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Interview: Joey Burns of Calexico

"Drug-smugglers, immigration, border patrols, vigilantes, aid-workers..."


Interview: Joey Burns of Calexico
Emily Wilson

Desert-dwelling Tucson duo Calexico were founded in 1996, by songwriter Joey Burns and percussionist John Convertino, then members of weird-country combo Giant Sand. By the time they released Hot Rail in 2000, the pair's side-project was their full-time gig: Calexico's evocation of the Tex-Mex sound having earned them many admirers in both North America and Europe. Prior to the release of their sixth LP, 2008's Carried to Dust, Burns answered some inquiries.

You often record armed with specific narratives, sometimes even storyboards. Was that the case with Carried To Dust?
“It's more that these narratives seem to find good company with the music that we make, rather than us always coming to the studio well-prepared. In fact, we have a horrible habit of not rehearsing. Once, we rented a rehearsal space, and it just ended up becoming a storage space. We eventually realized we were wasting our money, and that we could replace our expensive rehearsal space with a far-cheaper storage cabinet. Now, without a rehearsal space, we're essentially rehearsing and writing whilst we're in the studio.”

What kind of spirit did you begin recordings in?
“At the start, John brought in a bunch of old vinyl and an old-timey record-player. He starts playing these old phonographs, these old tangos; just to hear them in the studio was really charming. I like the fact that he'll deliberately go quite the opposite direction to technology. He loves old cars, old drums, fixing things up: that's his meditation, to bring these old things back to life. When someone suggests we try a keyboard here, or a drum-machine there, he's the one who's always reminding us of the other extreme. I love that he brings that aspect, that quality, that character to our music.”

What lyrical terrain are you surveying on this record?
“I actually took inspiration from the writer's strike. I noticed late-night television going into this holding pattern, there being no fresh comedy as a breath of relief from the daily news. That sparked my imagination: I wrote "Writer's Minor Holiday," a song about writers with nothing to do, suddenly abandoning Los Angeles. I had this image in mind of this writer staring at a map, maybe a well-worn map that was a little out-dated, just wondering where they should go next. In some ways, that parallels John and I's lives. This record is inspired more by traveling than being in the desert.”

Even though you recorded it in Tucson?
“What we like to do is record things in our studio, then go somewhere else to mix it; so you have a continuity in the records, but they also sound different. So, we mixed this record in Austin, Texas, and while we were there we had dinner with our good friend Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, and he listened to a couple of tracks, and carved time out of his busy schedule to offer us a vocal track.”

How did your album-long collaboration, [2005's] In the Reins, come into being?
“That was through a mutual friend, Howard Greynolds. He was the guy who, ten years ago, initially contacted us about signing with Touch & Go, and, a decade later, he sets us up with Iron & Wine. We didn't really know each other before that, but, through all that hanging out, we found out we had a lot in common, and then, from that, became very good friends. Since then, I ended up playing on his last record, The Shepherd's Dog, and there've been these ongoing connections between us and Ol' Sam."

Do you sometimes spend as much time collaborating as working on Calexico records?
“Sometimes it seems that way. Last year we actually took a big break from Calexico, but we still worked on about six or seven projects, including the Todd Haynes movie I'm Not There. That took up a lot of time: working on the soundtrack, and ending up being in the film. That was fun. We had been in one film before, shoved in a dark corner in Collateral, but this time we were right there. We also worked with Cassandra Wilson, this gospel singer on Blue Note records, who really wanted to work with John. So, we convinced her to come out to Tucson, and she was a little surprised at our backwards set-up, our lack of technology."

What archaic non-technology did you put to use on Carried To Dust?
“Every record is, to me, a whole new introduction to new instruments. On this one, I used the Chinese guizeng, and there's also a guitar from Cape Verde. The songs are much more linear for me than on past records, which had quite Western four/five chord progressions, always focusing on that dominant seventh. These songs are more broad in scope, use far different approaches, and chord structures, which are exciting to me.”

Is this album less about the Tex-Mex border area as previous LPs?
“I don't think this record really dwells on that topic that much. But, in the past, writers like Carlos Fuentes, Cormac McCarthy, Luis Alberto Urrea, and their ideas about immigration, traveling cultures, and the crossing of cultural borders, those things really spoke to what we were trying to do.”

Have films like The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada and No Country For Old Men brought the border milieu into a more well-understood place?
“I'm sure that much more people are aware of it, but I'm not sure it's well understood, a lot of people don't seem to truly grasp the situation. But I'm glad those films exist, that they bring to light this region.”

Is it getting more and more repressive, and regressive, along the border?
“It is, it is. And it's getting more and more complicated. These walls being erected have their consequences on the environment. Regardless of the human border, the local wildlife has to be able to travel back and forth, it's important for their survival. But they're also having a hard time because of all the traffic that goes through there: drug-smugglers, immigration, border patrols, vigilantes, humanitarian aid-workers trying to prevent these immigrants from dying of dehydration in the middle of the desert. There's all these different layers that exist out here. And putting up a massive wall isn't the solution to any of these problems. It's certainly not going to stop desperate people from trying to cross, and it sure doesn't help the relations between the United States and Mexico.”

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