The veteran Tex-Mex outfit’s frontman talks new album El Mirador, musical identity, human connections and ‘finding a way in’ to music
For the best part of 27 years Joey Burns has been making music as the frontman of Calexico, one of the defining bands that helped kickstart the modern Americana scene. Named after the city in California that sits right on the border with Mexico, their sound has been informed and shaped by the music and traditions of both countries, something that’s more evident than ever on latest album El Mirador. With Burns on guitar and vocals, John Convertino on drums and a changing roster of other musicians they’ve developed into one of the most consistent guitar acts of the last two decades, their albums having an unmistakeable, well-defined sound with lyrical themes and visual aesthetics to further strengthen their links to the Amercian-Mexican border.
For many years the band were strongly associated with the city of Tucson, Arizona but when we catch up with Burns he’s in his new home in Boise, Idaho. Convertino also recently relocated, in his case to El Paso in Texas, but it soon becomes clear Tucson still looms large over the band’s music. El Mirador is the 10th album under the Calexico name, a milestone which feels worthy of celebration. “I’m not sure I consider this a 10th album or not, we’ve put out so many EPs or collaborations over the years,” clarifies Burns. “I’m just focusing on what’s in front of me and just trying to make the best and most honest album I can. I just want to have fun and have the chance to play those songs live. That’s the dream for me, I feel really honoured and touched that I’m still able to do this.”
The songs that appear on El Mirador were written and recorded in 2021 at the band’s keyboard player Sergio Mendoza’s studio in Tucson. “It was overwhelmingly refreshing when I finally got to meet John and Sergio in person in Tucson,” explains Burns. “It was a great way to come out of being so heavily isolated for so long. The sessions felt a little different. They reminded me of the beginning when we were just recording at home. It was just the three of us and an engineer at Sergio’s newly built home studio in his backyard. If we wanted to take a break, we could do so, there was no clock like usual. We really applied ourselves to just continuously write and play.
“We would do a week or two of sessions, take a break, then return later and that helped John and I, as we have kids, and that also allowed Sergio to see his family. It was great being back in Tucson, I’ve never had a better tasting taco than that first night that I arrived”. The theme of family, both biological and musical, comes up throughout our conversation and he comes across as a lover of people in general, revelling in the positive opportunities and consequences human interaction can bring. On the day we talk he’s about to celebrate his twin daughters’ birthday and he comments on how he’s enjoyed “some peace and stability at home” over recent months amid an uncertain global backdrop.
The new album has a stronger Latin feel than some of their other recent albums, and I ask whether Tucson itself played a part in that. “It was more the advice of two good friends. The first was the head of ANTI- Records, Andy Kaulkin, who asked me if we had ever considered writing a party record. I thought that sounded fun. I love a challenge or getting a suggestion like that. The other person was Camila Lara of the band Mexican Institute Of Sound. We were touring together in Europe a few years ago and having him come on stage with us during the Calexico set and seeing the response the audiences gave was great, especially to the cumbias, the mariachi and Latin rhythms and the songs with Spanish choruses. He asked me if I had ever thought of doing a record that was mainly that sort of material and I thought, you’re the second person to say that, I’m going to go for it.
“I need to really dedicate myself to writing that kind of material. It’s hard for me to do it by myself. If the studio is quiet sometimes we end up falling back on quieter material. For these sessions, John brought his 1960s Pavoni espresso machine from home and declared he was going to make the best coffees for this session. We’d have a post-lunch espresso or two and keep on going. Another consideration was also thinking about how we were missing the live shows and I wanted to play something for those occasions. In the past for an album like Feast Of Wire for example I was not thinking about live shows, I was thinking about mood and I think it shows. For this album, the aim was to keep it as upbeat as possible and it was really fun. There’s a song on the album called Cumbia Del Povo and to be totally honest I was hoping for half the record to sound like that. That to me would have been a logical step.”
The El Burro Song is one of their most exuberant moments to date. Burns explains how it links in with the album’s broader context. “I knew that we had some old songs that we had never recorded but have maybe played live and that was one of them so I thought let’s record it. We might not use it, it could be an outtake, but it’s a way in and that’s important. When recording you need to find the way in. That’s ultimately why I wanted to call the album El Mirador as it’s as much an inward journey as seeing the view of the expanse of landscape that is in front of you. I just wanted to talk about the view and what we make of it, whether you’re on an ocean-side rooftop or looking outside your window in your flat in London. I wanted to talk about the view and what we make of it. I’m also trying to get to that in the song Cumbia Peninsular, that connection we have with the world through technology and identity and the layers it represents in our lives.
“The literal translation for ‘el mirador’ is ‘the looker’ and I liked that. We are all looking, especially coming out of this isolated existence, we’re looking for answers and depth and identity, we’re all growing and changing so for me it’s a nice way to touch on all these things but do it in a poetic way.” Burns then spins off into a description of the title track, Spinning off is something he will do frequently during the interview, revealing how immersed he is in the process of making music.
“I thought that including more songs with Latin rhythms and Spanish lyrics on this album was a great way to face North America and ask ‘what is your problem?”
“On the title track, I liked how there is this false intro which makes you think it’s like the intro to a cartoon or some comedic moment or that this fanfare is going to go to a bigger place but then instead you get this slow, syrupy cumbia rhythm comes in and all sorts of strange instruments, what I call this Calexico orchestra, start revealing themselves. To me it’s like you’re leaving the conscious world and you’re diving into the subconscious, this dream time, in hope of finding yourself, finding that buzzing in your heart”.
The Latin side of their music is well represented on the album but there are also several guitar led songs like Harness The Wind. Does he enjoy the process of reconciling and balancing those two sides to the band? “John, Sergio and myself all have this multi instrumental streak in us and we’re not comfortable in playing the same style or genre or tempo all the time. There are some bands that are really good at that and that’s great. If you listen to a Ramones record you know what you’re going to get. With Calexico, the unexpected has become expected in a way so I try to change that scope of variety. Some of our ’80s influences like The Cure, The Smiths, R.E.M. and The Beat came up at times. Harness The Wind feels like it connects with a lot of songs from our past, for example like the song Quattro (World Drifts In) from Feast Of Wire. There’s a few songs like that on the album, Constellation and Caldera also, which are kind of indie rock but with a bit of that ’80s guitar sound. With Harness The Wind I immediately thought of getting Sam Beam of Iron & Wine in to help sing on it. Normally I might think we’ve just recently done something with him (2019’s Years To Burn) so we shouldn’t, but it felt right.”
He goes on to explain how Calexico’s history has always involved a certain ricocheting back and forth. “The way it often works is that I will put out a record like The Thread That Keeps Us, then a record with Iron & Wine, then I’ll react to those two records and I’ll put out a different record like this. I’ve often thought that maybe we should have another project with a different name that would allow us to do other things without challenging people’s concepts and definitions. We were on tour with Iron & Wine and Sam Beam was riffing on how in the film and television industry audiences are much more open to actors and characters changing roles or shifting direction whereas in music people get really bothered if an artist does something that is quite different, and I think that’s true.”
Harness The Wind also touches on the idealism, escapism and deep thinking that often enters his music. He describes it as “a song about hope and sharing compassion to fellow travellers and dreamers who are trying to find their way”. I suggest that communicating those basic, universal human messages is more important than ever in shaping his music.
“Those messages are at the core of where I go when I’m songwriting. I was sitting on a lot of flights going to Tucson from Boise for this record and on one I was up in the clouds, looking out at the beautiful view of the world, and I was reminded of when I met Manu Chao a couple of times and one of the things that really struck me was him saying we’re going in the same direction but we’re just on different paths. That’s what prompted me to write the lyrics ‘what’s that you say, we’re on the same road, I keep spinning around and out of control, every time I try to land, the wind keeps pushing me back out to the dark of night’. That’s the beauty of recording music from a more intuitive place, allowing yourself to be taken somewhere by the song. The electric guitar on that track really makes the song and has this propelling feel and sounds really optimistic in its tone. Writing songs is like building things out of water. My natural approach is to try to let your subconscious bring you into the creative sphere. It’s like trying to turn off your mind and let your heart do the work.”
Place and environment seem to play a bigger part than other in Calexico’s music. A lot of songs are named after cities or are good at evoking a particular sense of location. Does he enjoy that aspect to his writing? “Having named our band after a city we’ve invited that comparison to a degree. I think nature is a good way into making music. I like to try to place the listener at the window so to speak so they can see things for themselves. They can then go as deep as they want to go. In terms of defining a song or a band I don’t get too hung up on that stuff. I sometimes feel it can be compared to sport. People sometimes like to talk about the details and analyse the statistics of competitive sport but then you can also just look at it as humans moving, breathing, feeling and thinking. At one level it is just energy on a field, people coming together for some sort of ritual and music has that also.”
He continues enthusiastically and articulately, buzzing with ideas, a man in thrall to creative possibilities. “Sometimes I think it would be fun to go to record in Iceland or go to Berlin and make a ‘Berlin record’. Another part of me thinks, now that we’ve made this record, maybe we go to Nashville or Memphis, Tennessee and we make side A as Nashville and side B as Memphis, recording the Nashville sessions at night and the Memphis sessions during the day so there’s this theme upon a theme. We can do all that stuff but I’m also conscious, certainly in America, that our identity is tied into the south west. I thought that including more songs with Latin rhythms and Spanish lyrics on this album was a great way to face North America and ask ‘what is your problem?’. There’s a lot of people in this country that are openly divided and there’s pressing issues like violence, race, gender and environment. I knew I wanted to embrace my friends and have their voices in the centre of the album. This new album represents the things I love most – a mix of cultures, languages and musical genres.”
I ask if he remembers when he first became aware of genres of music like cumbia and mariachi and he answers with a palpable keenness. “When I was young my mom and dad would travel to places like New Orleans, Hawaii and Acapulco and come back with vinyl, things like Scott Joplin or Don Ho or Trio Los Panchos. My mom is a beautiful singer and my dad speaks a little Spanish and when they’d come back from Mexico they would bring back things like maracas and little marionettes and songbooks. That was my introduction and when I moved to Tucson in the early ’90s I used to hear my neighbours blasting out mariachi on the radio while they were doing their laundry.
“Writing songs is like building things out of water”
“Lalo Guerrero, a really prominent singer-songwriter in North America, grew up close to where I was living and I saw him play at a school in the neighbourhood. It was beautiful to be immersed in this history and it made me want to dive further in. Then, when I was recording at the Wavelab studio in Tucson for the first time I went to a session early and I had to wait as there was a mariachi band recording, so I got to befriend some of the trumpet players, specifically Fernando Sanchez and Rigo Pedrosa, and I asked them to come on one of our sessions and we connected. It was a beautiful awakening. Leaving Los Angeles where you’re so isolated and moving to Tucson put me more in touch with people and music. It was the water that made things grow.”
He’s clearly still completely obsessed with music, both as a creator and as a listener. He goes off on many pleasing tangents, revealing how he got a sitar when he was at college and wrote a fugue for it with a string quartet backing. He then proceeds to rave about Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and Indian classical music and finding music when younger in Tucson thrift store vinyl bins. He then switches to briefly recount the time he met David Byrne and his love of Byrne’s Luaka Bop label and how Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul Of Black Peru, the album Byrne compiled, is a record he says is one of his favourites. He then moves on to talking about Los Lobos before suddenly pivoting to discussing the likes of PJ Harvey, Portishead and Goldfrapp (Calexico did two remixes of their Human track). “I’d love to have some of our songs get some treatments in that Bristol style,” he adds. It feels like he would be happy to continue talking about music for the rest of the afternoon.
For Burns, the rest of 2022 is taken up with European and American tour dates that will see El Mirador performed in its intended environment, but after that the Calexico musical journey will no doubt continue, delivering further rich instalments of their life-affirming, cross-pollinating, signature sounds.
El Mirador by Calexico is out now on City Slang. More information on this and tour dates can be found at casadecalexico.com