Chosen One: Naïm Amor & John Convertino
Interview with John Convertino & Naïm Amor.
“I had a few days alone in the house during the dead of winter, quiet snow, and a living room full of all my instruments and a four-track cassette recorder.”
Words: Mark Carry
‘The Western Suite and Siesta Songs’ is the debut release by newly formed duo featuring John Convertino (Calexico, Giant Sand) and French film score composer Naïm Amor. The seeds were sewn some years back, having formed ABBC at the turn of the millennium: the Calexico core duo of John Convertino and Joey Burns joined forces with their close friends & Tucson neighbours, Amor Belhom Duo (Naïm Amor and Thomas Belhom). The result was ‘Tete A Tete’, a feast of sprawling sonic terrain (from the Burns-penned heart-wrenching ballad ‘Gilbert’ to Convertino’s stunningly beautiful piano-based compositions and all points in between).
Similarly, a sprawling sonic canvas is masterfully drawn from Convertino and Amor on ‘The Western Suite and Siesta Songs’. Part A comprises of sun-drenched, awe-inspiring compositions, which traces the South West’s desert plains and vast beauty contained therein. Reference points could be Calexico’s ‘Hot Rail’ or ‘Black Light’ and Ennio Morricone’s singular score-work. The sweeping, cathartic ‘Of Dust and Wind’ is a sonic marvel of blossoming themes and variations, traversing a vast space of possibilities and wonder. Clean electric guitar tones and marimba flourishes are dotted across ‘Black Boot Shuffle’ with cumbia piano pulses and Convertino’s awe-inspiring drums. The crossroads between vintage New Orleans and 50’s Jazz.
A more inward, introspective feeling descends on part B, which represent some of the record’s most defining and breath-taking moments. The rich poignancy of nylon guitar-led instrumental ‘Santa Cruz River’ magnificently captures a tender beauty akin to a meandering river finding its sea. The piano-based ‘Snow Falls on the Desert Plain’ is wrapped in a cinematic bliss and timeless rapture. ‘The Western Suite and Siesta Songs’ marks a timeless, enriching journey from two gifted musicians who have been carving out some of the most singular, genre-defying works for over two decades.
‘The Western Suite and Siesta Songs’ is out now on LM Duplication.
Interview with John Convertino & Naïm Amor.
Congratulations on the wonderful full-length release ‘The Western Suite and Siesta Songs’, a collection of poignant instrumentals wrapped in windswept beauty. Please take me back to the period of time in which the recording took place? I am sure the fact that you have collaborated and worked closely with one another in the past (ABBC’s ‘Tete A Tete’ and ‘Sanguine’ solo LP), it must have made this project quite a refreshing and rewarding experience?
John Convertino: Thanks so much, well for me, the recordings of my songs happened almost 3 years ago now when we were living in Ohio, I had a few days alone in the house during the dead of winter, quiet snow, and a living room full of all my instruments and a four track cassette recorder. we have since then, moved to El Paso Texas, my how time flies…. Naim is a dear friend, and I admire his work so much, when he sent me his ‘Western Suite’ I knew I wanted to play drums on it, and in turn I sent him this batch of songs recorded up in Ohio ‘The Siesta Songs’ to play guitar on them. Yes, it was a lot of fun doing this project, and turning out to be very rewarding.
Naim Amor: I was working on a documentary film about a man called Ed Keeylocko, a black cowboy living in Arizona in his own town Keeylocko. The director wanted a “western” type music but didn’t want it to be corny or cliché. He thought I would treat the subject with some distance due to my original culture (Paris France) but also an understanding of it because I have been living in Tucson for nearly two decades.. . I did the score, and immediately thought that I would use the takes later on and work on them to make a record. At some point , I needed some feedback and I sent the tracks to a few friends. John answered me a said he loved them but thought they could use some drums. Days later he came back to me sending recordings he had done. He felt that they all could work together if I worked on his tracks. I worked on them with great pleasure, he came and recorded his drums on mines. And we got the album.
As with records from Calexico and Amor Belhom duo in the past, you have crafted music as a duo many times over. I would love for you to shed some light on the creative process involved and the space you give each other when it comes to creating these soul-stirring musical compositions?
JC: In this case, we had all the space, of living in completely different states, but coming together through a spiritual love for the desert, and the west. I think the trust was there from knowing each other for so many years, we have a similar aesthetic when it comes to what we love in music.
NA: For me it a constant thinking and feeling from micro to macro, detail to global. A proposition is received and by some sort of filter, it “narrows “my responses to a few options… For example, a song, a melody, a tone can in my reality trigger on my end, ideas, solutions that I would find by stepping back and try to imagine, guess, what is the whole album about. Then, a tone imposes itself to my mind, a melody of a feel in the expression. A conversation has its logic, its frame, its mood, you just need to read your interlocutor and read where this conversation is going.
Can you talk me through the themes of the record? As a listener, one feels the sprawling plains of the south west and beyond. As much as it feels embedded in a certain space, for me the music feels more character-driven where a striking narrative unfolds throughout. For example, the more heart-wrenching ballads fade in towards the closing section, feeling as if the sun-lit horizon is approaching, whilst the opening tracks have a certain momentum, feel and rhythm akin to the beginning of a journey or opening chapter.
JC: Yes, I agree, I feel like the second half of the record introverts, I think because we worked on these songs alone initially, there is a very inward feeling, and yet the inspiration is coming so much from nature, the expanse, the weather…. when we put the songs together a beautiful contrast was born through the combining of the songs and what we added to each of them.
NA: I think the process itself and its boundaries, created a space of experimentation, exploration and freedom. If analysed, this record has more influences coming from other areas than “just Far West, Cowboy, Country culture. I believe the wandering in “foreign “areas give the listener a freedom of interpretation, windows that allow to unleash the listener’s imagination.
What are the collection of instruments and recording equipment used for these recording sessions? It feels as if the music-making process was quite an effortless one where the music ceaselessly poured out? In a way, the music belongs as a sister companion to some of the Calexico tour records (such as ‘Toolbox’ or the scorework such as ‘Circo’) and also I hear the spirit of those Amor Belhom duo LPs, and the Giant Sand-European incarnation of later years. World drifts in.
JC: I think what you are hearing there is a freedom that comes with experimentation, no expectations and really just having some fun with the instruments we have collected over the years. So much inspiration comes from the tone. This house we had there in Ohio had hardwood floors and was in the shape of a perfect rectangle, windows all around I could see the snow, the sun sets, the trees and even deer walking across the lawn. I know the setting of the music is in the west, and I wrote my songs in the east, I was still in my head and heart thinking of our old home in the southwest. I worked off the pure sound of the piano, vibes, marimba, my 50’s gretsch kit and accordion I have had and used on all the Calexico records and many others.
NA: I love instruments, they are dependable and are in my case life companions. I don’t buy things I don’t love, I buy things I keep (a reason why I do not like computers). Also, practicing is a hygiene for me, a way to produce something with your hand, a totally different relation to time than working with virtual, softwares, computers…
The more piano-based instrumentals depict such vivid colour, texture and emotion. ‘Snow Falls On The Desert Plain’ is one of the record’s defining moments, I just love the melding of the rippling piano notes and electric guitar tones. Did any happy accidents happen during these sessions? I wonder did the piano-based compositions begin with a piano melody and evolve from there? Also, I would be very curious to know if some of these pieces of music exist (in different incarnations) long before the recording took place?
JC: I really think the whole thing is a happy accident! I loved that old piano, it’s the one I used for ‘Ragland’ its tuned down a half step, unfortunately I had to sell it when we moved to Texas. I was amazed at what Naim did with those songs, not only the guitar, but the whistles and voice which tie in with what he did on his own songs. Again it’s really the tones that inspired me to work out the melodies.
Perhaps my favourite piece is ‘Black Boot Shuffle’ with the gorgeous drifting feel, akin to a perfect late night jazz record. Is there a particular song on the record you feel most proud of?
JC: I really love the ‘Santa Cruz River’. the actual river in Tucson means a lot to me. For over 25 years I have run along its banks, with my children in strollers, then on bikes, and so many times just alone, running, seeing the coyotes, the javalina and hawk, the water flowing, then the mud, and then the cracks, and then the sand. I think Naim has written a beautiful melody that captures my love for that place.
NA: I love all the tracks individually really. May I’m from an older generation, I am really attached to the album format. I like a collection of tunes to dance with each other’s in defined space, time, sequence.
In the years that have passed since the very special ABBC record, and I’m sure the other collaborative projects you’ve both been involved together with, I wonder has your compositional approach and writing process changed or altered in any way on ‘The Western Suite and Siesta Songs’?
JC: Not really, when I work with Joey or other song writers I feel I am more of a support, someone to bounce ideas off of, this is why I think drums and drummers are such a great song writing partners, we don’t get in the way of chord or melody structure, we get to where the heart of the song is as it is being played or thought out. when I work alone. sometimes I will be inspired by a beat that I start playing behind the kit, that’s how ‘Black Boot Shuffle’ came about, I loved that beat with the hi hat marking the time off on the up beats, then I added the piano, vibes and marimba.
NA: For me, this album and collaboration was really an exercise to manipulate “American” codes, trying to capture something “authentic”. Found out that you’re never more authentic than when you explore, twist the roots… very different than trying to Make America Great Again.
Can you discuss your favourite film scores and also, the recordings of instrumental music that speaks to you like no other?
JC: One of my favourites is Stewart Copland’s ‘Rumblefish’ the film means a lot to me because it was made in Tulsa, Oklahoma where I grew up, and started playing drums. The Police were such a great band, and his drumming really was so important in the group, when I found out that he wrote songs and played other instruments, it really made me want to up my own game, made me realize how great it could be to compose instrumentals. I love Nina Rota’s ‘The Godfather’ as well, the simple melody played on the accordion, and then builds with the strings, and how he used that theme in so many different emotional contexts throughout the film. I love Carter Burwell as well, with the Cohen Brothers ‘No Country For Old Men’ this is more an example where the music relies on tone more than melody, the sounds stay open, unresolved, leaving you on edge, and in suspense over and over again. Ennio Morricone continues to inspire, he did the soundtrack to the remake of ‘Lolita’ I loved it and it inspired to sit at the piano and work on chord structures, chords that have dissonance yet still sound pretty in a way.
NA: So many film scores I love!! They have all their own logic. For example, Last Tango In Paris is a strange one for me. The choice of having this “Tango” music in a story that takes place in Paris whose main character is a lost American man. Everything here contributes to weave the complexity of the story, the characters. Analysed, it could seem so artificial, weird, odd even, but in the alchemy, and that is the art, it makes the story Real, we relate to it. This one score is really moving for me.
Lastly, the harmonies that ascend on the joyously uplifting ‘Santa Cruz River’ conjures up a timeless, enchanting sound. The record feels as if there is a river flowing throughout and eventually meeting its sea. One of the great hallmarks of the record is the lyrical quality to these compositions, owing as much to Bill Cllahan or Bob Dylan & The Band as much as it does to the scorework of Ennio Morricone.
JC: The Santa Cruz river rarely flows anymore, as with many of the rivers in the southwest. It is sad. I love the fragility of the desert, and how rain is such a delicate balance to all that lives. I hope that our music and what we advocate for in solar and wind energy, will help curb the ever-growing negative effects of fossil fuelled energy. Thank you so much for your kind words and inspiration.
‘The Western Suite and Siesta Songs’ is out now on LM Duplication.