By Philip Runco
Everywhere he looks, Joey Burns sees duality.
It’s in his music with Calexico, a duo that for twenty years has honored the traditions of other cultures while making them its own. It’s in the voices that paint his vignettes of life and death in cities and sunburned countrysides – both his own and guests’, both in English and in Spanish, both alone and together. It’s in the push and pull of his relationship with drummer John Calvertino, a longtime collaborator, yet someone with “very different strengths.” It’s in his creative process, where he’s learned to let go of some decisions while maintaining a sense of voice and direction. It’s in the harmony and chaos of Calexico’s live shows, where studio creations are brought to life with a seven-piece ensemble. It’s even in his home state of Arizona, where people are either one side of the wire and or the other.
Last year, Burns and Calvertino crossed that wire to spend ten days just outside Mexico City, writing and demoing the songs that would become Calexico’s eighth studio album, Edge of the Sun. It’s a feisty and varied collection – one that most recalls the band’s classic Feast of Wire (2003) in spirit, while showcasing Burn’s strongest melodies to date. If 2012’s regal Algiers was a night at the theater, Edge of the Sun is a barrio cookout turned party.
“It was such a nice release, you know, physically and metaphorically, because we’ve held onto it, worked on it, labored over it, loved it, dropped it, and left it alone for a long time,” Burns said of the record last month from home. “This one is definitely a love child.”
A large cast of musicians helped Calexico bring that child into the world – Neko Case, Sam Beam, Gaby Moreno, Carla Morrison, and Ben Bridwell among them – but none were as essential as keyboardist Sergio Mendoza, a veteran contributor who worked alongside Burns for much of the recording. “Not only was he instrumental in suggesting that we go to Mexico City for a writing session, but he wound up just being there. When John couldn’t be available in the studio, Sergio was there,” Burns explained. “His musicality is deep, and his friendship is even stronger. He encouraged me to do things that I normally probably wouldn’t do.”
Edge of the Sun is another chapter in Calexico’s refusal to repeat what it has done in the past, and its continued drive to challenge itself. “That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing,” the singer and multi-instrumentalist shared. “That’s what I’m trying to instill that in my twin daughters.”
He paused to note the cosmic significance of his two girls.
“There again, there’s that duality.”
You said that going to Mexico City helped you realize what this record is about. From your perspective, what is Edge of the Sun about?
Even though the band has been inspired and influenced for many years by Mexican culture – and especially the way that it’s embraced here in the west and southwest of the United State – I was a little bit hesitant in going there and embracing it completely, because it’s already been done so much before in the music. But we had never really gone there to work, aside from playing one show a few years back at a wonderful festival.
It was a great trip and we got to discover a little bit of the city, as well as the monuments and the pyramids of Teotihuacan. It’s a spiritual site. It’s a sacred site. Those things resonate with me and a lot of the band members, too.
I was looking for a more urban setting. I was thinking New Your City, but somewhere closer. We had gone to New Orleans. I had been to Havana on another project. I wanted to make our way further south. Mexico City was the spot. It was serendipitous: Our host Roa Velasquez is a member of a pop-punk trio called the Liquids, and I had played cello on a record that he made in Tucson. We wound up doing some demos and writing at his home studio in Coyoacán, the neighborhood just south of Mexico City.
I was really glad to go. I needed to find some time and some space, because at home, it’s really hard to block out a 12-hour chunk of time to work, and John and I really needed that. We needed to focus. John was in the process of moving from Canton, Ohio to El Paso, Texas, where he now lives. We needed to come back to the world that is music-related. I was really happy to have this little window of ten days to do nothing but music, or to explore the city and how it might relate to the songs and lyrics.
I feel like there are a lot of folk influences on the record – not only from South America or from Mexico. Our window is always facing not just south, but to east and globally. We’ve always had one foot in this indie rock world and another in alternative folk or world music. I love that. That’s an extension of who I am personally, and the music that I cherish the most. It’s nice to straddle that line, even though I know it’s challenging for different camps, whether it be the Pitchfork camp or the hardcore Day of the Dead crowd, who tend to like only the trumpets or the Latin vibe in our music We are so many different things, and we’re made up of people from different backgrounds.
It was fun to continue this theme of traveling and recording. It is an everyday occurrence for us; when we’re on tour, we’re often in a different country every day, especially in Europe or South America. It felt right to continue this theme, especially with our new label, Anti-Records. This is only our second album with them, and it’s kind of a travel series in away. It’s not unlike Duke Ellington touring around the Middle East and coming back to write his album – one of my favorites – The Far East Suite.
I’ve kind of picked up on that; it’s engrained in who I am. I love traveling. I love embracing elements of what we experience on the road and then kind of making them our own. We’ve done it so much so that we’ve found band members along the way, or have had collaborations that become part of our vocabulary.
I spoke with John when Algiers came out and was struck by how in the weeds he could get technically – little inspirations that could reach back a century, regional time signatures, how geography influences music. How do you make something that’s studied and steeped in tradition, and yet not staid and bookish? How do you keep it vital?
There’s certainly no formula, but I understand exactly what you mean. It comes down to aesthetics and being a good enough musician to not be that good. If you do a cover song – or even if try to redo your own song – and you can’t remember the way that it was recorded or originally written, that’s OK. That’s not point; the point is to actually make it more your own.
John is a wonderful example of that. There are times when I love challenging him. [Laughs] We share a lot of similar philosophies about life and music, but we also have different strengths. That’s where the longevity of the band comes in: We’re able to acknowledge who might be right in one instance or another, and we’ve learned come together despite the fact that there are differences in the way that we play. It’s the same with the whole band – right now there are seven musicians on tour. It’s a beautiful thing when you get that many people together, playing or breathing in harmony or in chaos, incorporating mistakes and dissonance along the way, and having it become something quite unique. There’s something about that. That’s what we do.
I completely understand how we could come off as academic approach to music, but it’s about the feel. When we’re listening back to a basic track, we’re paying attention to whether it sounds too programmed or perfect. You’re trying to push yourself and those around you. It’s a balance that we’re trying to find.
At the end of the day, it comes down to John’s and my ears – and with this record, Sergio’s too, although he’s probably going to defer to us. Working with Craig Schumacher, the mix engineer, we’ll say, “You know what? There’s too much distortion on that one track.” Or: “Let’s put some more distortion on that.” But sometimes you want to let go and say, “Yeah, that’s OK. I wouldn’t have done it that way; it’s not the way that I had originally written it, but it’s OK.”
For example, I was thinking that the main melody on “Coyoacán” would just be baritone guitar, but Craig added the rough sketch of the nylon guitar as well, and I was like, “Well, I wouldn’t do that, but it’s OK. Let’s just keep moving.” [Laughs] It’s funny how little thing scan be big, and alternatively, big things can be little. It’s letting go, but having a general sense of your voice and your general direction. It’s about trying to hold on and let go at the same time. It’s kind of a wonderful ride.
It’s hard sometimes, though, like when John has drum ideas for a song, and someone else – let’s say, Sergio or myself – has a suggestion. John is really just wonderful at doing what he’s gonna do on the kit, but if we want to add percussion, sometimes I can tell that it might weigh on him a little bit. He has a love-hate relationship with percussion. Sometimes he’s into it, sometimes he’s really not. He just likes things to be more organic and loose, not unlike some of his favorite jazz drummers. I think that he envisions himself approaching the kit and what he does in Calexico much like Elvis Jones or Max Roach might do in a similar ensemble. At the same time, I’m thinking, “Let’s try something different. What would Manu Chao do on song like this?”
Each Calexico album has a distinct personality. Algiers was a beautiful, almost majestic record, but a steady one – subtle, even in its bigger moments. It seemed like Calexico could make that record again and again going forward. But Edge of the Sun feels different. It’s scrappier. There’s a bit more verve to it. It’s a grab bag in a way that reminds me of Feast of Wire. How did that happen?
It is more playful, and I think part of that is because we went to Mexico City. I’m thinking to myself, “Hey, now we can put some electronic bits in here.” I’m listening to Mexican Institute of Sound. I’m thinking about Kinky and other Mexican bands. At the same time, I’m listening to a new singer that I really like a lot named Natalia LaFourcade. She just did a covers record of Agustín Lara songs, but made the songs duets. That record had an influence on me, because here’s somebody new – or younger – who’s doing something that’s very mature, and yet some of the production has really beautiful approaches to effects and editing. There was also the quality of this person being able to sing, and taking a classic songwriter from Mexico and making it contemporary. It stands as a real big influence for me as we were embarking on making Edge of the Sun.
I’m a fan of music. I’ll always be a fan. It’s fun to get to be a fan and travel playing music, because you can carry your guitar case and be backstage and hang out with artists that you like, regardless of where they are in their careers – whether they’re starting out or still doing it after twenty or thirty years. I’m looking for characters, you know? I’m looking for people who have unique voices and different ways of looking at everyday things.
I’m happy that there’s some success with this record. That first song, “Falling From the Sky” – I didn’t think that it would really get finished or get be included on this record, because it kind of fits in, and it kind of doesn’t, and I kind of don’t care. I just want to get it out there. I enjoy playing it. I’m thinking Flaming Lips. I’m thinking of the band Love and Arthur Lee. And I’m thinking it’s who we are. We like rock ‘n’ roll, too. We’re not going to stay pigeonholed as an indie rock desert noir band playing in someone’s garage for the rest of our lives. I want to get out there. It’s fun to be challenged, and it’s fun to challenge ourselves and people who listen to our music.
It’s too easy to copy and repeat yourself. It’s more challenging to make a whole mixtape rather than one song that’s repeated. I understand that for certain people – journalists included – that’s harder to grasp. It’s harder to understand the bigger perspective of where something like “Falling From the Sky” might come from. Sometimes people follow a thread that has nothing to do with the bigger picture of a band’s identity.
Or maybe that’s not a popular thing these days. Minimalism is definitely shining on certain levels, and that’s great. We made Algiers, where we gravitated towards that kind of expression naturally and honestly, but I’m not going to make that record every time that I go to the studio. I could, but that would be boring.
People often make reference to the cinematic quality of Calexico’s music – its grandness and sweep. But that holds true for your songwriting too; it often evokes geography and climate, and it paints vignettes of everyday life. How do you go about putting pen to paper?
All of those things hold true. The most important thing is the story – the character in that setting, whether it be a landscape near or far, imagined or restrained inside a boundary. It’s cinematic because there’s great setting and mood.
Often times, the way that I start songwriting is by capturing a mood with both John and myself laying down very simple sketches of rhythm and chords. From that, all sorts of melodies can come out. I will usually find a melody that I feel gravitates towards this expression or this mood, and from there words come, generally.
There are other times where I’ll take some lyrics that I’ve scribbled down and paint them into a song, because if I don’t, I’ll grab Jeff Tweedy’s or Bob Dylan’s or Peter’s Brown’s lyrics, and I’ll sing those lyrics as a template. Then I have to go back and write my own. That’s kind of fun to do, too – it’s kind of an exercise. Or I’ll write something on the spot in the studio just to have something, and I’ll work on them later on.
But, ultimately, it comes down to mood, and from there characters pop up, and a sense of direction and story is informed.
You’ve incorporated some memorable verses from Spanish-language vocalists over the years, but when you’ve worked with American or English-language vocalists, they’re usually coloring arrangements – singing back-up more than carrying portions of a song. Why is that?
It’s probably just the nature of the way that I’m approaching these things. With Edge of the Sun, we didn’t set out to make a duets or a special guests record; it kind of came about naturally. I still wanted to make it a Calexico record – I didn’t want to make it “Calexico and Guests.” It was more a result of just having fun in the studio, and Sergio and I bouncing ideas off each other, like, “Hey, let’s try to get Natalia LaFourcade on this song.” Or: “Hey, I got an e-mail back from Manu Chao. He said that he’s interested, but who knows if and when he’ll send a track?” Or: “Camilo Lara of Mexican Institute of Sound would still love to work on song,” Yesterday, I got a message that he’s still interested in doing something, even though the record’s been out for a month. But I love that – the collaborations continue to happen.
As far English-Spanish, Pieta Brown has made appearance on our songs. She guested on the song “Slowness” back in 2008 on Carried to Dust. That was more of a he/she duet. On the song that we co-wrote together for Edge of the Sun [“When the Angels Played”], I felt like the song dictated what was needed as far as backing vocals. I wanted to involve her, and so she sang some backing vocals. In the mixing, I think that Craig minimized her involvement even more so, and that was because of the way that he heard it from his perceptive, which I really value a lot.
As for the other singers on the record, we definitely wanted to add a verse for Carla Morrison to sing, and so she’s handling the fourth verse on “Moon Never Rises”. She’s singing that verse in English, and then I made up a refrain for her to sing in Spanish.
We have a longstanding friendship and working relationship with Neko Case. I wanted her to be on a song, and I was trying to figure out which one, and I knew that she was going to be passing through Tuscan. Sergio kept reminding me, “Reach out to her. Send her a text.” She does a lot of work at Craig Schumacher’s studio, Wave Lab, and I think that he even sent her a text. We didn’t get a response, so I figured that like a lot of us, she’s just really busy – and on tour – so I didn’t want to force anything. But she showed up with our mutual friend Celia Blackwood, and she stayed around for a couple of hours before she had to run and play at the Rialto Theater with the New Pornoraphers. She did a great job of covering and building the vocals on the bridge to the song “Tapping on the Line”, which is one of my favorites; it really is a standout track. I think that she enjoyed herself, and you can hear that in the recording.
What’s your relationship with Spanish like? What are the qualities that make you want to incorporate it into your writing?
I’m surrounded by it. I’m inspired by it. It’s a Romance language. When I was in high school, instead of taking Spanish, I took German. [Laughs] It’s helped me out a little bit, especially travelling overseas when I’m in those countries that speak German and I’m trying to make sense of a menu or find my around town or on a train.
I’m just a big fan of Spanish music. I’m talking about what we consider a part of “world music,” but it’s a big portion of the world. It comes from growing up in southern California. My mom and dad would sometimes sing classic folk songs like “Cielito Lindo” or “Guadalajara”. They traveled, and they came back with songs, and my dad learned a little Spanish. I think it’s a natural thing to be impressed upon a culture and its food and its art and its music. It’s this gradual evolution.
Hearing the music of Manu Chao after his involvement Mano Negra really opened the door for me. Here’s a guy who’s not only fluent in English, he’s fluent in French, and his parents are Spanish – they had to flee Spain in the ‘70s. I loved the duality. His Clandestino record really opened the door for me, like, “Oh my god, he’s singing songs in French, now in Spanish, now in English.” That’s badass. Each one of those songs has a different kind of feeling because of the language. I’m a fan of that feeling and effect, and the way that it translates.
I was born in Montreal, Canada. My parents are from upstate New York, but they left for California when I was a one-year-old. I’ve just always been a fan of different kinds of music and language. Maybe one day, my wife and I will retire down in Mexico. Who know – maybe we’ll move to South America or we’ll go back to Cuba more. Growing up and learning bass and playing jazz in high school, all of my favorite bass lines were Bossa Nova or Afro-Cuban songs. As a bass player, that low tendency and frequency gravitated me towards going south.
Deluxe editions can be a mixed bag, but I was pleasantly surprised by Edge of the Sun’s bonus disc. When you think of this record, where do those six songs fit in?
You’ve got the whole album. Our original intention was the put out all of those songs. You’ve got the heart of the record. Some of it is a maybe little experimental – like, “Should we put this song out? I don’t know. What do you think?” Certain friends or band members kind of sneer at certain songs. There are a couple more songs that didn’t make it on that version. One is “Worn Right Thru”; the other will be a b-side or digital release for something else. But what you have is what John and I consider to be the full album it. You can just push shuffle play on both those discs and see what happens. Mix them up how you like. That’s the record.
Have you given any thought to where Calexico heads next?
The next recording that we do, I’m hoping – and I’ll try – to make it even more of a surprise, and to just have fun.
We got asked by our friend who owns a record store in Hamburg, Germany, called Michelle Records, to perform. He’s a great musician himself, and he’s got loads of incredible vintage gear, and he had everything set up for just John and I. He specifically requested the two of us. He said, “No, I don’t want the trumpets, and I don’t want the bass player. I want John and Joey.” Coming from him, I’m like, “OK, he gets it. I’m not going to challenge it, because he’s insisted on it. Let’s go for it.”
So, he picked us up, and on the way over he said, “Do you guys remember that song ‘Gilbert’ that you did for that Amor/Belhom/Burns/Convertino collaboration?” I was like, “Yeah, that’s one of my favorites.” I started to sing it to him, just in case we don’t play it, at least I’ve sang it for him in the cab.
But we wound up playing the song. And without talking about what songs we were going to play, John and I started making noise, and from that noise came some songs. That was so much fun. It was a packed record store. There were people outside, on the other side of the glass, watching.
I think that’s the next EP that we make: Something noisy and raucous with electric guitar – not acoustic guitar – and drums. It’ll be a two-piece set-up. We’ll put out something like that, and then go tour wherever.
A lot of times, we can only play big cities because we have seven musicians on stage and six crew members – it’s a big production. It would be fun to get in and out of these smaller towns that we haven’t played in a while, whether it be North America or South America or Europe. I’m longing for those experiences – the hot, sweaty small clubs where everyone is drinking the one drink that the bar serves; whatever the local draft is. I’m longing for that experience, and I think that John is too. It’ll be good to break it up and challenge everyone involved.