Music Interviews
11:03 pm
Fri September 14, 2012

Calexico: Road Songs For Wandering Souls

Originally published on Sat September 15, 2012 7:55 am

At 11 a.m. on a weekday, Calexico rehearses for its upcoming tour in a cramped studio on the south side of Tucson, Ariz. The stereotypical musician would just be getting up, but lead singer and songwriter Joey Burns has been up since dawn with his twin baby girls.

Trumpet player Jacob Valenzuela arrives late to the rehearsal — and that's because his washing machine broke and he had to deal with a small flood. Valenzuela grabs his trumpet as the band launches into "Splitter," the first single from Calexico's new album.

Late last year, the musicians left the kids and the appliances to find the space and time to record Algiers, named for the neighborhood in New Orleans where they made it. "Splitter" is about an immigrant in a field, by the side of the road — the kind of individual who shows up in a lot of the songs Burns writes.

"There's a lot of characters there that I think I identify with [on] parts of the road, especially in the Southwest," Burns says. "You notice these people standing out everywhere you go, kind of looking for a break."

Burns got his inspiration for "Splitter" from a book of stark character studies by the photographer Richard Avedon, called The American West. Calexico is tied to the Southwest: It's named after a small town on the California-Mexico border. Tucson embraced the band, partly because of how often it has played there in the last few years — at the Festival En El Barrio, which benefits Tucson's oldest neighborhood, and at countless other benefits. Calexico's core members, Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino, are not from Tucson, though. Convertino fled Los Angeles in the mid-1990s.

"I'd been in L.A. for nine years, and I'd seen a lot of spandex and long hair and a lot of people trying to do the same thing," Convertino says. "Coming to Tucson, you could see people just having the space and the time to do something different."

Burns also moved from L.A., fell in with local musicians and gradually fell in love with the place.

"The feeling that you get when you're just by yourself here is really divine," Burns says. "The fact that we are a border region is really exciting. I like the mix of cultures and language styles and life. It's an honor for me to be thought of in a positive way with this place."

One moment this year embodied the band's connection with Tucson: a memorial service on the anniversary of the shootings that rocked the city. Former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was wounded in the attack, sat on stage as Calexico played "Crystal Frontier," one of Giffords' favorite songs. There had been speeches, prayers and candles lit for the 19 shooting victims.

"I really think when they got onstage and they played, it was really a release that the whole audience needed," says Ron Barber, who replaced Giffords in Congress. "You could just hear and see how people responded to them playing that night, and I know Gabby just loved it, because I know this is her favorite band, too."

Nancy Barber, Ron Barber's wife, has a more intimate perspective on Calexico's musicians than most people. She was a postpartum doula for John Convertino's children — and now Joey Burns' twins.

"He's busy: He's gone and he has these two gorgeous, wonderful little daughters," she says. "Twins are hard, and he was there all the time [saying], 'Nancy, teach me this, how do I do this?' Just asking all the questions."

Family is an important part of Burns' songs, especially families separated by the U.S. and Mexico borders. Or, in the case of "Sinner in the Sea," off the new album, those stranded by the political divide between Cuba and the U.S.

"It's about those people that are trying to get across," Burns says. "It's about that connection that is, for the time, being submerged."

There's that theme again — people on some kind of journey. The members of Calexico are on one now: They're on tour, bringing dark joy to fans in Europe, then back home in the U.S.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The sound of the rock bank Calexico has been described as desert noir - the musical equivalent of a Cormac McCarthy novel or the TV show "Breaking Bad," for which Calexico has composed music, by the way. The group may be better known in Europe than the United States, though it's become increasingly associated with the city of Tucson, Arizona, where most of Calexico's members live.

So to record their new album, first in more than four years, they decided to get out of town. NPR's Ted Robbins caught up with the musicians at a rehearsal.

(SOUNDBITE OF REHEARSAL)

JOEY BURNS: When you're down low, you're playing our melody but not exactly.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Eleven A.M. on a weekday, Calexico rehearses for its upcoming tour in a cramped studio on Tucson's South Side.

BURNS: Yeah. That's it. Great. Yeah, that's perfect.

ROBBINS: The stereotypical musician would just be getting up. But lead singer and songwriter Joey Burns at least, has been up since dawn with his twin baby girls.

I guess we could try a splitter without trumpet.

Trumpet player Jacob Valenzuela arrives late to the rehearsal and that's because his washing machine busted and he had to deal with a small flood.

JACOB VALENZUELA: That's a washing machine. Broke.

ROBBINS: Valenzuela grabs his trumpet as they launch into "Splitter," the first single from the new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPLITTER")

ROBBINS: Late last year, the musicians left the kids and the appliances to find the space and time to record the new album. It's called "Algiers" after the neighborhood in New Orleans where they made it. The song "Splitter" is about an immigrant in a field by the side of the road, the kind of individual who shows up in a lot of the songs Joey Burns writes.

BURNS: There's a lot of characters there that I think I identify with parts of parts of, you know, parts of the road and especially in the southwest. You notice these people standing out everywhere you go kind of looking for a break.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPLITTER")

BURNS: (Singing) In the garden in the deep, in the tall, green grass he was walking beneath the moon while covered in his rags. Working your fingers down to the skin and bone. One hand on the handle and one foot by the road. Pushed by the wind and fed by the need to move along. Move along. Move along. Move on.

ROBBINS: Joey Burns got his inspiration for "Splitter" from a book of stark character studies by the photographer Richard Avedon called "The American West." Calexico is tied to the Southwest. It's named after a small town on the California-Mexico border.

Tucson embraced the band partly because of how often it's played here in the last few years at the Festival En El Barrio which benefits Tucson's oldest neighborhood and at countless other benefits. Calexico's core members - Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino are not from Tucson, though. Convertino fled Los Angeles in the mid-1990s.

JOHN CONVERTINO: I had been in L.A. for nine years and saw a lot of spandex and long hair and a lot of people trying to do the same thing. And coming to Tucson you could see people just having the space and the time to do something different.

ROBBINS: Burns also moved from L.A., fell in with local musicians and gradually fell in love with Tucson.

BURNS: The feeling that you get when you're just by yourself here is really divine. And the fact that we are a border region I think is really exciting. Those are the kind of places that I'm attracted to. I like the mix of cultures and language and styles of life. And I guess the downside would be is that I really don't feel like I am from here. So it's a big honor for me to be thought of in a positive way to this place.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRYSTAL FRONTIER")

ROBBINS: There was a moment this year which embodied the band's connection with Tucson. It was the memorial service on the one year anniversary of the Tucson shootings. Wounded Democratic Congresswoman Gabby Giffords sat on stage as Calexico played "Crystal Frontier," one of Giffords' favorite songs.

There had been speeches, prayers, and candles lit for the 19 shooting victims. Ron Barber, who replaced Giffords in Congress, remembers what was until that point a somber evening.

REPRESENTATIVE RON BARBER: But I really think when they got onstage and they played it was really a release that the whole audience needed. You could just hear and see how people responded to them playing that night and I know Gabby just absolutely loved it because this is her favorite band, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRYSTAL FRONTIER")

BURNS: We love you Gabby. Let's see you, Tucson. Come on.

NANCY BARBER: Their music makes me happy. It makes me dance.

ROBBINS: It's got a strong beat but happy? Well, maybe in the way a good mystery makes you happy. But Nancy Barber, Ron Barber's wife, has a more intimate perspective on the musicians than most people. She was a post-partum doula for both John Convertino's children and now Joey Burn's twins.

BARBER: He's busy. He's gone and he has these two gorgeous, wonderful little daughters and twins are hard and he was there all the time, you know. Nancy teach me this. How do I do this just? You know, just asking all the questions And just so impressed me. And he still does that to this day.

ROBBINS: The idea of family seems important in Joey Burns' songs, especially families separated by borders, the U.S. and Mexico. Or in the song "Sinner in the Sea" off the new album, those stranded by the political divide between Cuba and the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINNER IN THE SEA")

BURNS: (Singing) There's a piano playing on the ocean floor between Havana and New Orleans.

ROBBINS: There's a piano playing on the ocean floor between Havana and New Orleans.

BURNS: It's about those people that are trying to get across, you know, and it's about that connection that is for the time being is submerged.

ROBBINS: There's that theme again - people on a journey. The members of Calexico are on one now. On tour, bringing some dark joy to fans in Europe, then back home in the U.S. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINNER IN THE SEA")

BURNS: (Singing) Luis driving a '59 making it halfway across the Gulf...

SIMON: And you can hear songs from Calexico's new album at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.