Calexico have long been a band synonymous with a certain sort of style. Since meeting in 1990, the duo at the heart of the band Joey Burns and John Convertino, have fashioned their own indie tones through the alt-country scene flavored with sounds from south-of-the-border. They have pushed boundaries and instigated change whilst remaining rooted in tradition and sociological awareness.
Currently wrapping up a U.S. tour, enjoying the critical acclaim on their ninth studio album, Algiers, Calexico are about to play a number of dates in Europe. It was ahead of their show in Denver, CO that Buzzine’s Jesse Livingston sat down with Joey Burns to discuss the songwriter’s developing relationship with music, his sense of place, the recent increase in personnel, and the joys and fortunes of being out on the road…
Jesse Livingston: Algiers has been out since September of 2012. Can you tell us something about the relationship you have to the songs now that you've played them onstage and they've lived and breathed with an audience?
Joey Burns: When you record a record, everything's new. You tend to work on your instincts. There was a lot of time spent living with song ideas and sketches. It's a very internal time... It's not like we were rehearsing them a lot. We'd just go in a record an idea and then see if we could live with it for a duration in that world. Then we made a decision: “Okay, these are the songs. Let's finish these songs. Let's release these songs. Let's see what the label thinks about these songs.” And then, ultimately, you go on the road and you see which songs work out live, and you adjust them to fit the stage or the theater or the live show.
It's been a lot of fun, because we have a seven-piece band. We've added a keyboardist who also plays vihuela; his name is Sergio Mendoza. He also sits in with Devotchka and Camilo Lara's Mexican Institute of Sound. And also, he has his own band (Sergio Mendoza Y La Orkesta) – a big band doing a lot of revisited and retooled mambo songs à la Pérez Prado. So, he brings a lot of abilities, textures, and layers that can help bridge the studio version to the live version. Then there's Martin, Jacob, Paul, Ryan Alfred now on bass and vocals. All these guys in addition to John and I help bring the songs to this dynamic energy. It's much more intense in the lives shows, I think. The songs have really translated well.
JL: Were there any songs in particular that you maybe weren't as sure about on the record, but came alive in the live versions?
JB: Yeah, there's a song called Puerto on the record that we probably… more than any other song… spent a lot of time trying to get to that final place. I just knew that I wanted a gazillion baritone trombones. I wanted it to sound like you were standing right in front of a ferryboat… something you'd see on the Mississippi River in New Orleans. A ferryboat, or a steamboat with that sort of low-end throttle of air just blasting. It's hard to do that live, because, of course, we don't have ten baritone trombones onstage. But if there are any baritone trombone players out there looking for a little fun… a little excitement… we have a job for you. [Laughs] But, doing it live, we've used some samples and different sounds to emulate that, and then we have Martin and Jacob playing trumpets and Sergio doing a lot of low-end keyboard... So, that song has become our set closer.
JL: Algiers is named after one of the oldest neighborhoods in New Orleans where it was recorded. Was there a particular atmosphere in that neighborhood that you were trying to capture?
JB: No. I'm sure we got it all wrong anyways. We came in for twelve days; I mean, how much could you possibly soak up? But we tried to soak up as much as we could. Being in Algiers and being in New Orleans helped us to get outside of our comfort zone… our normal way of looking at things and doing things. It helps, every now and then, to turn yourself upside-down and see what falls out. It's not like we named the record because the songs were about the neighborhood.
It was a catalyst. It became a really good friend, like a home-away-from-home. It reminded us of life on the road: we were away from home… it was December... You know, whenever I think about New Orleans, I think of the summer, the humidity, the heat. I don't think of fog on the banks of the Mississippi or grey skies. So, it was nice being there in that moment. I love winter, because, living in Arizona, we have so much sun, pretty much every single day, it feels like. Whenever we're on tour, I love a grey or cloudy or rainy day, because it really helps take you somewhere else internally, and that always informs the writing.
JL: You've said that working in a different city provides a “renewal of energy” but also “perspective of the emotional landscape back home.” As you were writing the album, did you find yourself picturing people and places from Tucson?
JB: Yeah, definitely. And the West in general. There's a connection between New Orleans and some of the other southern cities in the United States. The writer Ned Sublette who wrote The World That Made New Orleans refers to the city as the northernmost edge of this “Festival and Saints Belt” which encompasses the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, Cuba, Haiti, Mexico, South America – and I think that Arizona is part of that Festival and Saints Belt.
It probably has a lot to do with the Catholic influence from the Spanish, whereas in the North you can find more of a Protestant influence in New England and the like. That openness to the southern hemisphere is something that I think attracted me to go to New Orleans; and then, of course, when you're there, you can't help but think about what's going on at home. Being a recent father – my girls were six months old – yeah, I was thinking about home a lot.
And it's not like we went to New Orleans to write about things in New Orleans. They influenced us, but we were still thinking about things that were going on in our lives, back in our town, and things halfway across the globe at the end of 2011: the Arab Spring, for example. There was so much happening around the world, and I was tuned into a lot of it. Immigration – characters moving through whatever landscape, in and out of border regions – is a fascinating thing to me. When we toured the Mediterranean, we were in the city of Patras in Greece, and we saw people sliding through fences and trying to hop on the ferry to get into Italy.
In 2010, our tour bus was coming with a trailer full of gear – picking up gear in Germany and driving it to the UK to meet us for a couple of festivals – and before the driver got to Calais, he stopped to get some gas, he comes back around the bus, and he noticed that the lock was broken. He went to the authorities and said, “Hey, my lock just got busted. I think there might be somebody in there. Can you help me? Let's check it out.” Sure enough, there were five people from maybe Iran, Iraq, Pakistan that were in there. The authorities wanted to fine the bus driver, put some kind of guilt on him, some kind of responsibility. He was like, “Hey, I had nothing to do with it. I was just driving through here.” It's a complex situation that we all find ourselves in, regardless of where we are. Being in New Orleans, I couldn't help but think about the relationship between the southeastern United States and Cuba. For me, it was good to still feel connected to some of the roots and themes that have been prominent in our music.
JL: There's a line at the beginning of “Sinner in the Sea”: “There's a piano playing on the ocean floor between Havana and New Orleans.” Where did that image come from?
JB: Just thinking about all the traffic that had been going between the two cities. In that book that Ned Sublette wrote, he speaks about how at one point New York, Havana, and New Orleans were the three cultural centers in this part of the world. They had the operas, the arts… people flocking to these areas. This was probably somewhere in the mid- to late-1800s. So, it got me thinking. More and more, New Orleans' role as a port city was taken away, but it was the major port city, naturally, because of the river and the gulf.
JL: There seem to be, in that song and also in “Puerto,” some apocalyptic imagery. Did that have any connection to releasing the album in 2012?
JB: You mean as far as the prophecy of the Maya? [Laughs] No. We do these Mexican calendars every year, and I was thinking of doing something in relation to that. But no. It's more just the extreme of... like in “Puerto” there are several different kinds of stories going on there. Having read this book Conquistador by Buddy Levy, he tells the story of Cortés and Montezuma meeting, and it's incredible. It would make such a great HBO series. [Laughs] It's just phenomenal how these two worlds came together, how they interacted – and for so long – establishing these relationships with all the factors and all the elements and all the people involved struggling to get to the same goal: power. And they were using all the modern staples of tragedy and drama – spies and lies and deceit and love and lust and gold. It's just crazy. It's so fascinating. It's the story of the Americas. It involves the European influence, of course, but it's where these two worlds really came together for the first time in a big way. So, I referenced that a little bit – more the imagery, not really telling the listener what it means, but...
JL: Just describing the clashing of worlds.
JB: Yeah. “Still you can feel the anger after all these years.” Something like that. Or “the hunger.” But then, it's also about these three different characters that are in transition, like all of us. Some are being encouraged to come back: “Come back to wherever you've migrated from. Spend that energy back home.” They're getting up and over any kind of obstacles. If it's a border wall that's militarized, people will find a way to get up and over it or around it. Or if it's a barrier by ocean, people will find a way to make an old Sixties or Fifties car into a boat. This one individual did that. I forget his name, but you can see his story on YouTube. He successfully got his family through, and it was on his second attempt that he finally got across between Cuba and Florida. He was just really good with cars, and he made himself a boat out of his old car. Now he works at a Chevy dealership in Florida. So, I started reading and thinking about all of these stories, and I tried to distill these elements into a song like “Puerto.” “Puerto's” kind of a big one. Sergio helped out a lot with that one, too.
JL: Just out of curiosity, what is the “Malecón Wall” that's mentioned in “Sinner in the Sea”?
JB: That's in Havana. That's kind of like the breakwater. John and I had gone there and walked along there. It's a beautiful place, very romantic. It's a huge wall they've built up. There's the shoreline full of rocks, and then there's this promenade or this strand that goes along it. It just became the reference point: “You can hear the waves pounding like the hearts, like the blood pulsing through the veins, like the Malecón Wall.” Strong, intense, alive.
JL: Speaking of breakwaters, the album cover is a lovely image of waves breaking over rocks, resembling a woodcut. How did you choose that artwork and the striking image of the bridge that appears elsewhere?
JB: We worked with our friend Ryan Trayte. He's a designer, and his company is called Saywells Design, based in Tucson. We've known him for several years, and I knew that him living and working around the corner we could get this done sooner than later. Usually the artwork comes last. He was fantastic to work with. He's really creative, a good listener, and loves the music. He was really able to get inside the music. Looking at the lyrics and listening to the songs, he came up with a couple ideas. But first, he helped us come up with the album title. We chose to name the record after an instrumental song this time, which is kind of ironic. We were looking for just a one-word title, and “Algiers” is a borrowed name just like our band name is a borrowed name that belongs to a city in California on the border between the US and Mexico. So, it felt good to have that kind of connection.
I told Ryan, “Let's find something really strong. Nothing thin. Something nice and bold.” We pulled out some books of 1930s Italian Art Deco design. We zeroed in on the logo, and from there he went and came up with a first-draft of these waves. We were looking at some of the posters from the '30s... beautiful, minimal things. So, that's what the direction was. It does kind of have a woodcut feel because of the parallel lines in the waves. I liked the fact that the rocks didn't look like normal rocks – they almost looked like objects or people. Looking at it, it made me wonder, Is that a rock or an upside-down boat or...
JL: ...or a submerged car.
JB: Yeah, something like that. I liked that. And I liked the fact that, right away, the cover is blue and it's waves – it's water – and we're a band that's known for being associated with the Sonoran Desert. That was fun, too. And he was referencing the Malecón Wall in Cuba, but it also reminded me of the levees in New Orleans.
JL: Is the bridge a real bridge?
JB: It's a real bridge, yeah. He found a picture of it, then did the design. It's the Crescent City Connection bridge. There's two of them, and they run right overhead, over the roof of the Living Room Studio [where the album was recorded]. So, that was a cool connection for us.
JL: The tour started in September and goes through August. Is that correct?
JB: It goes on forever.
JL: You're traveling throughout the US, the UK, and much of Europe. Does it take a special kind of endurance to tour for that long, or is it something that feels natural to you at this point?
JB: We've been doing it for a long time. We love doing it. I love this job. I really do. It's hard, because I miss my family, especially when they won't answer the phone on a Saturday. [Laughs It's hard, but let's face it: we've seen so much going on not just with the music business but with the economy in general all over the world, and yet still we're able to play sold-out shows in Greece. Even though they're having a hard time, there are still people there that are willing to come out and support live music. So, it gives me hope that what we're doing is important.
I have friends that work in the defense industry in Tucson, building, you know... bombs. [Laughs] I'm not judging them at all, and it's great that they're that talented as engineers that they can do that job, and I understand the importance of some of that stuff – but when I think about the job that I have, I feel really proud of what I've been doing. I've also been getting involved in things away from the music business and our band. I've been getting involved in the local community in Arizona and all that's been going on there since SB 1070 or the shootings of January 2011 involving our friend Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. There's been a lot going on.
We've got a band that's been together for a long time, so we'll do a period of touring around a release and then there'll be time off so everyone can do other projects or have a break from this world. Then, it's fun to reunite. It's been really fun. This is the longest break we've had between records, and part of that is just me having a family – and having twins on top of that. [Laughs]
JL: You also did some soundtrack work during that time?
JB: Yeah. That and the collaborations we do really make it fun, because you're not just doing the same thing with the same people. It's always new.
JL: Was it a challenge going back into writing music for the band after doing the soundtracks? Did you have to switch gears to any extent?
JB: The soundtrack stuff is pretty easy. You're working with a director or a music editor or supervisor, so there's a lot of communication going on. I think that, in the past, we would have a lot of short instrumental songs acting almost as segues do in film. We've tried to steer away from that more as we've tried to make the albums more concise and not as long. When the CDs were coming out, we'd try to fill up the CD with 65- or 70-minutes-worth of music. And then the labels gradually said, “You know, you don't have to put all that music on.” [Laughs] “You know, somebody has to listen to this. It's good, but somebody... a journalist might not wanna get through the whole chunk. Why don't you hone it in?” As we started returning to vinyl more as the way in which we sequence an album – thinking about a break between Sides A and B – we got back to the 45-minute album length. It was kind of refreshing. As well as, when you go out to see a band, it's nice to see 35 minutes of music. You get enough. You get an idea real quick: do you like this or not?
JL: After the tour is over, do you have plans for more collaborations or film work?
JB: For sure. There are a couple of little ideas that are floating on the horizon, but nothing is locked-in. I just heard about this really cool idea. I don't want to mention it, because I'll curse it... But there's also a request for one of our songs to be in a movie. The screenplay is written by Cormac McCarthy. It's called The Counselor. I'm really excited about that. I hadn't even heard of it, but it's in production. Ridley Scott is directing it, Brad Pitt's in it, and Javier Bardem, and Penélope Cruz. I'm like, “Oh, my god.” So, they want to use a song.
JL: Your music seems like a really good fit for his style of writing.
JB: Yeah, I hope so! And then it's time to jump back in the studio as soon as we can to get a new record out sooner than later so we can continue the touring cycle. You need the album to plan the tour. But what we'll record, I have no idea. [Laughs]
Calexico's ninth studio album 'Algiers' is avaialble now on Anti-Records.