The First Instinct Is to Go Somewhere Completely Different: Interview with Joey Burns of Calexico

If you’re looking for an artistic intersection between cultures that speaks volumes about the liminal experience left to those who cannot find a home within the dominant paradigm, take Arizona’s Calexico (aptly named for a border town between America and Mexico) for a spin. Their latest album, Feast of Wire, is a heady mix of styles and substances, jumping from rock to Mariachi to jazz and onward without so much as a nod to convention. Orbiting around the nucleus of Joey Burns and John Convertino, Calexico’s music is decidedly cinematic, a steady diet of desert noir and multi-instrumental atmosphere, the kind you listen to, eyes closed, on a set of headphones larger than a football helmet. If you’re asking my opinion, few albums released this year have matched Feast of Wire‘s daring reach. That much I told Joey that when I dialed him up on the cell, as the band — in a moment of convenient irony — traveled the high lonesome roads of big sky country and wrestled not just with their own musical demons, but a Sony Playstation as well.

PopMatters: What’s going on, Joey?

Joey Burns: I’m on the bus. We’re traveling and I’m watching some game that our sound manager is playing called…what’s it called? Metal Gear.

PM: Oh, that’s an awesome game!

JB: Yeah, I’m watching Metal Gear. You’re supposed to crawl through a fence but he can’t find a way to crawl through.

PM: Yeah, that game is hard, but very addictive.

JB: It is for him, but it isn’t for me.

PM: Can you kind of explain for those who might be unfamiliar with your work how the band’s name functions as a symbolic geography?

JB: I think just the fact that it’s a hybrid. The band encompasses a lot of different musical styles, so it’s similar in a way, but that’s pretty much it! [Laughs] Not much more to that one. We’ll be lumped with all those other bands like Chicago and Boston.

PM: No, I don’t think that’ll ever happen.

JB: It’ll be like, “Oh, yeah and then there are those bands for whatever reason decided to name themselves after a town.” And we’ll be lumped in there. Are there any other towns that we’re missing? Chicago. Is there a band named Dallas yet? There should be. But that’s a reason why we like our name too, just because it seems so strange — an obvious chop-shop rendition of a few different locales into one.

PM: How is this new album a departure from your last one?

JB: Well, I think that you kind of start off with different ideas. The first instinct is to go somewhere completely different, to experiment in the studio, bring in different instruments. [To the bus] Do you guys mind turning that down a little bit please? Sorry. I’m harshing their buzz. [Laughs]

PM: The Metal Gear buzz?

JB: Yeah. We just wanted to give ourselves as much time as possible. The last album we made was written, recorded, and mixed in three weeks. And we were at the same time working on the soundtrack for a film called Committed. There was a lot going on. So, for this album, we really just spread it out over the course of a year; a schedule of recording, going into studio and then, most importantly, having time off to listen to the tracks. We did some touring and we did some other projects as well. And I think that kind of helped give us a perspective on what we were doing, not just rushing into anything but allowing the ideas to kind of settle.

PM: How does the songwriting process work for you and John?

JB: Well, we’re the main members. We started this whole mess and we’re the ones responsible for keeping it going. So it’s John and I just sitting down, either with fragments of ideas or with completed ideas, and hashing it out in a studio. John on drums in a huge room and me with a guitar or bass in an additional side room. With the glass windows, we communicate through digital contact, mapping out ideas using spontaneity and improvisation as glue.

PM: You usually start with bass first?

JB: Or guitar, usually with the basic tracks. We map out the skeletal remains of the song. It’s like taking away the parts that had been there, going back to the roots of what started the song. Although, on this record, there was also an inclusion of the whole ensemble on the basic track recording, and some of the songwriting as well.

PM: The album seems like it would be pretty hard to reproduce live. What kind of accompaniment do you guys have?

JB: We have a six-piece touring band. Two guys play trumpet and they also play keyboards. We also have guitar, accordion, a lot of percussion.

PM: Does it take awhile to get all of your instruments out there on stage?

JB: It does kind of take awhile. It takes even longer soundchecking them. It’s definitely well worth it. I always get a kick out of the audience’s reaction from all of us being up on stage, especially the guys who are more multi-instrumental, juggling them from song to song, or even within the song, playing two or three different instruments at a time.

PM: The songs on this album are amazing. So far, “Black Heart” is the song of the year for me. I can’t stop listening to it. Can you talk about how that song came to be?

JB: I think, musically, it stemmed from John’s drums. I know John personally was trying to tap into and release some of his previous year’s personal frustrations. Without going into detail, I think it was a release for him, and that inspiration influenced the rest of the songwriting, both musically and lyrically. And when it came time for me to write the lyrics, I wanted to make sure that I included John’s ideas. So we’d kind of go back and forth on this idea of escape.

PM: Right, the characters in the song seem to be trying to get away from something painful.

JB: Exactly. Whether it’s from a relationship or from a painful situation in a relationship. For me, I kept thinking of someone’s personal struggle within the confines of their society, such as the judicial system. However that comes into being, whether it’s through some mistakes in the past or of someone trying to break out of the past. And knowing that there is this darkness and foreboding negativity. But, depending upon where you are influenced by this or how it comes to be, you have to at some point come face to face with it and then you can figure out a way to move forward. Survival or escape — it is those things that are put into “Black Heart”, in a poetical way.