Graham Reid | | 6 min read
For a few minutes the well-groomed and otherwise articulate Joey Burns of the American band Calexico is lost for words.
He, like me, has just learned of the death of the Pogues' Shane MacGowan.
We resort to vague cliches: sad, so talented, not unexpected of course . . .
Burns never met MacGowan but says he always admired his lyrics and . . .
We trail off, the conversation about Calexico touring their wonderful Feast of Wire album on its 20th anniversary is sidelined for a bit, so I shift to more personal matters.
He's at his home in Boise, Idaho, his wife's hometown. They, with their twin daughters -- now 12 -- moved up here just before Covid and he loves it.
It means the longtime Calexico connection with Tucson in Arizona has been severed but up here in Idaho in a smaller town he's enjoying the seasons.
“I get to feel the movement of life. Growing up in southern California and then moving to Tucson it was always just warm or cold. I love those places immensely, but seeing trees and nature change is beautiful.”
Given Calexico's music was so inspired by those desert atmospheres of Arizona we'll have to wait and see how this location influences the music in the future, but for now Calexico is delving into its past and is just back from Europe where they once again were received with affection and enthusiasm, although Burns is realistic about their position of the spectrum.
“It went really well, we've always maintained a middle ground and a connectedness with audiences.
“We're not playing huge places, on average to about 1500, we've never gone up to bigger venues or bigger crowds. But it was great tour because for the first time since the pandemic – 2022 didn't feel like we were there yet – it felt like people were coming out and connecting with this 20th anniversary of Feast of Wire.
“Had it not been like that I'd have to rethink what I do,” he laughs.
When Calexico came to this country two decades ago ago they weren't high on many people's antennae, despite a back-catalogue of three respectable albums, and others available through their website.
But, widely regarded by their peers and critics, they came here piggy-backing off an invitation from Nick Cave to open for him at concerts in Australia.
By happy coincidence they arrived with Feast of Wire, which became their breakthrough, an album weaving influences from alt.rock, mariachi music, cinema soundtracks and jazz.
"Oh yeah, we love Gil Evans, Miles Davis and Eric Dolphy,” singer/multi-instrumentalist Burns told me at the time, citing great jazz musicians.
“I'm a big fan of [Dolphy], and more and more Charles Mingus, who was born in Nogales, the border town of Arizona and Mexico.”
Location was a major influence for Calexico, founded by Burns and drummer/singer John Convertino in 1996. They took their name from a Californian border town which conflates “California” and “Mexico”, much as the Tucson-based band pulled together musical styles from Mexican norteña and country music to evoke desert landscapes and cantina music.
“We wanted to put everything in the pot,” he says today of that album of 20 years ago, “and it can be a little over-eclectic. But we found ways to connect all these genres to make it into a beautiful, smooth ride.
“We took the elements and made them our own.”
He digresses back to jazz: “That is what connects the songs, improvisation is the key and the most interesting part of the story is the transition, the most interesting part of the song or the bridge. Or the mistake, to embrace this is to embrace what it is to be human.”
Although Feast of Wire – on which Burns is credited with playing 13 instruments – has not been the band's best-selling album (that belongs to 2008's Carried to Dust) it's widely considered their most important, a turning point collection which they now celebrate by playing it in its entirety, then other material from their extensive back-catalogue.
They are bringing their ensemble to this country in February to do exactly that.
Burns says playing the album in its entirety doesn't mean just going through motions.
“When we play the whole album in sequence it's amazing. Often I will make up something on stage. On the final show on the tour last year in Dublin my spirit was moved and I was feeling the emotion of where things were in the world with regards to conflict and challenges”.
“I hadn't been there in 10 years but have family in Galway and was thinking about all that and started making up some words. One of the musicians afterwards asked if that was a new song, and I guess it was, although I don't remember what it was.
“It's like an offering to the gift of music and creativity, giving the muse the food and a treat.
“Touring was healing after Covid and although I got a little bored [with playing the album] after a tour in June last year, this time around through Europe I fell in love with it, knowing what is to come and the moments where we can experiment”.
Although some might hear the album as serious and intense, Burns says it's a fun album to celebrate, there are lyrics he's proud of and the instrumentals are beautiful.
“Pepita always captures people's attention and Crumble pays homage to Mingus and Gil Evans. It allows me to push myself as a jazz guitarist because I didn't record the guitar on the album, I was playing bass.”
He digresses into a conversation about the spacious production on classic Blue Note jazz albums in the 1960s which is what they wanted for the sound of Feast of Wire, and how he and Convertino brought their diverse influences into Calexico.
Both of them are jazz players but he grew up playing rock and classical music, they moved to Tucson to join Howe Gelb as the rhythm section in his desert-rock band Giant Sand before going their own way as Calexico.
Spanish music from the region was a profound influence and the band includes accordion player Sergio Mendoza, and trumpeters Jacob Valenzuela and Martin Wenk.
However you try to describe Calexico's music -- and most critics reach for superlatives as much as a label – it works equally well in clubs, concert halls and at festivals like the Taranaki Womad where they played in 2010 and 2016.
For all the acclaim for Feast of Wire, Burns says 20 years ago they didn't feel when making it that they were onto something which would influence and define their sound.
“We get excited about the music and mixing, there are always things you wish you would do differently. At that point we were thinking of it being on CD and that's why its so long, like 70 minutes.
“After that we started being more conscious of maybe vinyl quality and not burning out music journalists – there are very few left – but along the way it got some nice reviews.
“But it's not like I saw a big change in things, we toured a lot of 2003 and saw mild improvements in terms of better rooms and bigger audiences but it never really got big.”
The remastered reissue of the album includes a live concert from the time recorded in Stockholm.
“It was an old theatre and that was one of my favourite live show recordings. The radio station recorded it and did a great job so we were grateful to put it out on a limited edition.”
Given the album has aural reference points in the music of Ennio Morricone's “spaghetti Western” soundtracks, Hispanic music, jazz, windblown pedal steel alt.country sounds and more, it's hardly surprising it has appealed to fellow musicians.
“When you hear people you admire talking about the album or singing the songs that is the biggest compliment.
“[Irish musician] Glen Hansard played in Tucson and sang Sunken Waltz which brought tears to my eyes because we'd toured together in 2003.
“Robert Plant covered Quattro and wrote some beautiful things about the song and the band.
“That makes me feel really good because there are times when I don't know how far Calexico can go and whether its affordable to go out any more.
“Although, even if I had to pay to go out there I probably would.”
The remastered 20th anniversary edition of Feast of Wire with a bonus disc of a live concert from 2003 is available now at bandcamp here
Calexico, Feast Of Wire 20th Anniversary NZ Tour: Opera House, Wellington, February 9; Loons, Christchurch, February 10; Powerstation, Auckland, February 11