The Musical Mixing Pot of Calexico

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Calexico co-founders Joey Burns and John Convertino hear the world differently than most people. After all, not everyone would have imagined that surf guitar reverb would sound so at home beneath a blast of mariachi trumpet … or that an acoustic Portuguese fado wouldn’t clash with an electric Norteño rave-up … or that the lonesome cry of a pedal steel guitar could flourish with a symphony orchestra’s string section.

Feast of Wire (due out Feb. 18) continues the Tucson, Ariz., band’s tradition of musical alchemy. While their proximity to the Mexican border is still a strong influence, Calexico has raised the ante this time with more song styles, instruments and collaborators. The result further proves that variety—in the hands of the right alchemists—provides just the right musical chemistry.

"[Calexico] is kind of an international clubhouse of instruments and backgrounds," says Burns, the soft-spoken singer and guitarist who founded the group with Convertino in 1996. "We just mix it up and stick it in the blender and push ‘chop.’"

The record that emerged from the blender—their fourth official full-length—is sonically broader. The band added some electronic touches here and there, most noticeably on the Latin Playboys-like "Attack El Robot! Attack!" and augmented their jazz repertoire with a Gil Evans/Charles Mingus-influenced number, "Crumble." The strings from the Tucson Symphony Orchestra contributed to the Ennio Morricone-flavored "Close Behind," and "Not Even Stevie Nicks" sounds like Calexico’s first indie pop song.

Other tunes on Feast of Wire suggest more traditional Calexico fare, both thematically and sonically. "Quattro (World Drifts In)" depicts the seemingly inevitable demise of the Tarahumara, a native Indian tribe of the Sierra Madres Occidental range in Mexico who are losing their unique culture—and often their lives—to exploitative drug traffickers. The song begins with a foreboding guitar riff, augmented by a Native American drum beat and maracas, and a percussive deadened-string strum on an acoustic. Various electric guitars then add layers upon layers of call-and-response lines on the simple five-note repetition; trumpets and pedal steel then join the controlled chaos, bemoaning the unfolding tragedy that Burns recounts in his wistful tone.

The theme of the opening cut, "Sunken Waltz," is urban sprawl and the coming southwestern water crises—a standard topic for a band whose motto is, "Our Soil, Our Strength." Burns suggests that "just growing up in the West and watching the sprawl gradually filter out into the landscape" was practically traumatizing. In many of these songs, a typical protagonist suddenly turns his back on a bleak and corrupt suburban existence (it’s Los Angeles in this song, as Burns alludes to Mike Davis’ brilliant underground history of that town, City of Quartz). Thoreau-like, the Calexican character heads back into nature (typically the desert or mountains) and endures soul-purifying hardships, often while civilization is getting hammered by some cataclysmic event: in "Sunken Waltz," a flood. Sometimes the protagonists emerge alive and fundamentally altered by epiphany; sometimes they don’t emerge at all.

The often brutal lives of illegal immigrants are another topic Calexico has explored before, most notably in their single "Crystal Frontier" (available on the 2001 EP, Even My Sure Things Fall Through). "Across the Wire" was inspired by Luis Urrea’s book of the same title, and musically, by Burns’ immersion in a recorded anthology of Mexican folk music. "It’s a distillation of many different styles that we’ve been playing in Calexico for a while," Burns says of the song. "Part Norteño button accordion, western pedal steel, mariachi trumpets and violins, and twang baritone guitar."

On a lighter note, the banda-flavored "Güero Canelo," celebrates a Tucson eatery’s delectable entrees while a Casio synthesizer, baritone guitar and "low-rider bass thump" capture "what it feels like riding down to South Tucson on a Saturday night," says Burns, who, like a lot of musicians, has an uncanny knack of knowing where the best Mexican food is in any town.

As on all Calexico records, a handful of sultry instrumentals tie everything together, serving as segues, emotional rest stops or picturesque vignettes. "Pepita" suggests more Native American influences, "Dub Latina" combines modern and traditional touches, and the minimalist sketch, "The Book & the Canal," hints at classical pianist Erik Satie (a previous Calexico influence) and jazz giants Art Tatum or Bud Powell—which one, Burns remains undecided. Perhaps both.

Given the somber nature of some of the subject matter, many of the songs on Feast of Wire are unashamedly melancholic. But all are emphatically vibrant and, as is the case with all good art, ultimately uplifting and spiritually fulfilling because of the beauty of their construction and the honesty of their execution. As Burns sees it, "there are moments of light at the end of the tunnel" that always makes the journey worthwhile.

In the past, Burns and Convertino set up camp in the studio with all their instruments and conjured up most of the album alone, bringing in the hired guns in later to put the finishing touches on it. This time, the musicians with whom they had been touring for over a year participated from the start. They included native Germans Martin Wenk (accordion/trumpet/guitar/synthesizers) and Volker Zander (bass/vibes), Mexican-American Jacob Valenzuela (keys/trumpet/vibes) and—on loan from Lambchop—Nashville resident Paul Niehaus (pedal steel/acoustic guitars).

"Having them involved in some of the recording and writing process was a big influence," Burns says. "One of the songs on the album, ‘Black Heart,’ was cut live, the basic tracks were, anyway, and that’s something that’s unique for us. ‘No Doze,’ the last track on the record, was built around a simple three-note theme Paul came up with on his pedal steel."

Burns and Convertino first played together in the early ’90s as the rhythm section for Howe Gelb’s Tucson-based musical cooperative, Giant Sand. They did a brief stint as backup for the pedal steel-driven, all-instrumental Friends of Dean Martinez, then formed Calexico and released Spoke, their debut, in 1996. Since then, they’ve released two full length CDs, one EP and four limited-release albums that they sell on tour or at www.casadecalexico.com.

The variety of different musical forms on those records has meant an amazing variety of instruments, as well. Like many musicians, Burns and Convertino are consummate thrift-store vultures, with discarded or abandoned instruments their preferred quarry. In Calexico, the instruments are revered for their history almost as much as the players’ backgrounds. The pedal steel guitar, for instance, comes with a certain pedigree. So does the trumpet, the vibraphone and the stand-up bass the group prefers.

"It’s what these instruments represent, where they come from," Burns says, citing the German heritage of the accordion in Mexican music as an example. "It’s nice to bring these elements together, and at the same time bring in your own influence. For me it might be that twang element, or it might be that indie rock sensibility of low-fi recording techniques, or electronic samples, or something thrown in there."

Of course it helps if you can actually play all those instruments. Burns studied classical music at UC Irvine and is fluent on a number of stringed instruments, including cello, bass and guitar. Convertino plays accordion and vibes in addition to all manner of percussion. But it’s his drumming that propels Calexico’s music— firmly rooted in jazz styles (Burns likens Convertino’s musicality to Max Roach’s) and executed on a kit so simple you could fit half a dozen of them inside the average rock star’s drum set.

"John’s such a musical drummer," says Burns. "It’s not so much what he’s playing as what he’s not playing a lot of the time. It’s knowing when to come in, giving the vocals or the lyrics space, and then fleshing them out. He’s just got a great ear, and a sensibility of how music fits together. Not just from a technical standpoint, either, but from a real soulful, inner spirit, emotional standpoint."

Burns acknowledges that he and Convertino are both "good listeners." That musical sensitivity makes them very popular with other musicians. Over the last few years, the Calexico core has done session work—usually as a team—for Richard Buckner, Neko Case, Jenny Toomey, Barbara Manning, Victoria Williams, Bill Janowitz, Lisa Germano, the Amor Belhom Duo, Steve Wynn, Shannon Wright, and Jean Louis Marat, among others.

"They’re looking for some kind of bridge from where they’re at, and maybe where they want to go," says Burns. "It’s just about being a good listener and trying to get to the heart of their vision and what they’re trying to say."

That ability and commitment led Buckner to record with Burns and Convertino twice: in 1997 on Devotion & Doubt, his major label debut, and again in 2000 on The Hill, his musical tribute to Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. The singer-songwriter recorded the basic tracks for The Hill on his basement 8-track, then brought them to Wavelab with only one stipulation for the bassist and drummer: no bass or drums, please.

"I gave them that kind of a handicap, and I was astounded," Buckner says. Convertino used a variety of percussion instruments—tambourines, maracas, shakers, wood blocks—to reproduce the idea of drums throughout the recording. Burns used a staccato-style of bowing on his cello to imitate a plucked bass—among several other nuances. The results are subtle but help give The Hill its distinct sound.

"They’re a great rhythm section, but they’re more than that," Buckner says. "They play everything and they’re amazing at everything and it’s not just because of technical proficiency; it’s about leaving your mind open enough to just let whatever happens happen."

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