Across the Frontier

Calexico Brings a Sense of Place to S.B.

by Brett Leigh Dicks

calexico_baseofbridge2%28Denn.jpgHaving 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

“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

“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.


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