Casting the music of Calexico in evocative, if sometimes imprecise, shadings has become quite the parlor game for journalists ever since the Tucson, Ariz., outfit surfaced in the mid-’90s. Then they were an alt-countryish, folky duo — drummer John Convertino and guitarist/vocalist Joey Burns — on occasional walkabout from their main gig as Giant Sand’s rhythm section. The band has since evidenced, over the course of four albums (or nine, if you count a sound track and four Internet-only releases) and an ever-expanding lineup, a startling degree of artistic growth.
Reviewers, however, haven’t necessarily kept a similar pace. Whether smitten or flummoxed by Calexico’s open-ended sound, they tend to rely on pat Southwestern imagery: “border pop,” “mariachi garage,” “desert noir,” etc. (The latter term is courtesy of yours truly; we’ll deal with that cliché in a moment.)
This isn’t particularly vexing for Burns or Convertino. They are, after all, residents of the Old Pueblo and deeply enamored of the region’s heritage — to the point of taking members of Tucson’s Mariachi Luz de Luna on tour in the past. Still, what’s to think when early reviews of the new Feast of Wire (Touch & Go/ Quarterstick Records) seem vaguely interchangeable with those for 2000’s Hot Rail (which recently topped sales of 100,000 in Europe alone) or 1998’s The Black Light?
“Every note seems to capture either frontier-town intrigue, sand-swept loneliness, or Mexican exotica.” (Q)
“Shooting up the long, straight desert highway… making a desperate sprint southward across the border.” (Mojo)
“Take a twist of the Wild Bunch and some ghosts from the Alamo, wash down with some tequila. Saddle up, it’s showtime.” (Uncut)
“For a lot of those writers, especially the ones overseas, it’s an easy illusion to just think, OK, Southwest, road trip, bang!” says Burns, from Tucson. “You want to hear what the locals had to say about that? There were some French and Dutch journalists that came over here all hanging out at the Hotel Congress. One of them goes up to a local person and says [adopting European accent], ‘So, what do you think of this local band Calexico?’ ‘Oh yeah, those guys. They overromanticize this whole West!’”
Burns chuckles, then adds, “But I understand that, and I’ve been thinking about that comment. There are some elements on this new record where there’s a continuation of paying homage to people like Ennio Morricone and Link Wray. But we started recording back in August of 2001, and we consciously wanted to see what possibilities were there, to open up and digest what we’ve done. That was important, to give ourselves the time to do that, and it was a pretty important record for us to make. Some people gave us slack for Hot Rail, and I could see why, because there was a lot of this obvious mariachi or Spanish style of rock that we do.”
Feast of Wire opens on the very Calexicoesque, accordion-and-twang “Sunken Waltz.” The gloves come off, however, when “Quattro (World Drifts In)” cues up; despite the presence of pedal steel and horns, its metronomic percussion, hypnotic guitar figure and Burns’ shuddery, Emmylou Harris-like vocals mark it a clear departure. Ditto the sweeping strings, moaning synth and baroque-gothic ambience of “Black Heart” — a nod to labelmates the Black Heart Procession, with whom Calexico is planning a studio collaboration. The lilting, strummy pop of “Not Even Stevie Nicks” (title due to Convertino’s “Go Your Own Way” drum pattern) is a radio-friendly offering with ’mersh potential well beyond typical indie-rock parameters. And late in the album, when the Gil Evans/ Charles Mingus-styled “Crumble” arrives on a gust of blatting metro horns and untwangy jazz guitar licks, the listener practically has to go check to make sure it’s still Calexico in the changer. (Burns: “That’s like when I hear Radiohead’s album and they go into this bluesy, almost New Orleans-style thing. Here’s this pseudo-ambient, electronic band who at the end throw this left turn in, and I just think how brilliant it is.”)
The stylistic departures reflect both an ongoing evolution as studio adventurists and a conscious attempt not to write Hot Rail II. Recalling a time when a musician arrived in Tucson to record with Calexico (as have numerous artists, including Neko Case, Victoria Williams, Evan Dando and Richard Buckner), Burns notes, “He said, ‘I want to get that, quote/ unquote, “Calexico sound.” So — we did! And later we kind of looked at ourselves, [longtime Calexico engineer] Craig Schumacher, John and myself, and went, ‘Yeah, we gotta change this up.’ If you get known for doing something well and you do it a few times in a row, you’re pegged for being the one for ‘that sound’ or that part. So if you keep doing your craft, your art, you have to consciously — as Howe [Gelb] would always say when we’re having discussions about Giant Sand — reinvent and challenge yourself.”
Hitting the road for a three-month tour of the United States and Europe, Calexico aims to keep raising the bar. Most of the Feast of Wire musicians will be on hand to crowd the stage: Lambchop’s Paul Niehaus on pedal steel; trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela; bassist Volker Zander; and guitarist Martin Wenk. Each player doubles (and triples) on additional instruments, and Burns points out that a vintage Roland tape delay echo unit was recently acquired so their soundman can weave his own sonic intrigue.
Says Burns, “This lineup has already toured these songs for the most part, so I’m going to try to dig up some other songs that are more based on beats and just try to encourage everyone to experiment more and mix it up on top, maybe fusing songs like Black Light’s ‘Chach’ to ‘Quattro’ — as opposed to just doing ‘the songs.’
“For me, I always want to hear a variety in the mix. Whether it’s picking up different instruments or inviting other people to step forward, there’s something about that. And I’ve noticed that when we’ve toured in the past, when we’ve combined shows with people like Neko Case or the mariachis, or even Jacob getting up to sing a song or two in Spanish, the crowd just loves that variety. You become part of the whole sense of community, watching the mic shift from singer to singer, instrumentalist to instrumentalist. There’s something about the shared space — onstage and in the audience — that genuinely feels good.”
As our conversation winds down, Burns remarks that it’s time I came up with a fresh sound bite to describe his band’s music; in a 2001 NPR interview, he himself used — and gave me on-air credit for coining — the term “desert noir.”
Up to a challenge myself, I consult my official Hack’s Glossary: “Cinema del Cantina”; “Pony Express Pop”; “Sonoran Cinema”; Spaghetti Be-Bop”; “Sonic salsa verde — spicy, yes, but it won’t sting!” (Burns groans loudly); “Arroyo Rock”…
“I kinda like that,” muses Burns.
Alliterative and manly, perfect for T-shirts. A hint of the Southwest, perhaps, but slightly askew.
“What is ‘arroyo’ to a lot of people, anyway?” says Burns, warming to the concept. “They’ll go, ‘Huh? River rock?’ Because the rivers are all fucked up here, dried up, weird.
“I just call it ‘eclectic,’ anyway, you know?”