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While the Bush administration spent most of the last decade tarnishing America's reputation on the global stage and building fences along our border with Mexico, Tucson, Arizona's Calexico did the opposite, improving international relations (at least musically) and honing their dusty border noir to a fine point—all while expanding its sonic palette to include influences from Eastern Europe, South America, the Mediterranean and beyond.
The band's even gone a few steps further: European bass player Volker Zander and trumpet/vibes/accordion player Martin Wenk are celebrating their 10th year in the group, having joined as hired guns for a European tour supporting 1998's The Black Light.
"They were quick learners," says Joey Burns, lead singer and songwriter for the group. "We wound up having such a good time that we just kept playing with them. We'd just leave gear over there at one of their houses or rehearsal studios.
"Most bands that come over to Europe rent gear every time and spend lots of money. You could almost buy a new amp from one three-week tour of renting an amp, so we felt like we would save more money. And we liked the fact that it had this international flair to it."
Given the added musicians' German backgrounds, the two instrumentalists were a natural fit, instinctively suited for the band's sound.
"There are a lot of similarities between some of the music over here and some of the border region," Burns says from his hotel in Austria, where, at the time of this phone call, Calexico was on tour to support its newest effort, Carried to Dust. "Especially in Texas: Those guys, whenever we drive through Fredericksburg to go to Austin, they just love that there's that Auslander Biergarten ('Foreigner's Beer Garden'). They say, 'Let's stop and get a beer!' They just love that connection. And certainly you can hear it in some of the music of the region, with the accordion. Some of the beats sound like oompah-pah or polka, which are popular over here."
It's this passion for personal and ethno-musicological connections that helps drive Calexico to explore new territory—both sonically and geographically. It's a tradition that the band continued on its 2007 tour of Argentina and Chile, a heavy influence on the band's newest record.
"We've always wanted to go down there," Burns says. "We were really pushing hard to go somewhere different. I think after a while, when you tour the same countries over and over, you want to bust out."
Not surprisingly, the trip was a cathartic experience for the band, which visited Pablo Neruda's house in Santiago de Chile and found great inspiration in the story of Chilean folk hero Victor Jara, who was famously killed in the Pinochet coup d'etat of 1973 for supporting socialist president Salvador Allende.
"His story really stuck out for me and reminded me of some of the voices that got me wanting to sing and play music," Burns says. "People like Bob Dylan or Neil Young, who've always been protest singers to some degree."
The resulting song, "Victor Jara's Hands," is a striking opener to the September-released Carried to Dust, alluding to the singer's grisly torture by Chilean troops, who broke the guitar player's hands and jokingly ordered him to play a song, at which time Jara defiantly sang a tune supporting Allende's Popular Unity coalition.
It's a tale served well by Calexico's treatment, which turns Jara's legend into a border-smashing rock anthem as Burns sings, "Fences that fail and fall to the ground/Bearing the fruit from Jara's hands" while the band launches into a chorus of "olés" (joined by Jairo Zavalo of the Spanish band Depedro, who rams home the message with a verse en Español).
Besides being one of the year's best songs, the song is also a clarion call for a band that refuses to be labeled or pigeon-holed, content to roam the dusty borders between genres and nations in the same way it has for more than a decade now—making fans, and sometimes bandmates, at every turn.
"It's kind of interesting," Burns says. "Just bridging those gaps and seeing how things line up more similarly than not."