ATH Interviews: Calexico

ATH recently had the good fortune of chatting it up with famed songwriter Joey Burns about his Tucson based band Calexico. The interview should give you an adequate preview for the band’s upcoming sure to be sold out show at Antone’s on Friday night. Mr. Burns answers the tough questions and also reflects on his one and done stint as an actor. Follow the jump to read this incredible interview with Calexico’s front man, Joey Burns.

ATH: After listening to your new album Carried to Dust and reading various interviews online, it’s apparent that your new LP moves away from some of the Tex-Mex border issues/desert themes that were prevalent on older albums. Would you say that’s correct? If so, what was the lyrical focus for the new album?

JB: I’ve always felt like we have a lot of diversity in the band’s sound and also thematically in the lyrics. I think people sort of assume when they see the band name and read where some of the band is from that were really all about this southwestern thing.  While we might have some roots here musically and geographically, the perspective is more global and wide open than that. We blend many styles that occur in the United States and around the world which fuse in with our own signature sound and style. So I think we sound a lot different than what people might think. This new record follows in that same procession as Feast of Wire or The Black Light in that it’s more open minded but not quite as nostalgic. This record is more about this kind of path of looking outward and thinking about traveling or places you’ve traveled to. There are a lot of themes in the album about suburban sprawl or that life long pursuit in finding one’s balance. I think that’s something that everyone is always working towards but it never really seems to come together. There’s a lot of variety in these records… like two of our members, Martin(Wenk) & Volker(Zander) are from Germany. That’s something that maybe doesn’t get written about too often.

ATH: Why the choice to hark back to the southwestern/stenciled album art like the lowrider on The Black Light? Why not keep going with something more “traditional” like the cover art for Garden Ruin?

JB: Victor Gastelum is the artist who did the Carried to Dust album cover as well as Feast of Wire, Convict Pool, Hot Rail, The Black Light, and Even My Sure Things Fall Through. Victor has a very distinctive style just like we as a band have a very signature and distinguished sound and the two of us usually work well together. On the last record, Garden Ruin, we wanted to mix up everything from the production style to the art work. On this album we went back in some ways hopefully with a new perspective so it’s not a complete giving up of what you’ve learned along the way. I asked Victor what the difference was between some of the older album covers and some of the one’s he had done more recently. He told me that he did more stuff now online and the computer does more of the separation and more of the stencil art work. So I asked him if in the old days he did things more by hand with colors and spray paint. When he answered yes to that question, I told him I wanted to go back to more of that feel. I think it just represents a re-thinking of some of the techniques that made for a more synonymous connection of where the music and art work was going. Victor is the 5th Beatle, he is the silent one that no one really ever sees.

ATH: You and Jim James got together to record an incredible version of “Acapulco” for the I’m Not There soundtrack. Why did you decide to do that song and why with Jim? Was he who you always had in mind when planning for the song or was it originally just going to be Calexico?

JB: It was all by request of the music supervisor Randall Poster and Jim Dunbar together with the director Todd Haynes. They knew they wanted to work with Calexico just to try different sorts of ideas. Originally we were going to record it with Will Oldham(Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) but he couldn’t do it. Hank Williams was another suggestion and he wasn’t really into it. So our manager Alyson West suggested Jim James of My Morning Jacket who we’d been talking to about trying to do some shows together. We recorded several versions of the song, tried several things and they finally bit on one. When people are really passionate about getting involved, that’s all that matters. They were really amazed by the version of the song that we came up with and we were sort of shocked when they wanted us to actually be in the movie. They were shooting it in Montreal and it was such a powerful scene in the film.

ATH: Would you act again?

JB: No, not really. I like being in the background. Doing film work is so much more demanding on a different kind of level. You have to have a lot of patience for things that are very superficial. I’m a meat and potatoes, in the heart of things kind of guy so I’d rather be involved in writing, recording or producing.

ATH: On the topic of Dylan. What Dylan album do you replace first/second if your record collection were to go up in flames?

JB: Well the first record that I grab is a bootleg called Ten of Swords which came out in the 70s or 80s. Beyond that, John Wesley Harding. I Love where he sits in the history of popular and modern music.

ATH: You are involved in too many side projects to count. What current one or one planned for the future are you most excited about?

JB: There are two that we’re working on right now. One is a full on movie directed by Taylor Hackford starring his wife Helen Mirren. It’s a movie set in the 1970s about a legalized brothel out in Reno, Nevada or just outside the city limits. Oh and the other star of the movie is Joe Pesci, who plays the husband. It’s a fantastic drama story. The music composer, James Newton Howard, who has done everything from The Dark Knight to working with Elton John back in the 70s, really insisted on John(Convertino) and I being involved. We’ve been working on about 30mins of music for that so far and after the tour we’ll probably finish up that project.  In the interim, one of our friends who plays violin with us over in Europe, Anna Sophie Maller, is an opera director and she is doing a play in Switzerland. She’s doing a Tennessee Williams play and she asked us to help out with some themes and record the music. She might play some violin on it and some of the actors on stage might sing and play as well. We’re pretty excited about both of those opportunities.

ATH: I’ve always thought some of your fast paced jams like “Minas de cobre” or “El Gatillo” would be perfect for a Trantino/Robert Rodriguez flick. If both approached you today for a soundtrack… who would go with?

JB: Well I think I would blindfold both of them, have an old fashioned pistol duel, and whoever won would be the guy we worked for. Maybe we could have them duke it out like on those old MTV Celebrity Death Match shows or something. We were actually in a bar in Berlin once called “Tarantino” named after the man himself and he was hanging out there. It was pretty cool to get to meet him and that guy likes to party pretty hard.

ATH: You mixed the new record in Austin. What do you think of our little town and what do you have to do, eat, drink when you are here?

JB: As far as food goes, Las Manitas is a great Mexican restaurant on south Congress that we usually stop by. We were actually lucky enough to play that place a long time ago during SXSW with some great Austin artists. We of course try to make a trek to Waterloo Records when we are in town to pick up some albums. I also have some friends who own guitar shops in town so I try to rotate which ones I go to when we make a stop in Austin. I’m also pretty excited to be playing at such a historical venue like Antone’s. Other than that, I’m sure I’ll try to hit up friends like Sam Bean(Iron & Wine) and Charlie Sexton while I’m in town. Maybe we can even get them to play a song or two with us.

ATH: We recently ran a feature on our site called “The Bottom 5 things about music” which discussed some of the things that really bug us about the music business nowadays. If you had you’re say, what one thing would you change about the current state of music? Okay… 2 things…

JB: I guess I’d have to say I’d take issue with how many bands people have to weed through nowadays. It seems like everyone is touring and starting a band and it just makes it harder on everyone to keep up with it all. I’m sure it’s hard on journalists too just trying to cover all those artists. I guess that all may change soon since no one is buying music anymore and some bands may taper off as a result. Another problem I have would be with music videos. Can’t we just be done with those things already? I’ve always enjoyed live videos but I just don’t see the point in people making music videos anymore. Most artists never like the video once it’s finished and then your stuck with that thing forever.

ATH: What’s some new artists we should all know about?

JB: Well we played with this great band called The Acorn at a Canadian folk festival. They’re a band that most people probably don’t know about. If anyone hasn’t heard of Andrew Bird by now, they should check him out because he’s great. I’d also recommend picking up the first two records of a German band called Neu! They’ve influenced all kinds of people like Wilco and David Bowie. Eric Satie is another older one that people should check out. He’s a composer from the turn of the century who did some really amazing stuff.

Many thanks again to Joey Burns for making the time to speak with us. As we mentioned earlier, Calexico has a date with Austin on Friday night at Antone’s (11/7). Tickets for the show are around $18 and doors open at 8pm. Buy your tickets now from Front Gate Tickets

Photo credit on the cover image goes to Gerald von Foris.

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