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The 'Zen' Sound Of Calexico

Toronto — Though images of the Wild West would seem to go with the Americana sound of Calexico, guitarist/singer Joey Burns has other ideas. "Whenever people ask us about references to geography and the landscapes, instead of identifying with cactus and old Western clichés, I just [feel more of a connection with] Japanese Zen gardens," Burns said as he sat in Las Iguanas, a Tex-Mex bar and grill located not far from Lee's Palace, the club where the group would be performing in a few hours.

"It's a wide open and minimal landscape," continued Burns, who, with his short brown hair, clean-shaven face and outfit of boots, black jeans and pullover sweater, looked more like a college student than a rock musician. "To me this is very nurturing and inspiring. It is more about the journey inward. It is more about listening and being. It is constantly trying to find that balance."

In early 2003, Calexico released their fourth album, Feast of Wire. The band has been touring Europe, the United States and Canada for most of the year. Calexico's sound is rich, evocative, spacious and moody. It is also seeped in Americana traditions, while exploring Afro-Cuban rhythms and mariachi style. Calexico create a balance between songs with lyrics and instrumentals. Many of their songs deal with human frailty; they sing of the strife to be found in the vicinity of the Mexico/U.S. border.

Burns (who also plays bass) met drummer John Convertino during an audition for Giant Sand in 1990. They have been the rhythm section for Giant Sand since and formed Calexico in 1996 as a side project. Initially a duo, Calexico now also includes Volker Zander on stand-up bass, Paul Niehaus on pedal steel and both Martin Wenk and Jacob Venenzuela on trumpets.

Convertino is tall and slender, with a gracious and humble attitude. He has short reddish-brown hair, sideburns and, on the day I spoke with him, several days' growth of beard. Dressed in layers of clothing including a heavy jacket, he was prepared for the autumn weather. At one point he said, "It always amazes me that anyone would want to talk to me. It is hard for me sometimes to do interviews."

Before the tape recorder was turned on, Convertino asked, "What's a good Canadian whiskey?"

I mentioned two premium brands of Irish whiskey, knowing that Convertino's parents are Italian and Irish. He decides to pass on the whiskey and opts for a Dos Equis instead.

The current traveling Calexico lineup also played on the Feast of Wire recording. The band spent a full year working on the 16-song album. "In a lot of ways, I feel like Feast of Wire is going back to where Spoke [the group's first album] was, in kind of having more fully realized songs," Convertino said. "The ambience is still there, the instrumentals are still there, but it's not so much the focus as it was on The Black Light.

"[With] The Black Light we had the luxury of having a theme, which was based on [the song] 'All the Pretty Horses' and 'The Border Trilogy' by Cormac McCarthy," Convertino continued. "Hot Rail didn't have such a theme. We didn't want [to make] The Black Light again, so we really had to experiment. With this record it was like let's broaden the palette."

Understated piano is felt on "The Book and the Canal." "Guero Canelo" contains a wonderful subtle chorus that, because it is distorted, conjures up street noises of Mexico. Pedal steel guitar adds warmth to several songs, most notably "Quattro(World Drifts In)."

During the interview, a pale Burns said he was suffering from a lingering cold and lack of sleep. Still, he was focused as he spoke about the band and the music they make. "We were trying to get away from repeating ourselves," he said, as he unwrapped a black wool scarf from around his neck. "A song like 'Black Heart' was showing us where we could go as a live band."

"The Black Heart" is probably the most extreme song the band has recorded. Everything peaks in a luscious sound. Burns' vocals shift from a whisper to a low murmur, and piano, accordion and violins highlight the lyrics: "The spring is frozen/ Now I'm stuck in low/ Wrapped with wire/ Tapped to the heart/ Can't find no poison/ Now I've got no cure/ The fangs are stuck inside my skin."

Feast of Wire sees Calexico really delve into more diverse musical territory. "To me the dynamics and the contrasts give it a certain flow," Burns said. "You feel like you're listening to a soundtrack or to somebody's mixed tape."

"Sunken Waltz" is a stark guitar ballad. Burns said, "The song was inspired by people like [Richard] Buckner and Lampchop. To me it sounds like a straight folk song."

Still there is darkness to the poetic lyrics: "Washed my face in the rivers of empire/ Made my bed from a cardboard crate/ Down in the city of quartz/ No news, no new regrets." The elegant guitars and Convertino's rollicking drums contrast with the melancholy lyrics, giving the song an upbeat sound.

"Across the Wire" contains glistening trumpets and tragic lyrics: "Spotted an eagle in the middle of a lake/ Resting on cactus, feasting on snakes/ But the waters recede as the dump closes in/ Revealing a whole lake of sleeping children/ Poison in the stream that flows to the sea/ Out on the waves that crash within reach of those with so much."

For Convertino, "the dichotomy works well because it has a fiesta feeling to it, like a Cantina ball room, and like so many mariachi songs. They have a happy sound but lyrically are sad."

"A lot of our material tends to be moody and atmospheric," Burns added. "That song ['Across the Wire'] to me, was in response to our [record] label that suggested that a lot of our songs were really in the melancholic keys. I think also having been influenced by playing with a local group called Luz de Luna. A lot of these songs have a variation on 6/8 time. The energy of the music and tempo of the keys, especially the words, it's a really beautiful combination of emotion and feeling."

Convertino said jazz has had a big influence on him. "It's pretty much all I listen too," he said. "I just love it. That song 'Crumble' came out of a spontaneous jam, a kind of a riff Joey was doing on bass, more inspired by [bassist/composer] Charlie Mingus, and I just put [drummer] Art Blakey in my head. I kept thinking Art Blakey, Art Blakey, and tried to emul ate what he would have done with that riff."

Both Burns and Convertino care a lot about the environment. On the Calexico CD booklets, above their Tucson address it says "Our soil our strength." "I think that came about when we were doing Spoke," Convertino said. "The whole record is a kind of Steinbeckian Grapes of Wrath nostalgic feeling. A feeling of life on the farm or life before the industrial revolution, when man was losing touch with the earth and Mother Nature. Living in the desert and having this desire to stay connected to the earth. That phrase 'our soil our strength' was actually on a list that you could choose for your checkbook from the Bank of America."

Constant touring has affected Convertino in a positive way. "I think the development of the band has been so gradual that I wasn't really noticing that we were getting more popular," he said. "I started paying more attention to how the crowds were receiving the songs. Especially after the war and September 11, I really felt a need to feel some kind of relief. I started realizing that the majority of people at our shows were smiling. It started to give me a good feeling. It started to give the songs more of a purpose. And [it gave] playing more of a purpose than just promoting a record or just making a living." — Timothy Hawkins [Thursday, October 23, 2003]

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