Chosen One: Calexico
Interview with Joey Burns & John Convertino (Calexico).
“So much of what we do comes from tone and timbre, what the sound waves are doing that day in the room with the moisture or lack of. How high is the ceiling? The wood in the walls or the adobe, the thickness of the strings, the loudness of the amps, they all come together when the silence is broken the tide comes in.”
— John Convertino
Words: Mark Carry
The arrival of a new Calexico record is always a cause of celebration and pure joy. Since first discovering the Tucson, Arizona collective’s shape-shifting music – circa 2000 with the mariachi infused opus of ‘Hot Rail’ – Calexico’s songbook has proved the most pivotal and endearing of artistic creations that seamlessly seeps into your veins and hits directly to the heart’s core. Last spring saw the eagerly awaited new full length release, ‘Edge of the Sun’; a sonic marvel of a record that stands tall as the band’s strongest work to date. Like a river finding its sea, a natural ebb and flow ceaselessly permeates from the well-cultivated sounds and timbres cast by the core duo of Joey Burns (singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist) and John Convertino (drums, songwriter, percussion, vibes).
It’s their windswept, breathtakingly beautiful instrumentals (is there anything more pure and beautiful as ‘Minas De Cobre’, ‘El Picador‘ or ‘Above The Branch’?); heart wrenching ballads (‘Bloodflow’, ‘The News About William’, ‘Fortune Teller’); brooding cinematic opuses (‘Red Blooms’, ‘Black Heart’, ‘The Vanishing Mind’); life affirming symphonies (‘Quattro’, ‘Epic’, ‘Victor Jara’s Hands’); songs of hope etched in the heart of darkness (‘Para’, ‘Crooked Road And The Briar’, ‘Not Even Stevie Nicks…’, ‘Trigger’); and momentous rejoice (‘Crystal Frontier’, ‘Guero Canelo’, ‘No Te Vayas’, ‘Inspiracion’). As always, the deeply rooted music telepathy between Burns and Convertino, combined with the peerless musicianship of the greater Calexico ensemble (spanning continents and encompassing worlds of sound) and producer supreme Craig Schumacher, means that true art is endlessly created.
The jubilant album opener ‘Falling From The Sky’ contains the stream-line approach the band previously utilized on the highly under-rated ‘Garden Ruin’ record with a rejuvenating brass section and the mesmerizing synth-led melody (courtesy of multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Sergio Mendoza). In addition, Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell adds vocals. The lyric of “like a bird lost inside the cloud/cut off from the stars” evokes the vivid sense of searching that flickers like rays of sunlight throughout the record’s sprawling canvas. A brooding atmosphere exudes from ‘Bullets & Rocks’; reminiscent of ‘Bend To The Road’ (live cut) from the ‘Carried To Dust’ tour. The multi-layered electric guitars conjures up the timeless sound of ‘Zuma’ era Neil Young (or vintage Iron & Wine whose frontman Sam Beam joins Burns & co, in turn, forming a fitting parallel to 2005’s collaborative ‘In The Reins’ EP). “Families disappear to the dark of the night” evokes a loss, pain and suffering; lying at the heart of the “devil’s highway” but the light of hope undeniably prevails through the shimmering darkness.
‘When The Angels Played‘ is a stunningly beautiful country lament recalling Gillian Welch and the heart of the great American songbook; a Dylan-esque folk splendor which could be a distant companion to (the previously recorded Pieta Brown duet) ‘Slowness’. The sublime ‘Cumbia de Donde’ brings the whole latin world to new dimensions, as Manu Chao and off-shoot Buena Vista sound systems flicker onto the horizon. The arrival of Spain’s Amparo Sanchez is akin to a spiritual journey as a lost brother to ‘Guero Canelo’ comes to the fore. ‘Cumbia de Donde’ somehow sits at the intersection between ‘Roka’ and ‘Guero Canelo’ creating, in turn, a spiritual journey: a road trip of epic proportions.
‘Tapping On The Line’s chorus refrain resonates powerfully as Burns asks, “could you step a little bit closer to the line?“: a song which shares the spirit of ‘Nebraska’ era Springsteen; charged with a gripping immediacy and vital pulse. ‘Miles From The Sea’ represents one of the album’s defining moments and undoubtedly one of the most formidable Calexico recording ever put to tape. The chorus refrain is immaculate as Burns sings of “dreams about swimming miles away from the sea“. The vast blue seas of the human heart is explored from the skies above to the seas below. ‘Woodshed Waltz’ is a pristine slice of divine americana. Sonically, it takes me to ‘Toolbox’ (the band’s towering instrumentals-only album) where the burning spark of creativity and spontaneity radiates throughout. The rise/bridge is one of the album’s endearing moments. A song about letting go, moving on. Another songwriter’s song. ‘Moon Never Rises’ is steeped in new and compelling sounds. The nuances and textures added by guest vocalist Carla Morrison brings forth a cinematic feel as new sonic terrain is masterfully explored.
The opening section of ‘World Undone’ – Burns’ hypnotic acoustic guitar is beautifully melded with Convertino’s meditative drums – shares a similar sound world to the band’s instrumental cut ‘Above The Branch’. The (singular) aesthetic created by the duo of Convertino’s drums and Burns’ guitar unleashes a staggering beauty that creates a resolutely unique and singular sound (kindred spirits such as White/Ellis/Turner and Davis/Coltrane also come to mind). There is something magical about how ‘World Undone’ unfolds. The stunning vocal delivery of Burns (joined by Devotchka’s Nick Urata) is a joy to witness as Burns sings “waiting for the devils to come“. The way in which this tour-de-force builds and evolve, represents the immense power and glory of the ‘Edge of the Sun’ as a whole. The cathartic energy of ‘Black Heart’ is likewise emitted here: “the world’s coming down“.
‘Follow The River‘ is another milestone in the sacred songbook of Calexico, reminiscent of ‘Epic’ where a healing quality and power of redemption abounds. In the liner notes of the band’s retrospective ‘Road Atlas’ (1998-2011), Fred Mills wrote: “But it’s not until you take in the entirety of the group’s sprawling discography that the sights, smells, textures and timbres of the Calexico experience fully reveal themselves.” As ever, one feels the emotional thread embedded deep in the songs: a common thread that connects all the band’s studio albums, tour cds, collaborative releases to date.
‘Edge of the Sun’ is out now on City Slang (Europe) & ANTI- (USA).
Interview with Joey Burns & John Convertino (Calexico).
Congratulations on the truly inspiring and captivating new record, ‘Edge of the Sun’; a sonic marvel of a record. You, John and the entire Calexico family should feel deeply proud. A world of detail and intricate layers of immaculate instrumentation are rooted in these songs; some new elements that I haven’t heard before in a Calexico studio album. As ever, an emotional depth of rich intensity & magnitude permeates the headspace and a cosmic spirit that captivates the heart.
Please discuss the making of ‘Edge of the Sun’ and particularly the Mexican city of Coyoacán where the album was recorded. Similar to how you decided to record ‘Algiers’ in the aforementioned New Orleans neighbourhood, as ever you all must have soaked up the surrounding city’s culture and neighbourhood that seamlessly tapped into the album’s twelve gems?
John Convertino: Thanks so much for all the compliments, careful listening, and insights to the new record. As with ‘Algiers’, we felt we needed to get to a place that had the space for us to focus on the album and songs, to put ideas down whatever they may be, and to spend some time together without having the responsibilities of home life. Coyoacán like Algiers has a great vibe and history to think about as you go for walks or runs in the park. Where we lived and recorded there was a courtyard and big trees that gave you shelter from the big city outside, we had two meals a day prepared for us with love, so we never had to worry about what and where to eat, the energy was strong, and we were able to get a lot work done and some sightseeing as well.
Joey Burns: It was important just as it was making ‘Algiers’ to go somewhere for 12 days where we could eat, sleep and breathe music. It really helps to get the ball rolling when we can focus on writing like that. Being in Mexico City was a plus. The food, people and sights all help make for a special experience. One day we went with a friend to see the work he had been doing on Pedro Reyes’ art piece “Disarm”. He was helping Reyes build musical instruments out of pieces of broken weapons seized by the Mexican government from the drug cartels. We got to see a rehearsal and even try playing some of the instruments. I tried the electric bass, guitar and cello, John checked out the percussion which was all midi controlled and Sergio was intrigued with the violin. The symbolism was beautiful and inspired us all.
What is most special about the Calexico songbook (and indeed becomes the essence of the band’s rich legacy) is the deeply enriching narrative that flows throughout each record where one flows into the next like a river finding its sea. ‘Edge of the Sun’ continues this search for hope in the depths of despair; a strive for a better life; dreams of better days. I would love for you to discuss the themes of the new album and what ideas and concerns you felt were important to address on ‘Edge of the Sun’?
JC: I agree with you Mark, I think Joey and his brother John, as well as Pieta Brown and Sergio Mendoza all came up with some of the best lyrics yet for the record. I find that immigration and borders have been continual themes throughout all of our records, and now that we have become so familiar with those themes I believe there is greater clarity in how we feel about these issues therefore translating into the songs in a natural way. As we all get older, it becomes more and more apparent that it’s not always easy being a human on the planet. There are so many misunderstandings and communication can so easily break down, what may be such a brilliant thought comes out sounding completely wrong, it takes time to formulate how to verbalize what your feeling, maybe it comes easier as you get older, maybe not, it could just be more familiar ground. I think this is an apparent theme in the record.
JB: I wanted to acknowledge the difficulties in life, the things we all share and have to endure and yet I wanted to the music to help balance that and give a sense of hope. Near the end of the album sequence the song “World Undone” shows signs of grief from the character’s perspective and by the final track “Follow The River” that same character has found a way out of despair to recognize there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Transformation is part of the process and every album takes on a slightly different direction. Sometimes they parallel the world around us and other times they map out the emotional paths we are on.
The ocean (and possibly your upbringing in LA) and “dreams about swimming/miles away from the sea” on ‘Miles From The Sea’ feels a distant companion to similar themes explored on ‘..Not Even Stevie Nicks’, ‘Sinner In The Sea’ and indeed several aspects on ‘Carried To Dust’. Please discuss these re-occurring themes that are wonderfully re-visited here?
JC: I’ve always wondered about that too, I know it’s really a question for Joey, but having lived in the desert for so many years I have thought of water and the ocean more than when I lived in Los Angeles. Water is such a huge part of life, it is life, water and sun and all the elements. Living in El Paso Texas now, I have visited the wonderful Chinoti foundation a few times and have become a fan of Donald Judd. The massive concrete squares with the bright blue desert sun behind them bring to my mind the beginning of creation, that bang, the snare drum crack that sparked us all into being….there is that moment when the silence is broken, the wave crashes and the world keeps moving.
JB: I wasn’t sure about this song lyrically. I sent it to my oldest brother John who is a good source for feedback and inspiration. He helped with some of the lines in the verses and was supportive for keeping the lines in the chorus which I wasn’t so sure I wanted to keep. For sure there are themes of nature and specifically the ocean that have made an impact on my writing. However recurring they may be I try to shed new light on them with each song. I was surprised when doing some interviews in Europe that this song was some of the writers’ favorite song.
Collaboration has always been integral to your work but with ‘Edge of the Sun’, the spirit of collaboration is taken to new heights and possibilities. I feel this spirit of togetherness and an openness radiates throughout these soaring songs. Talk me through please the songs and the guests on each track? One of the formidable highlights is Mexican chanteuse Carla Morrison’s vocals on ‘Moon Never Rises’. It is also beautiful to witness the many special souls who have served a vital pulse to the Calexico songbook, including Amparo Sanchez, John Burns, Sam Beam and Neko Case. It is hardly surprising that ‘Edge of the Sun’ quickly becomes a source of comfort and solace.
JB: The idea of inviting guests was something that Christof Ellinghaus had once suggested a few years ago. “Make a record of duets with guest singers” is what he suggested. It wasn’t until after Sam Beam sent his vocals for “Bullets & Rocks” did I even consider asking other musicians to sit in on this album or for it to become such a developed theme on this album. We for sure wanted to invite some of our favorite musicians from Mexico on the album. Having Carla Morrison was a big deal as she is super busy and we had never met before. Fortunately we know her manager, Gil Gastelum who used to live in Tucson and he helped arrange for her appearance as well as Gaby Moreno’s. We were really hoping that Camilo Lara could contribute some tracks since he was in a way responsible for us getting to Coyoacán and working at his friend Ro Velazquez’s home studio.
Having Neko Case on one of our albums definitely was something we had always wanted to do since we do so much work on her albums, so we were extremely grateful when she took time out the day she played Tucson with her band The New Pornographers. She nailed it and then gave us all hugs and ran onstage. Incredible! Sergio’s lap steel player in his band suggested that we contact members of Band of Horses and made the introduction. He knew that we were trying to get someone to sing on “Falling From The Sky” and when he made the suggestion to ask Ben Bridwell, I instantly knew it could be a good match and it blew me away. It still stands out as one of the most impressive collaborations for me. Pieta Brown is another good friend who has offered up lyrics in the past, “Fortune Teller” for example. When I read her first lines of “When The Angels Played” I felt a connection immediately. Sure enough it came together quickly and John and I tracked the song one late night in Coyoacán.
Amparo Sanchez has long been a big influence and we were excited to hear her bring some fire to “Cumbia De Donde“. Sergio has been performing with DevotchKa on tour for several years and he suggested asking Nick Urata to sing on “Follow The River” which again was a big surprise to hear his incredible vocals take the higher harmony and make the song go somewhere else. “Coyoacán” features an outstanding harp player from El Paso, Adrian Perez who we’ve worked with at live shows with Mariachi Luz de Luna here in Tucson. He comes to town a fair amount so I had him come in and try not only a pass on this song but add some Kora style lines on “Bullets & Rocks“.
JC: All the guests came about in such a natural way, there towards the end of the recordings when the songs were established Sergio would encourage us to add vocal guests, as in the case with Carla and Gabby, who we didn’t even know, and from there inviting our friends who we knew could help us out so much, it was always such a treat to hear what they would come up with, Ben and Sam living with the songs alone in their own home studios and coming up with parts that took the songs to different places. Neko taking the time on tour to drop by the studio and make one of my favorite moments on the record in “Tapping On The Line”. It really became a part of the whole record to have guests.
The stunningly beautiful ‘Follow The River’ brings the album to a fitting close. The immediacy and honesty hits you profoundly, where a soul’s heart is laid to bare. The harmonies, striking vocal delivery, accordion, lapsteel, drums conjures up a timeless and mesmerising sound. Can you recount your memories of writing and recording this particular track please?
JC: One of my favorites too. Being there in Coyoacán and hearing Joey and Sergio playing guitar and vehuela outside in the courtyard, and then stepping into the studio and recording the idea in that natural cut time feel, it quickly became a favorite because of its ease, like it was so meant to be here. And then to have Nick Urata from Devotchka add his vocal layer put the song into that blue mood even further.
JB: This was based on an idea that we came up with while writing in Mexico City. Sergio started with playing a vihuela rhythmic pattern, and I came in with nylon acoustic guitar suggesting certain chords to follow his motif. We re-recorded the idea in Tucson with a full drum sound and upright bass with a few overdubs of piano and vibraphone. John really liked the minimal arrangement, but I heard some other parts that could help make some of the transitions from verse to chorus and to bridge sections. So we added very minimal trumpet parts from Martin Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela as well as a gorgeous pedal steel part from Paul Niehaus. Some of the Brian Eno sounding synth parts were from a pocket piano synthesizer that wound up on a lot of tracks on this album.
‘Cumbia de Donde’ feels a lost sister to ‘Guero Canelo’ from ‘Feast of Wire’ or even ‘Roka’s Danza de la Muerte. I feel the energy of Calexico’s live concert is effectively translated to the sprawling canvas of ‘Edge of the Sun’. I’m sure it is an extremely exciting prospect to be in the midst of touring this new record. Talk a bit please about the space and aesthetics that inhabits each and every Calexico song? I feel this remains the trusted constant and magical spark to the unique sound of this ever-evolving ensemble.
JB: We wanted to show the variety inside our band, and so every track takes its own path and highlights different sides to the band’s musical styles. The last album “Algiers” was more focused style wise and this time out and reflecting the vibrant spirit that Mexico City exudes, we wanted to change it up. I will speak about “Cumbia de Donde” a little bit. This was influenced from spending time in Mexico and was written after the trip and recorded the first day at Wavelab Studio in Tucson. I had an idea of recording a few snippets of instrumental cumbia tracks to have come in and out of the record. This one turned out so good that we decided to make a full on song out of it. There’s a lot of distortion on the bass, percussion and vocals. We wanted to give this song the werewolf treatment and give it some teeth.
JC: Another fun one for me, I came in the next day after they had recorded this romp to a click track, and found myself a beat to play over it. In reality the beat I am playing is not a cumbia beat, it’s something else I don’t know what, but it’s not cumbia, and playing the song live I am still figuring out what to play….maybe I could try a cumbia?
Beginning back in the 90’s, you’ve been collecting musical instruments, which has been an important part to the creative process. I’m curious to know what new instruments or new tones/textures were added to the sonic palette of ‘Edge of the Sun’? One of the striking aspects to the new record is indeed the wide range of sonic timbres utilized on ‘Edge of the Sun’.
JB: The most impressive addition to the sounds on this album are the jalisco harp featured on “Coyoacán” and the Greek instruments; the kanun and bouzouki featured on “World Undone“. Oh yeah and how could I forget the addition of the pocket piano by Critter & Guitari. It’s an addicting little keyboard. Be careful when you bring it to the studio. My twin daughters Genevieve and Twyla loved playing with it at home.
JC: I did get a new drumset, something I thought I would never do, I love my vintage instruments so much. But this father and son company called C&C make these drums so much like the old ones, and even better, the tones gave me great inspiration. So much of what we do comes from tone and timbre, what the sound waves are doing that day in the room with the moisture or lack of. How high is the ceiling? The wood in the walls or the adobe, the thickness of the strings, the loudness of the amps, they all come together when the silence is broken the tide comes in.
In terms of the production, it was very much a shared experience between the core duo of Burns, Convertino, but this time out, Sergio contributed a lot to this side of the music. I would love for you to recount your memories of this process of the music-making process?
JC: Sergio is positive force; he is ready for the challenges. Coming up with something out of nothing can be like digging ditches some days, you got to have the strength. He has it. I think too, I was not there this time for a lot of the process, using email and texts don’t always translate well, so for this it was great have Sergio there to bounce ideas off of in the mixing process.
JB: It was helpful having both Ryan Alfred on bass and Sergio Mendoza on keyboards in the studio while recording the foundation for the songs. I know it helps out a lot with locking in to the groove. In addition I really enjoy recording with just John and myself as well. So we did some sessions as a two piece and came up with a bunch of basic tracks for songs like “Miles From The Sea“, “Woodshed Waltz“, “Bullets & Rocks” and “When The Angels Played”. John was there for the recording of basic tracks and Sergio was super helpful for me personally being there everyday and supportive on finishing the whole album including reaching out to guests. The studio engineers get overwhelmed with all of the ideas and possibilities, and I am sure the other band members do as well. But Sergio was good at helping me make decisions on what songs to focus on and to finish.
Please pick one song you feel most proud of and reminisce for me the song’s inception and blossom into its final entity?
JB: “World Undone” was started at home with a simple melody line. While I was driving into the studio that morning I listened to Bill Callahan’s ‘Dream River‘ album and thought it would be interesting to try a similar minimal approach. Tracked live, Sergio Mendoza and Ryan Alfred accompanied John and I on ambient guitars instead of keyboard and bass. This helped free up the form and allowed us to experiment more with a live take between my guitar and John’s drums. I like this version of the song and even though I kept wanting the dynamics to build more. That is the beauty of a live take. We did however make an edit so that the song was 4 minutes long and not 7. I think that helped a lot especially in wanting to release so many songs on the album.
Months later while on tour in Greece we added some musicians from the band Takim which really helped outline the melody with bouzouki and oud, plus doubling an electric guitar part with violin. The harpsichord sounding texture that weaves in and out of the track is the kanun, a traditional hammer dulcimer type instrument. When Craig Schumacher went to mix the song he noticed there was no bass and so he added a Moog synth bass which I like a lot and was a nice surprise when listening to his mix. When I played the album to our live engineers in Holland both Patrick Boonstra and Jelle Kuiper commented that this was their favorite song. It was hard choosing which songs out of the 20 we had finished were to be on the album. I’m glad that “World Undone” made it to the album.
JC: I like them all, and that becomes a problem because I was thinking they all should be on the record, but that makes a record long and who has time to listen to long records??? People download songs now, and that’s the world we live in. I have to believe that if all the songs are available in the digital world, people will find them and like them if they take the time to dig.
What books, records, films have served inspiration these past few months for you?
JB: Buddy Levy “Conquistador“, Natalia Lafourcade “Mujer Divinia – Homenaje a Agustín Lara, Mexican Institute of Sound “Politico”, painter Rodolfo Nieto and writer Carlos Fuentes.
JC: As I mentioned before the Donald Judd exhibit in Marfa was in my mind. I’ve been reading the Morrissey autobiography and loving it. His writing and insights to poetry and music is something I can relate to very closely. And I appreciate so much his honesty, even in the most difficult of situations being in a band, the business, fame and all the rest of it.
‘Edge of the Sun’ is out now on City Slang (Europe) & ANTI- (USA).