Calexico: Canyons of their minds
Calexico's music has always reeked of the southern USA. But, they tell Fiona Sturges, their new album has a wider remit
Friday 25 August 2006
Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino aren't exactly your average patrons of west London's fashionable K-West hotel. In this resting-place-cum-watering hole for hip young indie bands in ill-fitting suits, the thirtysomething pair cut incongruous figures in their checked shirts and battered truckers caps. "I feel like I've come to fix the plumbing," whispers Burns. "Still, I'm in a band. That must give me some credibility, right? I'll just keep telling myself that."
Named after a town that lies on the border between Mexico and California (in fact they live in Tucson, Arizona), Burns and Convertino have, for the last decade, been steeped in the American south-west, their sound a cinematic celebration of the desert that brings to mind scorched sunsets, rolling tumbleweeds and Ennio Morricone's spaghetti-western surrealism. Elements of jazz, lo-fi rock, country and avant-garde noise all vie for attention on their records. Along with keyboards, vibraphone, upright bass, pedal-steel guitar and Spanish guitars, Burns and Convertino have also been known to tour with a full Mexican mariachi band.
Storytelling is crucial to the Calexico experience. Their 1998 album The Black Light was an epic quasi-concept album, inspired by the writer Cormac McCarthy, about a kid from downtown Tucson who travels through the desert and ends up joining the Mexican circus.
But despite having honed a style specific to their environment, Calexico have yet to win over American audiences. Like their label-mates Lambchop, their fan-base lies in Europe, where they are seen as alt.country pioneers. "I think in the past Europeans have been more open-minded about our music," reflects Burns. "They get the aspect of the music that's related to our surroundings. In the States there has always been some resistance to that. I think for Americans it's a little too close to home. Also, because of the issues along the US-Mexican border, there's a lot of hostility and racial tension at present. There's a lot of xenophobia, so it's not a good time to be trying to celebrate and encourage this confluence of cultures."
This would certainly account for the shift in direction in their latest, critically-fêted, album Garden Ruin. Though their trademark eclecticism is still present and correct, the album has a rockier edge and, aside from the odd blast of trumpet, the Mexican influence has been played down. The final track, "All Systems Red", sees them plugging in their guitars for a straight-down-the-line rock anthem that would give U2 a run for their money.
But if the new sound is designed to woo more conservative American audiences, the lyrics could well have the opposite effect. The album finds Burns, the band's singer and principal songwriter, addressing more contemporary themes, tackling religious intolerance ("The world's an ungodly place, strangled by vines unchaste") and examining the ethics of military duty.
"Well, the world is changing fast and you can't help but react to that," reflects Burns. "But, also, I think with this album we made a conscious decision to try to challenge ourselves, to come up with something new, to dig for new detail. For live shows we had already begun to strip down to six core musicians and that's the band that came into the studio to play these songs."
This quest for fresh musical pastures has shaped Burns and Convertino's career. They've played with a variety of bands, from Howe Gelb's sprawling Arizona outfit Giant Sand and OP8, the outfit led by Lisa Germano, to Friends of Dean Martinez, a saloon-style indie rock band, and ABBC, the band put together by Burns, Convertino and the French experimentalists Amor Belhom Duo. There have also been collaborations with Goldfrapp, Victoria Williams, Neko Case, and Iron and Wine.
Burns and Convertino are compulsive workers, drawing inspiration from whoever or whatever crosses their path. But there are drawbacks to such a relentless work ethic. For instance, their decade-long commitment to Giant Sand fell apart as Calexico's popularity increased. The two bands' schedules frequently overlapped, forcing band leader Gelb to recruit extra musicians at the last minute.
"It's all a learning process," reflects Convertino. "We love playing with different people and want to do it as much as we can, but we started to realise we can't do it all. You make a record with someone and you fall in love with a project so then you want to take it on tour. But then you can't because you've got your obligations to your own band. Then you have to balance that with your family, and you start to learn what your priorities are. As long as you're keeping those creative fires burning, you're on the right track."
It has taken a while for them to adjust to the fact that Calexico is now a full-time enterprise. In the last five years the band has found commercial success within an otherwise marginalised genre, but, despite enjoying six-figure sales for their records, Burns and Convertino say they still get their kicks from touring.
"Playing live and making that connection with audiences is what keeps us going," says Convertino. "It's a great way of seeing the world and getting new ideas. It doesn't have to be a nocturnal lifestyle. You can decide not to drink and stay up all night long. It can be about new experiences, new sounds and new places. You can't ask for much more than that."
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