Calexico back to push boundaries

BIG EASY: Calexico co-founders Joey Burns, left, and John Concertino. "It's that moment of being engaged and realising that you're going more by your intuition and your heart rather than by your thoughts," says Burns.
BIG EASY: Calexico co-founders Joey Burns, left, and John Concertino. "It's that moment of being engaged and realising that you're going more by your intuition and your heart rather than by your thoughts," says Burns.

Fans have known for years that American band Calexico is named after a town on the California-Mexican border. It's also hinted at its "desert noir" sound, which crosses the borders of genres, mixing Hispanic-style influences with country, folk, lo-fi indie rock and even Portuguese fado, spaghetti western and gypsy.

Co-founder Joey Burns says at no point, however, has he – or the rest of the seven piece coming to Wellington – actually lived in Calexico. His home has been Tucson, Arizona, 432 kilometres east of Calexico, since the early 90s.

Not that the folks of Calexico, population 39,000, haven't noticed.

"We had a request from one council woman of the town of Calexico. 'Would you guys be interested in coming out and playing? We could use your help and support for several projects that's going to help the economy'."

The reason the town's economy was in a slump was tougher border restrictions and a bigger border fence between Calexico and Mexicali. In places, the two towns bump up against each other and are separated only by the fence.

Burns says ironically, when they did visit, the border fence reminded band co-founder John Concertino of seeing the Berlin Wall in early 1989 before it was demolished. Only at Calexico it was growing.

"The economies of both Calexico and Mexicali have been hurt. Calexico was always the destination for people in northern Mexico to come up and shop. The border is so much harder to get through. You need new kinds of ID and it stops the flow of people."

But while Calexico struggles, its musical namesake thrives. Formed in 1996, after Burns and Concertino's tenure as the rhythm section of Tucson rock band Giant Sand, Calexico has released seven studio albums, as well as collaborations with the likes of Willie Nelson, Nancy Sinatra, Roger McGuinn, Victoria Williams and Iron & Wine.

The band also built up a strong following in New Zealand within a few years of its 1997 debut album. It's meant the band has been a semi-regular visitor to our shores for a decade. The Wellington show tomorrow is the band's fourth in the capital. Calexico also plays Christchurch for the first time as part of the Christchurch Arts Festival. Both shows have sold out.

The band played giant British music festival Glastonbury this year, taking the stage after a set by indie darling Davendra Banhart and cult 70s singer-songwriter Rodriguez. Last month, it was another biggie – and one of Burns' favourites – the Sziget Festival on a small island on the Danube in Budapest, Hungary. It attracted 40,000 people with a lineup that included Nick Cave, Blur and Franz Ferdinand.

Burns says arts and music festivals are very important for the band.

"We do a whole range of kind of festivals and shows. We get asked to do a whole lot of things."

And the likes of Sziget exposes the band to new audiences, he says.

"In Budapest, there was a guy who was passing by on a kayak. He was paddling the almost 3000km [of the Danube] and he made a point to stop by and see our show."

This year, Calexico has been performing a good chunk from its most recent album, 2012's Algiers. The title doesn't mean the band embraced the music of Algeria – although it would surprise no-one if the band had. It refers to Algiers, a suburb of New Orleans where Calexico recorded the album.

New Orleans has long been a melting pot for musical styles. But Burns says the main reason they recorded there was because he and Concertino's attempts to jump start the album in Tucson foundered. They recorded some demos and even road-tested them at gigs, but weren't impressed. They decided they had to get out their comfort zone by recording in New Orleans.

"It's mainly just John and I in the studio sketching out an improvisation, which we are thinking we will turn into a song. It seems to happen best when we're in a slipstream of consciousness. We are not trying to think too much."

For all the improvisation, the result is one of the band's most accessible albums. It will appeal to people new to Calexico, especially if they listen to the epic Splitter – a song Burns was conscious of how it would sound live as well as recorded.

Burns says some of it was down to the alchemy of studio takes.

"A lot of times it's the first take. It's that moment of being engaged and realising that you're going more by your intuition and your heart rather than by your thoughts."

But, in the end, they only realised people would love Splitter when they played it at gigs.

"It shows you that we don't really know what we're doing at all," he jokes. "We were just having fun with it and at the same time test ourselves."

Since last in New Zealand, Calexico has also written music for two movie soundtracks – Circo in 2010 and The Guard in 2011.

"I love it," says Burns. "I think we are going to have another request or two that's going to come up between albums. It's fun because we can do so many different things.

"Part of what's made it interesting for us [as a band], and keeps the longevity going, is the fact we diversify so well. We do so many different things. We work with so many different artists like Sam Beam [from Iron & Wine] on the I'm Not There soundtrack.

"All these different things really makes what we do not seem so one dimensional. It really feels like it's got this other dynamic.


Calexico plays Wellington's Opera House tomorrow.

The Dominion Post