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You have to wonder what caused those early pioneers -- bound for the West Coast, motivated by the promise of gold or, more simply, water -- to plunk down and set up camp in the Sonoran desert. The Native populations -- Navajo, Pima, Apache -- who had inhabited the land for more than 10,000 years had slowly learned over time how to survive in the desert. How to irrigate and farm. How to, almost literally, extract water from stones. Yet in the case of those who settled before reaching that utopian vestige of Manifest Destiny -- the Pacific Ocean -- the decision to stay, to establish cities and lives, seems in hindsight almost defeatist, as if they felt physically unable to go on. Or, possibly, they found something out there in the desert, some reason to stay.
Joey Burns and John Convertino, better known as the multi-instrumentalist duo Calexico, have found something out there in the desert. The once and future rhythm section for Giant Sand -- a nearly twenty-year project led by Howe Gelb -- the duo has called Tucson, Arizona, home since relocating a decade ago from Southern California, where they met in high school. It might seem that the relative success Burns and Convertino have recently found would propel them to relocate to parts more known for their musical happenings -- Chicago, maybe, where their friends and sometimes collaborators in Tortoise and Isotope 217 function as cornerstones of a lively experimental music scene; or Athens, Georgia, where their friends Vic Chesnutt and Alex McManus of Lambchop live. Yet according to Burns, there's something about living in an environment that still requires some effort just to survive that appeals to their creative sprit.
"When some people think about Tucson, they think of it more as a prison than an oasis," Burns says. "They feel like, if you wander here, you're not going to wander to the coast or L.A. You'll just kind of walk around aimlessly into darkness. For me, it's beautiful. It's all about perseverance, balance. You're constantly struggling with how you're going to maintain a life out here. You have to be creative in your day-to-day life or art, because resources or elements are not so readily available. It's somewhat meditative sometimes."
Meditativeness is a quality that can be found throughout Burns and Convertino's work together. They draw from a minimalist, shadowy reserve that's first detectable in their contributions to Giant Sand, an often purposely aimless, avant-garde noise machine that has never found the same favor on American shores that it has with more progressive audiences in Europe. It was there in Lisa Germano's OP8 project of 1997 (which also featured Gelb) and in the duo's work-for-hire gigs for pals ranging from songwriters Victoria Williams and Barbara Manning to Chesnutt and McManus. It was there, to a lesser degree, in the pair's first Sand-free band, The Friends of Dean Martinez, an instrumental outing that almost kitschily evoked Mexican stylings by utilizing mariachi-style brass and percussion and eventually culminated in two albums, 1995's The Shadow of Your Smileand 1997's Retrograde, for Sub Pop Records.
Yet it was the band's first effort as Calexico, 1997's Spoke, that provided the first real glimpse of the equally spare, dark and redemptive sounds that cut through its music like a dry, desert wind. Recorded in Burns and Convertino's Tucson studio and originally released as a vinyl-only collection in Europe, Spokewas later released in America by the Chicago-based indie powerhouse Touch & Go Records. The largely acoustic, often devastating album calls to mind the songwriterly narrative of folks like Chesnutt and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy even as it toils in the traditional Mexican stylings that abound in the pair's barrio digs.
The following year, Burns and Convertino took traditionalism to a cinematic new level with The Black Light, an ambitious concept album that asked listeners to accept, straightfaced, a fusion of pedal-steel guitars, hectic syncopations, free jazz, retro spaghetti-Western soundtrack sounds and mariachi noise that alternated between nightmarish and soothing. The album blipped across the consciousness of the American music intelligentsia, and while some praised its eclecticism (and named it among the best albums of 1998), the album found others scrambling to make sense of the union of instruments that don't normally mingle in the space of one song. Calexico became almost uniformly regarded as the sonic ambassador of the mighty Arizona desert, a neo-traditionalist act that evoked a certain nostalgia for the Wild, Wild West -- if only the Hollywood version. Comparisons to Italian film-score composer Ennio Morricone abounded, as did all kinds of purple prose: phrases like "lo-fi Tex-Mex" "mariachi garage" and "lonesome highway twang" cropped up in nearly every critical mention of Calexico. According to Burns, those initial descriptions have followed the band like bloodthirsty mosquitoes on a particularly hot desert morning.
"The number-one question we get asked is, 'What role does geography play in your music?'" Burns says. "Tucson does fuel a lot of inspiration -- there's a spaciousness here you feel when you wander out into it that I think reflects in our music. That idea of space is very tangible in what we do. The feeling of slowness, of self-awareness. But, really, everything comes down to your own interpretation and how you adapt to and incorporate the place that surrounds you into your art or your life. We are definitely not out to create the 'Tucson sound.'"