To the point
Calexico’s newest album pleads the poetic path
John Canvertino and Joey Burns of Calexico
Jairo Zavala Ruiz
Since 1996, Calexico has released ten albums; their newest of which is this year’s The Thread That Keeps Us. Their music feels very much of the frontera, the U.S./Mexico border, with mariachi, conjunto, Tejano, indie rock, Americana, Latin rock, and alternative influences (plus, as singer/multi-instrumentalist Joey Burns points out in this interview, singer-songwriter styles). The band’s 20-plus-years-in-the-making sound is both timeless and evolving, much like the land from which they hail. Their shows flaunt a medley of instruments—Calexico is like a small orchestra with trumpets, guitars, keyboards, an accordion, glockenspiel, vibraphone, theremin, cello, and so forth. Calexico returns to Tulsa to play The Vanguard on Saturday, April 21.
Liz Blood: The Thread That Keeps Us has been called the most explicitly political album Calexico has ever put out. Did you make it with that intention, or did it just evolve that way as you wrote?
Joey Burns: Well, you know, every record has got a dose of the head-and-the-heart blues. It definitely felt like our hearts sank and our heads hurt after the last presidential election. But there’s a lot of material on there, and ours is a more poetic path, as far as dealing with frustrations or topics that delve into social and political concerns. One of the feelings that John [Convertino] and I had was that we wanted to get into the studio as soon as possible to map out some of this frustration. We went to northern California, and that sparked some similar feelings that I had when I grew up in California—like the cycle of a return to a conservative mentality and perspective. I imagined characters and followed them, and they helped me to write and talk about things both big and small. And it helped [me] get into the process. Music comes naturally and quickly, and the writing takes more time. But in northern California it all fell into place—being in this natural, secluded safe haven. It’s incredible how much nature is present north of San Francisco—like in the John Muir Woods and some of the towns there that are staving off development. That was really inspiring. So, I imagined the characters of these kids and what they’d think growing up there today.
Blood: Your song “Girl in the Forest” asks “What part of nature can you honestly say / is beyond your explanations for short-term gain?” Elsewhere you’ve said the chaos and noise on Thread is meant to reflect “where we are as a planet.” Can you explain what you mean?
Burns: I grew up in southern California, and being near the coast I saw the horizon over the Pacific with a thin layer of brown smog. We had smog alert days where we couldn’t go out. It affected me physically and emotionally. It worried me then, and it worries me now. A lot of the Western world—especially the U.S.—has been leading the charge for being concerned mostly about profit and not thinking about a bigger picture, which includes the planet, animals, wildlife, ecosystems, ourselves, future generations.
That song is also inspired by my [twin] daughters, who are six going on seven. As repetitive as it sounds, I want them to have some semblance of nature that is untouched. I was thinking about painting the scene of protest, corporations and machines against protester and environmental concerns. My daughters responded to me with the simple question, “Why can’t the song just be about a girl who talks with the forest and the animals herself?” I thought, well, that’s so simple and beautiful and to the point. I worked on it with them—we talked about ideas and themes at the kitchen table. Talking about and then finishing something is important to show your kids and your community.
“Dead in the Water” is another song that isn’t overtly political, but it is inspired by people and corporations. It’s about the outlook, the attitude driving some of this economic conservatism. I wanted to touch on that in the way writers and musicians do, which is through story and song. There are enough blogs and Twitter feeds out there. We’re interested in bringing people together and showing an open-minded approach to stories with music that evokes mood and character.
There’s definitely more noisy guitar on this album, too. There’s some electronic noise and it matches the theme and direction of this record. It gives a sense of tension. Tension, for musicians, used in the right way can help bring more mood into the areas that you’re trying to convey. Distortion is good, you know? That reminds me of the use of analog recording style versus digital. Digital is more clean but analog has more grit, which sounds and feels really good. Even though this record was recorded digitally, we mixed it using analog outboard gear.
Blood: You mention the artist James Turrell in “The End of the World with You.” (“Turn up the microphone on the national parks / You gotta switch something off if you wanna get it right / A crater full of wisdom in James Turrell’s eyes”) Is his work significant to Calexico or this album?
Burns: Yeah, I’ve always been intrigued with his work. And here in Arizona [where I live], he’s got a project—“Roden Crater”—that he’s been working on. I like the idea behind it. You’re focusing on framing light. It seems almost ridiculous in one sense, but then it provokes and engages the viewer to think further than just looking at a one-dimensional painting or sculpture. It brings you in. And then where does it take you? How does it affect your life? His work is the kind that has a profound effect on people. And that he is still going strong is amazing. I liked that line, “Crater full of wisdom in James Turrell’s eyes”—just putting things together and enjoying words and associations.
Blood: Your previous album, Edge of the Sun, featured many guest artists. What guests, if any, do you have on Thread?
Burns: Rather than repeating ourselves, like, “Oh, now who can we bring in?”—because on Edge every song had a guest—this record I wanted to get done as soon as possible. I didn’t want to spend time asking and inviting and communicating and waiting for parts. And I wanted to feature our band. The members we’ve been playing with for 10 and 20 years are remarkable. They make us shine. And it made sense because this album is more about home. There is a quest for finding what home is—and preserving or maintaining it. What is it? What does it mean to us? What is the thread that keeps us?
Blood: Calexico is a city on the U.S./Mexico border and also a portmanteau of California and Mexico. How does the geography, or place, inform your sound?
Burns: We live in southern Arizona, which used to be part of Mexico, so historically there’s a lot of collaboration here. A lot of accumulation of culture and people in this area. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s what attracted me to this place. When we were looking for a band name we thought the town name [Calexico] was really intriguing because it’s a hybrid—and on the other side of the border is Mexicali. When people ask about our band, I say it’s like singer-songwriter with a lot of instrumentals and instruments, a mix of orchestra that highlights this region. The thing about a place like Arizona or southern California is that it’s a universal place. You can see in other areas of the world where cultures come together and celebrate differences. It’s what made the U.S. great—the open-minded and open-hearted quality. That’s what has propelled us in our band and led us to explore traditions and technologies and genres through various times and around the globe. It’s a celebration of people coming together and finding ways in which we can make music.
CALEXICO with Ryley Walker
Sat., April 21, 7 p.m.
The Vanguard | 222 N. Main St.