Calexico's School of Philosophy

By: Sarah Hagerman

Convertino & Burns - Calexico
Considering the myriad of musical projects that surround him, Calexico's Joey Burns (guitar) sounds infinitely relaxed on the phone from Tucson. He draws out his sentences in a leisurely but extremely thoughtful manner. So much so that a couple times I begin asking another question, thinking he has finished, and almost talk over him, punctuating his thoughts. My journalistic faux pas doesn't seem to bother him. Even the way he describes his day is very go-with-the-flow.

"Today I'm downtown in Wavelab Studios," he says. "We had lunch nearby, and we ran into a friend, Salvador Duran, who worked with us on the Iron & Wine/Calexico EP [In the Reins, 2005], and then we were like, 'Come and hang out in the studio, have a glass of water, have a beer.' And then we were like, 'Hey, why don't you sing on this track.' And then our trumpet player [Martin Wenk], who I was trying to get a hold of earlier today, he showed up."

"So, you know, the music it just naturally finds these moments and when you find those there can be this spark of spontaneity that [hesitates briefly, finding the words]... It's heart and soul. And we kind of carry that into all the avenues of music, all the on goings of touring and collaborations we get involved with," continues Burns. "It kind of goes back to that aesthetic, that openness."

Openness has been at the heart of Calexico's approach from the beginning. First playing together in Los Angeles in 1990 with Howe Gelb in Giant Sand, Burns and John Convertino (drums, percussion) relocated to Tucson in 1994 as part of that group. They later set off as a duo after stints with Friends of Dean Martinez and then as session musicians. Originally called Spoke (also the title of their 1996 German release, re-released in 1997 by Touch and Go/Quarterstick), they would soon change their name to Calexico, inspired by a road sign for the California bordertown. They have evolved into the present lineup of six, although Burns and Convertino still form the core. Even if you don't own a single Calexico record, you have probably absorbed some little piece of this band through osmosis – from the I'm Not There soundtrack to the background music of This American Life to an assortment of collaborations and side projects too numerous to mention here.

The name Calexico itself is evocative of both the colorful jumble of barrios and border crossings and the vast hush of the Sonoran Desert, with its saguaro cacti, coyote howls and red angular mountains. Music journalists with paper cuts from thumbing thesauruses have used phrases such as "Spaghetti Western soundtrack-inspired lo-fi," "sun-baked Southwestern sonic textures" and "mariachi post rock" when describing Calexico's music, especially regarding their earlier work. Although Burns and Convertino's collective is proudly rooted in the Sonoran space and the crisscross of Americana and Mexican musical forms for sure, they cast a much wider geography. Calexico records beg for deep, repeated listening. You can hear strands from various parts of the world woven in each song - pick up on one and follow the trail of fibers. Their rich wash of sound is music as passport.

Calexico by Gerald von Foris
"It's come from [our] natural interests for sure," explains Burns. "Like whether you get turned on to Manu Chao or Amadou & Mariam. Or through traveling, being at the Diaspora Music Festival, the free world music festival in London. It's more different neighborhoods and their ethnic music groups putting on a show. It's not a big corporate production. It's very homespun, and we got to see some incredible music. Our favorite group was from Ethiopia but they live in London. It was really exciting to see, to hear that music played live. You're hooked."

"It's like the same feeling you get when you first hear your favorite bands when you are young," he muses. "It's fresh. As a musician you are always looking for new sounds rather than always going back to the same classic rock, which is probably what has propelled us to go and search out new music. If you look at bands like Beirut or Devotchka, and those are just a couple of examples, but these are bands that show there's an influence that's well beyond the borders of the United States. Hey, there's a lot of immigrants here, and they bring with them their music, their culture, which is what makes this place great. And we pick up on that vibe, which is inherently American." "It's funny how that works," I say.

"It is funny how that works!" Burns exclaims. "We recently played the Newport Folk Festival and we got asked how we felt about bringing our music to a folk festival. And I go, 'Well, we're interested in all sorts of music from around the world.' Other countries don't call it American folk music; they just call it American roots music. Every place has their own rendition of folk, and, once again, I think that's an interesting perspective once you step outside of the American mainstream."

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