Music News

Calexico Taps Into New Orleans on Algiers

Maybe you hear it directly, maybe you don't.

But there's a spirit that sits in between the notes on Algiers, a spirit that guided the record, some decades-old essence of a converted Baptist church near the Mississippi River that Tucson's Calexico drew on like a well to record its seventh record.

You can't fake inspiration, and neither can you fake New Orleans.

"It's a creepy town," says vocalist/songwriter/guitarist Joey Burns. "It's eccentric, it's funky, and it's also got this darkness. Those are some of the things that are attractive for people like us who are looking for inspiration."

Though Algiers is immediately recognizable as a Calexico album — that signature impression of the expansive borderlands desert remains — singer-guitarist Burns, drummer John Convertino, and their supporting cast bring much more to bear on this latest effort.

Having taken some time out for soundtrack work (Circo, The Guard), record-producing (Amos Lee's Mission Bell), and box-set-making (Road Atlas, which collected the band's eight tour-only albums), Calexico sought to record the bulk of an album outside Tucson's WaveLab Studio for the first time.

"Every time we go in the studio, we're looking to push ourselves and try new things. In the past, we've gone different places to go mix records, to Brooklyn and to Austin," Burns says. "At a certain point, John and I and [producer] Craig Schumacher thought it'd be good to do some recording elsewhere to focus the writing."

Though there were some early notions of recording in Europe, Calexico settled on New Orleans for a variety of reasons, all of which go back to the city's unique history, atmosphere, and creative spirit. 

"There were a lot of indicators leading up to making the decision to go to New Orleans. Craig Schumacher loves New Orleans — it's one of his favorite towns. As he was recovering from throat cancer, I knew going there would be a good part of the healing process," Burns says. "I love New Orleans and the whole connection to the Gulf of Mexico and Havana."

That connection is one Burns sought to explore after recording in 2009 in Havana with Spanish singer Amparo Sanchez. Before going to Cuba, Burns talked to writer Charles Bowden at the Tucson Festival of Books, who recommended Ned Sublette's book The World That Made New Orleans. That historical perspective further established Burns' love for the place.

Then last year, while in Chicago for the Cultivate Festival, which brings together chefs and farmers with artisans and musicians, Burns talked up the organizers, urging them to bring the event to other cities.

"I said it was great, [and that they] should take it on the road, go to San Francisco, go to New Orleans, go to these cities that have great and unique culture," Burns says. "Then I just thought we should do the same thing and collect all that spirit, and that finalized the decision to go down there.

"For me, it was a good fit, and I knew that because we'd spent time there before. But we didn't know exactly where we wanted to go at first. We were checking out several options — there were big studios that were out of our budget range. Shumacher said 'How come you haven't checked into the Living Room studio?'"

So the band booked time there in December, with a bit of stuff on tape they'd recorded already in WaveLab, but decided to work mostly new material at New Orleans' Living Room. Originally built in the 1930s as a wood-frame church, the studio sits across the Mississippi from downtown New Orleans, with 14-foot ceilings creating a spacious interior space for recording.

"It really does have this special vibe to it," says Burns, calling the Living Room "the WaveLab of New Orleans."

Away from their home base, Calexico roamed the area to soak in its unique atmosphere.

"We spent time exploring the neighborhood and wondering what was the story, back into the 1800s, back into the 1900s, back during Katrina," Burns says. "There's a lot of connection to the past, a lot of remnants — and those things are great for writing songs. I was hoping we would come away with more and better songs, and we did. We did most of the writing there and came away with a great sense of where this album was going."

The down-to-Earth studio owners Chris George and Daniel Majorie were a big help, and the band hired their roommate Kevin Barrios to cook lunch and dinner. Feasting on the spices and combinations of Creole and Cajun-inspired dishes only added to the band's New Orleans immersion.

"It felt good to leave the comforts of home, and it reminded us of being on tour and all of the benefits of exploring new places and getting to meet new people," Burns says. "It brought us back into that experience, the joys of travel."

In some ways, the geographic influences that come through on Algiers highlight the similarities between New Orleans and Tucson, between the city cradled by the Mississippi's crescent and the desert Southwest. Strong Latin cultural influences saturate both areas. And beyond embracing traditional musical elements, Calexico also turns to the idea that death is to be celebrated as a part of life.

"Sinner in the Sea" is a dreamscape battle epic that plays out under the sea. "There's a piano playing on the ocean floor between Havana and New Orleans / Drummin' a requiem for the dead and the souls hanging on every poet's prayer," sings Burns.

Album opener "Epic" is a prayer sent back home from somewhere, the distance never spelled out but present in every line. "Bring my words to all of you and if they ever hear my voice / Hold me in your thoughts laid out twisted in defense / Hoping for the chance to start." It's bleakness and hope, balanced here for a moment.

That same type of imagery seeps its way into the album's lyrics, from the long, dark road of "Fortune Teller" to the "Take it all the way down to the waterline" line that closes "Para." Title track "Algiers" is a jazzy instrumental, and trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela and frequent collaborator Jairo Zavala sing the Spanish "No Te Vayas," a song of love and deception.

Though not always noticeable, New Orleans unspools itself across Algiers — neither skeleton nor breath, but something always present. Some other songs might eventually appear, another installment of Calexico's tour-only releases, fan favorites that reveal an alternate path.

"There's always material that's about getting certain demons out, or getting the corny ideas out. It takes a while, especially if you haven't been doing it for a while, to hone in a certain sound and find some melodies and ideas that are fresh and new," Burns says. "The tour-only albums are really fun because you just never know what you're going to get, and that's one of the great things we can do for ourselves and the audience that are interested in find out what's going into the musical background of the band."

Already having toured Europe since Algiers' September 11 release, Calexico is working its way from East to West, finishing this leg of the tour with two shows at the fittingly named Crescent Ballroom.

"A lot of times we play these shows in Arizona that are benefit shows, and we love that," Burns says, "but I'm also equally exciting to bring the touring ensemble as part of the package to Tucson and Phoenix."

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Eric is a freelance writer covering music, travel, science, and food and drink.
Contact: Eric Swedlund