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

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?