Calexico The Expatriate Files
Published Mar 01, 2003In the tray card of Calexico's fourth and best full-length album, Feast of Wire, there's a picture of someone warming their hands over a gas stove. It's hard to imagine someone in Calexico's home base of Tucson, Arizona having trouble keeping warm. But if you spent February in Montreal, birthplace of Calexico's Joey Burns, sitting in a drafty apartment where -40° winds rage outside and listening to news reports of the U.S. bucking international opinion to launch a new war, then the image is all too appropriate.
Listening to the warming sounds of Feast of Wire is the perfect antidote, an articulation of a utopian political vision through a border-bashing musical journey. It's also cheaper than a plane ticket to where the Calexican duo of Burns and John Convertino have set up their home base near the Sonoran desert. In Tucson, they live doors away from each other and their friend Howe Gelb, who has employed them as his rhythm section in Giant Sand for over a decade.
In Calexico's music are the obvious influences of living in the desert near the Mexican border Latin rhythms, swelling mariachi horns and swooning pedal steel suggesting wide-screen vistas all of which have residual effects on the listener no matter what the temperature is outside. But also implicit in Calexico's vision is a belief beyond borders of any kind: cultural, musical, or political.
Calexico is often pegged as an "Americana" or "alt-country" band, both of which couldn't be further from the truth. The predominant influences are Mexican and Spanish, although they borrows freely from American jazz and country, German waltzes, Portuguese fado, Argentinean tango, Jamaican dub, and (for lack of a better term) Chicago post-rock, the likes of which is often released by their label, Quarterstick.
All of this means that Calexico are capable of crossing over all sorts of audience barriers, from indie rockers to CBC types to anyone who prefers genre-jumping world music to be devoid of cheese. It also means that they do extremely well in Europe, where to make a sweeping generalisation the heterogeneous public is more receptive to the exchange of ideas. Keep in mind that before George W. Bush was appointed president, he'd never been outside the American border.
"I remember our travel agent telling Howe Gelb that Howe should run for president because he's travelled the world more than our president has," laughs Convertino, who adds that North America could take some hints from what Donald Rumsfeld calls "old Europe." "You would think that Americans or America could kind of take the hint a bit: how a city is planned out, or how mass transportation and recycling work, or how getting along with different countries and languages and borders work."
If America has its blinders on, Europeans have always been fascinated with American mythology. Germany in particular loves North American roots rock, as any Canadian practitioner of the genre who's toured there will tell you. Two member of Calexico's touring band are German, and it was a German label who first commissioned the Giant Sand rhythm section to do something on their own.
Burns has done his research on the relationship between the two cultures, citing an early 20th century German author named Karl Mai. "He wrote these stories about the West and about frontier life in America. He made up these characters and these names and strange stories that were just in his imagination or from what he'd heard about the United States. Those stories ended up influencing the spaghetti Western movies Sergio Leone made with Ennio Morricone's music, who likewise I think had not travelled to the States but wrote music based on what he'd heard of mariachi and folk music. But generally his imagination gave birth to these strange soundscapes combining '60s guitar rock and vocals and pretty cool stuff."
So you have an American band influenced by Italians who were interpreting a German impression of American culture. Stop here if you're getting dizzy. Or instead, ponder the fact that the first time most North Americans heard mariachi music was through Morricone.
"I certainly heard a lot [of mariachi] when I moved to Tucson in 1994," says Burns. "The studio we record at, Wavelab, recorded not just rock bands but local mariachi bands and whatever: jazz, blues, punk bands. Hearing some of these recordings and making the connection in my head to influences like Morricone or the lounge music like Esquivel, I heard influences like Afro-Cuban and Cape Verde, like the music of Cesaria Evora. When I moved to Tucson I really got into Portuguese fado music, and then hearing connections between that music and Brazilian sambas. It all opened me up to a bunch of influences."
Calexico have frequently toured with traditional Tucson band Mariachi Luz de Luna. Burns recalls, "One time when we were touring Europe, we played in Hamburg and had a day off. One of the musicians we play with from Germany, [trumpeter/accordionist] Martin Venk, recommended that we all take our instruments and go down to this wine festival in the plaza. The mariachis put on their uniforms and met up with some local German musicians, who were also in their traditional clothes, and they ended up playing some similar songs that were basically the same songs but translated from German into Spanish with Mexican instruments. You can see how those worlds were coming back together, but now back in Europe as opposed to Mexico."
Cultural exchange aside, any glance at the news will tell you that Euro-American relations are at an all-time low. Having spent the last three months in Europe, Convertino says he's constantly asked political questions by journalists. "We were in Athens for a couple of days and did a lot of interviews," he says. "The journalists there have a different approach. They go right for what you're all about personally, about your greatest fears and what keeps you up at night. I think that it's a curiosity, like, Does everyone in America believe that?' And obviously not: there are millions of people who don't want to go to war, who don't want nuclear power plants and trees to be chopped down, but it's somehow happening. I really feel our country has regressed in so many ways."
So are Calexico goodwill ambassadors of American culture to Europe right now? "No, we're expatriates!"
Joey Burns and John Convertino are by nature expatriates. Burns was born in Montreal to German-American and Irish-American parents, who moved to a small California town outside of Los Angeles, where Burns grew up. Convertino was born to first-generation Italian-Americans in Long Island and moved to Oklahoma as a child. The two met when Burns joined Giant Sand in 1991; Convertino had met Howe Gelb as an L.A. neighbour and joined the band in 1988. Convertino says that when he was offered the gig, it was an easy life choice between menial labour working for the city of L.A. or touring Europe, which Giant Sand did frequently. When Gelb moved to Tucson, Burns and Convertino soon followed.
Both were completely taken with the environment and the local culture, and both Giant Sand and Calexico have found themselves answering questions about the influence of the desert ever since. Gelb once told Exclaim! that he prefers to play it down because he doesn't "want to blame an area for my mess." Reminded of that today, Gelb laughs and says, "Yeah, and then I got Joe and John to move to town and they said, Wait a minute, what would happen if we capitalised on this?' And now they're making beaucoup bucks!"
Calexico released its first album, Spoke, in 1997. Burns admits that he was an interloper in Mexican music at the time, and only recently has he felt more confident expressing his appreciation for the culture lyrically. "I was being hit by some of these impressions first-hand, so a lot of those impressions came out in an instrumental respect," says Burns. "That's why now I'm taking those and writing about them more lyrically. We have a tendency to over-romanticise the West, and that's why on this album we wanted to make this music in a more contemporary light. There's a song like Guero Canelo' that has synthesisers and a cumbia beat, and it talks about going into downtown Tucson and listing all the modern terminology and lingo and characters, not trying to keep this old West thing alive. That's why the cover image on Feast of Wire is of a girl sitting on a skateboard."
For all its borrowing from traditional Mexican music, Calexico is definitely a forward-thinking band, sonically and in song structures and arrangements. Their roots are in punk rock Burns used to work at seminal L.A. punk label SST and they've surrendered Calexico tracks to remixers such as Bundy K. Brown of Tortoise and the UK's Two Lone Swordsmen. Next to the sonic experiments of the Latin Playboys, Calexico are arguably at the forefront of recontextualising this traditional music.
And for Burns, the cover artwork and the artist responsible has always tied into that. "Victor Gastelum is a guy who's inspired a lot of our music, especially the idea behind the band and even the font. I met him when we were working together at SST Records in 1989, and he always talked about the idea of hybrid expressions, whether it's in art or in music. He grew up in a Mexican-American family, and spent time going to all these punk rock shows by Black Flag, the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü."
When one thinks of SST and its aforementioned bands, one doesn't necessarily think of cultural diversity. Burns begs to differ. "The Minutemen were my favourite punk band. That's why we cover their songs like Corona' and Little Man With a Gun in His Hand' off the Double Nickels On the Dime album. They were so eclectic. Raymond Pettibone turned them onto jazz records, and they played with Charlie Haden, and they would go to Baja in Mexico and come back with those songs I just mentioned, but yet making it in their own style."
The Latin influence came to full fruition for 1998's The Black Light, until now the most fully realised Calexico album and the sentimental fan favourite. In 1998, Giant Sand took a bit of a break when Gelb made his first real solo album (an earlier one was solo in name only, since it featured all of Giant Sand), and Burns and Convertino had just been fired from their other gig in Friends of Dean Martinez, by guitarist Bill Elm.
Convertino explains, "Originally with [Friends] we were just supposed to be a cover band doing a lot of Santo and Jonny songs. It was really fun, and that's what got me into playing the vibes and other instruments. We got this opportunity to make a record for Sub Pop, and Joey thought we should at least write a few songs. We wound up writing some songs, and Bill wasn't so keen on the Latin influence. He liked it, but he really wanted to go more in an ambient route and it was hard for him to deal with the scheduling with Giant Sand he wanted to go his own way. It worked out alright in the end, but it was frustrating at first. It was such a fun band. Some of those Black Light songs were actually Friends of Dean Martinez songs. When we got fired from the band we took those songs and used them as Calexico songs."
Calexico started out as a duo comprised of two players most people know primarily as a rhythm section, although Burns and Convertino also play guitar, accordion, cuatro, cello, organ, mandolin, banjo, vibes, keyboards, and marimba. These days they travel with as a six-piece band, including Lambchop's pedal steel player Paul Niehaus and trumpet player Jacob Valenzuela of Mariachi Luz de Luna. Any fan that has fallen in love with the plethora of textures on Calexico records might have trouble envisioning them recreating it as a live duo, which they still do occasionally.
"When you're playing as a duo, you just have to dig in a little deeper because there's nothing else going on," says Convertino. "For me as a drummer, the drum sounds are a lot more acute. You hear more overtones, and the dynamic range is magnified when it's just a duo. Recently we did Rome, Athens, and Utrecht three in a row as a duo in Europe, and four shows with the full band. By the fourth show, it was really nice to have the whole band there. It was a relief to hear the songs fully realised live with all those parts that were overdubbed in the studio. It's great to have the contrast. You hear them inside your head when you play as a duo, and sometimes you might even try to play them or imply the parts rhythmically."
One would imagine that as the drummer, Convertino's job is easier with a full band. "Yeah, but at the same time it's harder because you're not as free and you can't just throw something in out of the blue when you have the full band there," he explains. "Sometimes monotony becomes the hard part, sticking to a certain format. But this touring band is getting better at improvising and changing things up. Our bass player has been taking more chances and is more confident on his instrument, and [trumpeter] Jacob [Valenzuela] is a great improviser."
As a rhythm section, Burns and Convertino have been in high demand. In the last five years or so, they've backed up Richard Buckner, Victoria Williams, Shannon Wright, Barbara Manning, Evan Dando, Jon Rauhouse, Juliana Hatfield, Jenny Toomey, and been one half of the ABBC quartet with French expatriates the Amor Belhom Duo. By 2000, when Calexico released the disappointing Hot Rail around the same time as Giant Sand's Chore of Influence, fans had reason to wonder if Burns and Convertino had spread themselves too thin. There's no denying the strengths they bring to back-up situations, most notably Neko Case's breakthrough 2002 album Blacklisted, where Howe Gelb stopped by to tickle the ivories as well.
"I love playing with those guys so much," enthuses Neko Case. "One of the funnest shows I've ever played in my whole life was New Year's Eve a couple of years ago in Chicago with Giant Sand. We all got on stage and just did whatever. They are so punk rock but not the kind of punk rock that I remember. They're super-inclusive, let's-get-it-on punk rock. Hey, it doesn't matter that that's busted, let's use it anyway!' They'll bring a bunch of people up on stage. One of the first times I ever played guitar with another band was with them, and they were like, Ah, don't worry, you can play the guitar!' It's not about how good I could do it; they just wanted me to play and they were very encouraging and made me feel welcome. I think they do that for a lot of people."
Burns says, "I think she sensed that spirit that we may be good at what we do on our instruments, but at the same time we're into trying something new. Neko also liked to experiment with instrumentation and techniques."
When asked why he thinks they're in demand as a rhythm section, Burns says simply that it's "just a sensibility to be able to tap into where the singer/songwriters want to go and helping them get there. Going with the spontaneity, keeping the mistakes and making them shine as opposed to burying them. Also, I think John, Howe and I are into collaborations, and that's always been the factor that's always wove through our projects: Giant Sand, Calexico, Howe solo, and all the others. A love of collaboration."
That manifested itself in the OP8 project Giant Sand with Lisa Germano, with vocal duties split evenly. OP8 released only one album, 1997's Slush, which at that point was the most popular album any of the parties had been involved with (outside of Germano's early days as part of John Mellencamp's band, of course). Says Gelb, "When we put OP8 out, I was insistent on changing the perception by giving it a new name. It was the same band with a guest, but the whole purpose of that album was to start over without seniority, where everyone does an equal amount of work. It's a big relief to do it that way, and I think it's more creatively rewarding."
At the time, OP8 was meant to be Giant Sand with a rotating guest, which Burns says has "naturally been present in all the projects we do anyway. I don't know if we would necessarily call something else OP8. I was thinking of doing that with this [as yet unreleased] project with Neko, but calling it Lady Pilot. Nobody wanted to call it OP8, unless we could get Lisa Germano back in the studio."
Convertino credits Howe Gelb with teaching the Calexican duo everything they know about adjusting to new situations with singers and songwriters, since any given Giant Sand show is divided between the brilliant and the absurdly chaotic. "Howe drives his car the way he plays guitar," laughs Convertino. "Never has a person been so in sync. Everything he does is somehow related, it connects. Whether it's putting a phrase together with words, or deciding what song goes after another song, which may not make any sense at all to me at the moment, but later on you see how it's connected. I think that's the beauty of working with Howe, is that he can dumbfound you pretty quick, and you never know which way he's going to jump."
That enforced nimbleness after years in Giant Sand has kept Convertino and Burns in business with their numerous extracurricular activities. "You know what to listen for," Convertino explains. "You know when something's feeling really good. When you're in that moment, when you're not really thinking about it too much but you have a feeling of where it's going to go it's the best moment to be playing music, I think. If you know the song too well, you know what's going to happen so you preconceive an idea of what you're going to play. But when you don't really know and you feel it, something might happen by mistake that you would never be able to do if you thought about it. For me, to be in that place when I'm playing drums supporting somebody is great. But imagine being like that all time which is how Howe lives his life!"
Feast of Wire sounds like a culmination of all of Calexico's experiences, and finds Burns and Convertino at the height of their powers: as songwriters, as arrangers, and certainly as the master musicians they are. It's time for Calexico to step to centre stage, which Convertino admits means that everything else may have to fall by the wayside.
"Joey and I both want to give this record good support, so we'll be pretty busy touring this record," he says. "I think we've done a lot of work with Black Light and [2000's] Hot Rail, and that allowed us to spend more time on Feast of Wire, which gave us a not necessarily better record, but more varied. We had a lot more to choose from, and a lot of different things going on there. The songs are still developing as we play live. With any band, when you feel like there's momentum, and you're enjoying what you're doing and so are other people, it's a good opportunity to do it while you can. You never know how you're going to feel about it later on, but it's going to have to change."
Howe Gelb Sings For His Supper
Just because his rhythm section have just made their definitive album as a duo doesn't mean Howe Gelb has any reason to be down. In fact, the debut album by his new solo project Howe Home, The Listener, is easily a high point in his own career. Gelb is in full piano bar torch singer mode, with his most consistent collection of songs in years. He has help from some of his usual Arizona suspects (including Burns and Convertino). But mostly, The Listener was recorded during a four-month sabbatical in Denmark, where his wife was born and raised.
On it, Gelb describes himself as a "satiated expatriate," and listening to the tale of his Denmark experience, it's easy to understand why. "We get to Denmark, and it was fucking hard to get there," he begins. "Tons of juxtapositioning: pregnant wife, teenage daughter doing well in high school, a two-year old son, and then tour schedules. Then finding someone to rent our house and take care of that crap, and making it all work money-wise. We finally get there and immediately upon arrival, we rented this apartment, sight unseen. And it turned out to be a great place. Plenty of room, no fucking clutter. That was another thing: none of your usual crap lying about the house. It really freed my mind up enough to come up with all this new material over there and record it really quick, in a day and a half.
"I get there, and we go for a walk to get something to eat, and we go half a block from the house and there's this expensive French café. We're looking at the menu outside thinking it's a little pricey, and the guy comes out who runs it and starts speaking Danish with my wife. And he says, You're Sofie? Sofie Albertsen?' Yes! And he turns to me and says, Then you must be Howe Gelb!' I went, yeah! It turns out that they play Giant Sand music every night in this café after ten p.m. I don't know if it's to drive people out or what, because then his friends start coming over and start drinking some really good wine until one or two. Then it turns out that his partner, this woman, was actually with my wife when I met her 12 years ago.
"So right away there was this welcoming place to hang out, to the point where they had a piano put in there so I could play for my meals. For me, it was great because they don't open until six at night, so I'd go in there at 11 a.m. and learn how to use the espresso machine myself and hang out there with my friend Janek, and it was like a couple of old fucks on the porch watching the daily promenade, sipping on really good coffee and this incredible home-made bread. Oh, and playing piano. It was like some Leonard Cohen dream."
He met a Danish band called Under Byen [pron. oonder-bewen], whose vocalists and string players blended perfectly into Gelb's laid back, European vacation mood. To hear Gelb rave about Danish culture, you'd wonder if he'll finally leave the Sonoran desert he's so associated with. "I still like Arizona too much to leave it completely," he says. "But my hair's getting grey, and I thought maybe it's time I start doing one of these summer home/winter home things."
Whither Giant Sand?
While touring 2001's Cover Magazine, Howe Gelb told people that it would be the last time on the road as Giant Sand. With Joey Burns and John Convertino's schedule booked fairly solid for the next year, it's a safe bet that they won't be hitting the road with Gelb anytime soon. Says Gelb carefully, "Specifically inspired by the agenda conflicts, the omens are suggesting that it had a great run over a decade, but the most conducive thing at this point would be to let the pieces fall where they may from this point on."
Convertino adds, "I know it's frustrating for Howe that he didn't have his rhythm section as available as he wanted it, so he branched off and did solo stuff and found a way with that while we were doing Calexico. It was frustrating: when can we be Giant Sand again? Because that was a good band that played good music that people liked. It's going to be something that has to happen less often. Or if it does happen, maybe without Joey and I. Howe has always used an ever-shifting sand of players."
"This weekend I'm beginning to start the next record," said Gelb in mid-February, "and I know that it's more of a band record with drums and electric guitar. I don't know what I'm going to call it, if I'm going to give it a new name and be completely anonymous. There's a certain weight to lugging around the same old name. The old fans will always find you. Whether this new one will be called Giant Sand or not, I'm going to wait until the last minute to decide."