Rifling through stuffed closets of musical instruments and influences, Calexico creates indie world music that has been variously described as alt-country, spaghetti-Western and desert rock. Multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino explore cultural interstices and intersections by collaborating with Mexican mariachi ensembles, Spanish singers and others from around the globe.
Over ten years and five full-length albums, the Tucson-based collective has changed from a cast of characters rotating around Burns and Convertino to a cohesive, collaborative unit that includes multi-instrumentalists Martin Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela, Lambchop's Paul Niehaus on pedal steel and bassist Volker Zander. The sextet wowed international audiences last year by sharing stages and an EP with Iron & Wine's Sam Beam.
This year's Garden Ruin finds the same six musicians jelling further into a unified whole as Burns focuses on tighter songwriting. The result is easily the group's most consistent and accessible record yet. Before taking the stage at the Austin City Limits festival, Burns spoke with us about Calexico's evolution and some upcoming collaborations.
Westword: How were the writing and recording process for Garden Ruin different from the usual?
Joey Burns: Even though we recorded at the same studio, we wanted to take some different approaches to songwriting and production, but I think every record has its signature. I think it's only natural to continue on the path of reinvention and reinterpretations.
And what did you learn from a more focused and collaborative songwriting process?
The best part is when you just stop playing and listen. I get so inspired by the other guys' playing. For example, we were in a sound check in Dresden, and Jacob Valenzuela started playing these notes, and it inspired a whole new song, which I'm hoping we'll record soon.
How are the newer songs being received as you get out and play them live?
Songs that are really different for us, like "Letter to Bowie Knife" and "All Systems Red" get a great response. But people also love the track "Roka," which links back to our previous songs and sound. Any time we bring someone up like Salvador Duran, or when Jacob sings, people love that element of different cultures, but they also love our covers, like "Love Will Tear Us Apart," "Alone Again Or" or "Corona," by the Minutemen.
Where did Calexico's ethnographic musical approach come from?
I guess from being burned out on too much classic rock, or from loving those moments in Beatles tunes or Zeppelin songs that were going somewhere else -- with North African drones or Indian sitars -- or from jazzers like Duke Ellington who traveled around the world and incorporated that. It's really about taking note of the influences around the world and seeing how closely related things are rather than different or separated.
What other projects are you involved in right now?
We're doing a few tracks for this Todd Haynes movie called I'm Not There. We just recorded this Bob Dylan song, "Señor," with Willie Nelson, which was a major life achievement, and we're doing another one with Jim James. I'm kinda not supposed to talk about it, but I'm so excited that I just keep talking about it.
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