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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone