Eye On the Horizon – An interview with Calexico’s Joey Burns
For well over a decade, Joey Burns and John Convertino—the founding mem bers of Tucson’s Calexico—have been mavericks in their field, rethinking the boundaries of Indie Rock one border-crossing genre at a time. From mariachi music undercut with Burns’s noir-ish surf guitar to Ennio Morricone-inspired desert landscapes, cool jazz to alt-country infused rock, Burns, Convertino and co. have forced music enthusiasts everywhere to reconsider a song’s realm of possibility. And it is their distinctive hybrid appeal that has afforded them such a fervent worldwide fan base. Now with the release of their sixth proper album, Carried to Dust, they are steeping themselves even deeper into the smoldering horizons and rich history of the Southwest. However, as Joey Burns is quick to point out, Carried to Dust is not a return to form, but instead a look to the future.
Bruce Scott: Feast of Wire and Garden Ruin seemed like a departure in sound from earlier work, and Carried to Dust seems to pick up where Hot Rail left off. Do you feel like it was going back to your roots?
Joey Burns: Well, I’ve heard that a lot, and what you’re probably hearing, maybe from listening to the record, is a similar style of production, which is no surprise because Craig Schumacher who mixed Feast of Wire, Hot Rail, also mixed this new record, so he may be the common link. I don’t think we purposely set out to recreate or return to anything. We do return to the studio, and all the records, including Garden Ruin, were made here at the wonderfully bunker-like or bunker-esque Wave Lab studios in Downtown Tucson, where I am at the moment.
The music of Calexico is obviously deeply influenced by Arizona, the Southwest, the bordering towns of Mexico where you guys got your name, but I was wondering how much your travels while touring influence your songwriting?
Quite a bit. There seems to be this theme of escapism or imagination tied in with sounds and looking at images from far away, it could be outer space, it could be the Harold Budd/Brian Eno record for the Apollo space missions, you know, and there just seems to be that kind of exploration, and so I think it comes natural for a musician who is fortunate enough to tour and travel to take note and put mile markers in the music, or names of towns, or places and people and characters. And I think it is a basic part of songwriting for those who hit the road… there is that sense of ‘I just want to get out of here, and I want music to be the vehicle… I just want to go somewhere else.’
And on a more personal level, the music can become a travelogue of your journeys, or documentation of where you’ve been.
Yes, without it being too overly thought out, and that is the fine line that everyone has to deal with individually. How much do you want for it to be a statement rather than it being a natural intuitive expression? And that’s more of what our path is, taking the more impressionistic route.
There seems to be more and more Calexico in general lately. You guys were in (Michael Mann’s film) Collateral, as the bar band, you just showed up on the I’m Not There soundtrack, and you also got a write-up in Oprah magazine which is kind of the American equivalent to being knighted in England.
(laughs) You know what? You’re right! My Aunt, who rarely ever gets involved in these matters, brought it to my attention—and she also reads the Washington Post—so whenever there’s something in the Journal or the Post she’s always passing that on to me. I think if you’ve, by nature, just been around long enough you wind up, um, finding some connections, and we’re definitely a band that likes to try on different hats and is not at all interested in being pigeonholed in one thing… It’s more about moving forward, keeping your eyes on the horizon, and I think from the travels you wind up meeting a lot more people, hearing a lot of other books, movies, bands, festivals, food, you name it. Wine, that’s a big influence. And it kind of gives you these other avenues to try out. And that’s what we’re all about, we’re all about continuing on that same sense of adventure as we did when we first started. It’s not like we just want to stay put in one position or level, we’re very interested in expanding and trying new instruments, new styles of music, playing with different musicians, and so it was great to then say, ‘hey, why not ask people to kind of sit in on this song.’ And friends would just be popping in through town or we would have an idea of, let’s call Sam (Beam, of Iron and Wine), I know he’s extremely busy, he’s got a family of six, and he’s a good friend, so I knew he would let me know if he could do anything or not. And that was nice to have Sam on the track, “House of Valparaiso.”
I read that after Carried to Dust, you were considering recording an album where you backed up musicians that you’ve worked with in the past. Is that going to happen?
I sure hope so. And in essence, we’ve been doing this all along, but it would be interesting to have a record where Calexico presents guests that maybe you have either heard of or haven’t heard of. Or have heard of but not in this situation. And I think the I’m Not There soundtrack was a great opportunity for us to do just that. Recording tracks for Charlotte Gainsborough, and working with somebody that is
out there in cyberspace was pretty interesting. We recorded several different versions in keys and tempos and we sent them all to her and she chose the one that felt best to her. And when we were mixing it, that opened up a whole other window of questions and, ‘ok, what is it about the mix that is good or bad?’ It just took a while to find that communication of, ‘oh, there’s a brass instrument there that’s kind of getting in the way of the tone of the vocal, let’s just take it out, and instantly you get a favorable response from Paris, and you know that Charlotte’s happy.
And if you were to pursue that project, who else might you want to work with again?
An endless list?
I’d like to work with A Hawk and a Hacksaw, they’re friends of ours from Albuquerque who do a lot of work in Budapest, I think they have an apartment there. They’re a band that I think is very, very interesting. And we just played a bunch of folk festivals in Canada, one in Calgary and one in Winnipeg. We got to work with them, we got to work with Andrew Bird, I love him, I love his music. Bill Callahan, one of my all time favorite songwriters and musicians, and we also met The Weakerthans, who felt like soul brothers from the same continent but a different country. Then you always in the back of your head kind of shoot big, like … ‘hmm, what would it be like if we were to back up someone like Gillian Welch, or Tom Waits.
I notice when I listen to Calexico there’s a dialogue between John Convertino’s drums and your guitar and bass work… it’s a very communicative way of performing.
You’re the only one that’s ever mentioned that, that’s great! That’s exactly it. If you listen to John’s drumming, he is playing more like a melodic instrument. He’s playing around or playing to either the other instruments or especially to lyrics or the vocalists. Whether it’s a Neko Case record, an Iron and Wine EP, or a Calexico record, he’s that responsive, soulful kind of drummer you don’t find everyday.
Is he (John Convertino) still doing stuff with Giant Sand?
I think he did some recording with Howe Gelb recently, yeah. I’m not sure, I can’t keep track of all the projects, we’re all so involved in so many things, but it usually will happen here at Wavelab, it’s such a great studio.
Is Wavelab in Arizona?
It is, it’s downtown Tucson within two blocks of the Hotel Congress, where a lot of musicians love playing because they can stay there in the Hotel, they can play in the club, there’s an old bar called The Tap Room, there’s a really great café called The Cup Café, you can even get your hair cut. There’s a barber!