Modern Fix

CALEXICO- interview by Gordon Downs


Quality music comes in rare and often strange forms these days. May you be a fan of peppermint-flavored blues-pop, or deconstructed guitar anthems by UK bands from across the pond, today’s musical landscape is full of unique and often obscure genres. Not often do you come across a band that combines the ambience of a spaghetti western, the endearing appeal of alt-country and the voracious horns of a mariachi band all in one. Strange as it may sound, a band like this does actually exist, and sounds distinctly unique amongst an underground filled with emotional angst.
Known as Calexico, Joey Burns and John Convertino (formerly of Giant Sand) have created a unique sound, unlike that of any other group currently creating music today. With tales of an American frontier existing on the frayed ends of salvation, Calexico’s music is picturesque in sound and structure. Appealing to fans of both alt-country, traditional mariachi music and indie rockers as well, Calexico has been described as mariachi death-rock. Although I’m not exactly sure how death-rock is supposed to sound, I’m sure it has a lovely chime to it. I had a chance to speak with frontman Joey Burns about Calexico’s latest album, “Feast Of Wire”, and how things are going out on the frayed ends of salvation.

Gordon Downs: How did your recent European tour go?
Joey Burns: It went really well.

Who’d you have open up for you over there?
I asked our bass player, who’s from Germany, and we got a hold of two German groups, and one French group. The German groups were Masha Qrella, and another band from Munich called Iso 68, and they’re on Haus Music. There was a band called Bed, as in make your own bed, and they’re from France. And then some friends of ours have a band called The Dude, as in. . .

Jeff Bridges?
Yeah, the Big Lebowski movie.

Calexico is based out of Tucson, Arizona. How long have you actually lived there?
I’ve been here for about nine years, before that I grew up in Southern California. I spent my high school years in the south bay of Los Angeles.

What made you decide to move out to Arizona? You seem to have this fascination with the southwest.
You’re drawn to a certain place or certain music. I love the southwest and I love the west coast as well, that’s where I grew up. Maybe it’s that contrast between growing up next to the water, and now living in a place that’s quite the opposite.

How did the influence of mariachi music come into play as part of Calexico’s sound?
I think from living in Los Angeles, being exposed to a lot of different kinds of cultural music – mariachi was one of them, but not as strong as like jazz, or, I really got into North Indian classical music. But then when I came here to Tucson and we settled down. We wanted to get out of LA and to come to a small town basically. Just kinda kick back. Rent is relatively cheaper than LA. Great Mexican food. Kinda small, more of a village feel as opposed to a big metropolis. Lots of old cars, old bikes, great number of thrift stores. Yeah, it’s pretty cool.

Do you spend your summers in Tucson?
Yeah I do. It depends though, we kinda alternate years. Like sometimes we’ll play a bunch of festivals in Europe, like this summer. So instead of going back and forth I’ll just stay there for a couple of months. But yeah, I love the summers [in Tucson]. It totally empties out and becomes a ghost town and everyone commiserates about the heat.

From your first album, “Spoke”, to your latest release, “Feast Of Wire”, the evolution of Calexico seems to be very broad, covering a lot of different bases.
I have a wide variety of musical influences and tastes as well as just wanting to try different things. That spirit of experimentation I think is pretty important. To push yourself so you don’t repeat yourself. John Convertino is the same way.

One of the first songs I ever really heard by Calexico was with Barbara Manning on a tribute album to The Clean.
That’s mainly Barbara Manning’s doing and her intuition, her being a huge fan of New Zealand music for many, many years and establishing contacts over the years. We were asked by Barbara to go to New Zealand, to back her up as her band in addition to playing with New Zealand musicians that she had contacted. So we met David Kilgour, Graham Jeffries and Chris Nox. So [Barbara] organized this whole trip, including days off and excursions going to check out national monuments and sites. If you like that one song, you might like this album of Barbara’s called “In New Zealand.” I never met anyone as laid back as David Kilgour. One day he said, and I think this is just because he was being the host, he said, “All right, today I’m not going to do anything. You might see me around; I might go surfing, I might not. I might just go wander around. You know where everything is now since you’re here, so I’ll see you guys at the end of the day. But just to let you guys know, I’m not doing anything.” I thought that was so great!

When will you playing in America again?
We’ll be back in September through mid-October. By the way, there’s a band from Portland that you might like, but I don’t know if you’d be able to hear them because I don’t know if they’ve released an album yet. They’re called Solo Dos En Tijuana.