For their latest album, the Tucson band found it necessary to explore terrain far removed from their usual turf. With the band just commencing a new North American tour (it started May 30 at Wakarusa and runs through the middle of June, including a stop at Bonnaroo), let’s investigate.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Many among us would like to believe that the border fence bisecting much of the North American continent simply vanishes when it hits the Gulf of Mexico outside Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico. But just as mankind constructs real-world walls and fences to separate nations, the concept of borders is every bit as much a man-made construct, with to-the-victor-go-the-spoils map-lines whose authority comes only with our acquiescence or the lethargic weight of history.
Joey Burns and John Convertino, the creative engine behind the 16-year-old collective Calexico, know the border doesn’t really end when it submerges beneath the Gulf waves. Instead, it takes its arguably more pernicious political form, erecting a barrier between the U.S. and its natural neighbor Cuba, as well as other Hispanic, African, Creole, and indigenous Caribbean cultues.
Algiers, the band’s seventh full-length and first for the Anti- label, explores these borders that we erect first in our minds: between nations, races and cultures, of course, but closer to home, too, between family and loved ones. And almost as if to road-test these themes, the band decamped from its Tucson base to New Orleans — specifically the former slave plantation and 15th ward, Algiers — for two fecund weeks of recording.
“There’s this other border that’s part of the U.S. that’s really not talked about as much,” says Burns, citing the 1962 U.S. embargo of Cuba, which is still in effect. “There’s this incredible country and culture, music, and heritage that we’re really closely related to, and especially in relationship to jazz and the music of New Orleans. So I felt like going there would be really interesting to see what kind of perspective we could come up with.”
Burns even refers to New Orleans and Tucson as “port” cities, echoing the latter’s reputation as a trade hub on the Guaymas-Hermosillo-Nogales corridor from the Sea of Cortez. He then added one more entry to his list of ports: “Our band is kind of a port city, literally and figuratively.”
You won’t find many bands more conscious of these physical and mental barriers than Calexico. Since its inception in 1996 as an offshoot of Giant Sand, where Burns and Convertino provided the rhythms for Howe Gelb’s desert-baked meditations, Calexico’s music has border-hopped as a rule. The inclusion of mariachi and Italian-born spaghetti Western arrangements on early albums like 1998’s The Black Light and 2000’s Hot Rail have come to represent something of a signature sound, but they’re only the band’s most identifiable accents. Up through 2008’s Carried to Dust and now Algiers (as well as a host of website-only releases and soundtracks, notably last year’s massive Road Atlas vinyl box), Calexico’s unique rock has also embraced French chansons, Portuguese fados, various Eastern European and Gypsy flavors, and a host of other Latin music styles.
But in light of some significant personal changes, and to fulfill a long-held desire to record in New Orleans, the Calexico brain trust — Burns, Convertino and the band’s long-time co-producer Craig Schumacher — aborted sessions at their hometown studio Wavelab and booked time at The Living Room Studio in Algiers. There, in an old converted wooden church by the Mississippi’s western levees, Calexico was able to reload after Schumacher’s now-in-remission throat cancer, the April 2011 birth of Burns’ twin girls, and Calexico’s label search in the U.S. after its long-time home Touch & Go Records shuttered.
“There were a lot of things that made us take a step back and wait to see where things were going to lead,” Burns says, explaining the four years between records.
He notes that the experience turned out to be “dream-like,” resulting in fertile 12-hour days of music-making. The first-time father was able to catch up on his sleep, and Schumacher seemed to improve every day. Convertino, who’d been running the household while his wife was busy finishing her doctoral thesis, seemed re-energized and inspired by his morning runs along the Mississippi.
But the historical melting pot had long held appeal for Calexico. Burns’ interest notched upward after a 2010 trip to Cuba, where he heard first-hand the island’s influence on American music. After that visit, he began brewing new musical ideas. The tipping point may have been reading musicologist Ned Sublette’s 2008 history of the city, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square.
“I like it there because of all of the stories and myths that come from that part of the world, and it’s such an eclectic city. For that reason alone it seemed like a good match for our band,” says Burns.
Convertino’s fondness for the city began with John Kennedy Toole’s picaresque novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, as well as his interest in Truman Capote, another native son. “On top of all that, being a drummer, to live where the drum set was invented seemed fitting,” Convertino says. When he was playing in The Living Room’s warm wooden acoustics, he added, he was thinking about things like “the river, the humidity in the air, Baby Dodds doing press-rolls…”
Calexico did take advantage of the locale to recruit local trombonist Craig Klein (Bonerama) and tenor and baritone sax man Jason Mingeldorff (Nightcrawlers). But the city’s traditional Preservation Hall sounds, or its Marsalis Family flavors, aren’t on Algiers, though Calexico has plenty of jazz chops (listen to the Charles Mingus-flavored “Crumble” from 2003’s Feast of Wire). Instead, Burns concedes this may be the band’s “bluest” record, a synthesis of its earlier sinister and lonesome desert noir sound, its recent dark indie rock leanings, and now a bit of Caribbean-born juju.
“Sinner In the Sea” links all these musical and narrative trends. It exports the riff from The Black Light’s “Stray” to a slinky bolero playing in a Havana nightclub, perhaps not far, as Burns sings, from the “waves crashing on the Malecon wall.” But the loss of that cultural connection — one that stretched back to the days when New Orleans belonged to the French and Spanish — has a more intimate, familial cost because of a “forgotten war” that’s raised “a wall in the ocean between you and me.” Even the LP’s most upbeat number, the meringue-influenced “Puerto,” features forlorn lyrics about the yearning of native Dominicans for their émigré friends and relatives.
The most corrosive walls aren’t physical or political at all. This blue LP’s bluest moment may be “Para,” its minor-key shuffle-to-cathartic-crescendo the melancholic vehicle for Convertino lyrics so personal Burns says the song almost didn’t make the record. Deeply affected by Terence Malick’s exquisite examination of family, The Tree of Life, Convertino recounts his parents’ happiness raising their five children as well as the demise of their marriage. He even lent his parents’ home movies to the song’s video, mirroring much the same era that Malick transported filmgoers to.
“When Joey asked for some words to ‘Para,’ I tried to relate that vibe in the words, the complexity of that family in the movie, my own childhood, and the family I have now in my own life,” Convertino says. “I know there was a lot of love between my parents; there would have to be to raise five kids. But it didn’t work out for them, and the divorce was incredibly sad for everyone.”
Recognizing the LP’s dark emotional cast, Burns wrote the lullaby-like “Hush” as much for the connection he has with his wife as to offer some hope for the future to his new daughters. The popular children’s book Goodnight Moon even provided impetus for lyrics acknowledging life’s simple treasures and subtle moments. But if there’s admiration for our efforts to overcome these walls we build, the melancholy in Algiers tells us the battle rages on and on.
“There are a lot of characters that are either between walls or that are trying to make it through or across some kind of barrier” on Algiers, Burns says. “But I’m trying to extract some form of hope, especially in regards to where the future might unravel to.”
Surmounting these psychological barriers and physical walls remains our last great hope—perhaps even our raison d’être. Algiers, and the perseverance of the melting pot city where it was recorded, offers proof that the battle is worth fighting.
Photo by Rocky Yosek. The Calexico tour: http://www.casadecalexico.com/tours/