PREVIEW: Calexico: Tuscon troubadours continue to cross borders

Posted by on 13 August 2008

Josh Markle, Beatroute, July 2008

Joey Burns, who along with John Convertino makes up the core of roots band Calexico, can’t stop thinking about water. That should be expected given Calexico’s home base: The often dry Santa Cruz River curls around Tucson, Arizona like pie crust, the rest being framed by a series of mountain ranges punching through the alkali desert like rows of teeth. The setting provides a fitting metaphor – the juxtaposition of the sublime and the beautiful – for some of Calexico’s dark, brooding parables backed by airy Mexican horns. But Burns’ memory of his childhood home takes the aptly named Carried To Dust, Calexico’s forthcoming album, in a new direction.

“I grew up on the coast and it is kind of a big change for me to live out here in the desert,” Burns says, reflecting on his newest muse. “But after 14 years I find myself yearning for the coast, for the water. That is what a lot of this new record is about.”

The sunny and crowded beaches of Burns’ California youth will undoubtedly put another twist in the trail for Calexico fans, most of whom should be used to following the band on its varied musical junkets. From Calexico’s tales of loneliness in a Cormac Macarthy inspired West, to their collaboration with Iron and Wine, to their 2007 album Toolbox’s heated socio-political undertones, the only thing that fans could have come to expect at this point is change.

“We really tried to take on some new lyrical direction on the last album,” Burns says about Toolbox. “A lot of it was socio-political because there was a lot of anger and protest within the group. Some of us are Americans, but there are also Europeans, so we felt we were able to give a unique perspective.

“And now again on this album, we switched things up,” he continues. “The last record we did we got the whole band together from all over the states and Europe and that had its advantages. On this record we went back to basics. John and I got together, mapped out a rough skeleton of the record and some songs and then brought everybody in one by one to put some flesh on it.”

Collaboration has been one of the few constants in Calexico’s history. Before branching off on their own, Burns and Convertino had gained a strong professional following as a competent and adaptive rhythm section. Honing their collaborative skills over years of backing up others is one reason Calexico has been so successful. Their upcoming album is no different and features a diverse cast of players. In addition to long time friends such as Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam, Calexico has recruited others such as Spanish singer Jairo Zavala.

“He’s such a fantastic musician,” says Burns of Zavala, who with Convertino recently backed up Zavala’s most recent record. “He writes in Spanish and so he doesn’t get a lot of attention here, which is unfortunate. It was just great to have him on the record.”

The band is set to tour the new record with the upcoming Calgary Folk Fest as one of the first shows. It is been some time since their previous appearance there – Burns alluded to the possibility of death threats if they were unable to make it this year – but it is a venue that left a lasting impression.  Burns looks forward to the communal and collaborative aspects of the Folk Fest and it is not hard to see why: It is just the sort of thing the band thrives on.

“At one point we were watching this Romanian gypsy band,” says Burns of the workshops at the festival. “They had violins and accordions and an upright bass player. I said to the other guys in the band that these guys were great, and I thought it would be great to play with them, so we kind of saddled up on stage and started to play with them.

“Their style is a bit different and we kind of got some dirty looks at first,” Burns recalls, “but eventually one of the guys realized that we were trying to play with them and not upstage them and it really came together. That right there is what I think it is all about.”

Who: Calexico
Where: Calgary Folk Festival
When: July 25th