Picking Up the Thread

The Thread That Keeps Us
Picking Up the Thread
Chris Hinkle
Joey Burns

Calexico's Joey Burns talked with the Weekly about the songs on The Thread That Keeps Us. Here's an edited and condensed transcript of Burns' comments.

"End of the World With You" There's definitely some of that '90s jangle. I will record a bunch of musical ideas or sketches, and I'll play them for John if I feel like there's some good ones. And this one, I thought, could be fun just 'cause it's different. But sometimes ideas can be too different and then they fall out of what feels like would be fitting for the band. But this one, it just kind of felt good, there's some good energy. Martin Wenk did a lot of great guitar work and coached Jairo Zavala, our guitar player from Spain, with some Robert Fripp guitar ideas, and then Jairo said, "Oh, I can do that." Lyrically, it wound up being a love song in tumultuous times. Going to California to record felt like going full circle, with having grown up on the California coast. It definitely reminded me of rummaging along the beach and playing in old bomb shelters and military outposts. We had a Titan missile silo near our house where I grew up. Those remnants, they play into your subconscious, and as a kid there were nightmares of war happening, and of course all sorts of environmental concerns. So, all those anxieties that you think of as a kid were brought back up, being in northern California on this recording session at Stinson Beach. And so I just kind of wanted to jam them into a song and have fun with it.

"Bridge to Nowhere" Seeing a town or a downtown in ruin is sort of symbolic of: Where is the heart of this place and the people? It's reflected in these landscapes, and I think these things are fascinating for me because you see this arc of ideas and energy and love being poured into an area or a community and then, ultimately, what pushes life out. Maybe the song is written in response to the attempt at pushing down a spirit of resistance, of standing up for what's right, for people's rights, for the planet's rights, for the environment. The chorus is contrasting to the verses. "Lost in the details, it's raining ashes. We're coming up for air. We're coming up for air, even though they say it won't change a thing." So, that could be your vote, you know? People won't vote because it won't mean anything, and then here you have these elections where there's a very slim difference of votes for the candidate that wins.

"Spinball" John was given a piece of drum hardware that enables drummers to spin their cymbals for a really long time. They'll just keep spinning. It's a device called spinbal. And while we're in the studio up there in northern California, looking out on the beach, he puts this on, and he starts spinning his cymbals and playing them and then telling us that there's this guy who made this device, this spinbal, and that the idea is that when you spin the cymbal, it kind of sends the sound waves off in a different way, makes different shapes and patterns and sound waves. That's pretty cool, so I said, well, let's just do a couple instrumental improvisations. So, that's exactly what it is.

"Under the Wheels" I'm following a character who's just walking or riding a skateboard or his bike—or her bike—through town and just wondering, at what point will people be listening again? Or finding common ground? Sergio loaned me one of his drum machines so that I could do some writing of songs at home. It made it easier for me to write complete ideas and to not get distracted and just focus, because I had some percussion at home. And then, of course, the kids love it, you know? There's 100 different sounds or percussive style that you can write, or you can play, and it became like this big huge jamboree. And they would get dressed up and dance on the coffee table, and I would stop, and they'd say, "No, no, no! Please don't. Keep playing!"

"Town and Miss Lorraine" It has that kind of classic '60s beat, which is sort of a surf beat, in a way. As I'm looking out over the Pacific Ocean, I'm thinking about the Beach Boys; I'm thinking about Link Wray, and I'm thinking about the Ventures. And I was strumming an old guitar and just playing a solo kick drum while John was coming back from one of his runs along the beach, and I said, "What about this idea?" And he goes, "Yeah, I could play that. I could probably play it a lot better than you're doing right now. Why don't I do that, and you just focus on strumming?" I'm like, "Thank you. See, that's why I need you." The song reminds me of just waking up and exploring the coast. Growing up on the coast, I used to walk down to the cliffs, and find all sorts of things down there. There have been cars that had plummeted off the edge. There were remnants of a ship that had washed up. So I was kind of following those experiences as a kid and then kind of rooting them in northern California where I was at. I was imagining a little story where there's a teenage boy who's still a kid and discovering things. And it's sparking his imagination, and yet he's still a teenager, and he's thinking about women, and he's attracted to people. And there's a neighbor that's just very influential and mysterious, yet very strong and independent.

"Flores y Tamales" We had an instrumental left over from a documentary soundtrack. And I thought, we should record this and make it longer—make it into a song. And I played it for the band, and Jairo had some lyrics for another idea. And he took those lyrics and applied them to this song. And you know, he is a natural, and he's supremely talented, and he just went in there and busted out this fantastic vocal track. And we're just all sitting there amazed, and it sounded like an instant classic. And of course, the trumpets knew exactly what to do and jumped up to record some trumpet parts. Sergio, of course, busted out his accordion. I busted out the Casio, and it's one of the easy-going recordings that we've done on this record.

"Another Space" That song was really fun just to experiment with. Initially, I think John didn't realize where the song could go, and that's the beauty of throwing an idea down like this—I have some ideas of adding textures and layers, but ultimately you never know if it will lift off the ground. So I was really happy that we got to work on it because initially there were no breaks; there was no arrangement. It was just the groove. It was going on for three minutes, and it stopped. So, I could see why it got looked over many, many times in listening to the rough mix. But once we went in there with some of the other guys—and of course when Jacob opened up and just played soulfully and opened his heart and transformed that moment into something really more special. Because he played so beautifully, we dropped all the percussion and rhythm out except for one keyboard and marimba. It's a nice moment. I really like it.

"Unconditional Waltz" We wanted to put more short instrumental segues on the record. We do a fair amount of soundtrack work, so those ideas come pretty naturally to us. So, Martin Wenk, our German drummer, sent a couple of ideas, and one of those was this song, which had no title. It was just bare bones, as you hear it now. We didn't do much to the mix, and he recorded it at his home studio at his family's beach house in northern Germany, and I love the idea of him going by himself to do some work. He said, "It would mean a lot to me if one of these ideas was able to grow into something." And instead of adding tracks on top of this, I just felt like this is a beautiful moment in and of itself. It didn't need anything else, and because the album is full of instrumentation and drums and guitars and bass and lots of vocals, I felt that this is a great opportunity to just leave something raw. And it's very sentimental too because of some of the stuff that's been happening with Martin—he lost his brother last year.

"Girl in the Forest" It's kind of throwback song. Having a really great family trip to Yellowstone in 2017 really sparked some ideas for me in regards to some of the lyrics. As I was coming up with this music, it reminded me of something John Lennon would have done in his solo career, post-Beatles, and that's why we put the slapback on the vocals, which is something that Jeff Tweedy does. It's a beautiful effect, and it gives it a sort of unique warble. That song was recorded on Sergio's four-track recorder, and it just felt right—the mix, the feel, the fidelity just felt more earthy. Something about the lo-fi quality of four track just has a nuance that really feels much better in some ways. And my girls, Twyla and Genevieve, they were really helpful because they were sitting next to me on the couch when I was writing music, and I said, "Well, let's go in the kitchen and sit at the table and see if we can work on this song together." And as we did I was telling them, "Well, maybe the girl in the forest is sort of a spirit who is helping guide the protestors against the machines of development and corporate greed and destroying the natural habitat." I was thinking a lot about what had been happening at the end of 2016 with Standing Rock, and my girls were like, "Yeah, that's really heavy, Dad. Why can't the girl in the forest just be someone who communicates with the animals and with all things, all sentient things and beings in the forest?" I'm like, "You know what? That is beautiful, yes. Why can't it just be that?" I think your kids will do that. They'll just kind of bring you right back to reality, and what's most important.

"Eyes Wide Awake" That song was written at John's house in El Paso, and while we're staying there, he was telling us that the wind that goes through El Paso is pretty fierce and it's pretty constant. It can really be sort of a constant source of irritation. I picked up this old guitar. It's a 1950s archtop guitar, the same one that I played in 1998 on the Black Light, and here we were at John's home. I wanted to put these two ingredients together and see what we could come up with, and I just started kind of playing this slow dirge of a pop song, and I thought, "Oh my gosh I'm just making this really obvious." But it was just fun in the moment, and I think that's what we're going for. We're just trying to find those moments that feel good, and without thinking about it too much, just allowing it to happen. Allow that idea to at least be there for three-and-a-half minutes or four minutes. We can make sense of it later. And I tried putting down scratch vocals when I was there, and I was just standing in his front door looking out the window and imagining the wind kind of howling, and certainly the music has that sort of quality. And I laid down some really, you know, tormented, twisted electric guitar parts, reminding me of Joey Santiago, the Pixies, just super dirty and sloppy. I love all the noises on that song. The lyrics are trying to map out whatever it is that's either bringing people together or pushing people apart.

"Voices in the Field" Musically, I was thinking a lot about Bombino, and some of the music from North Africa. Lyrically, I'd read some poems Syrian refugees had written on postcards as a way to connect with their experiences, their feelings and loved ones. So that's why there's that search for connection, the verses mapping out this departure and being uprooted, leaving everything that you have, or seeing that your home, your garden is now in ruin, the roof is caving in. It's a universal thing that's happening in various ways, whether it's all-out war in Syria, or what's happening in Central and South America, or in Africa. Those lyrics are touching on that, and then the chorus is kind of my attempt at giving emotional support: "For your life, come to my side. Take me from here. Open up your heart. Let me hear your voice. Let me hear you sing." So, it's sort of a gospel/not really gospel, but it's more of an empathetic call-and-response.

"Dead in the Water" It reminds me of some of the songs we have done in the past, like "The Ride, Part Two." They have that surf beat, but John tried to approach this song a little differently this time—I really like what he did on the drums. And who doesn't love distorted twang guitar? For me, it was fun playing that riff. It's something I haven't really done in a long time. Probably not since 1998 with "Gypsy's Curse" on The Black Light. So it's fun doing something like that, but in a totally different way, and thinking about something completely different. I was thinking about a toxic monster rising out of the ocean. Craig and I were talking about the waste and pollution and radioactivity from Japan, and thinking about all of those shipping containers that have fallen off barges and ships that are on the bottom of the ocean. And they're creating sort of an underwater bridge between continents, and it's changing the sea life as well. So I thought, that's fascinating. Maybe the sea monster is built out of toxic sludge and waste, and it's slowly making its way toward the continent.

"Shortboard" This was started by Scott Collberg, our bass player. We're looking at the coast and the owner of the studio walks in, and he goes, "I want to go surfing." And Scott and I are both, "Oh man, I want to go surfing." And even though we wanted to go, we didn't go. And instead, we just wrote some of these ideas, the three of us—John and Scott and me. They're just improvisations—something loose, something not structured. There's no trying to be or do or think anything. Just let the music kind of go through you and see what happens. There's "Shortboard," and then on the extended disc, there's "Longboard."

"Thrown to the Wild" It's looking at "Nighthawks at the Diner," and wondering what the hell happened. Where has the love gone from taking care of our towns, our people, all people? And I wanted to write something that featured chaos, and so the second half of the song patiently waits while we kind of build on the suspense of this sort of jazzy 6/8 rhythm until finally it feels like the earth opens up and swallows up everything, and the sky turns upside down. It just comes out a wonderful, chaotic, epic, sweeping motion picture.

"Music Box" That's a song for my family, and it's a song that I could sing every night and think about them. And they can put it on when I'm gone and know that I'm thinking about them too. My daughters each have a couple of music boxes, and there's this beautiful, minor melody that's on their music box. And we'd play them at the same time, but they would kind of get off of each other. And so it kind of made a really beautiful echo or just a new melody really, and I love that. I just kept on playing that over and over again with the kids, and then I brought in my acoustic guitar and started playing along with the music boxes. And I recorded a couple of ideas with that, and then put the kids to bed. Then I finally sat down on the couch next to Nova, and kind of came up with a more, you know, straightforward, direct song. And that song live really sounds great. When I'm making a record, and I'm putting down all these songs, and it feels like we're kind of leaning in one direction for too long, I need a break. And that normally comes with songs like this or a song like "Slowness" on Carried To Dust. It's a breath of fresh air. It's something different. It's not dark and chaotic and swirling. It's just kind of a little more quiet and front and center. It's simple. Maybe it's the influence of the kids themselves, the importance of being direct. It's hard to write songs that are very direct, so it feels like the most punk rock thing I've done in a long time, where I've just written a straightforward love song, and there's no obscure or abstract poetry whatsoever. It's just simple and true.

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