The best sidemen in the country (or desert): Calexico's John Convertino and Joey Burns
The best sidemen in the country (or desert): Calexico's John Convertino and Joey Burns
Bill Carter

Walking the Wire

If you don't get it the first time, say it again. Calexico. Still not there? Calexico. Have a friend say it out loud for you, a syllable at a time (that's what it took for me). Calexico. Get it? One part California, one part Mexico: Calexico!

Joey Burns leans back in his chair, nods and takes a sip of tea. "Yep," he says. I nod thoughtfully, taking a sip of coffee. And so a great mystery is unraveled.

Burns is easy like that, something you wouldn't necessarily know from the bewitching records the singer/multi-instrumentalist makes with his multi-instrumentalist partner John Convertino. Together they've been mixing various strains of Latin American music into their plaintive indie rock for years, creating a sound that perfectly serves their name. The new Feast of Wire, their fourth studio album, contains the duo's most skilled work yet: sun-baked desert ballads like "Not Even Stevie Nicks...," Latin Playboys-style mixing-desk jams such as "Attack El Robot! Attack!" and "Dub Latina," mariachi-abetted rave-ups like "Across the Wire." It's the kind of music that sounds considered but feels natural.

"It was something to kind of gradually bring in as far as the styles of playing," Burns explains of his and Convertino's move toward non-white-guy sonic elements. "But even still, growing up you hear songs that were kind of Latin-sounding--a rumba or something that had a different feel entirely. So as musicians you want to expand and explore those techniques or those styles of music. Swing or funk or noise--you wanna go wherever there is possibilities to go, and go beyond that, both musically and emotionally. Learn what it is and then make your own mess."

Calexico began making messes in the early '90s in L.A., when Convertino was playing with Howe Gelb in the desert-mystic outfit Giant Sand. "There was a mutual friend of ours that knew they were looking for an upright bass player," Burns says. "That friend hooked us up, and I got the call." The three-member Giant Sand promptly toured Europe (with Victoria Williams in tow), and when they got back to California, Burns and Convertino discovered they were still interested in playing together.

"We just started backing up Victoria," Burns explains. "She and John dated for a little while, and we just hung out. The three of us would go up to San Francisco and play some shows and see if we could go visit Neil Young's ranch; she'd opened up for Neil Young, so there was a connection." He laughs. "We never quite got in."

Maybe not, but Calexico was official. Burns was also playing in Franklin Bruno's Nothing Painted Blue at the time, and Convertino in Giant Sand, but the duo began collaborating with a "bunch of different people in L.A. and Hollywood." They backed up eccentric folkie Vic Chesnutt, "which was the most amazing experience." Soon they found themselves and a close group of friends being drawn away from California, to Tucson, Arizona.

"One by one we just gradually moved out there and settled into this old Mexican neighborhood called Barrio Viejo, which is close to downtown," Burns says. "It's got a lot of old adobe houses--adobe bricks painted Santa Fe-style with different colors. I lived in a blue apartment, that whole trip."

They quickly set up shop and became a crack backup band, working with an ever-lengthening list of singer-songwriters: Richard Buckner, Lisa Germano, Michael Hurley, Bill Janovitz, Barbara Manning. "For a while there was a lot of people just coming to Tucson," Burns explains. "It was a great excuse for them to get out of their town and come to the desert to record."

Still today, long since they started making their own records, Burns says he and Convertino relish playing the sidemen. "It's so great, I can't even tell you," he says, laughing. "There's a lot of planning that goes into doing our stuff, whether it's just thinking about the songs we wanna play, what to say in the interview, whatever. So there's a beauty of just being a rhythm section, just getting behind a big piece of furniture like the upright bass and just playing it. And I try to continually reinforce that when I talk to people like Howe, who maybe sometimes feel that we don't wanna do that. It's so important to have that variety; it's really crucial."

Last year they worked with Neko Case on her terrific Blacklisted, an experience Burns says made both him and Convertino rethink their approach. "She really wanted to make sure that it didn't sound exactly like one of our records, and I really applauded her for doing that, because there are other people that come in that want to get the same kind of instrumentation or want a similar sound or production." He says the same of working with Richard Buckner on his The Hill. Burns had a few ideas on upright bass he thought would go great with Buckner's voice. "Richard would listen and nod, then say, 'Right, what I wanna do...'"

This is why it's handy to make Calexico records, the ultimate repository for those discarded ideas. "We just like working off each other," Burns says of his and his partner's chemistry. (Though dozens of musicians have huddled beneath the Calexico umbrella over the years--from Tucson mariachis to Lambchop's pedal steel player Paul Niehaus to their European label manager's brother-in-law--"I like the idea of being able to have it function as just a two-piece.")

"And the fact that we have a bunch of different instruments helps. John has an accordion and I have an accordion, so we exchange ideas just on that instrument. By living in Tucson we've kind of amassed a stronghold of all these different instruments, from swap meets, thrift stores, local music stores. John loves to go in there and salvage out these dying drums or percussion or vibes or marimbas; he picks them up and breathes life into them. It's that kind of mind-set that goes into the beginnings of some of these songs." Another mystery solved.


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