Tex-Mex success

Cult band Calexico favors substance over form - as we'll hear.

Calexico 88 248 (photo credit: Gerald von Foris)
Calexico 88 248
(photo credit: Gerald von Foris)
'It was kind of like building an imaginary band for an imaginary soundtrack." That's how Joey Burns describes how he and musical partner John Convertino began writing and recording songs together back in the formative days of their relationship, a collaboration that evolved into Calexico, one of the most respected bands on the American indie landscape. "Early on when we were recording songs at home, we'd add cello or mandolins or violins, and accordions - we both love accordions. Gradually, we started asking local trumpet players to play parts. We had this agenda that we felt inside that we didn't even need to talk about. It was like, 'I'll record you on mandolin, then you record me,' and it went back and forth like that. We didn't have to ask each other questions," recalls Burns in a phone conversation from the band's home base in Tuscon, Arizona. That MO has continued to work splendidly for guitarist Burns and drummer Convertino, the two core members in Calexico, over the past decade as they have evolved from a cult, eclectic roots band to… well, a much larger and more heralded cult eclectic roots band. Whether recording with and producing albums for like-minded artists like Neko Case, Victoria Williams, Richard Buckner or Iron & Wine, or releasing a series of increasingly accomplished albums with revolving personnel under the Calexico name that mines elements of everything from of dusty, lo-fi rock, Duane Eddy twang, country and folk, to spaghetti western noir, mariachi, Portuguese Fado, electronic and jazz, Burns and Convertino have constantly reinvented their music by adding new elements and discarding nothing. "Keeping that channel of creativity open is a gift. You realize you have to get back to that source of spontaneity where it originally came from. Nobody has a formula for it or a way to describe it to somebody else. And it changes from year to year," says Burns. Fans in Israel will get to hear this year's model of Calexico when the band's August European tour stops off at Tel Aviv's Barby Club for two shows on August 18 and 19. Local audiences rarely experience a chance to see an act on the cusp of its creative wave, but thanks to its understated, music-first approach to its career, Calexico is one buzz band which isn't in danger of burning out. Flagbearers for a whole movement of artists who favor substance over form, Calexico's musical ethos can be derived from the geographical benefits that Burns and Convertino enjoyed when they relocated to Arizona from Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. "Historically, there's a lot of importance on the bearing of the southwest. It's close to the border with Mexico with all of its influences, there are massive deserts, extreme heat and flash floods," says the articulate, thoughtful Burns. "Despite that, it's been the path to indigenous cultures that have survived here in the desert. It's an interesting place to juxtapose your life with modern life. Artists who have set up shop here have their consciousness affected by the minimalism of being in the desert. "I think living in Arizona has brought out various elements in our music that wouldn't have necessarily emerged if we were in a big city. One of the things we're reminded of here is that there's a lot more time and space. It's more laid back. That's why it's an appealing place for a musician. The rent is cheaper and you can get more space to set up shop and play music," says Burns, adding that he found the music business center of Los Angeles to be shallow and superficial. "There's no soul in the LA music scene. Coming here to Tuscon helped me open up and see things differently. People here make do with what they have, going to thrift stores and swap meets. And," he laughs, "you can find some great vinyl indie oddities that people are trying to sell." QUICKLY ESTABLISHING themselves in their adopted Arizona community, Burns and Convertino initially made a living doing session work as they experimented with their own home recordings. After releasing a series of well-received indie offerings in the late-1990s, Calexico coalesced in 2003 around its most cohesive album Feast of Wire, featuring many of the players who are still part of the band collective. Their stars grew brighter over the next couple years due to collaborations with artists like Nancy Sinatra, Case, Laura Cantrell and Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, as well as a cameo in the Michael Mann film Collateral. With 2006's Garden To Ruin and last year's Carried to Dust, Calexico cemented its status as one of the most vital bands on the American landscape. It's no wonder that in 2007, director Todd Haynes asked the group to work on the soundtrack to his film about Bob Dylan, I'm Not There. "When Todd suggested recording with Willie Nelson, I just about dropped dead. My fantasy day came to life," says Burns, referring to the Nelson-Calexico meeting of the minds on "Senor (Tale of Yankee Power)," one of the most highly regarded tracks on the soundtrack. Calexico's catalogue of classic albums even prompted American music magazine Uncut to recently highlight the band in its regular feature on an artist's most essential work, an honor usually reserved for "lifers" like Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and U2. "It was a little shocking to see that," Burns laughs. "It's a real process, like anything else, and it's not just Calexico records - we're also busy producing other people and collaborating and doing soundtracks. Looking at the past 10 years of the band's success, you also have to look at the other outside projects that John and I worked on, like Neko Case and I'm Not There. There's a lot to be thankful for." AN INDIE cooperative in practice, not just in spirit, Calexico is self-managed by Burns and Convertino, a task that Burns is constantly trying to juggle, especially as they head out on tour. "It's a challenge to keep everything in balance, being able to manage things both economically and creatively," he says. "You do the best you can, and you also have to think of your home and family. That's why we try to keep chunks of tours to three weeks so we can balance our home life. Longevity is the key here, it's a career." Likewise, keeping things fresh musically is paramount in the Calexico universe. And for the moment, Burns is achieving that through infusing new venues into the band's touring schedule, including Tel Aviv. "It's also pretty challenging to hold a band together. Initially there's a lot of excitement of starting up and achieving some success. But then the questions arise, where do you go next? What is there new that we can do?" he says. "Part of that can be solved geographically. Earlier this summer, we appeared in places in South America and Europe for the first time, and now in August, we're appearing for the first time in Budapest and Tel Aviv. It may not appear to be a big deal, but these things really fuel the spirit." It also helps having a kindred spirit as a musical and professional partner, and Burns says he has that in spades with Convertino. "The intuition I felt when John and I started playing together indicated to me that he was in tune with my overall aesthetics, whether it's balancing a career and family or balancing drum patterns. His playing is something unique that isn't often heard outside of jazz. We share an ear for when instruments should come in with the band and we're always willing for change and something new," says Burns. "I think that John and I work really well as backing musicians, arrangers and producers. We have the ability to create a mood, ambience or vibe. With any kind of collaboration or teamwork, we work well off each other, there's a good dynamic. We do really well working as band leaders and self-managing the group." For Burns, the efforts at maintaining a career and trying to reach higher ground creatively took on a literal meaning last year when a Calexico song, "Crystal Frontier," was beamed into space as wake-up music for the astronauts on the space shuttle Discovery. "It felt very grounding," he laughs. "I wonder where the recording of the song is now - is it still in our solar system? I think it's a good example of never knowing when you create music where it's going to end up."