.
"It's a wide open and minimal landscape," continued Burns, who, with his
short brown hair, clean-shaven face and outfit of boots, black jeans and
pullover sweater, looked more like a college student than a rock musician.
"To me this is very nurturing and inspiring. It is more about the journey
inward. It is more about listening and being. It is constantly trying to
find that balance."
In early 2003, Calexico released their fourth album, Feast of Wire. The
band has been touring Europe, the United States and Canada for most of the
year. Calexico's sound is rich, evocative, spacious and moody. It is also
seeped in Americana traditions, while exploring Afro-Cuban rhythms and
mariachi style. Calexico create a balance between songs with lyrics and
instrumentals. Many of their songs deal with human frailty; they sing of
the strife to be found in the vicinity of the Mexico/U.S. border.
Burns (who also plays bass) met drummer John Convertino during an audition
for Giant Sand in 1990. They have been the rhythm section for Giant Sand
since and formed Calexico in 1996 as a side project. Initially a duo,
Calexico now also includes Volker Zander on stand-up bass, Paul Niehaus on
pedal steel and both Martin Wenk and Jacob Venenzuela on trumpets.
Convertino is tall and slender, with a gracious and humble attitude. He has
short reddish-brown hair, sideburns and, on the day I spoke with him,
several days' growth of beard. Dressed in layers of clothing including a
heavy jacket, he was prepared for the autumn weather. At one point he said,
"It always amazes me that anyone would want to talk to me. It is hard for
me sometimes to do interviews."
Before the tape recorder was turned on, Convertino asked, "What's a good
I mentioned two premium brands of Irish whiskey, knowing that Convertino's
parents are Italian and Irish. He decides to pass on the whiskey and opts
for a Dos Equis instead.
The current traveling Calexico lineup also played on the Feast of Wire
recording. The band spent a full year working on the 16-song album. "In a
lot of ways, I feel like Feast of Wire is going back to where Spoke [the
group's first album] was, in kind of having more fully realized songs,"
Convertino said. "The ambience is still there, the instrumentals are still
there, but it's not so much the focus as it was on The Black Light.
"[With] The Black Light we had the luxury of having a theme, which was
based on [the song] 'All the Pretty Horses' and 'The Border Trilogy' by
Cormac McCarthy," Convertino continued. "Hot Rail didn't have such a theme.
We didn't want [to make] The Black Light again, so we really had to
experiment. With this record it was like let's broaden the palette."
Understated piano is felt on "The Book and the Canal." "Guero Canelo"
contains a wonderful subtle chorus that, because it is distorted, conjures
up street noises of Mexico. Pedal steel guitar adds warmth to several
songs, most notably "Quattro(World Drifts In)."
During the interview, a pale Burns said he was suffering from a lingering
cold and lack of sleep. Still, he was focused as he spoke about the band
and the music they make. "We were trying to get away from repeating
ourselves," he said, as he unwrapped a black wool scarf from around his
neck. "A song like 'Black Heart' was showing us where we could go as a live
"The Black Heart" is probably the most extreme song the band has recorded.
Everything peaks in a luscious sound. Burns' vocals shift from a whisper to
a low murmur, and piano, accordion and violins highlight the lyrics: "The
spring is frozen/ Now I'm stuck in low/ Wrapped with wire/ Tapped to the
heart/ Can't find no poison/ Now I've got no cure/ The fangs are stuck
inside my skin."
Feast of Wire sees Calexico really delve into more diverse musical
territory. "To me the dynamics and the contrasts give it a certain flow,"
Burns said. "You feel like you're listening to a soundtrack or to
somebody's mixed tape."
"Sunken Waltz" is a stark guitar ballad. Burns said, "The song was inspired
by people like [Richard] Buckner and Lampchop. To me it sounds like a
straight folk song."
Still there is darkness to the poetic lyrics: "Washed my face in the rivers
of empire/ Made my bed from a cardboard crate/ Down in the city of quartz/
No news, no new regrets." The elegant guitars and Convertino's rollicking
drums contrast with the melancholy lyrics, giving the song an upbeat sound.
"Across the Wire" contains glistening trumpets and tragic lyrics: "Spotted
an eagle in the middle of a lake/ Resting on cactus, feasting on snakes/
But the waters recede as the dump closes in/ Revealing a whole lake of
sleeping children/ Poison in the stream that flows to the sea/ Out on the
waves that crash within reach of those with so much."
For Convertino, "the dichotomy works well because it has a fiesta feeling
to it, like a Cantina ball room, and like so many mariachi songs. They have
a happy sound but lyrically are sad."
"A lot of our material tends to be moody and atmospheric," Burns added.
"That song ['Across the Wire'] to me, was in response to our [record] label
that suggested that a lot of our songs were really in the melancholic keys.
I think also having been influenced by playing with a local group called
Luz de Luna. A lot of these songs have a variation on 6/8 time. The energy
of the music and tempo of the keys, especially the words, it's a really
beautiful combination of emotion and feeling."
Convertino said jazz has had a big influence on him. "It's pretty much all
I listen too," he said. "I just love it. That song 'Crumble' came out of a
spontaneous jam, a kind of a riff Joey was doing on bass, more inspired by
[bassist/composer] Charlie Mingus, and I just put [drummer] Art Blakey in
my head. I kept thinking Art Blakey, Art Blakey, and tried to emul ate what
he would have done with that riff."
Both Burns and Convertino care a lot about the environment. On the Calexico
CD booklets, above their Tucson address it says "Our soil our strength." "I
think that came about when we were doing Spoke," Convertino said. "The
whole record is a kind of Steinbeckian Grapes of Wrath nostalgic feeling. A
feeling of life on the farm or life before the industrial revolution, when
man was losing touch with the earth and Mother Nature. Living in the desert
and having this desire to stay connected to the earth. That phrase 'our
soil our strength' was actually on a list that you could choose for your
checkbook from the Bank of America."
Constant touring has affected Convertino in a positive way. "I think the
development of the band has been so gradual that I wasn't really noticing
that we were getting more popular," he said. "I started paying more
attention to how the crowds were receiving the songs. Especially after the
war and September 11, I really felt a need to feel some kind of relief. I
started realizing that the majority of people at our shows were smiling. It
started to give me a good feeling. It started to give the songs more of a
purpose. And [it gave] playing more of a purpose than just promoting a
record or just making a living." -- Timothy Hawkins [Thursday, October 23,
Calexico's sound grows through pop reinvention
Published April 14, 2006
Ten years into its career, a band often has its sound staked out like
a garden plot: the turnips and tomatoes show up in the same place
every year. Fans take comfort in the familiarity, even as the band may
start to sound a little stale.
Calexico in many ways sounds like a new band on its 10th anniversary,
however. Its fifth album, "Garden Ruin" (Quarterstick), lives up to
its title: the carefully tilled sonic signatures it has cultivated
over the last decade have been uprooted, if not exactly ruined. Once
revered more for their evocative sound than their songs, these Arizona
denizens move beyond the eerie, noir-soundtrack atmospherics, mariachi
accents and exotic instrumental voicings of past releases into a more
direct, song-oriented approach on the new album.
"The band name, the desert location, the connections to some of the
regional music, the dynamics, the sound--yeah, we've been kind of
pigeonholed by some people," says singer and multi-instrumentalist
Joey Burns, who co-founded the band with drummer John Convertino in
Tucson. "So now, a lot of people who have been fans for a long time
are saying, `Hey, what happened?'"
Burns says that reaction doesn't bother him. After all, he and
Convertino were once the rhythm section in Giant Sand, a band never
easy to pin down. Now Calexico is rolling into a busy year, which will
include an intimate in-store introduction to the new album Monday at
Tower Records on Clark Street, and a slot Aug. 5 at Lollapalooza in
"Garden Ruin" retains some of the band's trademarks: the mix-and-match
of horns, keyboards, pedal steel and percussion knickknacks, the
musical sidetrips into world music (the Spanish ballad "Roka" and the
French noir narrative "Nom de Plume"). But the songwriting has
sharpened. Burns embraces the notion that this is as close to a pop
album as Calexico has ever made.
"In the time since the last album [`Feast of Wire' in 2003], we've
done a lot of touring and played a lot of festivals, and seeing all
these other bands has been a big inspiration in how we approached
writing songs," Burns says. "Being on tour with Wilco or Yo La Tengo,
or seeing Elvis Costello at a festival, had an effect. Playing Bonaroo
[in Tennessee] with people like Bob Dylan, Ani DiFranco, the Dead, and
Dave Matthews, was a big inspiration--this mixed-up lineup rooted in
the songwriting aesthetic."
In another departure, Calexico brought in an outside producer, J. D.
Foster (Green on Red, Marc Ribot). He proved a valuable foil for Burns
when his longtime sidekick Convertino was away from the sessions to
spend time with his newborn boy.
But Burns says these factors didn't ordain how the album would sound.
"There's a mood to session, so we really don't know where the songs
are going until we get into the studio," he says. "We could just as
easily have made an ambient jazz album." Instead, something as simple
as switching guitars--from a nylon-string model to a steel
acoustic--influenced the direction of the songs. "The different tone,
the feel, just puts you in a different place," he says.
The result is Calexico's most immediate album. The band, now a
quintet, has never written a more direct or beautiful song than
"Bisbee Blue," a folk-pop melody that evokes the Byrds. Nor has
Calexico ever recorded a song as ferocious--or as politically
explicit--as the howling guitar rocker "All Systems Red."
"When the dread is flowing down my veins," Burns sings, "I want to
tear it all down and build it up again."
"I'm not interested in slogans or flag-waving for either side on a
political issue," the singer says. "But it's important to speak out.
Not necessarily to provide answers or present facts, but to capture a
feeling, a consciousness. A song can bridge barriers. We tour a lot in
Europe, and there's a lot of dissatisfaction out there that isn't
necessarily being documented. We're constantly asked questions about
our government, the [Iraqi] war, [President] Bush."
The restlessness courses through the album. It documents a great band
planting the seeds of reinvention.
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: Tower Records, 2301 N. Clark St.
Price: Free; 773-477-5994
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 7 p.m. Saturdays on WBEZ-FM 91.5.