Rail-roading

The incredible expanding Calexico takes to the highway in support of its new album, The Hot Rail

On their most recent full-length, The Hot Rail (Quarterstick), it only takes a moment -- four beats of the bass drum, to be exact -- before you hear Calexico's Great Leap Forward -- the arrival of the full-blown mariachi sensibility, which appears in the assured tone of trumpeter Ruben Moreno, who blows a melody that recalls the moment in a Sergio Leone Western when the cigar-chomping, five-day-stubbled bandito walks into a bar. The first lyrics out of Burns' mouth set the tone for the entire record: "I live out yonder where the snakes and scorpions run, got myself a little goldmine to bank on/But one day my heart sank when I saw Madame in town/I knew her love would be the death of mine." It sounds like something straight out of Cormac McCarthy, and the whole of The Hot Rail examines similar themes, addressing the existentialism of an empty desert and a person's place in -- and outside -- of it.

One result of Calexico's stylistic openness is last year's glorious Calexico remix EP, Descamino. Curious and appreciative of new electronic music ("I'm a big fan of Oval; I love Mouse on Mars; I love Thrill Jockey," Burns says), the band was open to the idea of remixing, and through an employee at Thrill Jockey was put in contact with Chicago producer/musician Bundy K. Brown, best known for his work in Tortoise and as Directions in Music. Brown took samples of Calexico's music, then reorganized and recontextualized them to create the beautiful centerpiece of Descamino. "He took all these elements, added some ambient noise, (Tortoise's ) Doug McCombs' Fender six bass playing. Even the buzz from his amplifier is in there. And of course (Chicago Underground Duo member) Rob Mazurek's cornet. I loved it. I thought, 'God, this is it. I love this combination. This is what I want to do for the new record.' And some people go, 'Yeah!' and some go, 'Whoa.' I say, 'What do you mean? This is great! Come on, people.' I'm trying to bridge these worlds together, and a lot of people want to keep them separate. I like to open up and share and experience and create new feelings with these elements." (In another addition to their résumé, Calexico was just commissioned by hip Brit electronic label Warp Records to remix a cut by famed London DJ Andrew Weatherall and his ongoing musical concern, Two Lone Swordsmen.)

For his part, says Burns, Convertino added "the Eric Satie influence that John couldn't get enough of before the record. And it's very important for me to allow him, and to push him, to do something. Whether it was on the Friends of Dean Martinez record, or on the Spoke or Black Light albums, I'm like, 'John, you have to do this.' I have to thoroughly encourage him. He'll say, 'No, no, you're the songwriter. You do this stuff.' But a lot of the music, Giant Sand or Calexico, wouldn't be possible without his being there. He's the most amazing drummer."

Calexico: To label the band a merger of American and Latino sensibilities is to deny the expansive curiosity of its hub, Joey Burns (left) and percussionist John Convertino.
Bill Carter
Calexico: To label the band a merger of American and Latino sensibilities is to deny the expansive curiosity of its hub, Joey Burns (left) and percussionist John Convertino.

For this tour, Calexico won't be toting the entire mariachi ensemble; rather, they'll be pared down to a sextet consisting of the Americans (including pedal-steel player Eric Haywood, who has worked with, among others, Son Volt, Richard Buckner and Freakwater), the Germans and a Latino (Jacob Valenzuela, whom Burns describes as a "young budding John Coltrane/Miles Davis wrapped into an enchilada"). Of the combination, Burns says simply, "It's a great mixture."

Calexico performs at the Side Door on Friday, June 16. Boston guitar trio Wheat opens.

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