Call It Calexico
Tucson's Pre-Eminent Cowboy-Lounge Act Veers South Of The Border.
By Lisa Weeks
AUGUST 4, 1997: BARELY A YEAR since the band's inception, Calexico--the then recent off-shoot of Giant Sand's Joey Burns and John Convertino--has a deal in pocket with Chicago label Touch and Go, and is in the process of recording their a release. Between sessions, Burns sat down at a downtown café to shed some light on recent projects, as well as what to expect from the new record.
Much like the atmosphere at Café Poca Cosa, the conversation was intimate, colorful and unpretentious. The tape recorder churning away on the table fails to record Burns' sheepish grins and humbling gestures as he answers the first and most obvious question: "Well, we're working on what I guess you would call a Calexico record."
This follow-up to their 1996 debut, Spoke (previously released only in Europe, with promises of a stateside re-release on August 12), has shifted away from the lo-fi, David Lynch-esque cowboy lounge we've come to associate with Calexico (either as the duo of Burns and Convertino, or the trio of Burns, Convertino and Tasha Bundy on drums). The influence in the studio now, according to Burns, is distinctively Latin.
"Tasha has been doing some of these Havana 3 a.m. Club DJ sessions, and has turned us on to this Latin theme. We'd like to get her into the studio with her ideas to lay down some grooves, and work off of them."
"We're trying to experiment a little, trying to deconstruct it," explains Burns. "We've sort of taken it in one style or direction and exploited it pretty well, back from being in the Friends (of Dean Martinez) and then on to Calexico."
Call it "gringo-rock" if you have to, but make no mistake: It will be rife with the unexpected. Even as they did laying down the first Friends album--which was written and recorded in the studio in two short weeks--Burns and Convertino head into the studio with inspirations, fancies, the sum of all their recent experiences recording with other artists and bits of whatever interests them recorded on cassette tapes, as well as the variety of instruments they've acquired over the years. Themes, but no concrete plans.
Calexico's deal with Touch and Go provides them the freedom to follow their muses, even if that means producing a record that bears little resemblance to their live performance. Such concerns don't enter into the picture while in the studio.
"Major labels want everything done by the book," says Burns, "and want their talent to sound like the record live, and record with that in mind. It's a major consideration, and ultimately that's why we went with a smaller label.
"To me the record is one thing: The live performance is another. I don't want to worry about (how we'll pull it off live) right now, I just want to produce a record that sounds...weird. Good weird, bad weird, I don't know. Who's to say what it'll end up being--you just have to go by what you like to hear and what feels good."
The question of what to call each project is also significant in that it's their way of separating out roles in their various musical associations...a means of keeping the priorities straight. As a rhythm section, the Convertino/Burns pairing has, in the past year, toured and recorded with Lisa Germano, Barbara Manning, Richard Buckner and Victoria Williams, as well as with bands OP8, Giant Sand, and of course, Calexico. They've made several trips to Europe and other such far-flung destinations as New Zealand (with Barbara Manning this past May). OP8 with Lisa Germano, Richard Buckner's Devotion + Doubt, and most recently Barbara Manning's 1212, have all been released to widespread critical acclaim.
Case in point, however, is that although the core line-up of Giant Sand and OP8 is the same--Burns, Convertino and Gelb--Burns is quick to point out that they're completely different projects:
"With Giant Sand it has always been Howe. John and I following Howe. But that's what makes it so great--because we can. That's where we shine. Knowing him as we do, we can sometimes guess where he's going to go...though he's also full of surprises. That's what's made him so exciting to play with live, more than anyone else we've played with. OP8 is more of an equal split, with an added guest that will change form record to record."
So how does Calexico fit into all of this? The recording of Spoke was the post-Friends pivot between Giant Sand and the collaboration between Convertino and Burns that birthed Calexico.
"John and I started collecting instruments, all sorts of instruments--Spoke came out of that. It was the first time we actually sat down and did something of our own, and it was my first time as a songwriter," he explains.
Influenced by the various collaborations of the past year, with the Friends finally laid firmly to rest, it is the songwriting to which Burns and Convertino return with their new Calexico recordings.
Asked what's in store when they're finished in the studio, Burns is vague, yet full of ideas. "We probably won't be doing that many more (sideline) projects in the future. We'll likely scale back to concentrate more on just Giant Sand and Calexico," he says. Perhaps we'll see another collaboration with OP8. But really, what's in a name?
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