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.
"America is run by corporations and has this homogenous kind of formulaic approach to everything," he says. "It seems like it's just overrun by the corporations and then it goes downward from there.... Fuck the corporations -- they suck. They don't know what they're doing; they're clueless."
Burns isn't so much bitter as adamant. Calexico has a nice deal with Quarterstick, and his Giant Sand bandmate Gelb recently moved to Thrill Jockey after a disappointing stint with V2, a subsidiary of Virgin. Burns respects bands that spurn the major labels in favor of independents that allow them more creative control, even if the advances aren't as huge. "With the [major labels], the employees are kind of cold and superficial and don't really know where you're coming from, so it's kind of this awkward feeling. They have to hurry off and jump on a cell phone and do their business. They'll put you up in a nice hotel, and you just find yourself all alone but kind of silenced in comfort and glued to the television. With smaller labels, there might be two or three people working in the office. You might be staying at their house, have a nice home-cooked meal, maybe sleep on their couch or something, but you're engaged with good conversation, intelligent discussion."
As much as Tucson inspires Calexico, giving the band a base on which to ground its inventive sonic forays, it's this vagabond existence that stimulates the members of Calexico to evolve beyond the Tex-Mex influences of their home. Whereas more financially successful bands are forced to narrow their sound until it conforms to the rigid dicta of media conglomerates, Calexico stays afloat by staying on the move, traversing the globe in search of open-minded audiences, new perspectives and creative opportunities.
Though Calexico has played in St. Louis several times, the band members have never been to Off Broadway, where they'll be performing Saturday as a six-piece. Burns asks what the place is like, and, when told that the Handsome Family's Rennie Sparks admiringly compared it to the Ponderosa (the legendary TV ranch, not the chain restaurant), he seems genuinely excited. "We'll have to do our Bonanza set, then," he says.
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