In their 15-year run as Calexico, Joey Burns and John Convertino have covered a lot of ground. On tour, they’ve traversed the globe many times over and found a thriving fan base both at home and overseas. Musically, though, is where the pair has charted the most miles. Since forming in 1996, the Tucson-based band has moved between folksy Americana, alt-country, jazz, and Latin-infused rock ’n’ roll with ease, carving out a niche for themselves that seems to fit perfectly with the desert backdrop they call home. The songs have ranged from poignant balladry to world-weary ruminations to politically-charged calls to arms, yet all feel and sound intrinsically fused, the product of a greater musical vision.
Today, the pair is in the early stages of preparing studio album number seven, which will come on the heels of two recently completed soundtrack projects (for 2010’s Circo and 2011’s The Guard). This Friday, August 19, Calexico takes to the Lobero Theatre for an intimate night of music, hosted by the Sings Like Hell concert series. I recently spoke with Burns about the band, current projects, and the joys of collaboration.
You recently wrapped up two soundtracks. How would you compare that project to, say, penning a Calexico album? Well, we usually confer with the director and see what they’re looking for on several levels. On the technical level, do they want something that’s really big sounding? Do they want simply strings? Do they want something a little more close to the ground, a little more raw and handmade—and that seemed to be the approach to Circo. And then The Guard was more of a combination; we brought in the string player from DeVotchKa, Tom Hagerman. It was still handmade and rough sounding, but with sweeping string parts. It’s a lot of fun. It’s never the same, and it’s always changing, and that’s kind of why we love doing what we do.
As a musician, would you say the satisfaction level is equal between one and the other? It’s all different, you know? What really drives the satisfaction and appreciation factor is when you do a project and you have a personal connection, whether it’s with the crowd and the musicians onstage or with a director, or crew, or cast. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a club in America and the technicians are just not happy and the quality of the gear is bad and they just don’t seem happy in their life doing what they’re doing. In Europe, a lot of the technicians are really excited; they’re eager, and the gear is really good, and they’re excited to be there, and they’re taken care of. And that really influences the rest of the day and the night and the performance and the energy of the whole show.
Why do you think that is? I think it’s beyond money; I think it’s just the appreciation factor of management and crew and just the business of it. I think there’s just a difference. Sometimes we play venues that have subsidized budgets. There’s just a different appreciation factor over there for the arts. It’s just a different ball of wax. It doesn’t make it better or worse, but I’ve started to notice the differences and how they impact the show.
Everything is a collaboration, then, in a way. Yeah. Both directors for these two films—[The Guard director] John McDonagh took a train out to Heathrow Airport, which is in the middle of nowhere, just to meet up and have a cup of coffee and talk about the movie. He could have done that in an email, but he wanted to make the connection face-to-face. It was the same thing with the director from Circo. I got on the phone with him, and instantly, it was just fun—I felt like I’d met this long-lost friend. And I think we’re going to do another collaboration, later down the road. These are the things that really go deep, and the deeper you go, the more it makes an impact on your life, not just your career or your sales or whatever. You need a certain amount of money to survive, but I really think it’s these moments and these life-fulfilling collaborations that make the world go ’round.
That’s a really positive way to look at the music industry. It seems like a lot of bands who are out there now, especially new bands, are really kind of shaking off the quest to be signed and to make it, or make it big. It’s more about being true to themselves and finding their own sound and just being comfortable with who they are, and I think that’s great, too.
Calexico plays the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Friday, August 19, at 8 p.m. with opener John Elliot. For tickets and information, call 963-0761 or visit singslikehell.org.