The 405 meets Calexico
"While you," Severin means me "are starting this, can I take a picture of you" meaning Joey and John, "in front of this amazing hunting thing?"
"It's too dark. It doesn't match my shirt," replies Joey, before fingering the shoulder of my own garment. "What's this? Is it corduroy? Linen?"
"Linen," I say. "That's the one."
"Thank you very much."
I've spent the last half hour shitting myself. I'm pressed as far as I'll go into an overstuffed chair, in the chocolate gloom of The Kensington Hotel bar. The place has a way of using its décor as a put-down, its interior design a big ol' gold-and-marble-gilded 'fuck you', and the crisp, postured staff (presumably mistaking me for someone worth a shit) keep trying to do things for me. Everything has its place. This isn't mine.
Joey Burns of Calexico has, until complimenting me on my choice of outfit, been across the room and engaged in what looks to be sickeningly productive conversation with some other writer. They're becoming chums over hot drinks, eye contact, grins, long sentences. Regular buddies. I bloody know it. Tom gives me some Rescue Remedy to spray on my tongue, three coffees burning a hot hole at the bottom of my belly and setting me to shaking. Joey's bandmate John Convertino came downstairs about ten minutes ago, after having put on a fresh shirt himself. We talked about Fleetwood Mac, the bass tone on the piped- in Muzak, the difficulties encountered when defining Southern Rock (Slint vs. Lynryrd Skynyrd vs. Lambchop). I felt a bit better. When Severin got done snapping iPhone pics, this happened:
R: How is it?
JB: Good stuff.
R: What're you drinking?
JB: I'm just smelling it right now. Get your nose in there.
R: That's beautiful. (That's red wine.)
JB: That's a Spanish wine. It's Temperanillo and Shiraz. It's a blend, I dunno what percent. Temperanillo has nice round, dark fruit. (To the woman behind the bar) Do you know what the percentage of the blend is? Probably not, huh? (To Tom) Do you wanna smell?
R: So you're a wine buff?
JB: Nah. I just appreciate it.
R: Let's talk about Calexico…
JB: We played this show in New York City at a place called City Wineries, two nights, and they wound up doing this blend…I think it was a Malbec wasn't it? p>
JB: The Latin influence. And they put a Calexico label on it.
R: Did anyone keep a bottle? Like Calexico vintage?
JC: Probably not…
R: I hope so. Somewhere that's gotta go on eBay for like a grand.
(Keep a lid on it, son.)
JB: It was fun doing that. And it's just been one of those things that with travelling, you know, you get to try different food and wine.
R: This was in New York?
JB: New York, yeah, it was a winery inside Manhattan. They bring the grapes in and you can go there and crush the grapes yourself. We didn't get to do that, no. But I did get some samples from the barrel, it was kinda still young wine, but it was fun doing that. (to John) Your grandfather…
JC: He took whiskey barrels and he made his own wine.
(Severin blows nose loudly.)
JC: Neko Case, he's been making his own bourbon, right on the border of Kentucky and Indiana.
JB: It's been one of those trends, and I think that says a lot about people enjoying the craft rather than just the effect.
I am getting thirsty, but it's a small glass. I try to focus. Calexico have usually recorded, by and large, at Wavelab in Tucson, Arizona. So what prompted the move to New Orleans' Living Room studio for latest release Algiers? "We have done a fair amount of mixing outside of Tucson," Joey explains, "we've gone from Austin, Texas to Costa Mesa, California, to Brooklyn, New York, and we've discovered that going to these places, we stay focused on 12-15 hour days, and we just needed to do that. And it's fun hanging out in a city like New Orleans. It has so much to offer, so much character, so much history." I've never been, and I'd like to know – how has the Big Easy's character and history held up in the seven years since Katrina? "Yeah, it's a slow rebuild," says John. "But since Hurricane Isaac, it came out that the government had spent, like, five billion dollars on the levee system. I think they've done a really good job of reinforcing it all, and so that's good, I mean people are starting to return there. Another reason we wanted to go down there was to bring some business back to the area."
Calexico's songs are inextricably linked with a sense of place, of geographical location. Joey and John have seen to that themselves, naming their project for a border town, spiking the deep well of Americana from which they draw with mariachi, merengue, salsa. Did recording Algiers in New Orleans have an effect on the record's sound? "For sure," says Joey, "and so did the travels too, I mean being on tour, being here affects the sound." I'm baffled here, as to how a song's character can be affected so spontaneously, but I keep quiet. "But yeah, going to New Orleans helped shape some of the songs, especially songs like 'Epic' and 'Para' wouldn't have been written in Tucson." So you were writing in New Orleans as well? "Yes," Joey answers, "we went down with some old reels of analog tape with material that we'd written, and the moment we got there we started writing and recording, it was evident from the start that this was a great decision." That songs as ornate as those in the Calexico back catalogue can be the product of just two writers is pretty unbelievable, and Joey's next admission, that "It's mostly just John", doubly so. "There is one song on the record called 'No Te Vayas' which our trumpet player Jacob Valenzuela wrote," he ventures. "All the other material is John and I, just bouncing ideas off each other."
With writing in mind, I ask John and Joey about the little bio written for Algiers, about how close they get to their PR. "Not too close. It's a dirty job." comes the sigh from Joey. The day before our meeting, I read a review of Algiers which echoes much of the sentiment I felt on reading the PR bit. "My philosophy is just to state the facts," the singer continues. "Talking about any of the songs, what they mean or where they came from, whether it's for the bio or talking to you, doesn't necessarily mean 'that's what it means', so it gets onto a slippery slope there." I don't remember it, but I hear him grin on the recording. "It's always fun for me to just change 'em, according to how you feel on the day." This is good to know. I mean, you hear a song and someone says what it's about and you kind of take that as gospel but then, well, someone might be fucking with you. I become increasingly worried that Joey and John might be fucking with me.
That the meaning and sound of songs can be so changeable, even arbitrary, after they've been written is a new concept to me. John goes some way to elaborating. "That's why I feel like a lot of times, the inspiration is happening while a song's being recorded," he says, "we're using the studio as a tool to write songs, because most of the songs aren't written before we come in. So the dialogue that happens between the guitar and the drums, it's captured on tape, and you go back to playing it every day, and playing it live, and you try to…learn it, in a way, you try to capture that inspiration, whatever it was, and you can't always get it, which is where you have to make that decision like 'I'm a professional, this is my job, we got to get this song together!'" This strikes me as a good way to be able to write, to be able to treat a space like that. Sometimes there's no choice other than to write and sometimes record in your parents' garage or basement, and the song is completely divorced from the place that it's conceived in. Except, of course, that even in trying to get out of somewhere, the somewhere you're trying to get out of still feeds the music. "That's the fun part," says Joey, "just playing music, going 'let's see where we can take this'." He burrows deeper into narrative.
"When John and I were roommates briefly in Tucson the answering machine was thirty seconds of 'OK, what can we put in here, what kind of strange sounds can we make?' and usually it was just guitar or whatever, and we'd just leave it and see what people said when they left their message. And that led to recording longer machine messages and then on analog tape. Writing and recording at the same time has always been supportive to our stuff, in some ways that's where the magic happens."
Is this how you worked on Algiers? "On this record we tried to do it in another way, where we'd rehearse an idea, record a demo, take it on the road, play it live, come back and then record that version that it had become." Joey poses a question, lets it hang. "There was this song called 'Ghost Of A River', and it just didn't have that same special quality. So why is that?" No one comes up with an answer. I wonder if 'Ghost Of A River' was ever a song at all. (I later find out that it is; it's on the deluxe edition of Algiers).
We start to work our way into Algiers, talking about the songs that have come populate its damp, shadowy climes. "For 'Puerto'…I've been listening to this singer Rita Indiana," says Joey, "out of the Dominican Republic, and there's this one song 'El Juidero', where she has some weird synthesizer or distorted guitar, but it sounds like a bunch of horns. So I said, we should do a song with that rhythm, that intensity, but use real horns, baritone trombone, which makes that really low 'BAAAAHH' (Tom giggles) and put six of them together to turn 'em into a herd of elephants. And sometimes that's all it takes, the inspiration." A herd of elephants? "Baritone trombone," says Joey, still wrapped up in the memory, "and we're doing a demo and I'm going, 'gimme a midi sound of some low horns', someone's cracking up and I'm like 'just you wait.' And sometimes y'know, it's the blend of real and fake sounds that can be really interesting. Like on 'Fortune Teller', the pedal steel player put down a really simple track and we thought it might sound too obvious, so we combined it with a Moog to create an atmospheric bed that's a little less recognizable."
'Fortune Teller' sticks out for me for two reasons. Firstly, it's one of the most straightforward (and downright lovely) folk songs that Calexico have ever committed to tape. That, and that it comes straight after the sinister storytelling and shiv-sharp organ stabs of 'Sinner in the Sea'. The first time I heard this song I was walking home in the dark, stoned out of my brain, and that organ starts coming in, those stabs, and I had to look over my shoulder and tell myself that everything was alright.
I recount all this to Joey and John. "Spooked ya a little bit?" Asks John. Yeah. It was kind of scary. "For us too."
There's something definite going on in 'Sinner in the Sea', a desperate tale about someone losing an eye and waves crashing on the Malecón wall. Is there a narrative to Algiers as a whole? "Not intentionally," says Joey. "On some songs it seems like there's a lot of reference to immigration or people just on the road, drifting, but not all the songs. I mean, there is kind of that loose thread in a way, there's kind of a darkness there, something edgy that's happening in a lot of stories." Stories are something Joey is good at. He starts to talk about my favourite on Algiers. "Songs like 'Sinner in the Sea' are very straightforward, there's this character Luis drives a '59 Pontiac across the Gulf of Mexico to Florida,"
"In the water," explains John, "he made a boat out of his car."
"...with pontoons," picks up Joey, seamless, "and he makes it after the second try. On the first try he gets caught by the coastguard and sent back, deported."
Just trying to cross over.
"Trying to cross over."
I think that Joey says 'Luis'. It could easily be 'Louise'. But both he and John are definitely using the masculine third person. And Joey definitely says 'to Florida'. That I later read on the Calexico website Joey's description of the song as 'LA Woman heads to the Florida Keys and drives across the water to Cuba' weaves further mystery around the whole thing, a concrete example of the changeability in the meaning of Calexico's songs, depending on where they're told, who they're told to. In a hotel bar in west London, 'Sinner in the Sea' is about Luis on his way to Florida in a '59 Pontiac with pontoons on it.
There is a pause, before another yarn unspools from Joey's tongue, sending us back like Luis (or Louise) on his (her) pontoons, but to the other side of the Gulf, to New Orleans and the studio. "I just called the studio two weeks ago, just as Isaac was coming in," says Joey, "and Chris George (one of The Living Room's owners) had been boarding up the windows and doors, and he froze a bunch of plastic water jugs, and as soon as the power went out he put those jugs in the refrigerator to keep things cold." I listen, unsure where this will go, but rapt all the same. "He had on the books this session with Gibby Haines," the man continues, "the singer from The Butthole Surfers, but I guess they didn't get power in time to do the session. He said he was looking forward to working with him." I guess Gibby Haines was pretty crushed too. "I don't know what happened," Joey admits. "But it's kind of interesting to be in that environment when you're that close to nature." And you're powerless? "And it dictates."
It is quietspoken, bespectacled John, sitting hand over mouth on the Chesterfield across from me, who spins Joey's many and various threads into something bright, something that wrapped itself tightly around my greyscale heart there in that hotel bar. "It's interesting how nature has a way…" He reconsiders. "There's no containing it. That's what's so incredible. And really, there's no containing art too. If you try to shut it out, it always comes back. Mao tried to take all the musicians out of China, but it always comes back. Music always comes back." As Calexico's music has its ever-changing place, and place dictates its sound or the very physical limitations on how it comes to be produced, I was out of place half an hour ago, outclassed in a hotel that costs more for a night than I make in a week. Everything has its place, but everything changes too. Talking to Joey Burns and John Convertino, you don't want to be anywhere else.
Purchase and listen
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