In this conversation with Tucson based desert rock duo Calexico, writer Fionn Meade talks with band members John Convertino and Joey Burns about their complex yet beautifully stripped down sound.
Imagine dusting your shoes, one, the other, against the back of your pantlegs, and straightening up to a view overlooking the edge of a desert city. Its contours are familiar but dreamlike nevertheless; you’ve certainly come from somewhere down there, but, oddly, you aren’t sure how you got to this promontory outside the city, how long you’ve been away, or exactly how you might get back to where you are missed.
Listening to Calexico is akin to reading a travelogue that tells the story of your absence—certain passages measured and sustained, others fitful, even capricious. And what emerges from the amnesiac gap is a cinematic sound of the Southwest that can do no wrong as it updates the mythology of the desert as a place of visitation, folly and imminent departures. Of course, the desert is also, more simply, their home.
Having transplanted themselves from Los Angeles to Tucson about eight years ago, Joey Burns and John Convertino first formed Calexico as a side project to Giant Sand, Howe Gelb’s art-punk incarnation to which they are still regular contributors. A protean ability to shift styles and instruments has also led to Calexico collaborations with an assortment of singer/songwriters and instrumental groups (from Richard Buckner to Neko Case to Brokeback), but it is their growing body of work as a duo that has made them local darlings of the borderlands and won them a devoted following across the US and Europe. Equally orchestral and stripped-down, their musical haul (three full-length records on Quarterstick Records and a handful of EPs and tour-only releases) defies easy categorization.
After a brief detour regarding commercial flight paths versus Air Force bases and their discomfoting proximity to our homes, we all three set out to discuss the perils of pastiche, the Sonora and its nebulous frontier, adaptations both musical and literary, and the ever-changing locale that is Calexico.
John Convertino and Joey Burns. Photo by Bill Carter.
Fionn Meade: As the name implies, Calexico is a band of place, or perhaps the idea of place, a border town; it’s permeable but compromising. The elastic quality of your music really seems to embody that. How did the music come to be so evocative of place, real or imagined?
Joey Burns: The choice of instruments first of all. Using instruments beyond just the guitar and drums, like the accordion, marimba and vibes together conjures up feelings of place. When you hear violins and trumpet together or a nylon string guitar in waltz time, a landscape comes with it.
John Convertino: The instruments Joey and I have collected over the years lend themselves to a round sound. Maybe because they’re mostly vintage and have been played for years, they have a certain feeling when they’re in your hands and that comes out in the music.
JB: But how the idea and story of a place is adapted is also a big theme down here in Tucson and in the Southwest in general. We’re close to another country and people tend to pass through here a lot, so adaptations float around down here. Have you ever been to Tucson?
FM: A few years ago I did a drive-away from San Antonio and hit Tucson right around nightfall during an electric storm. After the void of west Texas, it was a really glamorous entry. I hung out around downtown the next day. Downtown Tucson, like Dallas, has unnervingly wide streets.
JC: Yeah. The city planning distorts cities like Tucson and Albuquerque. It’s easy to feel isolated here, but at the same time you find these pockets of community. And after eight years here, you want to stay and keep them alive.
JB: Touring half the year does that for me. The going away so often allows you to come back and rediscover Tucson again, a stretch of desert you haven’t been on or a street in your neighborhood you’ve passed a thousand times but never looked at. The chaos of touring and going away brings back the basic element of space when you come home. The minimalism of living here definitely affects our music.
FM: As a listener, that feeling is first and foremost cinematic. The first time I understood what you guys were doing was while getting lost on a drive in Eastern Washington. It’s got nothing on Arizona, but the plains floor, the horizon and motel signs put your music together for me.
JB: That’s really on the money. The way the lyrics of one of our songs can settle in over the instrumentals of the next couple songs and allow for the images to meet up with your own thoughts as a listener and sink a little. In that way it resembles the flow and dynamic of a soundtrack.
FM: How do you assemble a record to have that feel?
JC: We try to give ourselves a lot of time. We might fill all the tracks on a song until some are even doubled and then start chiseling away. So, the majority of our time is really spent in the mixing.
FM: That reminds me of the contribution that clutter and collectibles can have in an artist’s studio, a kind of precursor to the formality of a final piece.
JC: Sure. It often happens that way with Calexico. The song eventually reveals itself.
JB: What strikes me more than anything is listening for the flow, letting the words, varieties of color and mood, sift through the instrumental tracks.
JC: Yeah. But we do try to keep the hogwash detector at full blast when we record. So, most of it sounds pretty real.
Tucson, Arizona. Photo by Jay Kuehner.
FM: I love how snippets of field recordings or bowed vibes will make their way onto your albums in between full orchestral pieces. Again, it evokes accompaniment, as when a musical motif announces a recurring character. For instance, The Black Light seems straight out of Cormac McCarthy, a drifter’s soundtrack replete with mariachi interludes, elegiac guitar work and just the right proportion of lyrics about worn-out photos, violence, and rundown hotels.
JC: Well, I was reading McCarthy’s Border Trilogy at the time and showed it to Joey and he picked it up and got inspired to respond. It gave a real theme to The Black Light lyrically.
JB: The Black Light was our first full-length album as Calexico. And listening to the initial guitar and drum tracks I just began to hear these western instruments all under one roof. You might hear an overlap every once in a while, but I thought, Why not bring in the lap steel, violin and mariachi. It seemed to really represent Tucson at the time and reminded me of an updated McCarthy novel where worlds and styles come together.
FM: I understand you guys toured with a mariachi orchestra. Did playing with traditional musicians change your understanding of that music? I know from having lived in Mexico that mariachi is often maligned as music that plagues outdoor restaurants and plazas on Friday and Saturday nights. There’s this plaza not far from the zocalo in Mexico City, Plaza Garibaldi. On a Friday night at least two hundred mariachis show up there either in pre-existing groups or to form groups and get picked up for parties. It’s like a hallucination. Street kids running around selling tequila shots and couples completely encircled by mariachis. But, even there, when you do hear a real mariachi outfit, it’s irresistible.
JC: I hope through our music people get the idea that mariachi isn’t all about weddings. There is a lot of variation in traditional mariachi. Originally, when we first wrote “Minas de Cobre” we were so excited by the idea of strings and trumpets together. It was a dream of ours to eventually work with a traditional orchestra on stage. We were finally able to afford to hire Mariachi Luz de Luna from Tucson and bring them on tour with us in Europe. Whenever you see a band there comes a point when the set gets a little boring. Not that you aren’t enjoying it, but you get it. So, right at that point is when Luz de Luna would come on stage in full regalia and it was full on party time. (laughter) At least most people took it that way. Uplifting, not louder in volume, but in energy.
JB: After listening to polkas and waltzes on the radio down here for years and then going to Europe, it was surprising to find out that mariachi actually reminds the younger crowd of the music their grandparents and old-timers listened to in the beer gardens in Germany, for example. So, some faces would crinkle at first, but they always gave in. It was usually late in the night and people would be pretty far gone. Back home though, when I hear a song like “La Negra” out at night in Tucson, I recognize it now. I know it. And having learned it from Luz de Luna I understand a little more where the songs are coming from rather than just hearing it as a texture or layer.
FM: Do you ever feel self-conscious about a kitsch factor?
JB: It can come off that way to some. But we have a sense of humor about our mythology of the west.
FM: Like your song “The Ballad of Cabe Hogue.”
JB: Yeah, that’s making fun of ourselves and the spaghetti westerns, the romance of the west.
FM: With the French madame singing it could be right off Serge Gainsbourg’s Comic Strip.
JC: Exactly. A tip of the hat to Dean Martin and Serge Gainsbourg and their amazing talents. You can’t take yourself seriously all the time.
JB: We come from this place that so many Europeans, for example, have only read about in novels or seen in films. We get a lot of calls to license the mariachi songs for films in Europe. As it should be, it exists as a real and imagined place. At the same time, the Sergio Leone western films that Enio Morricone wrote such great music for were inspired by the books of Karl May, a German writer at the turn of the century who had never been to the Southwest and made it all up, down to the ridiculous Indian names and everything. So, it’s interesting how these attractions come full circle.
John Convertino and Joey Burns. Photo by Bill Carter.
FM: Social critique has become a theme on your most recent releases. You have a song, “The Crystal Frontier,” that was inspired by a somewhat searing Carlos Fuentes’ novel of the same name, as well as a number of songs about urban sprawl. How has your portrayal of the Southwest and the border evolved?
JB: “The Crystal Frontier” describes the history of the Southwest as always having been a crossroads. A place of illusions and even delusion. The first verse follows Fray Marcos setting out to find Cabeza de Vaca’s seven lost cities of gold and running into the Zuni instead. The second verse is about a maquiladora worker in Juarez trying to support her family by working in a tire factory. And the last verse is from a story I read in a Tucson paper about kids that live on both sides of the border and have access to both sides. They’re kind of players that can get you whatever you want cheap, drugs or sex if you’re coming from the US side, and Air Jordans, Nike garb and label stuff back over to the Mexican side. This place has always had a quality of struggle.
FM: And commerce. Do you sense an imminent violence surrounding the border when you go down to, say, Nogales?
JB: Yeah, but far more so on the American side. You might go down a street in Nogales and realize maybe I shouldn’t be here or have someone want to sell you something. On the other hand, when you’re pulled over stateside at a road-block and guys with bulletproof vests and big guns are searching every car, there’s an important contrast to recognize. They’re trying to protect the US border, which you really can’t protect.
FM: As Fuentes writes in The Crystal Frontier, “That great canvas of imitations and metamorphoses, the desert.” There is a lot of shape-shifting in the desert.
JC: The burning sun day after day can be a brutal reality for anyone trying to hide. If you choose to live in the desert, things eventually come out into the open. I think it’s kind of like monkey see, monkey do. With McCarthy and then Fuentes it was the same thing. You’re reading books, you’re living here, you’re seeing the reality. And then when you’re on the road for hours driving, what do you do? You start to talk about this stuff. And it really becomes a choice of what are you now going to sing about.
JB: I guess it’s all universal, it’s just that the desert—and sometimes it’s hard always referring to it in interviews—is rather extreme, and might appear uninhabitable to some. But it’s amazing what a little bit of rain does out here. It transforms the landscape, and you can really see how this place might have been when there were great bodies of water and lush wetlands.
FM: The liner notes give credit to Carlos Fuentes for inspiration but also Cafe Poca Cosa. I’ve heard legends about this place. Is this one of those pockets of community?
JB: It’s a hole-in-the-wall family restaurant downtown, maybe six tables right in among the skyscrapers.
JC: Two sisters run it. The old man’s recipes. You just get a feeling when you go there. It’s so tiny but you get this feeling. It’s like Venice. (laughter)
JC: Yeah. A tiny city that the whole world wants to see because of a feeling you get when you’re there. Just pure heart and soul.
FM: Cafe Poca Cosa inspires such reverie?
JC: (laughter) Sure, in a way. You know when you go there you’re going to get a plate of heaven.
JB: One of the sisters lives across the border one week, one week here, back and forth. She’s this kind of soul figure, always so positive and giving. And I love the music she plays. I borrowed a mixed tape of cumbia they have and it filtered into that song for sure. It’s right downtown and although Tucson is growing and becoming a major city, Cafe Poca Cosa and what it represents is right there in the middle of it. So, I guess our music is becoming more portraits than pastoral. That’s natural, after having lived here so long.
FM: Portraits amid the skyscrapers, but also, as you put it on the song “Service and Repair,” "On the outskirts of expansion… "
JB: “Looking out from blueprint peak.” Yeah, that critique of sprawl is inevitable and widespread. Even out in Chicago recently I noticed these new Home Depots everywhere.
FM: These are the “urban settlers” you refer to in that song. A concise phrase.
JB: When you drive out of Tucson into older cities around here not included in the sprawl of expansion, they’re not quite ghost towns but getting there. There’s a great book, Open Range & Parking Lots, with photos by Virgil Hancock of the southwest. Old Texaco stations and hotels, weeds growing up around the pumps and through the sidewalks.
JC: The center gets lost in a lot of cities out here and it becomes hard to know where to go. Even where I live used to be more of a community. Now there’s a big convention center nearby. The displacement leaves little choice. What can you do? Maybe sing a song about it.
FM: The nostalgia of dilapidation.
JB: Sure. It’s in our music. The nostalgia for aesthetics of detail.
Tucson, Arizona. Photo by Jay Kuehner.
FM: Just as the portrayal of the desert in your music has evolved well beyond the vaquero and tumbleweeds, your music has opened up quite a bit. I’m continually surprised listening to Calexico—whether by the spectral sound of cello and slide on a tune like “El Morro” or the Gil Evans-like arrangements on Travelall.
JB: Working on an independent label like Touch & Go gives us freedom to do tour-only records and b-side experiments. We can go from mariachi-influenced arrangements to something near Erik Satie and then bring in Rob Mazurek (from Chicago Underground Duo) with a muted trumpet and they’ll encourage us.
FM: Your discography is like trying to follow an old road map where the highway is still there but so are lovely dead ends and new roadside attractions as well. Do you ever think that Calexico is maybe too diffuse?
JB: No. From the first time I met John back in LA, I was impressed with how both John and Howe Gelb (of Giant Sand) were willing to allow a little chaos into the mix. All of a sudden approaching rock with a jazz sensibility presented itself. John has this ability to switch styles and dynamics so quickly that he winds up not just being a keeper of time but arranging and orchestrating each song from the drum kit. So, it really becomes about looking to find where it sews up as a cohesive body of work.
JC: You have to remember we met through Howe Gelb who I met in Los Angeles in the mid ’80s. All other bands were spandex big hair bands. (laughter) I didn’t want to do that. When Howe moved into my apartment building, I hadn’t been playing for a year but I’d see him listening to his music in his car.
FM: In front of the building?
JC: Yeah. Whatever he’d just recorded. I listened to his Giant Sand stuff and it was kind of punk, like X, a little revved up, but I was surprised to hear piano in it. I told him I played and started playing with him. We’d pop into the studio and run through a few songs and I’d say, "well, I made a few mistakes,’ and he’d say, ‘no, it was perfect.’ “But right here you can hear where I thought we we’re heading into another chorus,” and he’d say, “No, I love that, it’s perfect.” (laughter) That’s when I first saw how the studio was an instrument in and of itself.
FM: Calexico does seem to use the studio as a way to almost map out the pursuit of itself.
JB: Whether it’s a field recording from the backyard, or your travels, you can paint the world around you differently now. A message left on a friend’s machine, maybe someone playing accordion in a tube station or a fiddle in Prague, that impression can be sent instantly. That dynamic interests me in our music. Not just combining different styles or interpretations but realities too. For instance, I love the way things sound through a cell phone. I called the studio recently and the piano was being played in the background. It sounded familiar but simultaneously had the quality of something else from somewhere else. Like hearing music from an apartment next door, the way it filters through the walls, you can’t quite describe it exactly.
JB: Yeah, that’s the kind of world we’re always heading towards. A sense of destination, not just a record but a risk.