Calexico – Joey Burns, Man of Words

"Please keep it to 30 minutes, OK?" pleads Calexico’s publicist as I confirm my time to speak with Joey Burns. "He starts interviews with Australia after you!"

Thirty minutes is an eternity with some artists; with Burns, one of two main members behind one of the more unique rock bands of the past two decades, it’s a warm-up. Ever since their earliest days playing together in Giant Sand, Burns and John Convertino have found synergy in broad brushstrokes from all over the pop music palette and beyond: Americana, soul, alt-country, indie rock, and various flavors from Mexico, South America, Europe and parts unknown. And even at the few times during their 12-year tenure when the music has floated away with their imaginations—or been found, disappointingly, without much imagination—it’s always at least interesting, which makes every return visit to Calexico a journey worth taking.

Burns was on hand to talk about the brand new Carried to Dust, to these ears one of Calexico’s most accomplished albums and a return to a more mysterious, more eclectic, more unhinged collection of sounds after the uncharacteristically burnished (and occasionally, homogenized) indie rock strains of 2006’s Garden Ruin. It’s safe to call Calexico an international collective; there are Burns and Convertino and four other core members, but a constellation of other musicians both high profile and obscure, all there to stir the pot and pepper the ragout. Carried to Dust brings even more of them to the party than usual, from Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam to the extraordinary Iowa folk singer Pieta Brown.

When prompted, Burns lets his mind run in a stream of thoughts and tangents—each, amazingly, as well articulated as the next even if it doesn’t always ostensibly relate. Therefore, a straight Q&A is out of the question, and we present the man in excerpts for public consumption.

On the genesis of "Carried to Dust" at the time of the writers’ strike:

"That’s partially accurate—it is sometimes possibly about the writers’ strike…but it’s more about the spirit that the story takes where the writer decides to abandon the city or shop—he isn’t working—and head out on the road. That’s something that we often do ourselves when we’re on tour a lot of the time. We try as much as possible to get out of work mode and absorb local flavor and color. I think on [Carried to Dust] there’s a theme of looking outward—and we drew our inspiration either directly from travels to places like South America or just looking through The Economist or the pages of National Geographic. The band is made up of so many people from around the globe, and we tour so often in other countries, that we have so many experiences all over the world."

On looking "outward," versus "returning" on "Garden Ruin":

Garden Ruin was more about getting back home and writing songs that were in many ways American—strains of indie rock and folk for example—except for probably ‘Roka’ which had a guest from Spain and was more southwestern, but still had a theme of immigration. That song was written out of frustration with the growing sentiment at home, and a lack of protest in the media for what the Bush Administration was calling patriotism. There’s a lot of frustration, and the record dealt with that.

But this record, it kind of sees the light at the end of the tunnel and how things are changing. The image on the front cover is of a woman who is driving—the point of view is from the backseat—and driving into the light, whether sunrise or sunset. It’s somewhat blinding, but it’s also reassuring. The concept we took on this record was you gotta get behind the wheel, and get behind whatever it is that you’re seeing through. Do it yourself. Strip it down.

On Calexico’s spirit of collaboration:

"It’s unusual for a Calexico record to have so many guest vocalists, but this one has set itself apart from what we’ve been doing already. We’re combing the collaborative side and doing the more characteristic songwriting approach, too."

On the return of Craig Schumacher, who mixed and produced all of Calexico’s major efforts except Garden Ruin:

"Even then it was his guidance to do something different and work with a friend, J.D. Foster. It’s hard not to want to get involved, especially with friends you’ve worked with so often, and I could tell he still wanted to come in and mix some of those songs. Craig is a very dear friend and he lives here [in Tuscon], so it’s easy for us to roll into Wavelab Studio using our gear or their gear. There’s musical instruments covering all of the walls and the floors and all the corners—it’s so very appealing. Craig brings a very laid back quality—he’s adventurous and experimental and knows how to bring a lot of space to the instruments. With drums, for example, [Calexico is] all about tone and moving air as opposed to a click or a thud. Craig understands that.

On other minds behind:

"What really made a difference in some of these tracks, too, was working with Nick Luca, who works in another part of Wavelab—kind of a B-room called upstairs. He’s a fantastic player in his own right; he plays with us a lot in town and sometimes comes to regional shows, and he’ll also be with us in Chicago. He was able to really transform some of these songs like "Inspiration" and "Two Silver Trees" by mixing as he was going along—this productive style of doing it all at the same time. Those are two really important tracks on the record, so I’ve been trying to mention his name a lot in interviews so people know how important his involvement was."

On Pieta Brown, who duets with Burns on "Slowness":

"Pieta’s a longtime friend, and she’s kind of carving her own path with such a distinctive bluesy voice. I had a song that I thought could work for her—a very straightforward shuffle—and it sounded so reminiscent of other songs and bands like Iron & Wine and even Bob Dylan. Now, I love country music—I’m a big fan of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris—but I always shunned getting more involved in that with Calexico because there’s already so much of that out there. But this song came along and it was pretty straightforward and I heard her singing it and she asked, do you mind if I make the melody more my own? And I said that’d be fantastic and we wound up singing it live over the recording bed. It’s a really moving experience doing that in the studio and the song has wound up being a lot of people’s favorite.

On possible journalism and road burnout:

"I missed an opportunity to do something for Uncut—a Dylan issue, and I was going to write about ‘John Wesley Harding.’ I don’t even think I realized that John Wesley Harding was released the same year as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band! They’re so different. But you could see how the Beatles were taken by that whole movement, whereas Dylan was put on this path and he was going crazy because he was out there with little or no sleep, and then the whole motorcycle crash [in 1966] was a kind of way for him to say look, I’m not doing this anymore, I’m gonna do my own thing.

I can relate to that. There’s a certain amount of touring I love, but there comes a point where you have to do something different. We love touring, but sometimes you have to be at home for a while, and we took a really long break before we made this record and did nothing. I have months and months of cassette sketches and I’ll listen to them and a lot of it sounds midtempo and it’s obvious I’d been away from the road for a long time. You balance it."

On future collaboration with Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, who sings on "House of Valparaiso":

"No real plans right now, but for him, the invitation is always open. I know he’s got a ton of projects but he’s an amazing musician and writer and painter, and also a great arranger. When I was in Austin some time back we had dinner and celebrated his youngest daughter’s first birthday and I told him "If you’re interested, I have a couple of songs and would love to have you add some vocals." And "House of Valparaiso" was an easy fit for him—his vocals are so rich and such a wide spread that if he adds three vocals it sounds like six people. He adds so much, and I love that."

On "Valparaiso," one of the album’s centerpieces:

"It was inspired by Pablo Neruda and the houses he had in Chile, and when we went down there we got a much more detailed picture of what had happened with Pinochet and the coup d’etat on Sept. 11, 1973. We met a lot of people whose families had fled the country. Valparaiso is a beautiful city by itself but we saw two houses of Pablo Neruda and heard the stories of Neruda at the time of his death [in September 1973]. It just really struck a raw nerve with us because of the kinds of things we’d heard about happening in Iraq and Afghanistan and seeing the backlash against speaking out that people like the Dixie Chicks and Linda Ronstadt and Michael Moore received…it gave us an interesting point of reference.

It’s all of that combined, I think—all under the very diverse and eclectic traveler’s journal that we draw from. A lot of times when we come back from tour I bring the records and books I’ve collected and I look at them and start opening them up and start to draw from the experiences and an outwardly-looking perspective. Pretty soon I get ideas."

On Calexico’s participation in the I’m Not There soundtrack and work with Jim James, Willie Nelson and Mickey Raphael

"It was a really exciting project. I’d worked with the music supervisors before and once I read the script I was hooked and I thought it was brilliant. I’m really glad we got to work with Jim James—I’ve been a fan for a while and we’ve even tried to organize touring in support of My Morning Jacket before. We didn’t record in person together but there was a definite connection, and then we were asked to be a part of filling in the rest of that scene which meant getting to work with Willie Nelson. We’re also became friends with Mickey Raphael [Willie’s harmonica player], and every time he’s been to Tuscon we’ve hung around. He loves Wavelab. He turned me on to an Argentine harmonica player named Hugo Diaz who was huge in the 50s and 60s. I listen to the tones he made and I think, wow, we have to do something like that."

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