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It's easy to be taken aback by the depth of Calexico's The Black Light. In under 60 minutes, the group's auteurs (and erstwhile Giant Sand rhythm section) John Convertino and Joey Burns explore more than a dozen musical idioms and bring those elements to life with the cinematic grandeur of a Sergio Leone epic and the intimate scope of a personal travelogue. The duo combines a potent amalgam of Link Wray-style guitar, mariachi shadings and dark surrealistic imagery to produce a powerful cocktail of "desert noir."
Perhaps more than anything, one gets a profound sense of geography from The Black Light. Intentional or not, Calexico has created an album that reshapes conventional notions about how setting can influence art, as the record manages to create a musical landscape as harsh, wondrous and intriguing as the desert itself (it's no coincidence, then, that the material for the band's current tour-only CD, Road Map 98-99, comes from an aborted book-on-tape project the band had started for author Lawrence Clark Powell's Literary Guide to the Southwest).
For Burns, a native of Southern California, the move he made to the Arizona desert more than five years ago provided a stark contrast to the experience of growing up in Long Beach. "Where I grew up really close to the water, Tucson is kind of the flip flop or the inverse of what that's like," he says. "So instead of going out to the cliffs and watching the sunset over the ocean, you go to these dry, ancient riverbeds. You've heard the story before. The desert definitely has that bottom of the ocean feel and it's haunting."
Just as the album offers a worthy impression of the Sonoran Desert's physical landscape, it also manages to capture its cultural identity with an equally abstract precision. Musically, the record was born out of the deep experiences Convertino and Burns have shared as residents of Tucson's unique Barrio Viejo community.
"The neighborhood has a vibrancy. It has a lot of color, a lot of flavor," says Burns quietly, as if revealing some deep secret. "It seeps through the walls -- the two-inch-thick mud adobe walls. This part of town definitely has this kind of lingering, ghostlike quality to it. There are a lot of stories that are just blowing through the street. You can hear the radio blasting on the weekend mornings; the laundry flowing out on the line; fresh tortillas being made and the smell of beans being cooked all weekend. There's definitely something here that feeds the inspiration."
Joey Burns and John Convertino first crossed paths more than a decade ago in Southern California when Burns, the native Golden Stater, met up with New York-by-way-of-Oklahoma transplant Convertino. Convertino was first to hook up with desert iconoclast Howe Gelb's Giant Sand, joining the group in 1988 during a period that found Gelb relocated from his Tucson base to the City of Angels. Burns came to the combo on bass in 1991, establishing a tight rhythm section and a unique creative bond with Convertino that would bloom in the following years.
During an extended break from Giant Sand during the mid-'90s, Convertino and Burns got involved with the loose-knit cocktail music collective known as the Friends of Dean Martin. Led by Bill Elm, the group went onto record a pair of albums for Sub-Pop (the label insisted for legal reasons that the group change its name to Friends of Dean Martinez). The experience -- which found Burns on guitar and Convertino stepping out from behind the drum kit to tackle everything from accordion to marimba -- was integral in shaping what would eventually become Calexico.
The duo would also spend much of the next few years as a roving rhythm section. Collaborating with artists including Richard Buckner, Victoria Williams, Barbara Manning, Bill Janovitz and Lisa Germano, Convertino and Burns earned a reputation as the hired hands in indie and underground music. Burns says the opportunity to work with so many diverse writers and performers proved to be unique education. "You learn new things, new tricks or you kind of look at things differently because its not your project."
The pair also formed an especially tight working relationship with violinist/singer Germano, with whom the duo (and Howe Gelb) recorded and released the country tinged album, Slush, under the moniker OP8. "She was amazing. I learned a lot from the way she's really disciplined about going into the studio and the different ways she would record things," recalls Burns. "Just the way she would produce and arrange her violin parts and how she would layer things. Her use of melody and doubling -- all those kinds of things that come naturally to her. But when you see someone doing it firsthand, you pick up on those ideas."
The pair split from FODM after sessions for the group's second album, 1997's Retrograde, when Elm left for L.A. taking the band's record deal with him. A year earlier, Convertino and Burns had released a self-titled vinyl-only collection of material under the name Spoke on the German Haus Musik Records label. After leaving FODM, Convertino and Burns decided to pursue the project in earnest, rechristening themselves as Calexico and releasing Spoke domestically on Chicago indie Touch and Go's sublabel Quarterstick.