Border Crossing

Through its nods to tradition and embrace of innovation, Calexico emerges as a desert bloom

You have to wonder what caused those early pioneers -- bound for the West Coast, motivated by the promise of gold or, more simply, water -- to plunk down and set up camp here in the Sonoran Desert. The Native populations -- Navajo, Pima, Apache -- who had inhabited the land for more than 10,000 years had slowly learned over time how to survive in the desert. How to irrigate and farm. How to, almost literally, extract water from stones. Yet in the case of those who settled before reaching that utopian vestige of Manifest Destiny -- the Pacific Ocean -- the decision to stay, to establish cities and lives, seems in hindsight almost defeatist, as if they felt physically unable to go on. Or, possibly, they found something out here in the desert, some reason to stay.

Joey Burns and John Convertino, better known as the multi-instrumentalist duo Calexico, have found something out here in the desert. The once and future rhythm section for Giant Sand -- a nearly 20-year project led by Howe Gelb -- the duo has called Tucson home since relocating a decade ago from Southern California, where they met in high school. It might seem that the relative success Burns and Convertino have recently found would propel them to relocate to parts more known for their musical happenings -- Chicago, maybe, where their friends and sometime collaborators in Tortoise and Isotope 217 function as cornerstones of a lively experimental music scene; or Athens, Georgia, where their friends Vic Chesnutt and Alex McManus of Lambchop live. Yet according to Burns, there's something about living in an environment that still requires some effort just to survive that appeals to their creative sprit.

"When some people think about Tucson, they think of it more as a prison than an oasis," Burns says. "They feel like, if you wander here, you're not going to wander to the coast or L.A. You'll just kind of walk around aimlessly into darkness. For me, it's beautiful. It's all about perseverance, balance. You're constantly struggling with how you're going to maintain a life out here. You have to be creative in your day-to-day life or art, because resources or elements are not so readily available. It's somewhat meditative sometimes."

Meditativeness is a quality that can be found throughout Burns and Convertino's work together. They draw from a minimalist, shadowy reserve that's first detectable in their contributions to Giant Sand, an often purposely aimless, avant-garde noise machine that has never found the same favor on American shores that it has with more progressive audiences in Europe. It was there in Lisa Germano's OP8 project of 1997 (which also featured Gelb) and in the duo's work-for-hire gigs for pals ranging from songwriters Victoria Williams and Barbara Manning to Chesnutt and McManus. It was there, to a lesser degree, in the pair's first Sand-free band, the Friends of Dean Martinez, an instrumental outing that almost kitschily evoked Mexican stylings by utilizing mariachi-style brass and percussion and eventually culminated in two albums, 1995's The Shadow of Your Smile and 1997's Retrograde, for Sub Pop Records.

Yet it was the band's first effort as Calexico, 1997's Spoke, that provided the first real glimpse of the equally spare, dark and redemptive sounds that cut through its music like a dry desert wind. Recorded in Burns and Convertino's Tucson studio and originally released as a vinyl-only collection in Europe, Spoke was later released in America by the Chicago-based indie powerhouse Touch & Go Records. The largely acoustic, often devastating album calls to mind the songwriterly narrative of folks like Chesnutt and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy even as it toils in the traditional Mexican stylings that abound in the pair's barrio digs.

The following year, Burns and Convertino took traditionalism to a cinematic new level with The Black Light, an ambitious concept album that asked listeners to accept, straight-faced, a fusion of pedal-steel guitars, hectic syncopations, free jazz, retro spaghetti-Western soundtrack sounds and mariachi noise that alternated between nightmarish and soothing. The album blipped across the consciousness of the American music intelligentsia, and while some praised its eclecticism (and named it among the best albums of 1998), the album found others scrambling to make sense of the union of instruments that don't normally mingle in the space of one song. Calexico became almost uniformly regarded as the sonic ambassador of the mighty Arizona desert, a neo-traditionalist act that evoked a certain nostalgia for the wild, wild West -- if only the Hollywood version. Comparisons to Italian film-score composer Ennio Morricone abounded, as did all kinds of purple prose: phrases like "lo-fi Tex-Mex," "mariachi garage" and "lonesome highway twang" cropped up in nearly every critical mention of Calexico. According to Burns, those initial descriptions have long dogged the band.

"The number one question we get asked is, 'What role does geography play in your music?'" Burns says. "Tucson does fuel a lot of inspiration -- there's a spaciousness here you feel when you wander out into it that I think reflects in our music. That idea of space is very tangible in what we do. The feeling of slowness, of self-awareness. But, really, everything comes down to your own interpretation and how you adapt to and incorporate the place that surrounds you into your art or your life. We are definitely not out to create the 'Tucson sound.'"

Whether or not it's some nebulous spirit of Tucson, the band is developing a distinct aesthetic that's consistently surprising and ambitious. The band's latest full-length, Hot Rail, released earlier this year on Touch & Go, is its most cohesive yet, a marriage of the slow, pensive elements found on Spoke and the multicultural intensity of The Black Light. On the album, Burns and Convertino man no fewer than six instruments each (Burns on drums, vibes, marimba, organ, percussion and accordion; Convertino on bass, guitar, cello, keys, accordion and organ, as well as vocals) and employ the talents of a cast of eight players, including cornetist Rob Mazurek, better known for his expressive meanderings with a variety of Chicago jazz outfits like Tortoise and the Chicago Underground Trio. As likely to evoke Serge Gainsbourg as John Wayne -- the "Ballad of Cable Hogue" pairs a galloping Peckinpah narrative with spoken vocal interludes by a sultry French woman named Marianne Dissard -- the album finds Calexico toying more confidently with a variety of styles. There's a studied yet playful quality to the album that suggests Calexico is comfortable channeling both Neil Young ("Service and Repair") and the Mexican bands just 50 miles south of Tucson. This element of contrast on Hot Rail seems like an extension of the band's view of itself -- and its hometown.

"There's so many contradictions here that I find very interesting and exciting," Burns says. "When you're in downtown Tucson, it's almost like you're in a different place -- a combination of the Third World, Mexico City and Europe. There's no water. It's brown, it's infinite. It's remote. And yet, in a way, it's a sprawling metropolis. It's hard to define. I like to think that we're kind of the same way."

Burns and Convertino are clearly not timid about navigating new territory that has more to do with futurism than tradition. Possibly appeasing those who describe their music as "a soundtrack to a film that hasn't been made," Calexico provided the bulk of the music for Committed, a comedy starring über-babe Heather Graham that features plenty of Arizona scenery and that disappeared from theaters faster than a highway mirage. Calexico's 17 instrumental contributions are the kind of sparse and skeletal mood music that begs a story -- and lends itself to all of those Morricone-esque comparisons.

Around the same time as the Committed recording, the band completed Descamino -- a vinyl-only EP that saw release last spring -- with Tortoise bassist Doug McCombs and producer Bundy K. Brown, a collection that just might find Calexico an audience among fans of obscure trance electronica.

"It's our first exploration of electronic music," Burns says. "It's this pseudo-ambient kind of sound sculpture. Doug plays an electric six-string bass, and Bundy K. just kind of went crazy on the remixes. It was a chance for us to kind of go astray, do something totally different. I absolutely love it. I love listening to it."

Those who find themselves at one of Calexico's live shows during its current tour will enjoy ample exposure to both aspects of the band's psyche: While Burns and Convertino will perform as a duo for the first portion of the performance, they will be joined onstage by Luse de Luna, a traditional, Tucson-based mariachi band that the pair has worked with, and learned from, during the past year (Luse de Luna will be performing at the band's upcoming Nita's Hideaway gig). The combo joined Calexico on a recent tour of Europe, and, according to Burns, the response was encouraging.

"I think a lot of people think of mariachi in a very stereotypical way," he says. "But there is a fantastic tradition there that goes well beyond the stuff you hear in a Taco Bell commercial. We're hoping that by bringing these guys on the road, we can expose them to people who might never have heard a real mariachi band before, and maybe we can open their eyes to some great music. Kind of like Ry Cooder did with the Buena Vista Social Club."

Whether they mean to or not, Calexico is proving that there is something going on in this weird, blue desert besides border crossings and the slow decomposition of discarded beer bottles and skeletons. There is music. And it's not going anywhere.

Calexico is scheduled to perform on Friday, August 4, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, with Luse de Luna, and Morris Tepper. Showtime is 9 p.m.

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