It's a mid-December morning and Calexico founders Joey Burns and John Convertino are joining me for breakfast at Hotel Congress.
They're both a little weary until they get some coffee in them. Last night, after a week of rehearsals with the rest of the band, Calexico performed a sold-out show at 191 Toole, a onetime downtown warehouse turned music club. It was a chance to road-test some of the songs from the band's ninth studio album, The Thread That Keeps Us.
Convertino agrees, then reflects on what it's like to play some of older warhorses in Calexico's lengthy catalog— songs like "Crystal Frontier," "Guero Canelo," "Across the Wire."
"It's gone full circle," Convertino says, "where I personally have gotten tired of playing some of the old songs and then you see the reaction of people when you play the old songs and you realize: This isn't about me playing the old song, it's about what the song is giving to the people and their enjoyment of it. It doesn't matter if I'm tired of it."
There's an intuitive bond between Burns and Convertino, who have been been playing together for more than a quarter century, since their days with Howe Gelb's Giant Sand. You can see it when they play together, or when you see them in the studio working on an album, or even when they talk about their songwriting craft.
It's been more than two decades since the Burns and Convertino sat down to create Spoke, a 19-song, lo-fi DIY album recorded in their downtown Tucson homes, in a month, just ahead of Christmas in 1995.
A lot has happened since that debut album. Calexico has toured the world. They've collaborated with the likes of Neko Case, Nancy Sinatra, Gaby Moreno and Iron & Wine's Sam Beam. They've done covers of Bob Dylan songs with Willie Nelson and Jim James of My Morning Jacket for the Dylan biopic I'm Not There. They've played fundraisers for Gabby Giffords, who beamed their hit "Crystal Frontier" to the International Space Station as a wake-up song for her then-astronaut husband, Mark Kelly. Their songs have been the part of the soundtrack of movies (Circo, Collateral, Committed) and TV shows (Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Friday Night Lights, Angel). And if you listen to NPR, you've heard their music between segments.
The band's lineup has changed over the years, though it's held pretty steady over the last few albums. Besides Burns, there are two other Tucsonans. Sergio Mendoza—who leads his own band, indie-mambo sensation Orkesta Mendoza—plays keyboards, while Jacob Valenzuela plays trumpet. Joining Valenzuela in the horn section is Martin Wenk of Germany. All three are multi-instrumentalists who will pick up other instruments as the show calls for it.
Guitarist Jairo Zavala of Spain, who performs with his own band DePedro when he's not working with Calexico, is back for this tour. "How can I miss it?" he asked me last month after the 191 Toole show.
Relatively new to the band—he joined the tour last year—is Scott Collberg, a bassist who was working gigs in New York City before he signed on with Calexico.
The members of the touring band were on hand to help with the recording of The Thread That Keeps Us, which dropped last week on Anti- Records. It's getting rave reviews. Pitchfork noted the album "pointedly humanizes the disenfranchised people whose voices are too often shut out of policy debates"; NPR said "The Thread That Keeps Us carves out a landscape all its own." And the U.K. Independent says this "may be the album that finally hoists this most undervalued of American bands to their rightful place alongside the likes of R.E.M. and Wilco."
The Thread That Keeps Us showcases what musical chameleons Burns and Convertino are. It sounds like Calexico throughout, even as the band mixes and matches all manner of musical influences. "Flores Y Tamales" recalls their Lat-indie days; "Another Space" is a funky homage to David Byrne and Brian Eno that allows Valenzuela to shine on trumpet; "Voices in the Field" has an echo of Niger musician Bombino. "Dead in the Water" is loaded with surf guitar licks that would be at home on a Cramps album. There are instrumentals and sonic experiments that remind me of the band's earliest work on Spoke.
The album came together over the last year. After Donald Trump's presidential inauguration, Burns wanted to do something tangible, so he designed a limited edition T-shirt and sold it online to benefit Planned Parenthood. It raised more than $10,000.
"From there, it was like, let's get back in the studio as soon as possible so we could get out there and do something," Burns says.
He worked on sketches of songs at his Tucson home, playing his guitar alongside a drum machine that Mendoza loaned him. He sent those rough cuts to Convertino, who is getting more comfortable with listening to a drum machine while he plays.
"I imagine it being another player, about it being a percussionist over there, and I kind of get the loop in my head and I start singing it inside my head, so it's not like it's a machine, it's just kind of like grooving with this other percussionist...who happens to be a machine," Convertino says. "At first, I thought it was so confining, but now I kind of enjoy it."
The recording sessions took them to familiar ground at Tucson's Wavelab Studios, which is run by their longtime producer, Craig Schumacher. They recorded more tracks at Convertino's El Paso home. ("Both my neighbors work all day, so we could make as much noise as we wanted from 9 to 5," Convetino says.) And they brought the band together last summer at the Panoramic House, a recording studio on the Northern California coast, near Stinson Beach. It was an inspirational spot. Convertino remembers seeing a whale while out out a run along the beach.
"It's so majestic," he says. "It makes you say, 'I want my son to see this, and I want his son to see this.'"
That concern for the health of the planet echoes on the album, on songs like "Girl in the Forest," "Voices in the Field" and "Dead in the Water." Calexico has never shied away from politics, albeit via storytelling rather than lecturing. "End of the World With You" may sound apocalyptic, but you can dance to it, especially if you like late-'90s Pavement overlaid with an astonishing solo jam by Zavala.
"I love the sentiment of the song, especially for these times," Convertino says. "It's extreme right now. You just feel it. You want to cling onto that love."
It's important to both Burns and Convertino that the band keep pushing into new directions, even as it finds a way to bend those styles into their own.
"When we're making these songs, and adding people's parts, you're hoping that it'll still be reflective of our personality and who we are, and we're not gonna put something out that doesn't really sound like us," Burns says. "And I know there's a lot of people out there that probably feel that, 'This record is okay, but I like just the old stuff,' or 'I only like songs with twang guitar.' Or 'I only like songs with the trumpets, or the Latin stuff.' That's great, there's plenty there over the course of nine or so albums and whatnot, but you know, we want to make songs that feel good to us now, and pertain to what's happening in the world now."
The album closes with a simple and direct love song, "Music Box." Although he says he's more comfortable writing in the voices of other characters rather than himself, "Music Box" is dedicated to his wife, Nova, and their twin girls, Genevieve and Twyla. Burns smiles as he says that, given all his time on the road, Nova told him she could definitely relate to the lyrics: "I know I've been away and for way too long/I need you now more than ever, before the music is over."
And now it's time for the band to once more take to the road. March takes them to Europe and in April, they start a U.S. tour that will include a show at downtown's Rialto Theatre on Thursday, May 31. They're back in Europe in June and July.
It's a lot of miles to travel, but even after all the shows Calexico has done, Convertino wouldn't have it any other way.
"For me and most musicians, we're happy to have a gig," Convertino says. "Our last gig could be our last gig. We're always reminding each other how lucky we are that we still get to do this and we have people showing up to hear the music and younger people wanting to play with us."