Joey Burns of Calexico (USA) talks new album Edge of the Sun and Australian Tour (Part One)

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. So we’ve split the interview into two; here’s part one.

I was hoping to kick things off by talking about the new record, Edge of the Sun, it’s a wonderful record, but I have to say the song, “When the Angels Played”, is a particularly beautiful track.

Oh thank you, thanks a lot Simon.

Was there any particular inspiration or starting point for that record? Or any particular theme you were working towards?

Well just surviving, I think, was one of them. One of the first songs on the session is an outtake and it’s called “Let It All Strip Away”, and basically the song was kind of inspired by a Dylan tune of a similar theme. I think at this point in my life personally, I’m looking for more depth with the music, and with the band I’m also similarly looking for new terrain and new inspiration.

And so we had this idea, thanks to our good friend and keyboardist Sergio Mendoza, to go and spend some time in Mexico City. My family was cool enough to let me go; it was just after or around the Easter holiday. So we spent just under two weeks down there in Mexico City, and it was very inspiring. I think going there, you’re reminded not only of the importance and the fondness of home, but also some of the similarities we all face. Especially between the United States and Mexico, there’s a lot, and there continues to be a lot of attention drawn to the border between these two countries. I was looking to highlight more of the positive aspects between these two cultures, which I’ve always been a fan of.

I thought it was really interesting and also since I live in Southern, or South Western United States in Arizona, which is a bordering state to northern Mexico, the state of Sonora. We’re connected not only geographically but also through this desert, it’s called the Sonoran Desert. So if you strip away the borders and strip away the definitions, we are of the same place. I thought it would be great to go to somewhere more cosmopolitan, to go to Mexico City, the big huge thriving centre of Mexico, it seems like it’s happening down there. And it was really great to go down there and to take a pulse on just a slice, a fraction, of all the things going on down there.

It seems strange that you haven’t recorded down there before. It’s almost like a natural fit for you guys.

I know. (Laughs) Then there’s that. Yeah. I wish we could play there more now. I think that was the plan too, to get down there and see what was going on.

So how much of the record was written before heading down there? How much of it was born out of being in that space?

Good question. The idea of going there was just to write and record demos and we had such a good time down there that I think we wrote as much as we could. We had a couple of ideas, but none of those came out on the record. A lot of the ideas came from either being in Mexico City, or coming from after our time down there. So it was good.

Were there then a lot of songs that didn’t make it on to the record? How do you decide what does and doesn’t stay?

There were a lot of songs; there were a lot of ideas that didn’t make it to the record. We finished about twenty songs and had to choose just over half that amount. We wound up making a bonus version of the record, which came out in Europe and I think that’s my favourite version. It’s the version that’s got the majority of those ideas.

Edge of the Sun features a lot of guest vocals, is that something that was always on the cards?

It just sort of happened. It wasn’t really an idea we were looking to work on from the outset. It just kind of came about naturally and once we started down that path we started asking ourselves, “I wonder who we could get on this song?” or, “What song could we get Neko Case to sing on?” (Laughs)

It all started with the song “Bullets & Rocks”, which is one of my favourite songs, and in laying down the vocals for that I immediately was reminded of the feeling of playing with Sam Beam of Iron & Wine. We did an EP a number of years ago, about ten years or so ago. I just texted him and said, “Hey are you available? Are you interested? Can I send you a song?” and he seemed really responsive and eager to pitch in.

You’ve obviously got a wide range of people on the record already, but was there a bucket list of people you definitely wanted to get on there?

Yes there were some but I think in anything, you can’t really get tied down to having fixed notions of what the record should be, or who should be on it. We usually have a deadline and that keeps us moving along pretty well. One thing that the studio experience teaches you is that you have to lose your expectations as soon as you go in the door of the studio. You have to go on the sound, not that is in your head so much, as what is coming out of your instrument and coming out of the speakers.

I’m sure there are those who are really good at really shaping the sound they hear, or shaping the sound that they make so that it matches up what’s inside their head. But I’ve learnt that it’s better to just follow the muse that is the studio itself, and the sound that you make in the studio coming out of the speakers. Especially when you start laying in tracks or arranging songs, I really like the idea of just going one step at a time and it’s been fun for me.

At the same time on this album ,we did track some songs like “World Undone”, where we had a full band, or we had a bass player and a keyboardist in addition to John (Convertino) on drums and myself on guitar; it really did help give a better foundation and it gave me a better sense of what the song was, well for the most part, and that was really fun. We’ve done that in the past too on Garden Ruin where we did some tracking as a whole band. But really for the most part, we’ve always really just started off with John and I in the studio, not only tracking the basic tracks, but writing in the studio. So songs like “When the Angels Played” was written in the studio and recorded right there in Mexico City. You know, we decided that’s a nice take, same thing with “Falling from the Sky’, where there was a nice energy about the performance, we’ll just keep it. And we did.

Simple as that. You’ve spoken before about the importance of the studio to the process, was the studio in Mexico City another one of these studios that helped shape the sound, like how the studio in New Orleans did for Algiers?

A totally different vibe. We went to New Orleans to actually really record the tracks. We went to Mexico City really just to write demos and record those ideas or sketches. But again, I think we were able to salvage and do a good job of taking those sketches and really turning them into something that we could keep. It was more about just really being in Mexico City and writing.

Coming from that experience, it enabled us to try some ideas here in Tucson in the Wavelab studio. So for instance, one of my favourite songs is “Cumbria de Donde” which we didn’t write or record in Mexico City, but was most certainly inspired by going there and thinking about going there, and thinking about where are we from – which is something I’ve been thinking about. More recently. my wife for Christmas, she signed me up to do Ancestry research, where they take a swab of DNA to find out where you come from. I know on one side of my family where I come from; and I’d always been curious about my Mum’s side of the family, which is German American. But we didn’t know exactly where. Having spent time touring in Europe and in German speaking countries, I think I have an idea where we might come from just from the vibe that I get, from traveling. So I thought, “Why not just see.” It’s going to be fun. I love the stories of where people’s families come from; I’m really intrigued by that.

Really I imagine it’s a great starting point for songwriting as well, that curiosity around what were these people’s lives were like.

Yeah, for sure. My family took a trip to Ireland; we went with my Dad, my Mum and my Grandmother to the west of Ireland to Galway to visit her first cousin, who she’d never met, but they’d kept in touch with these relatives throughout her life. So there we all were, we opened the door to this pub and we went inside and there was a hundred or so people, all related. It was odd, but it was also really cool. It was surprisingly really warm, we had a great time and it was a great period of our lives; great memories with my grandmother too, which I’ll never forget.

We learned a lot of songs and I think in learning some of those traditional Irish songs I felt that connection to some of those threads that have woven their way into contemporary music or American music. So the contemporary music would be like The Pogues or The Clash, but also you know, through Bluegrass and Americana or the American songbook, it’s definitely had its influence and I latched onto that. Again, it just reinforced some of the aesthetics that I’ve been drawn to over the years.

The same thing with minor music or songs in the minor key, I’ve always gravitated towards those kinds of songs. As a kid growing up, my favourite song was “All the Pretty Horses”; my Mum would sing it to me and it’s one of the few lullabies that is in a minor key. It comes from I think South Carolina many many years ago; Alan Lomax documented it and then released it and recorded it, it became part of this American songbook. It was probably just a regional song back in the day and now it’s everywhere and it’s one of my favourite songs, one of the songs I remember the most as a child.

Also playing jazz music growing up, that really kind of shaped me as well, because there are a lot more songs in the minor key or there’s more Latin influences. As a bass player, I loved the way the bass is freed up rhythmically and melodically in Latin music, whether it be Bossa Nova or Afro-Cuban song. So those things kind of helped guide me along.

Fast-forward to travelling Europe in a rock band and people would be giving me tapes of like Romanian gypsy music, or Dominican Republic bachata music. In fact I went through these boxes of cassettes that I had back in the nineties. I was trying to find some stuff, like early Calexico writing and formations, and I found these great tapes. And I was really like, “Oh great, I’d forgotten about that bachata mix” that someone had given me. I’m excited to bring them into the house and show my family.

I imagine that it all seeps in and in some way, influences your work as well, even if you don’t necessarily realise it at the time.

Yeah, that is true and it’s hard to really get behind that sometimes or acknowledge it, because now in our current day when we’re just flicking through pages on the Internet, all the sites we’re exposed to it’s kind of crazy. But I do believe there are some influences that we’re being exposed to, certain ideas, or music or places through travel. I think more than just being a band of the South West, we are a band of the world. We are international now. We travel around. A lot. I think that has definitely shaped us.

It’s also one of the reasons why I’m looking forward to seeing what else we can do, as far as maybe going to Havana, Cuba to record, or going to Africa to record, or going to Australia to record. Or doing a record or some songs in Berlin, in honour of the passing of David Bowie. I’ve always thought it would be fun to go there and see what we can come up with. We have instruments and gear there, it would be really easy just to go there and set up some writing and recording. Plus, our European label is based there and we have some very good friends there as well.

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.