CALEXICO: Q&A

*When I spoke to John Convertino about two years ago, I wasn’t expecting too much; I liked Calexico, but was by no means a die-hard  fan, and in any case, it was just a simple Q&A for the website I worked for at the time. Just five minutes into the (phone) conversation, though, and the drummer was already ranking (and still does rank) as one of my favourite interviewees –  an utterly charming, friendly and intelligent bloke that talked for almost 30 minutes longer than our allotted time together.

Originally published on Entertainment.ie on September 3rd, 2008

‘Carried to Dust’ is a bit of a return to your ‘old’ sound after the rockier ‘Garden Ruin‘…Was that a conscious decision – ‘Garden Ruin’ wasn’t really your biggest hit – or was it just where you found yourselves, musically, at the time of recording?

I think it’s just where we are. ‘Garden Ruin’ was very reflective of being out of the States, and I think the two elections – Bush winning and the whole Bush regime, and the war breaking out – really affected us a lot. I think it had an effect on that record, and I think now that we’re coming to the end of that administration, and things are looking better – at least hopefully better! – and we’ve had some time to get off the road and reflect on some of the places we’ve been, such as Chile and Argentina, I think the record was coming from more of an introspective place. That’s where Joey and I were, anyway.

Speaking of Joey, the two of you have been playing together for almost twenty years now. What’s the secret of your successful partnership?

I guess it must be because we really don’t talk to each other that much (laughs). Our main communication is through playing music, and I think it helps that we have a similar background in the way we were raised, and the way we grew up. We both come from large families, we both come from families that had a lot of music in the house – we both grew up with that sense of commitment and of helping each other out. I do think when you have a musical partnership where you understand each on a basic level, you don’t have to use so many words.

Your relationship as songwriters, never mind friends, must be intuitive by this stage.

I think the word intuitive is really key with musicians, period, really. I think when you follow your instinct, where you feel a song is going, or allow yourself enough space to be spontaneous with a song – that’s when there’s a real connection.

That sort of vibe really comes across in Calexico’s music, I think – there’s always a very organic feel to it, the music almost spills out of the speakers.

Yeah. I really appreciate you recognising that, because it really is how we play. We don’t wanna make things too much inside of our range. Try to… not try to, but allow the music to flow more, and be more instinctual.

You’ve been together as Calexico since the mid-nineties, but during that time, you’ve had a kind of revolving-door strategy when it comes to members, with yourself and Joey the mainstays. That must help to keep things fresh.

Uh-huh. It does, but we’ve had a core band that’s been together now for about eight years, so that’s a good feeling too. I think that’s worked because we all live in different parts of the world. The bass player (Volker Zander) and trumpet player (Martin Wenk) live in Germany, and they don’t even live in the same town! Then we have Paul Niehaus [steel guitar], who lives in Nashville, and Jacob, Joey and I all live here in Tucson, but we very rarely see each other when we’re home because we’re all so busy – me with my family, Jacob with his family and his work, and Joey with his… dog (laughs). No, it’s true, though – we don’t really see each other until we get together to get ready for a tour or show, so it’s always good to see everybody and we’re always excited to play, especially the new songs.

So that’s the secret of Calexico’s longevity? Just not seeing each other enough to get on each other’s nerves?!

Yeah, it’s true! I think for maybe the first few tours, there’s a lot of chatting going on, but soon, you don’t need to chat anymore. Eight guys in a van or tour bus, and a long, long drive… it’s pretty quiet. We just enjoy the scenery and the different places we’re playing, and just be as efficient as possible with our energy, because you expend a lot of energy on stage.

You’ve played all over the world at this stage, do you have a favourite country or city? I know you have an Italian background, so gigs in ‘the motherland’ must be up there for you.

Yeah, I really love playing there. We actually got to play in a village called Alberobello in the region of Puglia, which is where my grandparents came from, so it was a very interesting experience driving through there, and seeing a lot of vegetation that’s similar to here in the south-west – this desert area. I thought it was interesting that I wound up living in a place that’s very like where my grandfather lived before he came to the States. But I have to say, the two Is – Italy and Ireland, they’re my favourites.

Ah, you’re just saying that.

No, I’m not! (laughs) I’m serious. You know, I have Irish roots as well, like many Americans. My mother’s maiden name was MacEoin, and my grandfather.. There was quite a few generations here in the States that came Ireland, as you know.

Hey, if you want to be Irish, we’ll claim you…

Ha ha, I’d love to be Irish, believe me!

It’s overrated.

(laughs hard)

Just to talk a little bit about your inspiration for the new record, ‘Carried To Dust’.  Was there anything in particular, music, literature or film-wise, that you leaned towards during its writing and recording?

Well, we’d done this tour in South America that had really influenced us a lot; to play there and drink the wine… Joey and I are pretty into wine these days, and have been for a few years, and I’d never really got into Chilean or Argentinian wines. But it’s amazing when you go to the region and drink the local wines, it really picks up the flavour. I dunno, I felt like being close to the sea really influenced this record. Being in South America, as well as Australia and New Zealand, and being close to those beaches. And with Joey growing up on the Pacific, and me growing up on the Atlantic – I really had a sense of the ocean and the sea coming across on this record.

The title was inspired by one of my favourite writers, John Fante’s ‘Ask the Dust‘. I had shown Joey that book quite a few years ago, and I really enjoyed his writing, as well as the time period he writes about in Los Angeles. I think it’s been a big influence on our sentiment and our music. It deals a lot with immigration and just the struggle of trying to be true to yourself, and to others as well.

You contributed a few tracks to the ‘I’m Not There‘ soundtrack last year – are you all big Dylan fans?

Yeah, we are. We grew up with Bob Dylan. I’m the oldest member of the band, so my childhood memories are of my sisters playing ‘Blood On the Tracks‘. I think they had just about every record that he ever did, and I just remember thinking ‘What is the appeal? This guy is just singing in this croaky voice’, and he didn’t sound as pretty as some of the other music I was hearing from my siblings. But later on, you start understand what he’s singing, and you realise that his lyrics affect you differently almost every time you hear ’em. I love him and I’m so glad he’s still around. ‘Modern Times‘ – I loved that record a lot, and he’s always stayed true to a certain kind of sound and feeling that I feel is getting lost, in a lot of ways. I’ve really enjoyed listening to his radio show, too, as well as reading his autobiography. It really shows where he’s come from, music that has influenced him – and like most musicians, he wants to share it.

There’s a kind of interesting story, actually – one of the local drummers here in Tucson, Winston Watson, who actually played with Giant Sand – he was one of the original drummers in Giant Sand before I was in that band – but he went on to play with Dylan for almost five years, so he had some great stories about playing with him. I always felt like Howe Gelb [Giant Sand frontman] is kind of like a Bob Dylan, in a way. Or he operates on that same kind of wavelength, at least.

Speaking of Howe Gelb, do you see him much these days?

Yeah, I do actually – I just saw him yesterday at Wavelab Studios, where we do most of our recordings. He was upstairs working on a soundtrack.

Going back to the ‘I’m Not There‘ soundtrack, I know you’ve written a score for a film [2000’s ‘Committed‘] in the past – would you like to do more of that sort of thing?

Yeah, that was a lot of fun. We’ve done a lot of work for documentaries and that sort of thing, and my solo record ‘Ragland’ was most recently used in a movie called ‘Tokyo’s Dreaming‘. Right now, actually, as we speak, Joey and I are starting on a soundtrack for a movie called ‘Love Ranch‘, which is a true story of a brothel in Reno, Nevada.

‘Ragland’ was your first full-length solo debut back in 2005. Do you have any plans for a follow-up?

Yeah, I would really like to give it another try. I think that was a very sad record, and I’m not really such a sad guy, I’m pretty happy most of the time (laughs). So I’d like to give it another shot and get some of that other side of my personality. I was actually kicking around this idea when the Olympics started, I was thinking about this athlete that I’ve always admired. I was born in New York, but grew up mostly in Oklahoma, and there was this amazing athlete who was half-Cherokee Indian, half-white, called Jim Thorpe. He won four or five gold medals, maybe more, I’m not sure. He was just a very fascinating character, and I’ve always wanted to do a concept album based on him. You know how Miles Davis did one on Joe Louis [boxer], I think? Haha, something a little like that.

That sounds cool – go for it!

Alright, I’ll do it. You’re the first person I’ve told the idea to, so I’m gonna have to do it now!

Finally, just to finish up, I have to ask what the worst description that Calexico have been tagged with through the years. I’ve read some pretty bad ones, like ‘desert-noir’.

The absolute worst? I guess for me, it’d have to be ‘country-rock’. “The country-rock band Calexico.” (laughs)

Yeah, that kind of does you a great disservice.

You know, I really love real country music, and I really love rock ‘n’ roll, but put the two together…

… And you get Garth Brooks.

(laughs) Yeah. You get some real kick-ass music, dontcha?

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4 responses to this post.

  1. They’re doing a soundtrack for an Irish film “The Guards” starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Lauren on September 18, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    Really, Sean? Interesting… they’ve been big into their soundtracks/scores over the past few years. I’d love to hear them make another album like Feast of Wire, though.

    Reply

  3. Yeah I couldn’t find anything about it online when I heard but it was from somebody in IFB, so they’d know – since they’re paying them ! Apparently they have a band member or some kind of link to Ireland, maybe it’s the one he mentions above but I got the impression it was stronger. I thought Carried to Dust was back to Feast of Wire territory, personally I loved it, also loved Garden Ruins though. I think Sunken Waltz is the perfect opener to some sort of Dead Mans Shoes or slasher/horror kinda film set in Ireland with a guy walking home through the Wicklow mountains,
    They were always on my list of bands I’d never seen live and after many misses I finally seen then play at the Pavement ATP in May, they were bloody amazing ! I found they were similar to a band like Wilco, just amazing musicians you could watch all night whether you like the actual music or not – but I did.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Lauren on September 19, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    As far as I know, Joey Burns is of Irish extraction too (you’d have to be with a name like Burns), so that could be the connection, either…

    I’ve never seen them live. They played in Tripod a few weeks after I did this interview, and for some reason I missed them. Next time, for sure.

    Reply

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