“Literary lint and artifacts from the transient American escape”: It’s hard to believe that the Tucson-based—and, as it turns out now, partly El Paso-based as well—rockers have been seducing the sonic synapses of fans of their patented “desert noir” for nearly two decades. But with a celebrated studio album and key reissue recently in their rearview, plus a fresh collaboration and tour with Iron & Wine in their headlights for this summer, it’s not a stretch to call them a true legacy band. Founders Joey Burns and John Convertino talk about the upcoming album, reflect on their past, and enthuse about their headlining show this weekend at the Cold Mountain Music Festival in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
BY FRED MILLS
Calexico: think Americana, yes, but also think border music, Mariachi rock, folk-psych and experimental musings, wide open expanses of the Southwestern frontier, desert noir. More on the latter in a sec. The Tucson outfit, founded in 1995 by guitarist/vocalist Joey Burns and percussionist extraordinaire John Convertino, is in the middle of a remarkably active and productive period, having issued in the past year both a new studio album (The Thread That Keeps Us, via Anti- in the US and City Slang overseas; it’s reviewed here), and a 20th anniversary expanded reissue of their 1998 classic, The Black Light. Along the way, they also decided to renew an old friendship in the form of Sam Beam, aka Iron & Wine, and the fruits of that studio connection will arrive in just a couple of weeks as Years to Burn via Sub Pop (on digital, CD, vinyl, and limited edition colored vinyl… you can guess which iteration yours truly preordered), which will coincide with an extensive international tour with I&W that kicks off June 18.
Meanwhile, this weekend Calexico will be headlining the 3rd annual Cold Mountain Music Festival in North Carolina (read my preview of the fest elsewhere on the Blurt site) prior to the aforementioned tour with Iron & Wine, so, as suggested, they are a busy bunch. As befits an ensemble with an ever-expanding back catalog, acclaimed collaborations galore, and what might be termed as a clearly relentless musical mission.
Full disclosure, I feel permanently linked to the band by virtue of several factors: I was living in Tucson, Arizona, when they initially formed as an offshoot of Giant Sand and were also moonlighting in Friends of Dean Martinez, and, thanks to Burns and Convertino, privy to some of their earliest musical endeavors; years later, a stray quote of mine that I once used in a review to describe the band (“desert noir”) was uttered by Burns during an NPR interview, along with his acknowledgment of the term’s source; and certainly the honor of working with the band on the liner notes for their sprawling 12-LP 2001 vinyl box set, Road Atlas 1998-2001.
All that aside—and my devotion to the entire Arizona music scene is well-documented here at BLURT, so I won’t belabor it—the fact is, the duo, which can morph into a full-sized band, replete with a mariachi horn section, at the drop of a castanet, remains one of our premiere American musical ambassadors, and will always be emblematic of the sonic serendipity that the Southwestern desert region can bestow.
As Convertino succinctly offered, “The whole ride has been amazing.”
For us as well, John. I caught up with my old Tucson compadres recently via email.
BLURT: John, Joey, it’s great to connect with you again—I must confess, whenever I hear you on the radio these days, I get a twinge of homesickness for Tucson. So, now you’re coming to my current home, near Asheville, North Carolina. Have you ever played this area?
JOHN: To be honest, I am not sure if we have. I know we have played Saxapahaw before, and we are scheduled again with Iron & Wine [June 18, at the Haw River Ballroom, near Chapel Hill]. For us, it’s always a pleasure to get to the parts of the country that are so lush and green, spend some time in the shade trees and find a lake to jump into. So, we’re looking forward to the Cold Mountain Fest—we are not “on tour” right now, and we may be doing some interesting covers we don’t normally do because [we will have] Brian Lopez on guitar and vocals, who has his own band and songs that we sometimes do with Calexico. [Ed. Note: Lopez, also based in Tucson, has an amazing band, XIXA, which also boasts Gabriel Sullivan, who we’ve featured and reviewed here at BLURT.)
JOEY: We’ve played Knoxville, TN, before but I don’t recall ever playing in Asheville. Glad to be finally playing here. We will be playing both old and new songs, with Brian; Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet, vocals, and vibraphone; and Sergio Mendoza on keyboards, bass, vocals, and samples. Looks like a cool festival too—Cold Mountain Music Festival on Lake Logan sounds pretty damn nice for a bunch of desert dwellers from Arizona.
BLURT: In the time I’ve been away from Tucson, since mid-2001, what would you say have been your most notable successes or milestones?
JOHN: The whole ride has been amazing; we have been so lucky with having such great labels to work with, and fans that have been loyal and willing to go to different places with us, musically and emotionally. I think being able to bring the mariachi on tour in Europe was huge, as well as having some of our songs charted for symphony orchestra and performing them with the Louisville Symphony, and then later in Berlin and Austria with those orchestras.
JOEY: We’ve done a bunch of benefit concerts for our local radio community radio station KXCI [My favorite radio station on the planet.—Ed.] and helped our friend and congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords when she was running for office. January 8, 2011, our world was shattered when Gabby and others were shot in a “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson. It opened us up and connected us in a way that I would have never imagined. It changed our town forever and highlighted how important community is for healing and living together despite our differences. We offered our help through our music, and I’m grateful to have been part of the process of healing.
Friendship is what has connected us and sustained our band for the long haul. It’s a real gift to get to meet with musicians and continue on the path of being creative and supportive to one another. We’ve had some incredible shows in amazing places around the globe and from this point on I will be extremely grateful if we can keep it going and continue branching out with.
BLURT: Any pitfalls or downsides during that time as well?
JOHN: Well, life on the road can most definitely put you and your family through the meat grinder. There were times when we were overbooked, and overworked—it takes its toll, my friend, but we are living to tell, and that story continues to be told.
BLURT: Tell me a little about the upcoming Years to Burn and connecting with Iron & Wine—maybe a little background on how that came to pass, and a bit of a preview of the upcoming tour with Sam.
JOEY: We’ve been throwing around the idea of doing another collaboration with Sam for a while. [In 2005 Calexico and Iron & Wine released the In the Reins EP.] Once we found a window of time, we jumped on it. We spent four or five days recording with Matt Ross-Spang at The Sound Emporium in Nashville with Rob Burger on keyboards, Sebastian Steinberg on bass, and two of the other Calexico members—Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet and vocal, as well as Paul Niehaus on some gorgeous pedal steel.
JOHN: Since we did In the Reins almost 15 years ago, we have always talked about doing it again, and just about when I thought it was never gonna happen, it happened! Sam was coming off his touring for Beast Epic and had a batch of songs he wanted to play with Calexico. So, we decided on Nashville, and along with Sam’s bass player Sebastian Steinberg and keyboardist Rob Burger, Joey and I met up with Sam and recorded and mixed these songs in about five days. The tour should be fun—we have all been around the block multiple times now, up down and all around, so safe to say, we all look forward to those few hours on stage continuing the musical dialogue, try some new things, some new covers.
BLURT: What were some of your thoughts or emotions as you put last year’s 20th anniversary reissue of The Black Light together? And where were your heads originally at when making that album in 1998? I will always think of you guys in the context of my “desert noir” description, and how you’ve continued to tap that metaphysical vein with your music.
JOEY: Thank you so much Fred—you’ve always been a beacon and an inspiration. I love the “desert noir” term. Today I accidentally typed “Desert No Water” and was surprised how accurate that fits to not only the current state of things in the West and the growing importance of sustainable resources, but also the whole symbolism of why we do what we do. We venture out, despite the risks or the voices inside saying, “maybe it is time to do something else,” or “do people still want to listen to live and recorded music, enough to justify hopping in a van and seeing where the road will take you?” Back in 1998, we were mainly concerned with playing music and getting out on the road in whatever way possible. That spirit is still there, and it feels good releasing a 20th anniversary edition of an album that was our most intuitive and eclectic. I’m curious how it feels to audiences today.
JOHN: It was really nice to revisit The Black Light, especially since I live in El Paso now, which was home to Cormac McCarthy during his years of writing “The Border Trilogy,” which was, in part, the inspiration for some of the stories and lyrics on the record. Living here, in some ways, has brought to life a lot of what I could only imagine the border stories [while] living in Tucson or reading books, so listening back with what I know now, I feel the record still holds up, and hopefully will for years to come. I think what the music represents is much more important now than when we made the record. Musically, we were experimenting with what the studio could offer us, and the time and space of Tucson, which was a pretty small town back then.
JOEY: In 1998 we were lucky enough to find a few record labels that would take a chance on an album that didn’t conform to any one genre or style. We were just as mixed up with influences back then as we are now, but maybe the scope was more focused on our thrift store aesthetic than it has been more recently. It reads like a well-worn book you would find at a motel buried with old National Geographic magazines and paperback novels. Tucson has always been a cul-de-sac and spiritual corner that collects literary lint and artifacts from the transient American escape. It’s a monumental valley of nostalgia that seeps into the cultural subconsciousness. If you like ghosts and graveyards, then this is the place for you. That was the vibe of downtown Tucson in the mid 1990’s. [He’s right.—Ed.] It was a great big canvas of empty warehouses and parking lots. I saw this corner of the world suspended in time. Contrast to that was the growing urban tribal art scene and university dropouts that made for some really creative tangents and creative directions. There was a little more grit in Tucson back in 1998, but it still resonates in a beautiful way here.
BLURT: If we count 1995’s self-released Superstition Highway cassette as the Calexico debut – or perhaps 1996’s Spoke, however, since it had actual distribution — that means 2020-2021 will mark your 25th anniversary. If so, any special plans or surprises in the works? Maybe a protest concert during the Republican national convention?
JOHN: There have been talks of re-releasing that and maybe doing a special show in Germany for Hausmusik, the label that put Spoke out originally. It would probably be better for us to stay out of politics, but it’s pretty much impossible these days—the division is so clear cut now, it’s easier than ever to make a choice.
JOEY: We plan to continue tour with Calexico and various collaborations for as long as the road will take us. There are no retrospective tours planned as of yet. I would rather focus on recording new ideas and touring with new projects. As for the political state of things, life is full of challenges on many levels, and with art, music, food, writing, dance, culture, comedy, film, we can embrace one another, listen to one another, and harmonize together. Definitely being a father is teaching me to be a better listener and to help take care of others. It’s basic, and each community that grows strong will help influence each, state, government and continent. My kids are worried about the health of the planet and I am too. I would love to keep finding ways to help thru music. That’s what I want to teach my kids.
BLURT: Lastly, tell me something surprising, unusual, or otherwise cool about Tucson these days that I probably don’t know and would be fun to share with Blurt readers…
JOHN: Well, Tucson has changed a lot since you left there, Fred. The downtown is totally happening, you can walk around and have everything you could possibly want. Here in El Paso, things are a little slower… we did just get these amazing refurbished vintage trolley cars that make a loop through our downtown, to the university, and along the border. That’s very cool. Come visit El Paso sometime— you would love it!
JOEY: In the past we’ve seen a wave of various businesses: Sonoran Hot Dog stands in empty dirt lots, tattoo parlors, mattress stores (some even across the street from one another!), barber shops, used car dealerships, pizza and hamburger joints. Tucson is a test market. One of the benefits is that we have a pretty good food scene here. In 2017 Tucson won the first UNESCO award for City of Gastronomy. I hope it continues growing in a thoughtful and healthy way.