Finding the best stories
Calexico, who plays Ace of Spades this week with Sea of Bees, endures and dabbles in movie- and family-making
Sacramento, CA 95814
It’s been more than two decades since Joey Burns met up with John Convertino. It was 1990 in Los Angeles, and the two were playing in Howe Gelb’s seminal alt-rock band Giant Sand. There, the guitarist and drummer bonded over their mutual love for eclectic instrumentation and sounds rooted in desert twang, mariachi, jazz and indie rock.
Eventually the friends relocated to Tucson, Arizona, and, after a six-year layover with Friends of Dean Martinez—an updated take on swanky lounge music—finally settled into their own band, Calexico.
In the years since, Calexico has recorded more than a half-dozen albums, logged countless tour miles and endured as a critic’s favorite, revered for a sprawling mix of music that draws on everything from Latin and Tex-Mex influences to big-band orchestras and laid-back 1970s-era country rock.
Now, on the eve of the band’s next U.S. tour and the search for a new record label, Burns says he’s found that the more things change, the more they really do stay the same.
In recent years, Calexico’s musical direction has shifted in small, subtle ways, and the tour van’s been parked for longer and longer stretches of time as band members settle into lives stabilized by different pursuits, marriage and children.
The changes reflect personal adjustment—but also ever-mutating cultural perspectives and expectations, Burns says.
“We’ve definitely changed on a more personal level, and we’ve also seen this arc of time—how music played by humans has changed in its acceptance in popular culture,” he explained during a recent phone interview from his Tucson home. “Before Guitar Hero, more people were turning to groove boxes and samples and deejays—which I actually like also.”
Despite—or perhaps because of—fluctuating tastes, “There’s an aesthetic [to Calexico] that hasn’t changed significantly,” he said.
“We’ve always had a similar approach to business or how we apply ourselves to music.”
It’s the same for most musicians, he says. Trends come and go, but amid the industry turmoil of record-store closures and label flameouts, decreasing album sales and radio’s concrete dull corporate culture, “Once you’re a guitarist, then you’re always guitarist.”
Of course it’s impossible not to acknowledge the downside. Recently, Calexico’s longtime label Quarterstick Records folded into its parent label Touch and Go—which left them looking for a new avenue through which to release music.
Although Burns and Convertino are seriously considering deals with other small indie labels and hope to have a contract signed by the end of summer, there’s also talk of going it alone.
“We want to work with another label [for our next record],” he said. “But more and more we think about doing it ourselves.”
For now, there’s talk of putting out a box set of previously unreleased material as well as a “summer sale” consisting of various bits of Calexico ephemera and tour memorabilia that, until recently, had been stuffed into a remote Tucson storage unit.
Because less space means less room for growth—something Burns and Convertino have never avoided. Indeed, Calexico’s music is notable for a sound that, over the years, has consistently evolved and expanded—pushing at genre boundaries and expectations.
Spoke, released in 1997, mined a surreal, desolate vibe—imagine a 1950s spaghetti Western filmed beneath a midnight Death Valley sky, lit up by millions of gently floating stars and serenaded by restless coyotes, vultures and scorpions.
Subsequent discs including 2008’s Carried to Dust extract a dreamy ethos—songs such as “Two Silver Trees” and “Inspiracion” manage to exude a detached sense of cool and cut-to-the-core intense emotions—sometimes all in the same languorous, rambling chord.
It’s a sound that’s as visual as it is aural. Not surprisingly, Calexico’s music is a natural fit for the screen. The band, which hasn’t put out a proper studio album since Carried to Dust, has kept itself busy scoring small independent films including this summer’s The Guard, an Irish Western directed by John Michael McDonagh and starring Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson.
On first listen, Calexico’s soundtrack work doesn’t veer far from the band’s musical vibe—it’s expansive, ethereal and nuanced with myriad sounds and influences—but the songwriting process, Burns says, is decidedly more complex.
“I’m always working toward central themes and characters and their representation on the screen,” he said. “[For soundtrack work] it’s less about you, per se, than it is about this or that character and the statement he’s making.”
It’s also much more collaborative. Even though bands require, obviously, more than a little compromise, writing for film encompasses a much bigger pool of opinion and direction.
“There’s just something about that communal aspect that cinema and the theater bring out,” said Burns who, as a teen, played stand-up bass in his high-school symphony. “It’s quite different than playing in a band in a bar.”
Then again, maybe not so much.
“In a bar, the bartender becomes the conductor and the doorman is the box office manager and the booker is the casting director, and in [the audience] you see all these parallels to a Greek tragedy,” he said, only half-joking.
“The barfly scene is just another take on the story of the hero where all the lines become blurred and smeared. Really, it’s experimental theater.”
That said, Burns added, he’s dying to hit the road with a full band.
Between the recent birth of twin daughters with his wife and a slew of studio work—the soundtracks as well as collaborations with Amos Lee and Maggie Bjorklund, it’s been a long time since Calexico’s given into the wandering spirit that informs and shapes its sound.
“Travel—anything from a random rest spot to a Mexican restaurant in the middle of nowhere—really makes you feel as though you’re tapping into people and purpose even when the moments seem small and inconsequential,” Burns said.
“[These] journeys evoke a lot of imagery for us. Anyone who’s ever gotten into a car and driven 10 to 20 hours and found something to be exquisite or horrifying—these experiences can make for the best stories.”