Music News

Calexico Plug Into a Community of Sound and Style to Produce a Mutty Mix

Reached by phone on a recent afternoon in his native Tucson, where he's enjoying a bit of downtime before his band Calexico heads back out on the road, singer-guitarist Joey Burns is taking a walk with one of his best friends in the world, one he doesn't get to hang out with as often as he'd like: his dog, Ida.

"She's a rescue dog, a mix — part Basenji, part shepherd, part everything, really. She's such a sweet dog, a great addition to my girlfriend and mine's life."

Roughly the same can be said about Calexico, the band Burns and drummer John Convertino formed in the early '90s while both were playing in Giant Sand. In 2002, they left Giant Sand and devoted full-time attention to Calexico. Theirs is a culture-straddling mix of styles: indie- and country-rock shot through with twangy desert/Morricone guitars, ambient noises, and dusky, noir-ish rhythms and moods, flavored with the brass, accordion, and strings of traditional norteño, mariachi, and banda music, and crafted so that the results aren't merely songs as much as they are evocative mini-soundtracks about enigmatic characters and strange entanglements in border towns, where long shadows and question marks dwell.

That approach is rendered especially vividly on Calexico's most recent album, last autumn's Carried to Dust. When asked about the particulars of blending all the different sonic flavors on this album and its five studio predecessors, Burns says, "It's always been very easy, actually. There's more similarities between these kind of influences than not. Sometimes, you do the odd Frankenstein and it works, but more times, it's about having similar aesthetics. I think [that] rhythmically, melodically, thematically, even with the instrumentation, you'll find things in different cultures that have completely different names but still the same texture. I like the fact that there are these similarities. That gets me going and makes me enthusiastic about trying to find what kind of musical strains might be linked together."

Just as it sonically defies tidy categorization, Calexico's music seems to belong to no distinct era. Dust has a timeless, lived-in quality, a feeling Burns always hopes to impart with each recording. "A lot of bands from the '80s, for example, are kinda dated, not because of their songs but because of the way they chose to have their albums and sounds produced. We've always liked those '50s and '60s recordings — they sound so good and they honor the performers and the instruments so well. Back in '98 or so, when the Buena Vista Social Club record came out, it was kinda this lo-fi recording in a way, but it really just captured the room sound, which was what was so cool about all the records we like. So that's what we kind of gravitated to, and still do."

In concert, Calexico strive to further emphasize their musical multiculturalism: In addition to Burns and Convertino, the core band brings together Nashville lap steel player Paul Niehaus (Lambchop), mariachi trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela, and the Euro-jazz perspectives of German multi-instrumentalists Martin Wenk and Volker Zander. For their show in Heritage Square this weekend, they'll be joined by Perez Prado-inspired pianist Sergio Mendoza and Mexican-born balladeer Salvador Duran. "I think people really enjoy getting a view into this other world that they wouldn't normally get if they went to see just a regular indie-rock show," says Burns. Further, he explains, the Phoenix show — which he put together with Stateside Presents promoter Charlie Levy and lauded local chef/restaurateur Chris Bianco — will be representative of a larger effort to join forces with all sorts of Southwestern musicians and celebrate the local community in much the same way that Bianco relies upon and celebrates local ingredients and flavors.

"Let's face it," Burns notes, "it's getting harder and harder to put out music. It's getting harder and harder to get peoples' attention because there's so many distractions. So if we focus on the community, interact and collaborate with people and bring them all together, then we'll really get to enjoy and highlight that mix of ideas that we all think are just so important."

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Michael Alan Goldberg