Joey Burns: interview


Joey Burns of Calexico

Calexico properly entered my consciousness with the release of their gorgeous, dark and startlingly cinematic 2008 record Carried to Dust. I’d heard of them, often mentioned in the same breath as Wilco, Jim James and Iron & Wine, so it was little surprise to me that their sound was firmly up my alley.

Those of you lucky enough to see their Sydney Opera House debut in September 2013, myself included, will already be aware of their on-stage prowess. If you haven’t seen them live, then I recommend grabbing a ticket to their performance at Sydney’s Spectrum Now festival next month. You won’t regret it. 

I spoke with Calexico co-writer and co-founder Joey Burns from his Tuscon, Arizona, home. We discussed the band’s love affair with Australia, his influences, making new record Edge of the Sun, writing film soundtracks, Morricone and future touring plans.

You’re back in Australia this March and have been here a number of times. I read that your first visit to Oz was to support Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – when was that?
Oh my gosh, when was that… somewhere around 2006, 2007 maybe? Maybe a bit earlier, it’s been a while. But I know we went over there with Neko Case and her band, we were all friends. We know Warren Ellis and The Dirty Three. The first tour that John Convertino, the drummer of Calexico, and I did as a two-piece in the States was in support of The Dirty Three. So it was a fitting reunion.

Was it difficult for Calexico to tour internationally in the beginning, given that you have so many members?
(chuckles) It still is tricky, yeah, and it still is worth it. It’s always worth it. We’re able to do things very stripped down. That’s what has made it very easy for us to do different projects outside and around Calexico. There’s this ability to shapeshift and to add maybe some backing to singer-songwriters from various backgrounds, as well as soundtrack work, so we’re very adaptable. And it’s also just really fun for us to try and different projects and do different things.

I have this ghost orchestra sitting on my shoulders, which is always in the background.

Last time Calexico visited Australia you played the Sydney Opera House. Were you aware of the venue’s pedigree before the show?
Are you kidding? I mean, for sure. All my family – everybody’s families – were all so proud of the musicians. And so were we. I love the fact that there is programming going on inside a classical venue that is outside the traditional role of what a classical venue can be. That’s very parallel to a lot of the themes and approach to our band. So, of course, I was very honoured. I loved the show and loved the crowd. And I loved getting to play some shows with Tiny Ruins, who was the New Zealand act that opened up. It’s a big honour to get to play the Opera House.
Maybe next time we go back to a place like that we can do it with a 70-piece symphony orchestra, which would be really nice. Because we have a bunch of songs that have been scored and we’ve recorded maybe a dozen or so songs with a session orchestra. For me it’s always exciting getting to hear some of those arrangements fleshed out with strings and woodwinds and brass and stuff. Some of those songs really lend themselves. And it’s part of that connection that I have personally to not only playing jazz growing up but also playing classical music. I think that’s what led me to having my ears opened up a bit. I love punk and garage rock and pop music, and I love hip hop. I love a lot of music. But growing up it was nice to have that exposure by way of my parents’ record collection, but more importantly growing up in Southern California and getting to play a lot of differnet kinds of styles of music. In jazz, especially, there was a lot more Latin influence that I responded to positively. Because the bass, being a bass player, is much more free and active and not just playing quarter notes. There’s a lot more division of rhythm, so that really opened me up. Especially right now, as far as where I am and looking at what the band has done and the direction that we’ve taken, is a little more outside your normal alternative Americana or indie rock. I love indie rock, and I love experimental music and lo-fi and stuff that we embrace, but I think it’s a combination of things.
That’s one of the reasons why we decided to call our band Calexico because we’re that kind of strange hybrid – a meeting of worlds that come together under the roof of the Calexico sound.

There’s no doubt the band has a sound unto itself. When you’re in the studio writing, which instruments tend to be the catalysts for a song?
For me, especially, I have this ghost orchestra sitting on my shoulders, which is always in the background. So if I’m laying down something with the drummer, John Convertino – and the majority of the songs written are dependent on the two of us in a room, making something up – and those basic tracks are really crucial to the sound and feel and mood. It’s got to have that vibe, it’s got to have some kind of vibe that we can build things on to. Or choose not to build arrangements and instruments on top of. So it kind of varies. It’s a treatment of songs and phrases with the approach of giving things, whether they be lyrics or melodies, space. That’s my approach, and I think it’s John’s too. John comes from a very jazz-orientated background as well. His favourite drummers are Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Buddy Rich. I think also getting the tour with Jim White (The Dirty Three), those two hit it off because they have very experimental approached to the drum set. That’s always really exciting to watch.

So because Calexico’s songs are being co-written by a drummer, the rhythm would be crucial to how the songs come together.
It is. A lot of times we come up with this mood or atmosphere first, and for sure there are chords. But there are rhythms and dynamics built into the song. So that gives a much more wide open range of possibilities than it just being: lyrics, verse, chorus, this is what it is.
For sure when we’re writing those elements and those foundations can be in place, but there can also be this element of chaos that is woven in. And that I really enjoy, and I think we need. We need it in our lives, we need it in our music. There’s always enough of the element of machines and programming and things being consistent. I think part of the nature of musicians and storytelling through song is that human element. That’s what we’re trying to capture.

You’re digging deeper because you’re not just doing it for yourself or your band members, you’re doing it for your family.

With your most recent album, Edge of the Sun, did you step into the recording studio in Mexico City with pre-existing ideas or were you writing the record from scratch?
For the most part we were going there to dig for gold. We were looking to find something new. We did bring some sketches of demos but they didn’t pan out. Then there was a lot of songs written and recorded after having been there, so that experience seeped into the psyche and into making songs. So it helped to give way to new things.

So you find atmosphere of a particular city can seep into your psyche and shape the music?
I think so, yeah. Sometimes it’s more obvious than others, and it’s not like we need to go somewhere to do this. But it definitely helps. And, especially in these days where a lot of the members of the band have families, so there’s a lot more work to do when you’re home. Like right now, my daughter, I told her I have to do an interview so I’ll be busy for a little while and try to be quiet. She’s already asked me a couple of questions while I’ve been talking to you. So it’s hard to juggle all those things at the same time. And at the same time it’s a beautiful thing, and it enriches your experience when you go then to play music, or write songs, or go into the studio or on tour. You’re digging deeper because you’re not just doing it for yourself or your band members, you’re doing it for your family. Then you go on tour and you notice that family is extended and it’s incredible. To have that experience and share something as special as music with other people, and you never know who will be at a show. Someone might be there and have that rare window to come up to a musician and say, “Hey, your music really helped me through a difficult time and thank you for that.” And that is the greatest gift, getting that kind of feedback in return.

From looking at the band’s output over the years, not just Calexcio’s studio records, but all the other projects in between, it seems that you’re hard workers. Do you get to take a break from “creating”?
Yeah, for sure. For me it seems like there’s a lot of breaks now. Part of that is that my wife works fulltime, so when I’m home I am devoted 100 per cent to the family. But I do enjoy having offers to play bass on someone’s recording, like I did two weeks ago, or get to help record and produce a record. There’s some kids from Amsterdam that are coming to Tuscon and I’m going to help them on their record. So I love those opportunities. I’m still a musician and I love to play. And it’s really fun when you get to show up at a show or a session and you don’t carry the responsibility of planning and organising everything. You can just be a musician. It’s a lot of fun. That’s why I think a lot of musicians love to collaborate on different projects, or to be multi-instrumentalists. I’ve seen that a lot more in the last 10 or so years. A lot of people are switching instruments, and certainly that’s been a constant theme in our band since the get-go.

I wanted to ask you about The Guard soundtrack that you composed for director John Michael McDonagh. Calexico would probably not be the most obvious choice for a film about police corruption in western Ireland. How did that opportunity come about?
Well, he was looking for contrast. He didn’t want to go down the expected path. He was giving us examples like [Sam] Peckinpah and The Wild Bunch. And he was saying, “Hey, some of these songs of yours have been inspirational in the writing and bringing together the ideas of this movie, and I would love it if you guys could be a part of it.” We met at a hotel, at Levin Heathrow, and he just laid it out like that and we said, “Sounds great.” And it was super easy to work with him, and I loved the script and, of course, in the end the editing and acting was just phenomenal. And everyone can relate too, because a town in the west of Ireland, in Galway, I mean, it could be anywhere right? We all can relate to a character like this. The unexpected, a surprising character. And all the nuances and layers that go into a small town cop. I thought it was just brilliant and I loved being a part of it. I loved seeing the footage and it was very easy to work with John. I’m really happy to get to do that. I’d like to work more with film, we have one documentary coming up that we’ll be working on in the middle of this year.

Calexico. Madrid. Julio, 2014

Calexico. Madrid. Julio, 2014

In the case of The Guard, were you seeing any rushes before you composed the score or were you working off the script?
I love the scripts because they give you the overview, but really it’s coming down to what you’re seeing on screen: the colour, the lighting, the movement – the editing, really is so crucial. That pace sets the tone. It’s kind of similar to working with a singer or songwriter, you’re just following the tone and the pulse of the director’s vision. So, for me, it’s very similar to working with other musicians, but more dimensional.

I believe McDonagh’s next movie is set in New Mexico, so perhaps he’ll go with some traditional Irish music on the soundtrack.
I wouldn’t be surprised. There’s so much [music] out there. And there’s a lot of cinema that deals with Westerns, or that kind of barren landscape. Look at the new film that Leonardo DiCaprio’s in, The Revenant, I just went and saw that. I liked the different sounding music, which at times gave something sympathetic to the heart of the main character, but also gave a connection to nature. Which, for me, is the hero in the film. I’m yet to see The Hateful Eight, but I’m sure it’s going to be a lot of beautiful lines and scenes.

And a Morricone score.
Oh, that’s right! Morricone did the score. See, now you’re just going back to the classics. And what’s great about listening to scores such as his, is that there’s a lot of playfulness and surprise. There were a lot of elements that were distilled when I first moved to Tuscon in the early ’90s. I found some common threads. Everything from gypsy music, from around the world not just Eastern Europe or the Iberian Peninsula, but finding it in South America or in Cuba, or here in my own backyard in Arizona. Finding these threads and then hearing it in some of the twang elements in Morricone’s score or in Link Ray’s early songs. For me, for whatever reason, there’s a lot of similarities here and I’m going to put together this orchestra, like I was saying before, this ghost orchestra, that is made up of different parts. It’s more like a film score orchestra, I guess you could call it. But I wanted to be able to tour and that’s not always an easy thing, to get seven musicians and all that gear on stage and on the road is not easy. Some shows do great and it’s a win-win situation. But other times you have to invest or you say this means a lot to me so I want to make it work, so you get creative in the process of making it work.

What’s next for Calexico after the Australian tour?
We have quite a few tours still lined up. Usuaully with a record it’s great to be able to tour for two years after that. So we’ll be returning to Europe a couple of times, which has always been a big staple for us. But we’ll be doing some festivals in North America, there’s about a week of shows in South America, which I’m really excited about. I’ve been hoping for a chance to play in Asia, so that’s kind of a dream. Then I’d love to return to Mexico and Mexico City. Then it’s time to think about the next record.
I think we’re going to try a couple of different things. If John and I have time – he lives not far away, he moved to El Paso, Texas, so he’s maybe five hours away by car. And so it’s going to be interesting to see how we can get together and carve out time to do that, but we’ll start working on some new songs. With touring there always comes new projects and new ideas.

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