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Posts Tagged ‘Joey Burns

Whatever You Love You Are: John Convertino (Calexico)

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Play the note for what it is, not what it does.”

—John Convertino.



‘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.



Words: John Convertino


The record that brings you back to the period of your life in Tucson, AZ?


The Shadow of your Smile’ by The Friends of Dean Martinez is one of my favourites to this day. Really captures a moment there where Joey and I started woodshedding in the studio, coming up with songs together, that record morphed into what truly became Calexico, more than ‘Spoke’ did in a lot of ways.


The LP(s) that made you want to become a drummer


Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie. Neil Young Harvest. The original broadway soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar. Art Blakey’s Mosaic, and the original drum battle between Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa.



A defining record that led you onto your own musical path


Led Zeppelin, the first record.


The collaborative (non-Calexico) albums you’re most proud to have been part of?


The Hill by Richard Buckner, Fox Confessor Brings on the Flood by Neko Case, Coming Home by Maggie Bjorklund, I’m really proud of this new record I did with Lincoln Barr called Trembling Frames, the new Depedro record, The Passenger, and Barbara Manning’s amazing 1212. I loved working with Tift Merrit on her record Traveling Alone, playing opposite Marc Ribot!



Composers/musical voices you feel you have learned the most from?


Eric Satie, Gustav Mahler, Art Blakey, Max Roach, the drummer Jim White and his projects including the Dirty Three. Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Reuben Gonzales, The Police, Led Zepplin. Bill Evans.

Favourite film score


Rumblefish by Stewart Copeland.


One musical philosophy that has always remained true for you?

Play the note for what it is, not what it does.

A trusted roadtrip soundtrack


The best of Neil Diamond


A piece of music/recording/song that speaks to you like no other?


Mahler’s Second Symphony.


Your most-prized jazz record


Out of The Cool by Gil Evans


The last album you picked up that amazed you? 


Floyd Kramer plays with Strings



‘The Western Suite and Siesta Songs’ by Naim Amor & John Convertino is out now on LM Duplication.



Written by admin

December 6, 2016 at 6:21 pm

Chosen One: Calexico

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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).

Written by markcarry

July 1, 2015 at 9:58 am

The Story Of An Artist: Victor Gastelum

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Interview with Victor Gastelum.

“Victor is the fifth Beatle, he is the silent one that no one really ever sees.”

—Joey Burns, Calexico

Words: Craig Carry, Artwork: Victor Gastelum


“Love the run but not the race
All alone in a silent way
World drifts in and the world’s a stranger”

—‘Quattro (World Drifts In)’, Calexico


In an attempt to write the story of the Long Beach California-based artist Victor Gastelum, it is tempting to simultaneously write the story of Tucson Arizona’s beloved sons Calexico. For, across the band’s vast body of sprawling, timeless work — encompassing a string of studio albums, tour records, a plethora of EP’s, soundtrack scores and a multitude of collaborative works — the artwork of Gastelum’s adorn some of the most precious of Calexico’s records since their inception in 1996, following core-duo Joey Burns and John Convertino’s previous spell as rhythm-section to Howe Gelb’s Giant Sand; another one of Tucson’s most revered bands. Victor Gastelum, a native of Southern California, would provide the artwork for one of the band’s earliest releases, “Spark/The Ride”, a single put out in 1996, prior to the band’s full-length debut “Spoke” (released by Quarterstick Records in the following year). The music (both written by Burns) can be perfectly summed up by the description found inside, set in all-lowercase, on a black-and-white postcard-sized insert:

“two western gems from two southwestern gents. joey and john from giant sand moonlighting in the tucson sun.”

The stencil artwork on “Spark/The Ride” is vintage Gastelum, featuring a young man and his low-ride car in a striking 2-color blue and gold combination. The image — like his later work — is isolated on a white background like a flash-aided Richard Avedon portrait, highlighting the iconic feel of the image in its minimal setting. The artwork would be the first of many in a near-symbiotic journey between Gastelum and Calexico over the next couple of decades when Gastelum would go on to produce the artwork for the band’s studio albums “The Black Light” (1998), “Hot Rail” (2000), “Feast Of Wire” (2003), the tour record “Tool Box” (2007), “Carried To Dust” (2008), the limited edition box-set — comprising the band’s tour-only releases — “Road Atlas 1998-2011” (2011) as well as a host of various singles and EP’s (including “Stray”, “The Ride (Pt. 2)”, “Ballad Of Cable Hogue”, “Crystal Frontier”, “Service & Repair”, “Even My Sure Things Fall Through”, “Alone Again Or”, “Quattro (World Drifts In)”, “Black Heart” and “Convict Pool”).

Gastelum’s first meeting with Californian-born Burns came during his spell working as a designer for SST Records (home to such bands as Black Flag and The Minutemen) at the turn of the nineties. This period would also prove crucial in Gastelum’s artistic development through the meeting of another influential artist — the Tucson-born graphic artist Raymond Pettibon — whose iconic, hugely distinctive and influential drawings would be widely seen during the vibrant punk music scene of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Pettibon’s unique and sophisticated combination of image with text would also prove influential to Gastelum’s own artwork. Since the mid 1990’s, Gastelum has had numerous solo and group shows, as well as collaborating with Pettibon — amongst others — for the publications “Faster, Jim” (a special limited edition artist book published by Hamilton Press in 2002, the aluminum book cover is by Gastelum and the slipcase — featuring the artwork “Good Year” — is a collaboration between Gastelum and Pettibon) and “Line Drive”, a portfolio of 12 lithographs featuring 12 artists’ response to the subject of Baseball (Gastelum’s 6-color lithograph, entitled “LA Fury”, features alongside artworks by such artists as Pettibon, Ed Ruscha and Dani Tull).

Born in Torrance, California, Victor Gastelum’s distinctive artistic vision was much influenced by the punk and “DIY” ethos (characterized by the hand-assembled rough-and-ready made collages, photocopies and the often-coined “artless” approach as advocated by the Punk movement) of the period during the eighties when he graduated L.A. Trade Tech. The fact that Gastelum’s own training provided a grounding for commercial — as opposed to fine — art would prove significant. Gastelum would quickly appreciate the art of craftsmanship while learning techniques (stenciling, spray paint, overspray, creating halftones) which he would soon finely harness and adopt in his own personal work.

Growing up as a Latino in Southern California would shape much of Gastelum’s outlook on the world, and his near-outsider status would be similarly shared by his friends in Calexico. As Joey Burns recounted during an interview at Austin Town Hall in 2008:

“He didn’t fit in and like our music, he went a separate route, but benefited from strong influences and character.” 

Gastelum’s work (whether commissioned or personal artwork) has always been characterized by a deep love and respect for craft where each individual artwork holds a powerful individuality and resonance on the viewer. Since beginning his spray paint stencil multiples in the late eighties and early nineties, the lasting resonance of Gastelum’s work can also be attributed to the fact that the works are left open to interpretation for the viewer. As the Overtones Gallery director and curator Elizabeta Betinski has said, Gastelum’s art “leaves room for his audiences to imagine and create stories of their own.”

Herein lies the everlasting spark in Gastelum’s work, on looking at any one of his artworks a whole world of rich narratives begin to drift in. Like the girl in Gastelum’s “girl with 88mm camera”, we can project our own past experiences and feelings onto the lens of Gastelum’s treasured art. The world drifts in. And the world’s a stranger.


“Checked my eyes to see if they had spokes
See if they are moving
See if they had spokes
See if there is somewhere else to ride”

—‘Spokes’, Calexico



Artwork for Calexico’s “Spark/The Ride” (7″ vinyl)



Album art for Calexico’s “Road Atlas” box set, 2011


Interview with Victor Gastelum.

Your own background training stems from attending a school for commercial art. It’s really interesting because when you graduated computers were only in their infancy as such. This almost “DIY”, handmade approach can be seen throughout your work to date, where a deep love and appreciation for craft and technique can be closely observed.
What did your educational training consist of, and what techniques did you learn and later adopt for your own work when you began your spray paint stencil multiples in the late eighties and early nineties?

VG: I attended a two-year commercial art program at L.A. Trade Tech. College where I learned about design, typography and commercial art production. Specifically, I also learned how to use an Xacto knife, spray mount, technical drawing pens, acetate and the different printing processes. I learned how to use photostat cameras, spec type, line screens and a ton of things that the computer would pretty much replace or eliminate. At LATTC, you were taught things that could help you get an entry-level job doing production art, basically the stuff kids, who came from art schools did not want to do. Probably the most important thing I learned there was using an Xacto knife, spray mount and acetate. With those things I taught myself how to make stencil art. I use whatever methods possible to get my images done whether hand tools or computer.


I imagine Pop Art, music (both punk and a diverse independent music scene) and much underground publications — including comic art — must have played a key role in your development as an artist. What were your formative influences on you as a young artist?

VG: Art was always important to me because it was the only thing I was any good at. But I never imagined it would develop into anything other than something personal. Mad Magazine was a big influence on my drawing skills and also provided a cynical view of pop culture and society. I started seriously liking music while I was in middle school. My younger brother started buying records and together we started to go to rock concerts. Then punk rock and hard core started happening and we started buying that stuff and going to gigs. I always loved rock album and poster art, and we read things like Creem Magazine. Punk rock and hard core created the possibility for me to participate with my art. The music, fanzines, record covers, fliers and comics spoke to me. I understood it, and what I didn’t understand did not scare me.



“Convertible Impala No.2” 1993 spray paint on paper stamped and signed on front



“Worker Looking Up” 1992 spray paint on paper stamped and on front [in the notes: “We Got Pressure”]


I found it really interesting reading a quote that Joey Burns has said about your work: “he didn’t fit in, and, like our music, he went a separate route, but benefited from strong influences and character.” As the curator and gallery director Elizabeta Betinski has also stated before, “growing up with Chicano roots in a culturally diverse community” became a key influence on your choice of subject-matter. Would this be an accurate assessment on your work?

VG: I’ve never read the quote from Joey but my spray paint art definitely did not fit in at the time I was first doing it. I wasn’t aware of anybody making stencils as their primary medium. You just didn’t see stencils in galleries or museums. That was a good thing for me because when you are a young artist trying to develop a style you are wishing for something with a little originality and you don’t know what that’s going to be.

I think where you come from shows through in your art. Being exposed to different cultures, foods, languages, music, clothes, graphics, whatever put what I saw on TV and was taught in school into perspective.


In terms of your choice of subject-matter, your work has various recurring images, for example; cars, guns and various “Cholo iconography”, as it has been described before. They remind me of Robert Frank’s “The Americans” insofar as a similar recurring use of distinct subject-matter runs throughout (the highway, automobile, jukeboxes, and so on). Like Frank’s book, your work — as well as drawing on a particular culture and time — equally strikes me as deeply personal. How would you describe your subject-matter and what it represents for you?

VG: My subject matter consists of things I am interested in or know about. Using my subject matter, I’m trying to cause an emotional response. I’m not cataloging cool cars or every masked wrestler I can find, viscerally I’m trying to create a narrative. When I repeat an image I think of it as running it over again and seeing what comes of it or what more I can get from it. I’ll stop drawing them when I get bored. Having as many as possible of a group is like building on the idea. To me, they start making sense more when there are groups. I’ve started on groups and have not been able to keep going and they just seem strange and out-of-place. Even though they individually turned out as good as I expected because there aren’t more I feel like they fail.


Your unique work has been used — as well as for many iconic Calexico sleeves — by Culture Clash, Hamilton Press, Greg Ginn as well as collaborations with other artists including Raymond Pettibon for the artist bound book “Faster, Jim” and has also appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times Magazine and “F*cked Up + Photocopied”. Since the nineties you have also had numerous exhibitions — both solo and group shows — across California. How do commissions and editorial work differ for you as opposed to making work principally for yourself and subsequently for exhibition and galleries?

VG: Mostly, it’s not very different. In regards to the things mentioned, people have asked me to be involved because of the work I do. The biggest difference would be maybe a deadline and possibly some preference in subject matter. Also, if something is commissioned for a record cover or a play it is a collaboration because I want the client to get what they think is best for their purpose. Even if it’s a commission it might still end up in a gallery. The other way is true, too. A gallery piece could end up on a record cover. All this work is part of the same thing it is all part of the same body. It’s always work.



“Julio Chavez” 1992 spray paint and stencil on cardstock 30″x20″



“Untitled (welder)” 1995 spray paint and stencil on paper 17″x14″ reproduced as album cover art for Calexico’s “Hot Rail”


If we could now talk next about Tucson Arizona’s beloved band Calexico. Of course you have shared a very close friendship with the band since the very beginning, your artwork provides the perfect visual accompaniment to the band’s distinctive blend of diverse sounds, styles and musical traditions. Your imagery is also so highly evocative — albeit loosely — of Burns’ own writing where inspiration has often stemmed from the Mexico and US border.
I would love if you could recount your first time hearing the sounds of Calexico and the impact and impression the music had on you?

VG: I knew Joey and John were listening to movie soundtracks, and they were buying instruments that were new to them at the time and experimenting. But when I first heard what they were up to, I was very surprised. Mainly because they weren’t following anything else that was going on at the time. Right from the start, they were doing something very original that had no category. One of the first times I saw them play here in Long Beach, they were touring with a bunch of instruments including a vibraphone. These were instruments you didn’t see rock bands playing. Plus I think it was just the two of them alone. They had been playing with Howe Gelb in Giant Sand for a few years already, and they were so talented and had their chops honed. It seemed like they had this confidence and followed through on their vision. It was very much like jazz and atmospheric. In the beginning it was very raw too. Joey was just starting to sing. So, it was just a whisper then and a lot of instrumentals. What they were doing in context of the time was almost shocking and I think took a lot of courage.

Joey and I used to work at SST Records, and we would go to lunch. Joey was just like he is now, very positive, full of optimism and enthusiastic. He would say to me, “I’m going to start a band and you’re going to do all the art work.”  I would answer: “Yeah, that’s a good idea”. Then he went and did it.


Your artwork adorns the sleeves for “The Black Light”, “Hot Rail”, “Feast Of Wire” and “Carried To Dust” (as well as a whole host of other records, for example “Toolbox”, and, of course the many EP’s and singles from this period also).
Can you describe the process for creating a specific sleeve for Calexico? Does it vary across album?

VG: Sometimes, Joey would pick through stuff I had already finished. At one point, I had copies of all my comics and I gave half to my friend the late Chris Takino and the other half to him. So, sometimes he would use from there. Other times we would talk on the phone and come up with ideas, and later he would run them by John. John would come up with ideas too. Everything would be over the phone because we live in different states. He would mail me cassettes back then of rough mixes, and we would talk about what was going on in the world and with us personally. Sometimes, we discussed movies we’ve seen lately, books we were reading. We would talk about friends and family. Out of these talks, things would make some sense to us. We would start making connections. Song titles might come out of it as we chose the images. This is while they are recording. And as they built the songs the images would start coming together. I would also mess around with the typography. Once the title was chosen I might take some fonts, chop them up and see what looked right.



Album art for Calexico’s “Hot Rail”



Album art for Calexico’s “The Black Light”


I must say, one of my all-time favorite artworks of yours is the magnificent art found on the reverse of “Feast Of Wire”. It really draws on — for me — the characters across the album and the often-doomed journeys they are going on (“Not Even Stevie Nicks…” or “Quattro (World Drifts In)”, for example). The image itself seems to echo Hitchcock’s “The Trouble With Harry” or Mantegna’s experimentation with foreshortening during the Renaissance period. What was the thinking behind the use of this image?
Incidentally, is it true you were behind the choice for the album title of “Feast Of Wire”?

VG: That’s really observant of you to notice the Mantegna influence. I did have that image in mind when I made my piece. I knew the Mantegna painting from the inside gate fold of David Bowie’s ‘Lodger’ album art. I learned from art history books I bought in thrift stores and swap meets. I didn’t read them much, but from going through them, I saw that all the masters works were reinterpretations of master works from previous generations. I was trying to make sense of my subject matter. The Hitchcock movie you mentioned I was not aware of. It’s amazing that image looks exactly like mine. My image came from an old science book from the 60s and it’s actually a man standing on a plexi or glass floor. The photo is shot from the below and only appears as if the guy is on his back. I was not a big Hitchcock fan until I saw a documentary film on him and I learned about how he made movies with images and really didn’t care much about actors other than how they looked. Even when I didn’t care for him, I couldn’t deny how pretty his movies were especially in color. The cars, clothes, furniture, architecture, landscapes – everything looks so slick. The “Feast of Wire” title Joey and I came up with together. He was liking “Feast of Snakes” from the Harry Crews book title, and he was also thinking about the idea of communications telephone wires. We just started going back and forth saying feast of this and that and at one point I think I said: “How about Feast of Wire?”



Album art for Calexico’s “Feast Of Wire”



“Alfred H.” 2005 spray paint and stencil on drawing paper 52″ x 36″


Also, I really love the use of stamping on your artwork which you have done at various times over the years. It serves to add another layer of meaning (and subsequently another layer to be left open to interpretation for the viewer). The “Notes” section often contain really memorable passages or quotes (my favorites being found on both “Man On His Back” and “Young Man From Waste Up”). When did you begin stamping your artwork like this? Where do you get the inspiration for the words?

VG: The rubber stamp was my attempt at humility because originally, I would not sign the pieces. I got the idea from Andy Warhol and Mark Mothersbaugh who both sometimes used rubber stamps to sign their art. The stamp was supposed to say “Description” instead of “Title” but I forgot when I had it made. I started doing this before I showed the stencil pieces anywhere as art. It was mostly for my benefit and just trying to figure out what I was doing. I was trying to give them titles and like you said to give a little extra information. Sometimes when you give a little text like that, it gives the image more life and creates more questions than answers. I also made single panel comics using my stencil pieces by copying them with a black and white copier and putting them inside a border with a title at the top and a quote. I would write down quotes as I came across them by overhearing people or making them up myself. Sometimes they came from something I read or heard on TV or in a movie. When I started to show my art I thought it was better to make things a little simpler so I never really showed them with the stamp. I used to also put things inside the mats of my framed pieces like lapel pins, belt buckles, and coins.


Another personal favorite is an earlier work of yours entitled “Man Looking At Watch”. This would later be reproduced on the reverse of the “Crystal Frontier” vinyl. It feels like a scene in a Raymond Chandler novel or a 1950’s film noir.
The cover artwork for 1996’s Calexico 7” “Spark/The Ride” was later cropped and reproduced as the cover image for the truly special “Road Atlas 1998-2011”, limited to 1,100 copies and comprising the band’s extensive tour records from over the years. Could you perhaps talk about these pieces?

VG: The guy looking at his watch was typical of the stencils I made early on. It’s just one stencil, and I took the image from somewhere and it originally appeared pretty small. I used to try and get images from pictures where the image I was taking was not usually the central image or seemed like it was lost to time. I tried to find anonymous images, and I thought this made it easier to make them mine and fit in with what I was doing. I had all these rules that I made up for myself about where I would not take an image from. But in time, I dropped these rules little by little to where I let myself draw whatever I want. The guy hopping the low rider Cadillac is a good example. It came from a car magazine and it was the main photo in the spread. A friend of mine later told me he recognized it from a calendar that was put out too. I had designed an announcement card for a lecture at the Getty Center and Joey liked the image on there and wanted to use it. I made this one for him instead. Nowadays if I feel like drawing something I draw it.



“Man Looking At Watch” 1992 spray paint on paper 2nd print stamped and signed on front


Your work must draw from such a diverse range of sources. I love, for example, the reference to Henri Cartier Bresson’s photography in the black-and-white stencil artwork you made for the “Black Heart” single which is found on the disc itself. How do you collate reference images for your artwork?

VG: I had a collection of year books from the 20s through the 70s, and I made a lot of pieces from there. It used to be easy to get really old books and magazines at swap meets. New and old Mexican and American tabloids were good. Some of my favorite photographers include Larry Clark, Bill Owens, Richard Kern, Weegee and Joel P. Witkin. I wouldn’t use their photos because those pictures are finished. THEY ARE those images. I try and find photos from more obscure sources. So, to me at least, they are starting a new life. I mostly try and take my own photos these days. But when I do use an image, it might be from an ad, catalog or maybe editorial where I’m taking it away and putting the image in a new context.


Where did the artwork for “Toolbox” originate from, Victor? I love also how the new logo for Calexico as it appeared here (and subsequently on “Carried To Dust”) conveys “Calexico” in it’s new context. Since I first saw this image I’ve thought of it as a reference to the song “Gilbert” and it’s main character. I love also how “work” and “identity” itself has been a recurring theme for you (“Untitled (worker on sidewalk)” or “F.B.I. Girl” for example).

VG: Well, the Tool Box guy is a bomb squad cop from the 60s, maybe 50s. I drew him because, even as a photo, it was so strange. It was like a modern-day armored suit. Some friends asked for an image for a 7” sleeve they were hand pulling silk screen, and I guess they weren’t happy with it because they used it really small on the label instead of the front. Years later, Joey saw it laying around my studio and I was happy to let him use it. The FBI girl was from a newspaper story where there was a raid made on the home. She was one of a bunch of other FBI standing around the front yard. I like drawing people from behind so I pinned the picture to my wall at work. I thought she was attractive even though you couldn’t see her face, and to me, she appeared to be Latina. I made her stockings yellow just to make her kind of new wave and more fun. If a person has a uniform on or some kind of work clothes it’s saying a little more about what’s going on. The very clothes create an action.

I enjoy experimenting with typography, and, like with drawings, you never know what will come out. I remember reading something the artist Gilbert ‘Magu’ Lujan said about low rider cars and how taking an American machine — like the car — and transforming it into this work of art was a political act. I thought I could do something similar with typography where I would merge something very modern and minimal like Helvetica with it’s opposite: a very ornate antique gothic script. The type on the “Carried to Dust” cover was inspired by traditional American tattoo lettering. The kind of lettering people would do with a pin, some thread and India ink. I love to draw letters and chop up fonts, but I never know if I will be able to get anywhere. It takes hours, and I know some of them are very hard to read.



Album art for Calexico’s “Toolbox” album



“F.B.I. Girl” 2005 spray paint on aluminium 24″ x 18″



“Nova And The Impala” 2008 A/P 1/2 spray paint on paper 19″x24″ Created for Calexico’s album “Carried To Dust”


Onto “Carried To Dust”, the extensive artwork you created for this special album is truly breathtaking. The cover itself of a woman driving reminded me originally of a Hitchcock film still (Tippi Hedren’s “The Birds” character or Janet Leigh’s “Psycho” character perhaps), and later I thought of Minutemen’s “Double Nickels On The Dime” album (which would have influenced Calexico). It wasn’t until much later I found out it was in fact Joey’s wife, Nova. I also love the addition of the religious icon hanging from the rear view mirror, it ties back to your earliest work with Calexico. I would love if you could talk about both the front and back covers for “Carried To Dust” (including the wonderful “Blow Up Guy”) and the process involved in their realization?

VG: The cover idea I remember came from Joey and he was wanting something kind of very “Double Nickels”. John owns a 60s VW bug like the one Mike Watt was driving so Joey took some pictures of Jairo Zavala in the car. Jairo was recording and playing with them at the time. I think Joey wanted something “Double Nickels” but different because he sent me some pictures from outside the car and it’s side view. The car was parked, and they looked very posed and not very interesting and not working out. We went back and forth a few times and finally I told him let’s do it all the way but with Nova driving his Impala down the main street, straight up “Double Nickels”. He took a lot of pictures, and the idea was so good, and Nova looked so cool driving that car that it just worked out. It was an homage to the minutemen and Mike Watt who we both know and admire. The Virgin Mary air deodorizer was just there and worked out perfect. Sometimes things just work out naturally; everything being organic. When you do an homage like that, it’s like when you do a portrait. A portrait is not the real thing, so I think it has to be super deluxe to make up for that fact.

When I started working on that project, Joey and John wanted the feel of my earlier stencils. So I tried to make them simple with each image only requiring a couple of stencils. Joey had seen the movie “Blow Up” which I had not seen until just recently, and he was wanting that kind of mood. I made sketches and e-mailed them to him, and he and John would be like, “yes, no, how about this?” and I started making those images. The Blow Up guy came about from images I have done where people’s heads are missing or cut off. If you take a simple image and change something like taking a person’s head off it becomes more interesting. That’s the thinking behind the guy with a pin in his teeth because it makes you think, what is that, what’s going on? The girl with the angel wings is Mexican actress Silvia Pinal in a photo still from “The Exterminating Angel” by Luis Buñuel. Years ago, I bought a video of the movie at a swap meet. I bought the video for a couple of bucks purely for the picture of her on the box. I didn’t realize I had seen the movie when I was a kid. Anyway, I would normally not mention all that because it’s not important for my purposes. I’m not making a portrait of an actress in a famous movie, I’m using the image for the visceral feeling I can get out of it. But I do not mind the association and connection, I like that too. It also becomes part of the work. I added the wings behind her. I made a lot more images that did not get used. Joey kept pushing for more images and I did the best I could.



“Avenging Angel” 2008  A/P 1/2 spray paint on paper 24″x19″ Created for Calexico’s album “Carried To Dust”



“Blow Up Guy 1” 2008 A/P 1/2 spray paint on paper 24″x19″ Created for Calexico’s album “Carried To Dust”


The very last question, if every sleeve in music was a blank canvas, which album (from any period in time) would you love most to illustrate and why?

VG: That’s a really funny question and I have known of art shows with that as a theme. I have never been asked to be in one but I am pretty sure I would choose not to participate. I have designed dozens of album covers most of which were just putting stuff together for other artists at SST. In that time, I realized that a great looking album cover could never save the bad music inside. But any art style will be legitimized by a great album, in fact if the record is really big it will create a trend in that style. When I think of my favorite albums, to me the covers are what they look like and that’s it. I think of the music and the cover as together and that’s the way it is. It’s like asking someone if you could change the face of the first person you ever kissed what would you do? I just feel like what’s the point.


All images © Victor Gastelum.


Very special thanks to: Victor, Elizabeta Betinski, Joey Burns and all the Calexico family.


Younger Than Yesterday: Reckoning / Double Nickels On The Dime

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Calexico’s Joey Burns reveals the albums that inspired him on his musical path for Part Four of our Calexico “Younger Than Yesterday” series. Joey Burns is someone who I look up to the most in music. As the singer-songwriter in one of American music’s finest bands, Calexico, he has given us a wealth of awe-inspiring songs, encompassing a world of sound and ocean of emotion. The music flows directly to the heart, just like the river that flows into the sea. A connection that runs deep. It has done so ever since Calexico’s debut ‘Spoke’ was released back in ’97. The road map can be traced back earlier, to another space and time, namely Giant Sand. Howe Gelb as Dylan and Joey alongside John Convertino forming the finest rhythm sections to have graced these lands. It is the unspoken connection between these two beautiful souls that forms the inner flame in all of what Calexico do, now and forevermore.  

Words: Joey Burns, Illustration: Craig Carry


For me it is hard to decide on one. There are several that have factored in my development over the years. Early on it was R.E.M.’s “Reckoning”. They captured a mood and energy that was compelling. Peter Buck’s drone guitar style resonated with my style as well as the foggy vocals of Michael Stipe. There was a mystique and depth with the layers of their instrumentation and vocals that I appreciated and wound up being a sort of blue print along with records by The Minutemen’s “Double Nickels on the Dime”.

Growing up in the south bay of Los Angeles I got to see The Minutemen perform a few times and their live shows were always best. They blew doors off of any band I have ever seen especially in those days of my teens and early twenties. “Double Nickels on the dime” goes deep. They do their angst punk songs, social-political writing, tripped out journal entries with free jazz accompaniment, and straight up deliver the best bizarre hybrid punk music I have ever heard. They weren’t afraid to be brutally honest about who they were, and who they wanted to be, and by doing so influenced me in my do-it-yourself approach to the music I would make later on down the road.



Artist: R.E.M.
Title: Reckoning
Label: IRS
Year: 1984

Tracks: Harborcoat; 7 Chinese Bros.; So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry); Pretty Persuasion; Time After Time (Annelise); Second Guessing; Letter Never Sent; Camera; (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville; Little America.

Personnel: Drums, percussion, backing vocals: Bill Berry; Guitar: Peter Buck; Bass guitar, backing vocals: Mike Mills; Vocals, harmonica: Michael Stipe; Producers: Don Dixon & Mitch Easter; All songs: Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe.


Artist: Minutemen
Title: Double Nickels On The Dime
Label: SST
Year: 1984

Tracks: D.’s Car Jam/Anxious Mo-Fo; Theatre Is the Life of You; Viet Nam; Cohesion; It’s Expected I’m Gone; #1 Hit Song; Two Beads at the End; Do You Want New Wave or Dou Want the Truth?; Don’t Look Now; Shit from an Old Notebook; Nature Without Man; One Reporters Opinion; Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing; Maybe Partying Will Help; Toadies; Retreat; Big Foist; God Bows to Math; Corona; Glory of Man; Take 5, D.; My Heart and the Real World; History Lesson, Pt. 2; You Need the Glory; Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts; West Germany; Politics of Time; Themselves; Please Don’t Be Gentle With Me; Nothing Indeed; No Exchange; There Ain’t Shit on T.V. Tonight; This Ain’t No Picnic; Spillage; Untitled Song for Latin America; Jesus and Tequila; June 16th; Storm in My House; Martin’s Story; Doctor Wu; World According to Nouns; Love Dance; Three Car Jam.

Personnel: Guitar, vocals: D. Boon; Bass guitar, vocals: Mike Watt; Drums: George Hurley; Engineer & Producer: Ethan James.


Calexico recorded a cover version of Minutemen’s “Corona” for their “Convict Pool” E.P., released in 2004 during their extensive EU and US tours promoting their 2003 studio album “Feast Of Wire”. Live, the band have often covered both “Corona” and “Jesus and Tequila” from Minuteman’s “Double Nickels On The Dime”. Most recently, “Corona” has been included on Calexico’s “Ancienne Belgique Vol 2”, the live tour album featuring the band’s performance recorded in Brussels on September 19th 2012.
On 11 March 2012 Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino provided the rhythm section for the in-house band at a special R.E.M. tribute concert at Carnegie Hall. Guests on the night included The Feelies, Patti Smith, Throwing Muses and the late Vic Chesnutt.

Calexico continue their European summer tour and have also announced live dates in Australia & New Zealand for September/October 2013. (See all tour dates here).

“Algiers” is available now on City Slang (EU) and Anti (US). “Maybe On Monday” EP is out now.


Road Atlas: Joey Burns (Part 2)

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We resume our conversation with Calexico’s Joey Burns on the band’s European tour as they play the sold-out Teatro Kapital in Madrid, Spain tonight.

Words: Joey Burns, Illustration: Craig Carry

Tell me about your day in Madrid today please?

JOEY: I was up till 2am this morning with a combined jet lag and home cooked meal buzz over at Jairo Zavala’s place in the village of Becceril de la Sierra Madrid. This is the mountainous area north of the city. I must have woken up several times throughout the night in that wonderful jet lag daze and fumbling for the faucet for some water to bring myself back to life. Jairo picked me up and we stopped off at a cafe in his village for coffee and croissants. He is my brother and so we spent some time catching up with one another’s lives. I am so happy to be here at his home and visit with his sweet family, especially to meet the newest addition, Diego who is 8 months old.

We spent the rest of the day picking up band and crew; John Convertino, Valerie Deerin, Ryan Alfred and Jacob Valenzuela. We ate lunch at a great tapas restaurant nearby in Barajas. I had a great glass of red wine, 12 Lunas from Somantano D.O. region. I love the food and wine from Spain and this one of the most exciting aspects of touring here.

All of us happily fed and noursihed crammed into Jairo’s family van and settled into the village. Some took naps while others checked emails. Outside the fog was laying low over the mountains. Somewhere out there in the invisible landscape is Europe’s biggest rock says Jairo. I take his word and take a walk through the streets watered fresh from the rain. It feels good to breathe the fresh air.

Later that night when Jairo’s family came home from school and soccer (futbol) we all ate dinner together and hung out with he and his wife’s handsome boys. These are the kinds of nurturing moments before or during a tour that I look forward to the most.

Jairo spoke with a friend, David “El Indio” Garcia the drummer of the group Vetusta Morla who will sit in with us tomorrow on percussion. Sergio Mendoza has been hanging out with him in the city checking out the lay of the land. This is Sergio’s first time in Spain. He is really happy to be here. Sometimes bringing new faces to the tours can inspire the rest of the touring party. Seeing the same places through fresh eyes revitalizes the soul.


Describe how the band dynamic evolves as a result of three weeks on tour?

JOEY: We usually start off super excited and maintain a high energy throughout the whole tour. We all love what we do and working/ hanging out together. This is the last tour for a while and the last tour with Jairo, so we are going to enjoy every possible moment. I am hoping that we can film and record some of the shows with this line up as it’s been a really good one.


Share your thoughts on the unspoken connection between the musicians of the current Calexico line-up?

JOEY: I think you have to see this happen live onstage. We all enjoy playing with one another. You can see it on our faces and hear it in the playing. It’s funny, sometimes there are a million thoughts racing through my head when I am performing. This is why I close my eyes sometimes. I want to focus on the heart of the band playing and breathing together. If I look around I can get easily distracted. One thing is for sure is that after playing continually for three weeks or so, the band’s musical communication gets better and better with each show. I love this and wish we could tour in the USA more on two week runs instead of one offs for the weekend festivals.


What are the older songs from the Calexico songbook you think will be revisited upon this tour?

JOEY: We started playing ‘All Systems Red’ the last week of the USA tour leading up to the elections. It felt good to play this song and have three electric guitars making a wall of noise. The set needs that from time to time. Other songs that we might play are ‘The Ride Pt. 2’ and ‘Service and Repair’ and ‘Sonic Wind’. Ryan Alfred the bass player is always a fan of playing ‘Woven Birds’ and if the audience is in the mood for more of the contemplative songs we will bring it out and see where it goes. I love that song. There are also some unfinished songs from the ‘Algiers’ album session that I would like to complete and perform. One of them is a co write with Jairo. It’s working title is ‘Cemetary Gates (Nada te Queda). I may work on it after this blog entry. It’s in 6/8 time and has some sweeping accordion parts ala The Pogues answered with some regal sounding trumpet parts. The song is all about building. Hopefully it will work out live. I may rewrite some of the chords in the chorus. The last time we worked on it in the studio we were changing the chorus sections already. But listening back, I kind of like the original version. Let’s see what happens. There are a couple of other songs too that I am listening to now while I write that might be fun to work on and play live on this tour.


With traveling and experiencing different people and places, inspiration must come from everywhere for you. Much in the spirit of street photographers, (like Alex Webb, Joel Meyerowitz or Klavdij Sluban) where characters can combine with their environment so powerfully (for a fraction of a second). Of course, Calexico songs are often character-based (‘Gilbert’, ‘Across The Wire’, ‘Sinner In The Sea’), so do you see the spark of inspiration for such characters in the very streets you wander when on tour? Any examples?

JOEY: ‘Gilbert’ is a fun song to play thanks for the reminder. Sometimes it helps to see or feel the character of a person or place to get into the mood behind a song. Other times it is important to do the opposite of that. Contrast is key. The best way to explain the making for a good show or inventing a new song on the spot is by being lost in the moment and there is no better way to do this than by leaving the club or venue and wandering around. There is inspiration all around us. We could walk across the street and find a whole world of ideas and impulses to want to write and play music. It starts from the minute we walk into the airport and say goodbye to loved ones back home. I met some really interesting people on the flight from Chicago to New York. On my left was a CEO for a marketing company for fantasy sports. She had the blues and I tried to cheer her up. On my right was a college student from Prague returning home after studying and interning for international business in Manhattan, Kansas for the past 10 months. She was happy to be going back home and missed her mother’s cooking. She was optimistic but not sure what kind of direction or work she wanted to focus on. Both ladies had something really unique to say about where they were at in their lives even though they were at different cross roads and 20 years apart. That kind of setting can be the catalyst to a song or mood in the music. It happens all of the time.


Calexico’s ‘Algiers’ is out now on City Slang (Europe) and Anti (USA). For a full list of tour dates, please see:

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November 9, 2012 at 10:59 am

Posted in ROAD ATLAS

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