Calexico: At last, the Big Easy does it for darlings of Arizona

Thanks to film soundtracks, the arrival of twins and cancer scares, finding time to lay down their new album wasn't easy for the band. But then they found inspiration in New Orleans

In a bare dressing room at the London Forum, Joey Burns leans forward and in one answer discusses shootings, music industry woes and cancer. Just one question and we are already in at the deep end. The question was why Calexico, the musical vehicle formed by singer/guitarist Burns and his long-term drumming buddy John Convertino, have taken four years to return with their seventh album, Algiers. Which is not to say that it hasn't been worth the wait; many reviewers profess this to be one of the strongest sets yet from the purveyors of Mexicana-tinged, country-inflected rock. Burns's regular parade of outsiders and loners are present and correct, with a greater emphasis on feelings of loss and separation, as on the confessional "Maybe on Monday" and "Fortune Teller".

The band's home city of Tucson, Arizona hit the headlines in January two years ago following a gun attack at a political rally that left six dead and gravely injured the former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She is a fan of the band – and they instantly rolled up their sleeves to raise money for victims and their families. "Gabrielle is a friend of ours. We first met her when we did a Get Out the Vote rally, but she loves a lot of music and is often out at shows," Burns explains. "We happened to be around, so we helped with benefit concerts for the community and to raise awareness of the fund."

Moreover, Tucson is a relatively left-wing and bohemian redoubt in a predominantly Republican state, his bandmate adds. "Tucson's the weird town in the state. There are a few counties in Arizona that are Democratic, and fortunately we live in one. There are very few Democrats, so we have to really fight for them and rally behind them."

While Calexico are hardly the most politically outspoken of bands, there is inevitably an edge to Burns's tales of people crossing borders. With a twin focus on immigration issues and Hispanic identity, Arizona has found itself on the front line of the increasing polarisation of American politics. Rather than taking a political stance, the band's chief lyricist adopts a wider perspective on the gritty "Splitter" and the Cuban-esque "Sinner in the Sea".

"I identify with those characters. Especially these days, with what's going on in the world – not only in our own state, but from our travels and reading the news and hearing about people who are working towards finding a better way, not just for themselves, but for their families and communities. But I feel like we're going to a deeper source of universal feeling, rather than being attached to one political side or another. Maybe because I was born in Montreal, Canada, and my parents moved to California... That question of who you are – we ask ourselves that a lot."

More recently, Burns has found inspiration in the photography of Richard Avedon, particularly his series In the American West. "My wife was working on the collection at the University of Arizona, so I got to see a lot of work and I really identified with these images, where he had travelled around with a camera, an assistant and a plain white background, looking at workers and drifters. They resembled people I'd seen in the States or throughout Europe." Not short of material, Burns and Convertino still struggled to progress their follow-up to 2008's Carried to Dust. The duo had branched out into soundtracks, including for the Brendan Gleeson vehicle The Guard, which transposed the High Noon showdown story to Galway, Ireland. They have also worked as sympathetic producers, most recently on Amos Lee's Mission Bell album and a forthcoming release from Neko Case.

The band themselves, though, were facing a plethora of distractions and were unsure of their future. Calexico's record company, Touch and Go, downsized, causing the band to seek another label, while co-producer Craig Schumacher was diagnosed with throat cancer (he is now on the mend). Meanwhile, Burns had recently become father to twin girls.

After failing to make headway in Tucson, the pair decided to try a new environment. "We recorded quite a bit at home in our comfort zone, without Craig, but it just got to that point – let's get the vibe from somewhere else," Convertino explains. "We were busy with our own lives and families, but still trying to find a direction," Burns adds. "Every year it's a different story. It's part of our process: we take our stories and our experiences into the studio, but sometimes having that perspective away from home gives us more of an idea of what's happening. You miss certain aspects of home and gain a sense of clarity."

Their chosen destination was New Orleans, a city that had been on their radar for years, Convertino reveals. "We've played there quite a few times and experienced this amazing history based on music. It is the birthplace of jazz, an amazing combination of cultures: Spanish, French and African, leaving a mark that combines into its own thing."

Burns agrees. "Music has been such a big aspect to the survival of certain communities there and we identify with that," he says. "And it felt great to bring business there, because it's still recovering from Katrina." They found an accommodating studio in Algiers, part of the city on a bank of the Mississippi, which proved such a successful base that they honoured it in the new album's title. "It's a residential neighbourhood so there's not a lot of distractions around. It's like the French Quarter historically and architecturally, but without all the craziness and we were able to pick up on that vibe."

On Algiers, Calexico's borderland heat combines well with the steamy warmth of the Big Easy. Convertino, rarely a lyric contributor, provides the achingly intimate "Para" that begins "I hold your wrist/ You bite your lip". "'Para' means 'for' in Spanish, but it also means 'stop', which I thought was really interesting," the drummer explains. "Joey used it as a working title, but the music made me think of Terrence Malick's movie Tree of Life. That really resonated with me, because of the relationship with the father and how incredibly complicated it is to have children and raise a family."

Calexico may enjoy creating stories, but it's the truths close to home that give their music its emotive force.

'Algiers' is out on Anti Records. Calexico tour the UK in February

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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