Calexico’s Music Unravels the Magic and Mystery of the Desert

John Convertino (left) and Joey Burns of Calexico.EXPAND
John Convertino (left) and Joey Burns of Calexico.
Jairo Zavala Ruiz
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Not everyone hits the desert and is immediately charmed by its dusky mystery.

Some never find an affinity for its prickly sprawl, while others, like Joey Burns — one of Calexico’s two main members — discover that time allows it to unravel its magic.

It was music that brought Burns (vocals and guitar) and bandmate John Convertino (drums) to Arizona — Tucson, in particular.

“John and I met through a mutual friend in Los Angeles in 1990, and started playing together in Giant Sand, a band with Tucson roots,” Burns says. “When that band’s leader (Howie Gelb) moved back to Tucson, we came out as well.”

Burns wasn’t sold on the place that he has long called home as a forever spot. “I was about to leave after a year of being here,” he says. “I wanted to go to Chicago, and check out the record labels there, like Thrill Jockey, Drag City, and Touch and Go. John asked me to give it a while, so I did, and then a lot of things fell into place.”

One of those things was the two playing in the band Friends of Dean Martin, which eventually got changed to Friends of Dean Martinez, due to legal reasons. The instrumental band, much like Calexico, merged musical styles for an eclectic sound. They built a fan base, and scored a record deal with Sub Pop.

The two started Calexico as a side project that they didn’t think would last. When there was label interest, says Burns, “We had to decide on staying with Sub Pop or going with Touch and Go, and we chose the latter,” a choice that made those desired trips to Chi-town a regular occurrence.

Ten full-lengths, several EPs, live recordings, and numerous collaborations later, it seems like the desert relocation was the right decision, one that is continuously reflected in the band’s rich and soulful songs.

On the day we spoke with Burns, he noted that it was “ironic,” as it was the 20th anniversary of Calexico’s release of The Black Light. Their journalist friend Fred Mills described the band’s sound as “desert noir.”

“That release,” Burns says, “was a big moment for us. It’s a collection of both lo-fi and studio recordings, and lots of instrumentals. ‘Desert noir’ does really sum it up.”

The term seems to have stuck. As much as they inspired that description, their hypnotic recordings of haunting, spacious, winding, and breezy music indicate how those words also may have helped to influence their course.
Calexico’s inclusion of multiple players, like Spanish guitarist and songwriter Jairo Zavala, or Sergio Mendoza, whose own Orkestra Mendoza and cumbia stylings have been wowing audiences for a decade, along with a fluid roster of intriguing instruments, showcases both Burns’ and Convertino’s inherent love of musical, and cultural, diversity.

“I have kind of veered away from classic rock, and even classic indie rock,” Burns says. “A lot of it just sounds the same to me. I get bored with corporate America, even if it’s in the indie rock world, which is supposed to be independent. I’ve found, for me, voices from other places and cultures are interesting.”

“I think that’s why I feel so at home here in southern Arizona,” he adds, “because we’re that much closer to Mexico. Two years after we released The Black Light, we put out Hot Rail, which featured some local musicians from the mariachi community. We are fans of so many different sounds and cultures, and that’s what’s always been brewing in the heart of Calexico.”

“Half of John’s family are Italian immigrants, and my family is comprised of Irish- and German-Americans. John’s father played accordion and piano, and before my grandfather passed away he gave me his accordion. There’s a connection we have to this old-world sensibility that has also always been a part of what makes up the signature sound, and character of our music.”

Touring for shows or to record are other ways the band gets to discover new sounds and musicians. “It always helps us to not only find new things,” Burns tells us, “but also find ways to refresh ourselves. I think it is natural for musicians to take a slice of free time in a day, and see what kind of magic can be made.”

Burns loves not always knowing what might happen on the road. “Music is the vehicle that gets us around the world. It is definitely the window which we are able to jump through, and meet and connect with people, and most certainly musicians.”

“Whether we’re at a music festival in Australia, or in France, or we’re in Greece with a day off, and hook up with local musicians like Takim to record a couple of songs, and then Eric Burdon from the Animals happens to walk in — these great moments are all sparked by creativity. We love the spontaneity, and try to keep that going in the studio, on stage, and all around us when we’re traveling.”

Something else that motivates Burns, especially lately, is hoping that the music they make provides information, and solace that can help inspire some healing in a divided nation. He’s definitely felt even more compelled since the last presidential election.

“These feelings of frustration are coming from deep inside. They’re the same feelings that often fuel and motivate artists. It’s not 100 percent of why I do what I do, but it’s becoming a bigger part of our lives as musicians,” Burns says.

“When I discuss on stage where things are at in the world, I do it in a way that’s very personal,” he continues. “I’m not trying to slam a party of politician. I try to get inside of each one of us, because we are all part of things being where they are. It’s not us versus them, it’s just us, and we have to work together to find common ground.”

That type of community-building is another facet of his home region that Burns loves, that speaks to the messages he’s trying to convey. “One thing I really love about being in southern Arizona, and the state in general, is that there’s a lot of support. It’s vibrant, and when there are major tragedies like when our friend Gabby Giffords was shot, the community really comes together. That gives me hope.”

As a pair, Burns and Convertino are always building on their solid foundation, musically and personally. “People often note,” Burns says, “that we have our own way of communicating on stage or in the studio when we’re recording.”

“John is vital to the signature sound — he’s all about creating a vibe and a feel. He’s not like a lot of drummers who lay down a beat and it doesn’t change; he’s constantly playing as if he’s phrasing along with vocals, and dynamically he’s going up and down depending on the mood, and the moment in the song. He’s been vital to the signature sound.

“We do,” he adds, “and we are lucky to have that connection that is still fresh and positive. Bringing in the other musicians that we work with also serves to further inspire us.”

Calexico plays at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 1, at The Van Buren, 401 West Van Buren Street. Julia Jacklin opens the show for ages 13 and older. Tickets are $25 to $40. Visit thevanburenphx.com.

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