Waltzing Around: Calexico Celebrates A Quarter Century Of Making Music With A New Album

click to enlarge Waltzing Around: Calexico Celebrates A Quarter Century Of Making Music With A New Album
Photo By | Holly Andres
"I'm trying to just have a good time with my friends, play music and at the same time, kind of examine where we are as a people, as a planet," said Calexico's Joey Burns.

Let’s talk about the javelina in the room. Can we even call Calexico a Tucson band anymore? Social media apparently wants to know. Joey Burns grimaces about a recent thread.

Chatting on Zoom like old friends, Burns and I revisit the first interview we did 25 years ago, down the road in Barrio Viejo. At the time he was raving about vocalist Susana Baca and her Afro-Peruvian sound. He says David Byrne (yes that David Byrne) had put him onto it. We have lots to catch up on, and when today’s interview is over, we have a hard time saying goodbye—me in my home office by the ever-shifting Pantano Wash, Burns at his 10-year-old daughter’s manual typewriter in his Boise, Idaho kitchen.

Of course it’s been years since John Convertino moved to El Paso. At least it’s a border town, but, as Burns points out with a laugh, Convertino’s also lived on the East Coast, Oklahoma, Alaska and California, where the two met. “He’s the Jack Kerouac of the group.” 

We talk about the upcoming tour behind the April 8 release of the duo’s new Calexico record, El Mirador. It’s being released by respected Berlin indie label, City Slang, home of Caribou, Lambchop and Nada Surf. The band will visit close to 30 cities, mostly in Europe, before returning to the Rialto Theatre on June 19, Father’s Day. 

Burns and Convertino began playing as a duo in the mid ‘90s when they were backing Howe Gelb in Giant Sand. They sometimes opened as a duo. During gaps in touring, they also sat in with fellow Tucsonan Bill Elm’s Latin-tinged, Santo and Johnny-esque Friends of Dean Martinez. And they picked up side projects backing others.  Americana artist Richard Buckner was early among them, as was Tucson chanteuse Marianne Dissard and French shoegazer-like locals, The Amor Belhom Duo.

Soon they began a far-flung, pan-genre adventure including projects in Spain with Jairo Zavala’s DePedro and Amparo Sanchez’ Amparanoia, and, in the U.S., Sam Beam’s Iron and Wine; Neko Case; Victoria Williams; Pieta Brown; Amos Lee; Tom Russell; Kevin Costner; Richmond Fontaine; The Gotan Project; The Solace Brothers; Laura Cantrell; Los Super Seven; Nancy Sinatra; Evan Dando; Shannon Wright (check this one out for its abstract, dissonant soundscapes); Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz ; Jack Smith and Rockabilly Planet, Tortoise spin-off, Brokeback and, most improbably, early 1900s song and dance star Ruby Keeler. Apologies to everyone omitted here.

So it speaks to a formidable work ethic that in the same time span they produced close to 20 full albums, not counting a couple of tour-only releases. That’s all since 1996 when Chicago’s powerhouse indie Touch and Go released Calexico’s demo, Spoke, on its Quarterstick imprint. 

 “I’ve always played music,” Burns says. “But as I got older, I continued to want to hear other sounds and other rhythms and genres. I feel like (El Mirador) kind of encapsulates a lot of that searching, not just in and around the border region of the Southwestern United States, but really looking to the world as well. That’s the beauty of a band like this. It’s not just a regional thing. It really is, and has been, embracing the world.”

For all of that, El Mirador is an extravagant celebration of Calexico’s genesis from here. Burns says some of it was an inspired return to the vibe of the band’s 1998 Quarterstick release, The Black Light. The music is certainly as Sonoran-sounding a collection of songs as Calexico has ever released—at least metaphorically. Did you know that the Sonoran Desert has the largest number of species of any desert in the U.S.?

Tucson multi-instrumentalist Sergio Mendoza, of the popular local mambo project Orkesta Mendoza, has long been a principal member of Calexico, live and on record. In the El Mirador credits, he is recognized as lead producer, listed above even Burns and Convertino. 

All of the record’s live production took place in Mendoza’s home studio, and because of COVID lockdown, Burns stayed in his home for several live sessions. Convertino visited for the first two sessions. A cadre of top Tucson musicians, joined them in the studio, and a host of other long-time collaborators contributed tracks and overdubs for Mendoza and Burns to mix in. 

“It was incredible returning to Tucson after moving away,” Burns says. “Sergio picked me up at the airport. We went to Tacos Apson. I melted immediately back into the beauty (here). I asked him to drive me past our old house so I could see it again with the lights on. It was great just to kind of touch the places where I left off. 

“Most of the time we were cooking for ourselves. John came in for the first two sessions. He brought his 1950s Pavoni, Italian espresso machine, and wow! You know, something about the aesthetics really mattered to John. He’s influenced the rest of the band. I think we all sort of share that love of things that are unique.”

In Spanish, El Mirador means “The Lookout,”  Burns says it’s not so much about looking out. In a way it’s also about “looking inside and examining where your heart is and your thoughts, your . . . soul.” 

Burns is prone to considering all aspects of an inspiration—layer by layer, its colors, its moods. In imagining its musical expression, he wants to blur the lines and distort the boundaries, finding collaboration among disparate sounds. “I try to bring the chaos and the noise factor,” he says.

A video for El Mirador, the song, is charmingly animated with a spectral cartoon character, sombrero-topped and seemingly lost between between life and death. The instrumentation suggests a trepidation, even hesitation, but not fear. The mood is not so much bewilderment but cautious curiosity. What is this lighthouse in the arid depths of a shape-shifting inland desert? What challenges await? 

But El Mirador, the record, changes up songs and moods throughout, exploring dimensions of moods and conditions. For example, its two tender and emotionally driven love songs explore opposite yet inextricably related dimensions of intimate relationships.

The first, “Constellation,” is a sparkling promise of eternal love as seen looking upward as if from a Tucson rooftop: They can see stars. “In these arms/we call our home/If not for love/we’d never know.”

A few tracks later, “Caldera” finds the starry-eyed lovers at a low point, knees on the ground, hands in the clay, their dream now lost to them. Yet the title itself reminds us that this mood could be transient. A caldera is a miles-wide, Sonoran Desert shallow where the most valuable minerals are found—uranium, turquoise and especially the shiny, durable and enduringly practical copper.

The instrumental track, “Turquoise,” could be another dimension of the “Bisbee Blue” variety celebrated in Calexico’s 2006 release, Garden Ruin. “Turquoise”  brings yang-like grounding to the poppy, sing-along yin of the earlier track. It reminds us that there’s much more to the semi-precious gem than its coveted pure blue surfaces. It’s mostly irregularly lumpy, shot through with dark veins as unpredictable as the web of a Black Widow spider.

Turquoise evolved from a session in which Convertino was experimenting with new tunings, finding fresh expressions for his drums. Like everything else in Calexico sessions, the exercise was being recorded. Burns stepped in and started riffing, complementing the musicality of the drum tunings and the tempo his partner was suggesting.

Convertino’s singular drumming style, Burns says, defines Calexico’s signature sound. Lyrical, melodic, liberal, it creates plenty of space and porosity in its borders. That makes it an ideal medium for Burns’ own most consistent ideals for the band: building community and aggregating new sounds. His muse is restless and peripatetic. Diversity makes room for new connections.

Frequent Mendoza collaborator Camilo Lara (of Mexico City) also plays and earns production credits elsewhere on Mirador, but “Cumbia del Polvo” features his entire band, Mexican Institute of Sound. They amp up the cumbia energy with their punk disco mariachi sensibilities. Gaby Moreno (Guatemala City) provides backing vocals. Among Tucson’s favorite Calexico collaborators, Jairo Zavala (Madrid), who has opened for them here, sings and plays with his band, DePedro, on the rousing “Cumbia Peninsula.”

“There’s a lot of cumbia,” Burns says of the record. “Rhythm is that great connector, the unifier.”

Sam Beam of Iron and Wine provides an almost ethereal haunting backing vocal on the take-it-down track, “Harness the Wind.” Burns and Convertino have toured with him and collaborated on two albums.

Of the song, Burns says, “I think because of where we’ve come through (since 2020) there was a lot of questioning what we hold to be true on the personal and societal levels. In ‘Harness the Wind,’ there’s this quality in the writing or in the character where things are not working out, but somebody has helped turn this character around and lifted them up. For me, that’s always going to be at the heart of what we do—that balance between dark and light and melancholy and celebration, or, acknowledging challenges and looking at other characters in our world and shining a light on them.”

In our first interview around 1996, Burns told me, simply, “Sometimes it’s great to write music to other people’s words.” At the time, he would often turn to his brother to help compose lyrics that would tell the story of the mood and the vision his music evoked.

For El Mirador, he turned to the poetry of singer-songwriter Pieta Brown. Now living in El Paso, she befriended the band when she lived in Tucson early in their career. Burns says, “Pieta has a really beautiful way of interpreting things. It’s always interesting to have those connections with people where you don’t have to say much or explain much at all. Pieta is like that friend who gets it right away, who understands the aesthetics.

“She mentioned that she wanted to get together with John and me, and had carved out a couple songs. She said ‘Let’s see what you guys do with these, whatever you want to do with them.’ A friend like that is incredibly helpful for someone like me. I generally write the music first and it just so happened that (Brown’s poem) ‘Then You Might See’ fit beautifully.”

“You Might See” limns a shadowed heart divided by the border: “Mary at the window/crying love is blind.” Burns wrote the music as he read it line by line. “I just love her insight, love her phrasing,” He says “It’s always enjoyable to co-write with her because she’s able to do things I can’t. She’s a badass, too.”

Brown’s El Paso lyrics are a free-form, chiaroscuro of dark bits of history in ashes and the feather-light promises of renewal. Burns says, “I like how the tension builds throughout the song. (Then) . . . the bridge breaks down just how hard border issues are, but finding the truth there as well.”

Burns acknowledges that much of El Mirador’s heavier content bears the weight of our times. “I tried to contrast the tempos and the rhythms and dynamics of the band, performing more like we would in a live show with lyrics that are often looking underneath things, trying to find what’s going on not only emotionally, within ourselves, but with our community, where we are now.”

For Burns, the touchstone song on El Mirador seems to be the festive family gathering that is “Liberada.” He keeps coming back to it to illustrate everything he wanted the record to represent.

“Sergio put on some beautiful piano parts in kind of a more Afro-Cuban style,” Burns says. “That just took it to another place. It made me think about the time (Spanish vocalist) Amparo Sanchez took John and me to Havana, Cuba to record and play. We got to hang out and we went to a party. It was just at (a) relative’s house for an uncle who was turning 80. Despite all that’s going on in the world, for years or recently, it just made me realize that we have to celebrate life.

“So on that song, ‘Liberada,’ we wrote the chorus first, which is like, “There’s a party, everybody come on over, my uncle’s turning 80. He can still shake it. And then, to all the ladies, we hand out flowers and we’re dancing.’

“We brought in Johnny Contreras (long-time Calexico collaborator and director of Mariachi Aztlan de Pueblo High School), and it was such a great day. We had this beautiful break where we just got to hang out. Johnny’s a very positive individual, as you might know.

“Then he called up Tony (Antonio Pro aka El Flash) to come in and play some guitarrón, and both of them just did gritos over the whole song. Then he called David Gill (coach of Amphitheater High School’s Mariachi Sol Azteca) to come in and play violin. Then David brought some of his students.”

Burns beams while telling that story. It clearly has everything he loves, community, collaboration and a couple of decades’ evolution in live performances.

He says that now the songs feel “all bottled up”. Then he backtracks. “Not bottled, but I feel like . . . we did some rehearsing and . . .when we started playing them, I was like ‘We need to stretch these things out because they feel like they’re finely crafted and bottled for me to uncork and let breathe.’ So the next step is just taking them on tour.

We really need the touring aspect to bring in more of that chaos and dissonance and be more experimental.”

On tour, Calexico will comprise seven musicians—a lot to corral, especially when improvising. All must be listening like bandits, and lesser musicians might be,  possibly should be, daunted. But Burns celebrates mistakes.

“Improvising—sometimes it’s hard,” he says. “But if you kind of designate that it’s okay to make a mistake, or just say ‘Once we get to this song, let’s have a section where nobody knows what’s gonna happen.’ As long as people know that, they can take a break or dive in and lead the way.”

Burns’ longing for the road is palpable, and not just for the sake of musical alchemy, although crowd energy makes the magic come together. Burns misses the band’s global family.

“Coming out of COVID, it just felt like we had missed not only Tucson, but we missed touring and playing live. I missed that energy. This project and this album are very much about just wanting to connect with friends and community—like bringing he family together again. These themes of coming together, this combination of language, music, instrumentation—that openness has been at the core of who we are.

“There have been those moments in the pandemic, and now what’s been going on in Ukraine. We see those moments when people sing or play together. It’s truly just, it’s emotional.

“I don’t ask myself too many questions. Like, ‘Why are you doing this? How come you did that? Or where are you gonna go next?’ I’m trying to just have a good time with my friends, play music and at the same time, kind of examine where we are as a people, as a planet.”

So is Calexico still a Tucson band? How do you feel about our native pollinators— our Monarch butterflies, our Rufous hummingbirds, or, for the laugh, our lesser long-nosed bats? Calexico is another treasured Sonoran pollinator. They carry our gifts far and wide and come back with unique and priceless souvenirs. Be on the lookout.  

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