Q&A with Calexico’s Joey Burns – Tripping on the Esthetic Sidewalk

Features, Interviews — By on September 30, 2010 3:00 am

Calexico is fast becoming a household name, and for good reason. Joey Burns and John Convertino have committed over a decade to writing and touring as a kick-ass band with a better-than Spaghetti Western vibe. After our chat, Joey seemed much more like the makings of a young Plato than merely a dude with a guitar. He and his counterpart have proposed to shape the whole band around the philosophy of esthetics, but these guys are no hipster fakes.

They moved only a few years after the band’s inception in the City Of Angels (not to mention Industry) to Tucson, Arizona, to pursue their sound more truthfully. You can rest assured that the tumbleweed, dusty-lipped feel of their songs is a detailed inspection of real southwestern culture. And they’re living the kind of lives that make authenticity a promise as we wait with baited expectation for more. Much more.

Where are you today?

I’m in Little Italy in San Diego, California.

You guys played the Hollywood Bowl last night, how was it?

It was great; we had a really warm reception and a great crowd. The theme of the night was “Viva Mexico” so there was a lot of celebration for Mexico’s 200-year anniversary. The lineup was all local artists from LA and East LA, and Cheech Marin was there from Cheech and Chong — he was hilarious. It really was great, and as a once-Californian I felt it was a really great representation of such an eclectic culture.

Yeah, you guys started in LA and moved (after starting the band) out to Tucson; was that more a personal or business move?

Well on the personal front it was about wanting to go to a smaller town. Growing up in Los Angeles you can see where the city had an influence on the music scene and it wasn’t for the better. It was hard to find really authentic musicians that were doing it for the right reasons. Seemed like everyone I met was in it just to make it big. I was interested more in the quality of music more than in quantity of records sold. I never felt comfortable with the music industry’s approach and now they’re hurting. There were a couple of good pockets, there’s always going to be some exceptions but the majority of the venues just didn’t seem like they were doing it for the right reasons.

It took a while for places to sort of develop their own scenes. I wound up playing a lot in Pomona, California, which is in a place called the “Inland Empire”, and it was there that I felt a stronger independent scene. There were small labels doing things out of their living rooms. There were touring bands like Sebadoh and Psunami that would come through and play shows in small bars in Claremont. It was really cool to be a part of the beginning of a really beautiful independent scene there.

What kind of a scene is there in Tucson? Do you feel like you found what you were looking for?

Yeah, very much so. There are many more likeminded individuals who are more about art, and not just music but sculpture and painting and … oops, sorry I just tripped on the sidewalk [laughs].

Multitasker.

I’m just glad I didn’t fall.

Me too. Speaking of multi-tasking, there’s so much good stuff going on in each of your songs — what are the main influences on Calexico’s sound?

Good question. Well I guess it’s this path of esthetics, and that kind of unfolds into a nice big umbrella. You start noticing things that you’re drawn to- whether it be art, quality of life, philosophy, things that are made really well- could be old window fixtures, old musical instruments, it could be an old village somewhere. I’m using the word “old” a lot because it seems like in some ways there was this pride in craftsmanship, and it applied on many levels.

I’m looking for unusual characters, unusual stories and sounds and soundscapes that are not part of the mainstream. Because everywhere you go you’re surrounded by the same kind of music, the same kind of esthetics, the same kind of corporate influence. Having traveled around the world I try to avoid those paths and go to where there is an attention to detail and quality. So those things, all under that umbrella of esthetics, influence the sound.

Great answer.

I don’t know if it makes any sense. I mean I could say, “I like musicians like Thelonious Monk”. He’s a great example of someone who has taken the traditions of things and morphed them into his own warped vision, which kind of parallels the story of his life and personality which really shines through. It was a path that was difficult and probably painful for him and his family, but the story is really amazing. He was a pathfinder.

Do you watch “Mad Men”?

I do, it’s a great show, talk about esthetics.

Calexico’s esthetic is well dialed-in and has been for some time. You guys brought up the Southwestern vibe before it was even cool to do so. Would you say that your style is merely an expression or are these the sounds and stories of your own experiences?

It’s kind of all thrown in together. I think you’ll find most writers are combining personal with pre-existing stories and you kind of weave these things. Sometimes you’re going to find universal stories equipped with a whole subset of parameters and obstacles and of course metaphors. So then we try to balance those within the context of what works well on an album but also still try to loose ourselves in the muse. Getting lost is this really great thing that happens on a daily basis that we shouldn’t take for granted and I certainly try not to with regards to the writing of lyrics and composing of songs.

You sound like a philosopher. Have you any particular favorites which govern or guide you?

I guess I’m a survivalist. I’m trying to preserve things that are important, things that are falling by the wayside. There’s kind of this thrift store mentality — you know you’ll find that one great treasure if you just keep on looking. And you hope that you can turn the rest of the world or your community or your friends onto something that’s been yet undiscovered or overlooked.

So you distill it for a while. You place it in the cellar in the bottom of your soul and it gets covered in layers and layers of journals and pages of scribblings and writings and thoughts and dreams. And then one day you open the hatch and it’s become such a part of you it’s unmistakable; it is truly a part of you.

As the writer Lawrence Clark Powell once said to me, “You can’t fake it; you have to become it”.

How has Calexico evolved over more than ten years of becoming what you are today?

I think the best way has been through our perspective; having that ability to get outside ourselves. Travel has really been the best way to do that. Its amazing to see how much appreciation there is around the world for different kinds of music, including our own but also other kinds which are definitely off the radar over here in the states. Travel shines light on identity and purpose and on what else is going on in the world. I’d recommend it to anyone.

When do we get another album from you?

You can have as many albums as you like. It’s really true; the format of those things is kind of changing. We have a bunch of albums that we’ve been releasing all along that are only available on our website — CasadeCalexico.com — and we call them “tour only CDs” because we only sell them at shows or the remaining stock from our website.

We also have a record that’s coming out which is a soundtrack to a documentary film called Circo (circomexico.com). And you can get the music from our website and at shows as well. We’re really proud of the work we did on it because it reminds us of the first batch of songs we ever made — by ourselves, for ourselves. The next full length may be out next fall.

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