Published Sep 25, 2012After forging a sound synonymous with their hot and dusty Arizona home base, Joey Burns, John Convertino, et al., have taken a side-trip on their eighth album to the muggier atmosphere of New Orleans. Algiers shares its title with the town on the other side of the Mississippi River where the album was recorded, and from the outset there's a much livelier kick to the songs, as opposed to the more atmospheric elements for which Calexico have become known. instead of taking the easy route of creating a love letter to New Orleans, the band went in the opposite direction, continuing to lead American music into the future.
This is your first album with Anti-. How did that come about?
Convertino: We'd been friends with Andy Kaulkin, one of the owners of the company, for quite some time actually. I guess we met him through Neko Case, and he was a real fan of the stuff we'd done with her, as well as being a fan of the band. He also said he really respected Corey Rusk of Touch and Go, the label we were on for a long time, and how we'd remained loyal to him. Andy told us to give him a call if anything ever happened, and we just said, "Okay, sure." But sure enough, when the market crashed and the recession hit, a lot of small businesses went under and Touch and Go was one of those. We were in-between records and Corey said that he just didn't have the support to do another one with us. W called Andy and he was like, "yay! We can finally make a record after all these years!" We were excited too because he's a real music lover and great to work with.
It's been everything you'd thought it would be so far?
Oh, yeah. Everyone at the label is so hands off ― when your record's done, hand it in and they'll put it out. They allow you to do what you want to do and be in the space you want to be in to get your record done. I'll never forget one day when Joey and I had lunch with Andy and he said, "How about this idea for your record? John, you play drums and Joey, you play guitar, and that's it. I know that doesn't sound like a typical record company suggestion, but that's what I think you guys should do." I thought that was really cool, and there's a song on the record called "Better & Better" that's kind of dedicated to Andy in that way because it's just Joey and I, guitar and drums. I added a vibe part, but there's no bass, no keyboards, no guitar overdubs. It was really nice to do something that stripped down.
The album was recorded in New Orleans, a new experience for you guys as well. Was that an idea you had before you signed with Anti?
It was kind of an idea that [long-time collaborator] Craig Schumacher's been kicking around for a while. Craig's gone to the Jazz Fest with his wife practically every year since it started, and he's just a huge fan of New Orleans music, as we all are. Then he started holding these annual conferences there in conjunction with Tape Op Magazine for underground producers and engineers. That led to him putting the bug in our ear, you know, "You guys should come to New Orleans and record. Soak up some of the humidity and eat good food. Get with some of these players down here." We started the record in Tucson, but pretty soon we realized that we needed to get away from all the distractions. We found this incredible studio, the Living Room, which was built as a church in the '30s, and spent about ten days there.
Where exactly is Algiers in relation to New Orleans?
Yeah, that was one of the most appealing things for us. If you're in Jackson Square and you walk towards the river, when you get there and look directly across, that's Algiers. There are no tourists there; it's kind of like a secret town. It dates back to the 1700s and there's some of that great architecture you see in the French Quarter, but it's more residential. There are a few bars and restaurants, a grocery store, post office, café and that's about it. It was perfect for us. We just wanted to pop over to the French Quarter for dinner once or twice and the rest of the time we stayed in the studio. We could live there, and they had a great cook.
Was it a challenge at all creating the right vibe in a new location after working in Tucson for so long?
No, it was the perfect fit, really. "Vibe" is the right word, because all we really had to do was pick up on the vibe of the neighbourhood. As soon as you walked in the studio, you could feel the vibrations of the gospel singing that people did there back when it was a church. There was a nice piano there and some vintage drum kits, so we got a great sound happening right away. A lot of the record was improvised, and being able to get all of that down on analogue tape was also very appealing to us.
Would you say this album was possibly more of a group effort? I was thinking that Jacob Valenzuela has a larger role on this one.
I think so. It's been four years since we did Carried To Dust and Jacob had one song on that ["Inspiracion"], which was a real breaking out point for him when we recorded it. It's one of our favourite songs to play live now, so I think he was inspired ― pardon the pun ― by that. He wrote a few songs for this record, one that was in the mariachi style, even though we felt that this record wasn't leaning towards that world. But then he had this other one, "No Te Vas," that was really cool; it had this harpsichord sound to it and a really great groove. We actually recorded that one in Tucson, but it was still very live. Sergio Mendoza was playing piano, Joey was playing bass and Jacob was in the sound booth singing. I really love the overall live feeling of this record; I have to say it's my favourite one that we've done in a while. Speaking of Jacob, the thing that's also been different with this record is that he's had his first child, Jacob Jr., Joey's had twins, our pedal steel player, Paul Niehaus, has had a child, so the whole band has stepped into that world of familyhood and fatherdom. I've been a dad for 18 years and I've been telling these guys it's time to get on the ball and wise up a little bit. I think you can hear that on this record ― the feeling that comes with life experience.
You mention that you were possibly getting away from the Mexican or Latino aspects of your sound, but even in New Orleans that's present in a lot of the music made there.
Yeah, I mean, the more we peeled the layers back of what New Orleans is and how it relates to what the band have been, being there really started to make more and more sense. Our connection to the city became stronger. I think Joey and I had this amazing experience a couple of years ago when we got to go to Havana, Cuba and record at Egrem Studios. We're huge fans of the Buena Vista Social Club and Afro-Cuban music, so it was a huge thrill to actually be in that city and record in that studio. There's a book called The World That Made New Orleans by Ned Sublette that kind of explains that connection and explains how the world is connected to New Orleans. It's a major port city and so many cultures have left their mark there. Even the worst hurricane couldn't wipe it out. People are really strong down there and they continue to grow and change.
The same can be said of those Cuban musicians who survived through their sheer dedication to their art. Did that rub off on you at all when you were there?
Absolutely. Here's a nation, a city, a group of people who really have nothing, yet they celebrate life every day and make the best of it. Music is a part of their lives, which I think is what keeps the joy alive in their souls. We take so much for granted in our countries, and when you strip all of that away to the bare essentials, you really learn to appreciate what you have. I think Joey and I were realizing that as we were making this album: how lucky we've been and how great it's been to play music for so many years ― to be able to travel and have an audience.
You've collaborated with a number of great songwriters. Is there something specific you've learned in doing that that's helped you with your work?
I think more than anything it's been to keep an open mind. If an opportunity is there, more often than not we just go for it, even if it might not seem like the best match. It's often worth it just to see what happens. I know there have been times when I've sat behind the drums and started quaking in my shoes wondering how I got in this scenario, but then you just have to trust your instincts. I think that's when the muse, or music, really thrives: when you step into the unknown. You start having a dialogue like we're having. A pattern starts to evolve and before you really know it, you hope there's someone recording it because once you know it, it turns into something else. For me, I like to capture those moments when they're still in that zone of the unknown.