Calexico Brings a Sense of Place to S.B.
by Brett Leigh Dicks
Having found a quiet place to sit and talk in Tucson’s historic Hotel Congress, Calexico frontman Joey Burns clasps a well-earned beer. Calexico has just returned from a quick-paced tour of Europe and now faces the prospect of a few weeks off. But, as a member of one of music’s hardest working bands, it won’t be long before Burns is back on the road, with Santa Barbara as one of Calexico’s fortunate stops. Burns has fronted the border-straddling Calexico for more than 10 years; he and his musical partner John Convertino have spent that time residing in Tucson. As a result of living a stone’s throw from the southern border, a melting pot of cultural and political ideology, these themes have come to play a large part in flavoring the band’s distinctive sound. It has also set a vivid stage from which to work.
“This place has always been at a crossroads,” offered Burns. “When you leave civilization and etiquette and all the rules, you really see how people instinctively react to situations. We are close to the border. There’s a tension there. There’s a lot of violence. But it’s the same type of thing that’s been happening out here for years and years.”
As much as the region has infused itself into Calexico’s sound, it has been gradual. Burns and Convertino found themselves in Tucson when their former musical outlet, Giant Sand, relocated from Los Angeles. Once settled, the duo crossed paths with Bill Elm and thus spawned the instrumental side project, Friends of Dean Martinez. The band presented a laid-back, Western-infused soundscape and provided the foundation for the subsequent Burns/Convertino project, Calexico.
While the two still indulge their collaborative urges their most recent excursion was with Iron and Wine — Calexico has been their focal point of musical attention for some time now. Across the course of five albums, countless limited releases, and some jaw-dropping performances with a local mariachi band, the ensemble has become synonymous with Tucson. But as fervently as a sense of place has permeated their music, Burns was hesitant to single out Calexico as the purveyor of a local musical identity. “Sure this place is integrated within our music,” Burns said. “Our sound has to do with ambience and space, but that’s not all this place is about. There’s a connection here in our music, but not as much as with people like Rainer Ptacek, Bob Log and Do Rag, or Pork Torta. Those guys were ingenious in coming up with new styles and sounds and music. I think they were more eclectic and vibrant than Calexico in defining the music here.”
As spacious as Calexico’s sound is, it also projects a beautiful sense of introspection, a theme that runs through their most recent recording, Garden Ruin. The depth of thought evident on the album stems from the relationship between the band’s two founders: It is a creative partnership that is clearly the sum of two very distinct entities.
“John is very gracious in caring for people,” mused Burns. “He brings people in and makes them feel welcome. I tend to go more inward, so we kind of trade off on different levels. I think that’s why we work so well together and why the band as a whole works so well together. There’s a connection there.” It is also a connection that stretches to Santa Barbara. For many years, Convertino’s father resided here and delighted the Sunday afternoon cocktail crowd at the Biltmore Hotel with his piano playing. Not only was Convertino Sr. the inspiration behind Ragland, his son’s solo undertaking, he was also the muse for “Lucky Dime,” one of Calexico’s more timeless numbers on Garden Ruin.
“John’s father never wanted a penny for your thoughts, he wanted a dime’s worth,” Burns said. “Before he died, he made a pact with his kids that whenever they saw a spare dime they’d know he’s nearby. And that made such a beautiful impression on me that I wound up writing about it for a song. You’d be surprised just how many lucky dimes turn up. They come as signs and omens. And we all pay closer attention to those things now.”
And people are paying closer attention to Calexico. Whether leading us through a parched southwestern landscape or guiding us along the dusty trails of remembrance, there are still many more musical frontiers Calexico is destined to traverse.