Calexico - Tumbleweed connection
Published 13/09/2008 | 13:00
Calexico's new album is a return to their dusty, Mariachi-inflected pomp.
Despite being sat in an adequately heated London hotel bar, Joey Burns insists on putting his jacket back on. Maybe this is because he has flown in from Tucson, Arizona, via Madrid, or maybe because he is thinking about the ghosts in Tucson's Hotel Congress.
Burns is explaining how they and more contemporary apparitions populate his work as singer and lyricist of Calexico, the band that, since 1996, has helped us navigate the American south-west. In casual shirt and greasy hair flicked across, Burns could fit into many a college rock band, though his and drummer John Convertino's ongoing collaborative project achieve much more than identikit indie pop.
New album Carried To Dust is their most ambitious yet and is a return to form after 2004's Garden Ruin, an album that saw them make a lunge at the mainstream. For that record, Calexico had shorn themselves of the mariachi brass that had been such an instantly recognisable part of their sound, relying instead on pedal steel to augment their country-inflected rock. It soon became apparent how much the horns were part of their dynamism. Now they are back to their vibrant best, with a set of songs and instrumentals that mix contemporary Latino sounds with US post-rock.
Many of its lyrical themes will be familiar to long-term fans, because Burns continues to draw inspiration from his home city. "There are serious ghosts there and I'm not the only person that feels that way," Burns explains. "People kill themselves, there is some weird shit, but for the most part it's all safe."
Beyond that, Tucson plays host to a transient community that Burns regularly crosses paths with in the downtown area where the band record. "There's a lot of people finding their way, coming through town, either on the train or highway. They don't look like they belong there and they don't look happy. I just talk to them or they come up to me."
There has long been a political edge to how Burns highlights the plight of the downtrodden, especially Mexican illegal immigrants, though now his lyrics have taken on a more abstract sensibility. Instead of another hopeful slipping across the border on "The Crystal Frontier", we have "Wire fences still coiled with the flowers of the night".
Calexico have also cast their net wider, with oblique references to Chile, a nation that has long suffered American foreign-policy machinations. "House of Valparaiso" comes from a coastal town in that country, while "Victor Jara's Hands" is named after a theatre director, songwriter and activist murdered after the 1973 coup, supported by the US, that brought down President Allende.
Burns admits to being uncomfortable with two aspects of Garden Ruin: the overly politicised songs, especially "All Systems Red", and a recording process that involved working with a six-piece band from the get-go.
For this record, he and Convertino began by building up tracks by themselves, a much quicker, intuitive process, before inviting guests to join them. This is not so much a reaction to their previous effort, Burns explains, as a result of projects in between, specifically the soundtrack to the eccentric Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There.
Calexico's challenge is to recreate these collaborations live – no mean feat with a line-up culled from as far part as Nashville and Berlin. The key is to pick up like-minded individuals along the way.
"You look forward to it, thinking of something different. We're not too worried about syncing exactly the album recording," says Burns, who is particularly looking forward to this weekend's folk/country orientated End Of The Road festival and possibly finding a female vocalist for the duet "Slowness".
And with that, he has to talk to National Geographic. As I said, if you want to navigate Calexico's home state, their music is where to start.
'Carried to Dust' is out now on City Slang; Calexico headline this weekend's End of the Road Festival in Dorset on Sunday (www.endoftheroadfestival.com)