Like-Minded Free Spirits

Calexico: A TAMMIES Critics' Choice dynasty in the making?

If you were to set out to design, a la boyband impresario Lou Perlman (or, hell, Puffy), a band--particularly, one that perfectly captured the essence and spirit of the Southwest--it would be a foolish endeavor for a couple reasons.

For one, who the fuck tries to design a band in that fashion, save the aforementioned boy exploiters? For two, such a band already exists--locally beloved, nationally revered TAMMIES Critics' Pick Best Band or Artist for the second year in a row, Calexico.

By now, the story is quite familiar to most of those who might be reading this--two California boys (one from SoCal, one from NorCal) who've been playing music all their lives move to Tucson, join Giant Sand, play rhythm for everybody and their brother's uncle, and then start their own little side project, Spoke, to indulge their mellower whims.

Brush-drummer extraordinaire John Convertino explains it thusly: "When I first became a father (in 1994), it was during Howe (Gelb)'s loudest period in Giant Sand. We were rocking it pretty loudly there for awhile. I wanted to get away from that a little bit around Mia--I would sometimes hold her with one arm while sitting behind the drum kit and playing with brushes, so things tended to get pretty quiet."

Convertino recently became a father again, this time to a son who's already showing signs of musical prowess. "He's looking around, taking everything in. He really perks up when he hears music."

Convertino, along with principal bandmate Joey Burns, ultimately changed the band name from Spoke to Calexico upon releasing a lo-fi collection of songs on Chicago indie label Quarterstick Records in 1997--a record entitled, sensibly enough, Spoke. But that record gave only vague hints as to the ultimate direction Burns' and Convertino's little endeavor would take.

On 1998's The Black Light, Calexico hit their stride. That album, replete as it is with so much dusty, reverb-drenched guitar and mariachified horn playing that it should come with its own tumbleweed, is a road map (coincidentally, Road Map is the title of a 1999 tour CD) to the sonic parameters of Calexico's present. But significantly, Calexico had yet to embrace what would become their true metier--collaborating with an amazingly diverse array of musicians from the Southwest and from as far afield as Holland and Germany.

Over the course of the next few years, and after extensive touring in Europe, Calexico developed not only an international following, but an international membership. The group expanded to include German bassist Martin Wenk and multi-instrumentalist Volker Zander. (Zander runs a small label in Germany, Sommerweg, that has recently released a solo record by Convertino entitled Ragland, which will be distributed by Thrill Jockey in the States.) Also on the Calex-roster as a result of a years-long association with Giant Sand was the rocking Dutchman Jelle Kuiper, who has worked with a veritable host of high-profile independent bands in addition to his current role as front-of-house engineer for Calexico.

"That's a good question ... let's fire 'em!" Convertino jokes when I ask if the playing skill of the international members overrides the logistical issues posed by a band separated by the Atlantic Ocean and thousands of miles of terroir.

"We wouldn't have it any other way," Burns notes. "It's great to have people like (Volker and Martin and Jelle) involved in Calexico. They look at things with a totally different perspective than we do, as Europeans, and it opens us up to new perspectives."

On the domestic front, Calexico began working with Ruben Moreno and Mariachi Luz de Luna during the recording of 2000's The Hot Rail, and subsequently hit upon something quite majestic--the dynamism of a mariachi band to complement their new Sonoran romanticist songwriting. Moreno and Luz de Luna enabled Calexico's ambit to capture a regionally relevant sound so perfectly, it was clearly kismet at work. The live experience that the two groups subsequently created was a peerless blend of different traditions that bordered on magical, and was received as such both critically and by fans.

At the recommendation of Moreno, Calexico began playing with trumpeter/percussionist Jacob Valenzuela, who officially joined the group in January 2000.

"Jacob played around town in jazz groups and as part of Mariachi Serenata, and he wanted to become a music educator in similar fashion as Ruben, only with an emphasis on jazz," says Burns, referring to Moreno's day job as the creator of various mariachi educational programs at Tucson-area schools. "He was in the music education program at the U of A when we first started playing together in 2000." Burns notes that Valenzuela's jazz expertise allowed Calexico to expand the complexity of their sound. "Really, it's (Jacob) who enabled us to get that (renowned jazz arranger) Gil Evans sound on songs like 'Crumble' on Feast of Wire."

The final piece of the Calexico puzzle, pedal steel player Paul Niehaus, joined the group in 2001 after stints in Lambchop and several other groups. Niehaus added a touch of the high lonesome to Calexico's already spacious sound and further propelled them to the heights which they now enjoy.

What heights, you say? For one, they're undoubtedly the most important band to come from Tucson in the last decade. Burns and Convertino react with their typical modesty when it's suggested that they're the biggest fish in a small pond.

"Well, we tend not to think in those terms, but it's very flattering to be appreciated in your hometown. Tucson is a great city, and we love it here," says Burns. "It's a really cool place to come home to."

We continue to chat about the "olden days" when the only venues for local bands were (the late) 7 Black Cats and Club Congress. "Now it's exciting to see all the venues that are hosting original music, and all the bands that are coming through town as a result. ... Plus, you have people coming to record at Wavelab and staying in Tucson for lengthy stints," Burns adds.

Currently, the band is cooling its heels a bit before embarking on a festival-heavy summer tour with a few dates in the States and several in Europe. Among the U.S. festivals Calexico is playing this year are Wakarusa, in Lawrence, Kan., (which is loaded with roots and jam band talent), and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which Calexico will be playing for the first time. I half-jokingly ask them if this means they're pursuing a jamband audience.

"Well, the people that follow jam bands really get into improvisation; that's a big part of what they appreciate about those bands," says Convertino. "Of course, improvisation and 'jamming' is something that we truly enjoy and is important to us as well, so I think it's natural that some of that audience will really enjoy what we do."

Adds Burns, "The jam audience tends to be open to a pretty broad spectrum of music. They're receptive to stuff with an improvisational spirit." Indubitably, so are we.

So here's to the scrappy duo of Burns and Convertino and their cohort of like-minded free-spirits that collectively create some of the best music ever heard within the city limits of Tucson, Arizona, or anywhere, for that matter. We, the assembled TAMMIES Critics' Choice panel, salute you.

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