Catching up with Calexico’s Joey Burns

Music Features Calexico

When Joey Burns picked up the phone for our interview last week, he was rifling through his bookshelf, preparing to move between houses in Tucson, Arizona, deciding which ones to keep. The books he was sorting through— which, to name a few titles, included Dubliners, Lolita and some South American mythology— was just as eclectic and worldly as one might expect from Burns, who, along with John Convertino, serves as one of Calexico’s two founding members.

For over fifteen years, Calexico has built its name on a unique blend of indie-world music that incorporates sounds from locales as far-ranging as the dusty Southwest all the way to Cuba. Their eighth full-length effort, Algiers, comes out via ANTI Records on Sept. 11. Its name comes from a neighborhood in New Orleans where the band relocated for the recording of the album, and it’s just as richly textured and engaging as anything the band’s released yet. We caught up with Joey Burns a few weeks ago to talk through the particulars of the dark, dense Algiers.

Paste: I read about how you set up to start recording a new album in Tuscon, and it was just too cold, and something wasn’t quite working. What do you think it was about relocating to New Orleans that freed things up artistically?
Burns: I think it was having that new perspective: not being in your own home, not sleeping in your own bed, not playing all the same instruments. Breathing in a totally different environment, taking in a different world. New Orleans is really not that far away, but it’s quite different from the desert where we live. When you’re in a town like New Orleans, you can’t help but think about all the incredible music that’s been going on there for many years. The few times we did make it out into the city, there’s always a really great boost to the inspiration.

In New Orleans, we were able to spend twelve hours in the studio when we needed to. I wasn’t able to get to that place here in Tucson, because of obligations with the family. It was really nice to be able to do that and not feel like, “wow, I should really be back home helping put the kids in the bath or put them to bed.” It’s like okay, I’m here and I’m focused. The same can be said when you go on tour; you get into that momentum. We were able to make great strides in the amount of work down there.

Paste: I read something in a review of your last album that I thought was really interesting and I wanted to see what you thought about it. It says, “being in Calexico is kind of like being in a music theory class, where you’re always learning something new.” It sounds like, with every album, that you’re drawing from some different source or influence. What were some other sources that inspired you for this album?
Burns: Hmm, being in Calexico is like being in a music theory class. I’d refine that. I feel our influence is more ethnomusicology or, “psychogeographical.” We’re more into world music appreciation rather than just western. There are influences coming from places like the Dominican Republic. We listen to a lot of meringue. As far as going to New Orleans, I do love a lot of New Orleans music, a lot of jazz. I’ve been reading the autobiography of Louie Armstrong, and was pulling out quotes now and then before going to the studio. That’s always inspiring.

I’ve been listening to a local DJ here in Tuscon who’s been playing the music of the Boswell Sisters, they were before the Andrew Sisters. They were from New Orleans, and really blended a lot of incredible influences in their music from the time. What I was fascinated by was having been to Cuba and having recorded in the Pacific Rim studios, with a Spanish singer Antonia Sanchez who invited us there to help out. The place really resonated with me in that I felt like I was in a sister city to something like New Orleans.

Having told a friend I was going to Cuba, Charles Bowden, a local Tucson writer and journalist said “oh, you’ve got to pick up this book by Ned Sublette called The World that Made New Orleans.” It’s the documentation of historically what’s going on there in the Gulf of Mexico. It was a beautiful eye-opener for me not having paid enough attention to that area. It was interesting to see these influences, see what was in the core of the birth of jazz. It’s not so much that I’m focusing on jazz as the one medium, but it’s just about how music it comes to be.

There are more similarities in a lot of these different countries and cultures, styles of music, than there are differences, and that’s what’s really beautiful, is when you get to travel and see all of these different styles. You get to see, wow, some of these different styles are recognizable. So when I go to write songs, I’m thinking about these things. When I go to listen to other great collaborations like the Buena Vista Social Club, you can see where he’s trying to bring in a more Pacific influence to this gulf of Mexico, like Afro-cuban and jazz. I love doing that. I love bringing elements that naturally come together, yet haven’t been done before.

Paste: That synthesis of different cultural musical styles is something Calexico’s really built it’s name on.
Burns: For sure. It’s obvious that what we’ve done is try to make our own signature sound, but respecting all those traditions that influence it. At the core of it, you want to write the songs into stories. Having had twin daughters, I’ve learned you have to sing a very simple tune. It doesn’t always have to be soothing; it can be fun. There’s always dance parties. So that kind of underscores the importance of the song and that simple story.

So with this record, having taken a break from the road but also having had experiences doing a bunch of soundtracks, it was really good primer to going in and writing this record. At first, we weren’t sure what record we were going into. We did some research and found this area on the west bank, this area called Algiers. The studio we recorded the album in is called the Living Room studio, and it’s just amazing. It’s an old Baptist church built in the 1930’s. These two young guys, Chris George and Daniel Majorie, completely renovated it themselves. They had to go back in and make sure the thing didn’t totally fall to the ground.

It’s almost as if the studio itself is an instrument. When John’s playing the drums, you can really hear quite a difference from what we were accustomed to back in Tucson. It was really great to walk back into a place that feels good, sounds good, and that has this connection to the past.

Much in the same way as we respect the aesthetic, the craftsmanship that’s been made with our instruments, or the kind of music that we’re referring to and being influenced by, these guys, Chris and Daniel, respect this building and are bringing in really great analog, and some digital recording gear, and the aesthetics are so lined up with the bones and the structural elements that are there.

There’s something about that sense of style and design where you not only just want to completely come in and do your own thing, but you’re trying to salvage and be as green as you can by using what’s there. And it’s an interesting philosophy, I think, and it’s nothing that’s very forced. It comes very natural. It’s just using what you have to the best of your abilities, and then adding to it what you feel is needed for that expression or that song, for the purpose of that building—or this band, at this time. For the purpose of what’s going on. What are the needs being expressed in the song and the stories? It’s all influenced by the time that it’s made in. These things that are just at the foundation, seem to last really well. That’s a goal for us, to build these songs and to start these songs from a very intuitive, nurturing space, to make these songs that will last.

It goes back to an aesthetic, that feel. I love that one Tom Waits song that he does with Keith Richards, talking about “that steel.” That’s such an important part to what makes music stand out. That’s something that we shoot for when we’re recording a lot of these sessions. We’re trying to capture the best possible feel. So going to New Orleans really helped us to hone in and be surrounded by just a great surrounding.

Paste: I wanted to talk about “Para.” I’ve read that it was originally going to be left off the album because it was a little bit too dark or too heavy.

Burns:.That song took a couple of different paths throughout the course of the record. It was the last one we cut in New Orleans.
I was trying to connect with the music of our friend who passed away, a couple of years ago from cancer, whose name was Lahsa, who was a female singer-songwriter. The song is called “Con Todo Palabra,” or “with all these words.” I wanted to connect with her in a way, by way of paying homage. Sometimes that’s the way you get into writing a song and wanting to connect with them. John came up with the ideas for the lyrics. He was referencing a Terrence Malick film he had seen, “The Tree of Life.” He was thinking about the images he had seen from it, and also, just the whole style that it was edited and shot, drawing from that influence.

When we’re putting out a record, we’re so close to it, sometimes it’s hard for us to realize what songs should make the final cut. So we brought on Craig Schumaker, the engineer and the co-producer, as well as labels, and they were all strongly for that song.

Paste: “Vanishing Mind,&#8221 is really striking as the last song on the album. I love how it ends, when it pares down to just the bare strings.

Burns:: That song came so smoothly and so easily. It feels like something very natural to our world and to our style.

It was borne from picking up an old acoustic guitar that I’d had in my storage unit for a long, long time. I wanted to see what that guitar sounded like now, if it was still even playable. It has these unusual strings and this low tone.

At the end, I was writing some ideas for string parts and maybe getting a little too heavy and coming up with these elaborate parts. And then I kept going back to that guitar, just playing with these nitty, sampled strings. And everyone at the label thought that was really cool. And then as we got closer and closer we put on real strings, we thought that was a good closer.

Lyrically, I like the way this album gently comes to a close. The song itself deals with loss, loss of memory, loss of love, and of losing yourself in the process of watching others around you slip away.

My grandmother had a slight amount of dementia while she was passing away, and we had a really hard time visiting her in the hospital and having her not recognize my sister and I. John, who wrote the lyrics, was thinking about his mother who he lost to Alzheimer’s, and then he was reading an article in the Times about inmates on death row in California who are also slipping away into dementia and Alzheimer’s, and how the younger inmates on death row are encouraged to help take care of them.

Those lines, “Who could care for you/ who could understand,” that comes from bridging those two different worlds. It comes from the same place of caring for someone regardless of the past, regardless of what may transpire, but really being supportive of humanity regardless of your crime and your place in it all.

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