By Janine Schaults
Can Stevie Nicks take credit for Calexico’s ever-shifting dynamic? Not likely, but a song named after the Fleetwood Mac siren featured on the band’s 2003 release, “Feast of Wire,” did signal the direction Joey Burns, John Convertino and co. took on their newest outing, “Garden Ruin.” The only thing Calexico and Nicks share is the state of Arizona as a home base and there’s question as to whether the latter is even aware of the song.“Maybe we’ll go up there and serenade her one night,” says singer/guitarist Burns. “It would be fun.”
In the decade since Burns and Convertino formed Calexico as a duo, the band has added a roster of international and homegrown talent and become almost as known for their sidemen roles as for their own music.
Neko Case and Nancy Sinatra have benefited from the band’s input and most recently they finished up a tour with Sam Beam of Iron and Wine to promote the EP they released together in 2005. Their ability to crawl into the skin of another musician’s work while retaining their unique flavor is mind-numbing and seemingly exhausting, but the band wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We just love doing it. We love playing music and it’s as simple as that,” Burns says. “Whether we’re doing our own thing or backing up other people, we like to mix it up. Variety has always been important to what we do.”
And by variety he means incorporating mariachi music, indie rock, sixties surf and Spaghetti Western atmospherics into Calexico’s last five albums, not counting unofficial releases and tour-only CDs. The influences are as scattered as the varied locales of the band’s members. For Burns it was Southern California and for Convertino Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trumpet player Martin Wenk and bassist Volker Zander hail from Germany, Paul Niehaus on steel pedal came to the band from Nashville and Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet is the lone native from Tucson, Arizona.
Yet amid the myriad of sounds, the landscape of the Grand Canyon State is always present. On “Garden Ruin” Calexico tackles pop music as only they can, with a dose of reality. “On this record there’s a lot of hope in the music, but lyrically it deals with a lot of the frustrations… so there’s a lot of pessimism going on there,” Burns says.
The lead track, “Cruel,” directly relates to the album’s title and concerns about the environment and losing control of the future. “Even the horizon is gone/Weather flees underground/Future’s left to wallow in fortune’s waste,” Burns sings. Calexico’s music has long dealt with environmental concerns and issues of suburban sprawl in the West, focusing on a system that is “more about prolonging an element of imprisonment, rather than fixing the problem and getting people on a better path,” Burns says.
As a blue band residing in a red state, the lyrics are more pointed this time out, stemming from the current state of affairs.
“It’s all been seeping into the last six or so years. Just the reality that we’re living in the second term of a Republican president and administration and the policies seem to be getting even more troublesome and the tension even higher,” Burns says. “So whether or not it’s conscious, it’s there. It’s in the air and it comes out in the music and gets captured there on the magnetic tape.”
Burns is saddened by the lack of action on behalf of the government and regular people doing what feels right in regards to global warming, but even he is unsure of what to do other than bring these issues to light through the music. “I’m looking at ways of switching over to different forms of energy,” he says. But, like others, “I’m in the thick of it. I have to rely on an airline to get from the States to Europe.”
The above thought forced Burns to laugh because the idea of Calexico not crisscrossing the globe is ridiculous. They’ll be in Chicago alone three times before the end of September. These road warriors thrive on the interaction between audiences and fellow musicians.
Traveling “opens up so many doors and so much inspiration from meeting other musicians, seeing other bands, places, talking to different people from different backgrounds,” Burns says. “It’s kind of this ingrained ingredient to who we are and what we are.”
Calexico plays June 23 at Metro, 3730 North Clark, (773)549-0203, at 9pm.