Joey Burns of Calexico (USA) talks Edge of the Sun and Australian tour (Part Two)

Arizona’s Calexico will be heading down to Australia again next month to play a number of dates around the country, including a night at Sydney’s Spectrum Now Festival. I caught up with frontman and guitarist Joey Burns ahead of the tour to discuss the recent record, Edge of the Sun and the impending tour amongst a handful of other topics – including winemaking, a passion of Burns’.

Burns’ proved once again to be an engaging and thoughtful interviewee; so our conversation ended up being a long one we split into two – here is Part Two.

A lot of bands these days are coming out with their own beers or their own wines. Now I know you’re a bit of a wine aficionado, what would be the perfect Calexico wine?

Well you know, I’ve got my favourites. I do really like going local and there are some really cool wineries here in the Arizona area. I grew up in California and so I’m kind of partial to some of the wines that are going on there. There are a lot more adventurous approaches to wine making these days, as I’m sure you see in Australia, and I’m kind of looking forward to going back and seeing what people are doing. I think it’s in some ways, even though it’s such a universal past time and craft, it is kind of a small world as well.

I do love Tempranillo and I love Toro, I love Touriga Nacional from Portugal. I love wines that are on or along the [river], in Spain it’s called the Ribera del Duero and in Portugal, it is just called the Douro. It’s the same river, but I love all of the wines along that river.

My wife jokingly said, “Hey, why don’t we look for a vineyard in Portugal?”. I kind of smiled and stopped and said, “Are you serious? Are you kidding?” and then we had twins; so now we’re here in Arizona. You know, I would love to make wines myself and I think that once you start thinking about, “Oh man, I’d really like to try…”, there’s so many to be drunk. I’d really like to try a Syrah or a Shiraz or a… there’s just so many.

I’ve got a little tiny wine fridge here. I’ve got quite a few Penfolds bottles; I’ve got a Grange. I’ve got a nice bottle of RSW. I like holding on to these things and finding the right moment. Saint Henri Shiraz, that’s a good one too. Now, you see? You’ve got me to my wine collection here, looking. I’ve been really enjoying the Burgundy wines and trying to learn more about that. In April, we’re going to be touring a bit more in France so I’m looking forward to hopefully meeting some people, inviting some winemakers or fans of wine out to the shows; to talk and drink and eat.

You’ve come down to Australia a few times now, have you had much chance to get out to the wine regions when you’ve been here?

Just a little bit. Down in Adelaide I got to go visit Peter Gago at Penfolds and that was really impressive. I was really inspired by the wine, the wine making and the history. It was fantastic. There was this one massive cask that Helen Keller had guessed very close to the exact volume of this massive cask. Wow. That’s impressive. They were working on some Tempranillo, which at the time was very exciting. That was pretty cool and I liked seeing the whole estate and just hearing about the process of bringing in different grapes from different regions. That was really cool.

I hope to get out and about, of course, I will head to some breweries to do some research, take a field trip. Especially in the cities too. I love hanging out in the wine bars and bistros that are doing great food, and also serving great wine too. There’s a lot. I think in Australia, I really notice that it’s much different than in the States. It kind of took off a lot more, the coffee culture there has a different angle to it. There’s this connection to Italy and to Greece that is really exciting too, to see and feel when you’re out.

Yeah, there is definitely that European influence at work, alongside a whole number of other influences.

Yeah, I like that. I’m looking forward to it. Before I go, I’ll probably get online or get into some magazines and find and see what is happening. I’ll definitely reach out to the few people that I know that grow grapes and make wine to see if they have any friends they want to invite to shows and of course, try to get out and see some interesting wineries. I like the approach of just letting the wine do its thing. Not filtrating it, just letting it express itself. Of course, blends are always exciting too; there’s a whole different kind of artistry that comes with that. I’m getting more into whites as well, which is kind of fun. Especially here in the hotter climate, and I know we’re heading down in the Summer, so as much as I usually lean towards reds I’ll be excited to try some different whites and whatever kind of varietals that might appear. Exciting stuff.

You know I’m in the kitchen right now, and I’m making a Garlic Tart, which of course would go really great with whichever kind of wine, especially some white wine. (Laughs)

In terms of the tour you’re going to be playing a few festival shows as well as “regular” Calexico shows. Do you approach them differently?

It depends on the audience, it depends on the location, there’s plenty that needs to be considered. It’s the beauty of what we do. If we’re playing a small theatre, I’m not going to be hitting it hard; I’d do a lot more intimate and acoustic versions of songs. Just to make more room to breathe and take the audience on a much more interesting journey. When people are paying to come and see our own show, I’ll or we will play whatever I feel at the moment, we’ve got a lot of songs in the back catalogue to choose from and there is the benefit of having that. At the same time, it’s fun to play and we do enjoy playing a lot of the newer material.

I like to mix it up, you know. I like to keep the band on their toes. I don’t want them to think, “Oh we’ve got this, we can go on to autopilot”. As soon as I feel that is going on, then I start making sudden changes to the set list the night of. Or if my vision takes a turn for the worse and I can’t see the set list, I’ll just play whatever feels good at that moment. Then usually afterwards the front house sound guy is like, “Good call putting that song in there; the show really needed to go there to that place”.

Although some of the musicians on stage might give me a look like, “What! What’re you doing? I was over on the vibes, now I’ve got to run over there and jump on the accordion. What’re you doing to me?!” Everyone kind of realises what they are stepping into when they jump on stage, and that’s the fun of it too. The audience picks up on that and enjoys seeing that spontaneity and also the ability to juggle so many instruments on stage.

I guess one thing I wanted to touch on whilst talking to you, but am slightly reticent to; given this year is an election year in the US. You see a lot of bands get involved in the political theatre, whether it be rallies or allowing campaigns to use their songs, or vice versa. What do you see as the intersection of politics and popular music? Do you think popular music has a place in politics or politics has a place in popular music?

Well, we’re all breathing the same air. I think in regards to what’s happening around the world in general, there seems to be a lot of extremes. Extremes of climate change, extremes in people’s political beliefs and I think that music is that bridge; that bridge between ourselves and also within ourselves. I think that global news, local news, I’ll just put it like that because politics really is part of that… it definitely frames music and music can conversely or similarly frame global news, what is happening around the world.

There are those who will make very pointed remarks in song, some more poetic than others. I think that is just a natural thing. Even people just writing only love songs, I mean that’s the politics of the heart, that’s one that affects everyone on the planet. I think everything, or everyone is related in some way or another. We’ve never really been asked to have a song be a part of a political rally. That could be a good thing though in this country. I’m joking, but I don’t think that would ever happen. Do you? No.

I mean, for sure, you listen to people like Dylan, whose approach is going to be the more poetic and Neil Young’s too. Definitely Tom Waits is more poetic. But then Neil Young has taken this very direct stance; which I also admire, just being him very earnest and very straightforward, there’s something about that. Then there is of course him and Willie Nelson continuing to support Farm Aid; it’s really some strong stuff. So I think it’s important to get involved, especially locally where you live. I’ve always loved that phrase ‘think globally act locally’, it’s a wonderful phrase to keep in mind, especially these days.

I think, with the likes of Neil Young and Willie Nelson, there is an air of consistency about their politics. They’ve championed the same causes for so long it seems natural, and it’s not like they’re jumping on any bandwagon.

Exactly. I think there are those people too that are very much concerned with and wanting to write about what is happening currently in all aspects of life, but who might be doing it in a more abstract and poetic way. I think that is a beautiful thing, and that’s the way I try and approach my songwriting.

So finally to wrap up, what’s next for the band?

We have some dates down in South America. I’m really hoping we’ll head back to Mexico and Mexico City, that was one of the reasons why it was so fun to go and record down there, or write and record in Mexico City was in the hopes that we would get to return. I love playing North America, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. I’m really excited about trying to play in new places, or places we don’t get to as much. So South America for sure, I’d like to play in Asia. I’d love to play music in Africa. I’d love to see more of this planet and more of the people in it.

Calexico Australian Tour 2016

Wed 2 Mar | Hamer Hall, Melbourne
Fri 4 Mar | Meeniyan Town Hall, VIC
Sat 5 Mar | UoW Unibar, Wollongong, NSW
Sun 6 Mar | Spectrum Now, Sydney, NSW w/ Augie March
Tue 8 Mar | The Triffid, Brisbane
Wed 9 Mar | Byron Theatre, Byron Bay
Fri 11 Mar | Enlighten Festival, Canberra
Sat 12 Mar | Womad, Adelaide
Sun 13 Mar | Womad, Adelaide
Wed 16 Mar | Fremantle Arts Centre, Perth

For more information and ticketing visit: Billions.

For more information on Spectrum Now Festival click here.


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Simon Clark

Books Editor. An admirer of songs and reader of books. Simon has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature. All errant apostrophes are his own.