Somewhere along the way, the word "consistent" became synonymous with "boring," deployed by scene kids hanging out in alleyways, scoffing at once-popular bands with disdain in their eyes: "They're just so... consistent." But every now and then, a band like Calexico comes along to point out the absurdity of such semantics.
The band has "consistently" produced quality music for over a decade now, blending indie-rock melodies with the traditional horns and mariachis of their native Southwest into a style that varies between soothing ballads and the eerie soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic world. Their sixth full studio album, Carried To Dust, comes out this September on Touch & Go Records. Paste recently caught up with drummer and co-founding member John Convertino on the phone to discuss the album, as well as ominous dreams, Jim Jarmusch and the great beyond.
:You guys just got back from a few days in Germany?
Convertino: Yeah, that's right. We went up there five days before these two big festivals. But yeah, we went up there and rehearsed for about five days, and it was a lot of fun because we started working on these new songs off the record.
Paste:This is your first experience playing Carried To Dust live?
Convertino: Yeah, it was. A lot of times these songs, they take on a whole different life when you start playing them live because the recording process is so different. A lot of these songs are a lot of fun to play, so I'm excited about that.
Paste: I figure when you play festivals and venues [out of the U.S.] the fans and critics would want to pigeonhole your genre even more than American fans and critics do. Is that the case at all?
Convertino: Yeah, there's just really no way around it. They have to label you with something or pick out some aspect of your band to single you out or distinguish you from the other bands. So, you know, if you read the bio of [The Mars Volta] it'll always mention the '70s and big hair and jamming and stuff. So whenever you read the Calexico bio it's always Southwestern desert, mariachi trumpets, film-score music. Yeah, it gets irritating, but what are you gonna do, you know? There's nothing you can do.
Paste: It seems like more often than not the first paragraph to quarter of the [festival bio] is dedicated to either describing the genre or describing how genre-less the band is.
Convertino: Well I think that is, I mean, I like that. I think it's great when people have trouble making a statement about it and then that becomes the statement. I'm fine with that. (laughs)
Paste: Your song "Crystal Frontier" was played as a wake-up song for the crew on the Discovery shuttle. What was it like to hear that news?
Convertino: It was really cool. I immediately could relate to it because I was named after an astronaut: John Glenn. My mom made this big deal about me being born on the same day he was splashed down from his orbit around the Earth in space. And she wrote him a letter, and he wrote back and said congratulations and sent an autographed picture. So I thought that was pretty neat... I mean, when you think about it, he's an astronaut. How much time does he really have to respond to fan mail? But he did.
Paste: That sounds really nice.
Convertino: Yeah, I thought that was pretty cool. I was born in '63, so that's like a big part of my growing up, watching those lunar space launches to the moon. I mean, those were amazing.
Paste: Absolutely. I always feel a relation to the sort of outer space culture and launches as well. My parents are both teachers, but my dad was one of the teacher applicants for the Challenger shuttle and actually got pretty far into the selection process, so my mind always comes back to that when I hear about the shuttles.
Convertino: (whispering) Oh man... I had the most bizarre dream about that.
Paste: Oh, really?
Convertino: Yeah, the night before I heard about it exploding, I had this dream where I was kind of floating in this room. You know how you have those kind of flying dreams? Well, this one I was, like, floating, and I kind of felt like I might fall. But then I looked around and all the astronauts that were on the Challenger were kind of surrounding me, and, like, smiling and saying, “It's gonna be alright.” And then I started to kind of, like, float down, and I woke up and later on in the day I found out they exploded and it was really weird. And then looking at the pictures in the newspaper I was like, "Oh yeah, that guy, and the teacher, they were all there in my dream."
Paste: That's pretty surreal. Sort of horrifying, too.
Convertino: I know, I know. Lucky for your dad though.
Paste: That's very true... But yeah, back to you guys' song being played in space. I didn't even know friends and family of the crew members even had the option of picking the alarm music for the crew, until I found out about "Crystal Frontier" being played up there.
Convertino: Yeah, I'd never thought about that, either.
Paste: And the woman [Gabrielle Giffords, who selected the song] is an Arizona Congresswoman, right?
Convertino: That's right, the astronaut's wife.
Paste: And that song, "Crystal Frontier" that she chose, the first time I heard it, in my head pictured Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise. And I read in an interview with Joey that if he could work with any one director on a similar project it would be Jim. Do you share that same admiration?
Convertino: No, I mean, I'm a big fan of Jim Jarmusch. I love him. People ask us that question a lot about whether or not his movies influence our music, and I think they really do. I think books, you know anything you're putting in, is bound to come out.
Paste: And I've read several allusions people make to Cormac McCarthy and Sergio Leone, among others. When you guys write or read stuff like that, do you think of it more in just a comparative sense of storytelling, or do you feel like you actually internalize their work and then directly draw from it?
Convertino: Yeah, I think the latter. You read a really great book by Cormac McCarthy, like The Road, and you pass the book on to the next guy in the band and he reads it, and you start getting in that like-mindedness, and whether it's characters in the book or a certain feeling you're getting from the book, I think it starts to come out in the music.
Paste: Now, I'd hate to get you on the phone and not talk about the new album.
Paste: The label called it "a bold move forward while remembering where you came from," but that sort of sounds like label talk. So what would you call it?
Convertino: Well, they're pretty much hitting the nail on the head there with that. I really feel like we're always trying new stuff all the time, and the last record we really wanted to make a radical break from kind of what we were talking about earlier, the labels that had been put on the band. So I guess, having done that now and still getting the same labels put on us is kind of like, "Well, what the hell. It doesn't matter." You know what I mean? No, but it's true, I think the big departure was with Garden Ruin and trying to streamline the songs more, develop that aspect of the band which was more of a pop sensibility, I think, and you know, a songwriting challenge to do it that way. And it was fun to be able to do that, and people were always asking us if it was a new direction for the band. And it's not necessarily a new direction, it's just developing that aspect of it because we still love to play instrumentals and we still love ambiance in our music and we love trumpets, so I think we still want to use those elements, and that is what we did with the new record. You've just got to keep doing what you feel like you've got to do, and I think for this record we really were. I think the going back part is just realizing which songs we like to play live the most, and we wanted to try to write some more songs that were like that because when you're out touring as much as we are, the songs that are the most fun to play live are the best ones.
Paste: Do you have a favorite track on the album?
Convertino: Yeah, I really like "House of Valparaiso" because the initial drum track was really fun for me to listen to. Oh, I'm remembering something new. It's kind of like this Stewart Copeland beat and being an 80's guy. Stewart Copeland is one of the greatest drummers of all time. But I love that beat. I was always shy to ever play that beat because you'd immediately get, "Hey, you sound like Stewart Copeland," or "That's a Stewart Copeland beat," but I think doing it with brushes and playing with Joey with the acoustic guitar, it sounded really different. And it was really fun for me to listen back to it and be able to hear where it was coming from, but also hear how different it sounded. And then as the song developed Joey kept changing the chord changes on it. He actually changed the structure of the song from what it was initially and added a completely different middle section. And then, of course, asked Sam Beam to sing the back-up vocals and that was just the final thing that put the song through. And that was all happening, like, really toward the end of completing the record, while we were mixing it practically. So that one really did change so drastically from where we were initially, for me, but still a lot of fun.
Paste: "Writer's Minor Holiday" has this frantic, sort of eerie uneasy feel to it when you combine the echoing guitars and the hypnotic piano melodies. Even the ending static left me tense. What went into that song, and how did it feel to you?
Convertino: That was another fun one, initially. You set these feelings on tape and some of them have this easiness where you just know what to do when you hear it, and that's what Joey and I did on ["Writer's Minor Holiday"]. And the background vocals reminded me of The Pixies, one of my favorite bands. And I thought we had never really come close to anything that they do but that song was reminding me of it and kind of got me excited about it. And I like where it went lyrically, too. It was right when the writers’ strike was going on in Hollywood, and it was just a nice slant on a subject that you wouldn't think would show up in a song, you know? ...And we were trying to work that one out live to do for a show here in Tucson. And it just wasn't really happening in rehearsal until the girl came who sang the back-up vocals, and she came and rehearsed with us. As soon as those back-up vocals came in it was like, alright, it's happening. Got the song swinging again. So I have a feeling that Paul Neihaus is going to have to develop his falsetto. He's gonna have to start sounding like a girl to pull that song off live.
Paste: I read in an article where Joey was interviewed where he said a lot of you guys' mistakes and slip-ups during practicing and recording new songs actually become vital parts of albums, which isn't something that many mainstream bands say. Would you say that's still the case, and what do you think that means to your process?
Convertino: Yeah, it's definitely the case. A really good example is "Man Made Lake” has this really weird drum fill, like, right in the middle of the verse, and drum fills usually come before choruses or they open up an instrumental passage in the song. And here's Joey in the middle of a verse and all the sudden I start doing this New Orleans beat on the snare and do a roll around the toms. What's going on here? (laughs) And the thing is, we did some other takes on it, proper takes without the weird drum fill in there, and none of them felt as good as that one. I thought that had a unique quality to it that you could never get again from the first take, so we really try to continue to that initial feeling of what's happening right as the song is being recorded and don't try to over think it. The cool thing is, with this record, Craig Schumaker, who mixed it and did a lot of the engineering, has been embracing a lot of the newer technologies of ProTools and the digital world. He'd always been a pretty staunch believer in keeping things analog, not messing with things when you go inside the songs and start fixing things. But he was a little more open to doing it this time and we were more open to having it done so some things were gone over with a fine tooth comb, which was really fun to do. We've never really done it like that. But we were still keeping a lot of the rawness in there too.
Paste: I'd read that you guys had played around like that for almost the first time on ["Not Even Stevie Nicks"] from Feast Of Wire, but just because you only had a few minutes of tape left or something...
Convertino: (laughs) Yeah, funny, huh? It's like, with ProTools, it totally changes things because you're limitless, you know? There's no running out of tape. The computer can just keep running all the time. That can be really dangerous, too, because you start thinking, “Well, we can always fix that,” and it starts to change the way you think about performing.
Paste: You sort of lull yourself into a false sense of security?
Convertino: Yeah, it's true. That's why I think it's great to have both. It's great to have a tape rolling so you feel like you're producing a performance for the tape and then when that happens you can drop it down to the digital realm and mess with it if you want to or not.