By Allison Babka
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Named for a border town straddling California and Mexico, the Tucson-based collective Calexico is both sonically and thematically a kind of limitrophe, hovering over the arbitrary lines that separate regional genres, sprawling past these cartographic fallacies and encompassing them until something new emerges. The music Calexico creates draws from frontier culture -- its hybridizations, confluences and cross-pollinations -- but it's not so much a multiculti mishmash as it is a metaphor. In the minds of Joey Burns and John Convertino, the hub around which the ever-evolving Calexico rotates, the arid desert expanses of their hometown aren't so much empty as they are open.
The tropes and cultural artifacts of the Southwest -- the dusty tumbleweeds, the exhausted maquiladores, the drug smugglers, the gaudy sunsets, the ghost towns, the sad cantinas -- transcend cinematic cliché and become something else entirely, a kind of tabula rasa on which the imagination is free to inscribe its own mysterious truths. Less a place than a state of mind, the woozy, sun-scorched landscape conjured up by Calexico's music takes on a life of its own, one that shifts like the sands and glimmers like a mirage.
Sprawling border towns are rife with contradictions, and these contradictions are at the heart of Calexico's sound. Over the course of three full-lengths -- Spoke (1996), The Black Light (1998) and Hot Rail (2000) -- an EP of experimental tracks, left-overs and B-sides, Even My Sure Things Fall Through (2001), and a handful of self-released "tour-only" CDs available at gigs and on the band's Web site (www.casadecalexico.com), the band creates an uncategorizable fusion of majestic mariachi, haunting country & western, glitchy avant-jazz, skewed spaghetti-Western, languorous lounge, ethereal electro and '60s Europop. In addition to the standard guitar/bass/drums setup, Calexico's largely instrumental songs are infused with guitarrons, vihuelas, vibraphones, pedal-steel, marimbas, cellos, accordions, organs -- even the occasional turntable scratch or tape loop. Burns and Convertino are both accomplished multi-instrumentalists, and what they can't do themselves, they delegate to able cohorts: Since 1998, they've toured and recorded with trumpeters Martin Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela, along with Volker Zander on contrabass and Paul Niehaus (also of Lambchop) on pedal steel; on recent CDs and select European tours, they've collaborated with members of the Mariachi Luz de Luna. In addition to writing, arranging and performing for the ever-evolving Calexico, Burns and Convertino somehow find the time to hook up with countless other artists, including Richard Buckner, Lisa Germano, the Amor Belhom Duo, Barbara Manning, Victoria Williams and, most recently, Jenny Toomey. For the past decade or so, they've also been key players in Giant Sand, a twenty-year-old avant-rock project led by their brilliant fellow Tucsonian Howe Gelb. All these projects enrich and inform Calexico's sonic landscape.
Though pundits have dubbed Calexico's sound "desert noir" and "mariachi garage," such catchy labels can't begin to suggest the sweeping range of influences that have seeped into the band's repertoire. Burns and Convertino may live in Tucson, but they spend at least half the year on the road, covering not only North America but also most of Europe. Regional references aren't so much a product of where they live -- they live pretty much everywhere -- as they are tools to be exploited, ideas to be examined.
At the moment, though, Burns is happy to be at home. The band has just finished recording the next album, tentatively titled Feast of Wire (a reference both to novelist Harry Crews and to the seminal English post-punk band Wire), and is taking a well-deserved breather before the tour starts up again. "We've been doing a lot of traveling on these last couple of records," Burns says by telephone. "I wanted to stay at home for a while, just to ground myself and reacquaint myself with what was going on with Tucson -- what Tucson means to me now, as opposed to what it meant to me in the past -- because when you leave town and you're gone so much, you're left with a memory."
He's even more in love with the place than he was when he moved there from his home in LA eight years ago to join Convertino and, eventually, Giant Sand. "Tucson is kind of a backwards place," he says, with an affectionate laugh. "It's a lot slower than, say, St. Louis or Chicago. Well, maybe it's not as slow as St. Louis! But the overhead's pretty low, and there's a laid-back quality. You turn on the radio, and there are a lot more Latin-music stations than in a lot of cities.
"I like listening to some of the Mexican radio, the bamba and hearing how the techno music is influencing some of that," he continues. "Mexican pop music -- I think it's great, the way it's got this techno beat that goes along with the keyboards and the synthesizers and the trumpets. And I listen to a lot of singer/songwriter stuff: Steve Wynn and Chris Cacavas were just in town recording."
As glad as he is to be home, he's not complaining about all the time he spends in Europe. Like many independent bands, Calexico has a much bigger following in Europe than in the U.S. Touring the continent isn't just a way to connect with more progressive audiences and develop creatively -- it's a means of financial survival. "They pay pretty well on average," he says. "I guess there's just some kind of dedication to the arts over there, whereas in the States we're bought and sold for everything, so you have to kind of come up with your own means and your own creativity if you're a club or a bar owner and you want to maintain some kind of audience and have interesting programming.