TAMMIES: Community Connections

Calexico—ambassador for the music of the Southwest—joins the Tucson Music Hall of Fame

It was about 13 years ago when Joey Burns and John Convertino, then the rhythm section for influential local act Giant Sand, put together a quiet little album of home recordings under the name Spoke. That self-titled album was released by a small German label.

Soon, though, the group changed its name to Calexico—and a remarkable pillar of Tucson music came into being.

Let's have Burns tell the story: "We only had the vinyl of that recording out at the time, and we were guests on the (New Jersey) radio station WFMU. A DJ comes into the booth and says, 'Is this your record? You're called Spoke? Well, there's this Florida pop-punk band also called that.' We found it interesting that other musicians had chosen the same name."

Burns briefly had used the name Calexico for another project.

"I just remembered the name Calexico, so we figured we'd use that," he remembers. "We just kind of changed the name on the radio that day."

Now, Calexico is a mainstay of local music, with more than a dozen recordings to its credit (for Quarterstick Records and its own label, Our Soil, Our Strength). The group is among a small number of music acts that can be considered quintessentially Tucson, and—having played many times throughout Europe, as well as in the Middle East, Japan and South America—they're an ambassador for the music of the Southwest to the rest of the world.

In honor of its achievements, Calexico was inducted into the Tucson Music Hall of Fame during the Tucson Area Music Awards, aka the TAMMIES, on Thursday, Sept. 3, at the Rialto Theatre.

Calexico also received the much-coveted Best New Release TAMMIES award for its last studio album, Carried to Dust, which was released in the fall of 2008.

Burns, who plays guitar, bass and other stringed instruments, is Calexico's primary singer. He also writes much of the band's material, often in partnership with Convertino, a master of all things percussive (and this year's TAMMIES honoree as best drummer). Another mainstay of the band is trumpeter and keyboards player Jacob Valenzuela—the only member of Calexico who was born and raised in Tucson, Burns points out.

Although Calexico might be considered an all-inclusive, nurturing collective with a shifting lineup of guest musicians and semi-regular collaborators, its current full-time membership also includes guitarist Paul Niehaus, bassist Volker Zander, and Martin Wenk on brass and keyboards.

Carried to Dust boasts guest performances by such Calexico friends as violinists Michael Fan and Rose Todaro, singer Amparo Sanchez, singer-songwriter Pieta Brown, guitarist Bo Ramsey, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, multi-instrumentalists Jairo Zavala and Nick Luca, Sam Beam (from Iron and Wine) and Douglas McCombs (from Tortoise).

Don't forget Craig Schumacher and Chris Schultz, go-to musicians and top-flight sound engineers at Wavelab Studio, where most of Calexico's studio albums, including Carried to Dust, have been recorded.

Zavala, by the way, recently released a new album under his performing moniker DePedro, most of which was recorded at Wavelab and features members of Calexico. Many fans also recall In the Reins, a 2005 collaboration CD with Iron and Wine.

For a few years after its incarnation, Calexico existed concurrently with Giant Sand, a longtime project of singer-songwriter Howe Gelb; during that time, Calexico released such stunning albums as The Black Light and Hot Rail. Around the end of 2001, Burns and Convertino became too busy with Calexico to continue with Giant Sand.

Burns and Convertino also keep busy by continuing their careers as freelance session musicians for a variety of acts. You may be surprised to find out how many of the CDs in your collection they're on, including recordings by Neko Case, Lizz Wright, Richard Buckner, Victoria Williams, Michael Hurley, Bill Janovitz, Vic Chesnutt and Lisa Germano, among others.

Most recently, the pair recorded with hard-boiled folk-Americana singer-songwriter Tom Russell on his forthcoming album, Blood and Candle Smoke, which is due in stores Sept. 15.

One of the strengths of the band is that some of its other members hail from Germany, Spain and Nashville, a result of the group's world travels and an influence on its diversity. At any given moment, Calexico's music can contain elements of spaghetti-Western soundtrack music, Portuguese fado, Italian guitar music, Afro-Peruvian music, mariachi, Mexican son, traditional American folk, dissonant rock, '50s and '60s jazz, country and surf music.

Incorporating the native music of Tucson—Burns moved here from the Los Angeles area in 1993—was "very accidental and very intuitive," he says.

"I guess it started by moving to Tucson and living in Barrio Viejo, which has a sensibility that is closer to a European city than an American sensibility, going to the Tanque Verde Swap Meet or hanging out on Fourth Avenue. But the barrio, with its distinctive Mexican-American traditions, and the music that grows out from that, really glows from within. And it's about being linked to part of a community."

Burns also cited exposure to the champion of barrio music, Lalo Guerrero, as an important influence on his musical perspective. He was also influenced by opportunities to hear or perform with such local artists as Mariachi Luz de Luna, Mariachi Aztlán and singer-songwriter Salvador Duran.

Among its accomplishments, Calexico has played at Lincoln Center in Washington, D.C., as part of its American Songbook series, appeared on National Public Radio, performed and recorded Bob Dylan songs for the soundtrack to the film I'm Not There, and—this is especially cool—got to see its song "Crystal Frontier" beamed into space to be played as wakeup music for the astronauts on the space shuttle Discovery.

Carried to Dust isn't even Calexico's most recent album. The group released the excellent CD Ancienne Belgique—Live in Brussels 2008 this past spring on Our Soil, Our Strength. It's a rich set of music that shows off the dynamics and charm that mark Calexico in concert.

Many local musicians have cited Calexico as being generously supportive of the rest of the Tucson arts community. The group has performed benefits for Solar Culture Gallery and Pan Left Productions, and holds annual holiday concert fundraisers for community radio station KXCI FM 91.3.

"I think it's important to make connections between musicians, whether it's between people here in Tucson or between local musicians and the rest of the world," Burns says, noting that he remains grateful to those who have given him a helping hand over the years.

Burns says he and Convertino simply have always sought artistically rewarding musical experiences, and never dreamed that Calexico would achieve some of the things it has.

Burns is humble but immensely pleased about the group joining the Tucson Music Hall of Fame.

"This award that's being bestowed is not so much about the individual members as it's about all the musicians who have helped us or been a part of Calexico over the years."

And that sense of community is one of the cornerstones of Calexico.

Burns sums it up succinctly, saying: "What we like doing most is getting people together for music and having a party and just celebrating life."