the AU interview: Joey Burns of Calexico (USA) talks Algiers and recording in New Orleans

Ahead of their first tour to Australia and New Zealand since 2010 we caught up with lead singer and guitarist Joey Burns of Calexico to have a chat about their most recent album Algiers, recording in New Orleans, killing time on tour and much more.

Hello, how are you?

I’m good, thanks for calling Simon.

And you’re in Hamburg at the moment? How’s the tour in Europe going so far?

I am. It’s going really well. This is just a small two or three week summer tour, and we’ve already done about a week. So it’s nice to know we’re nearly halfway done. But it’s been one of the more enjoyable tours, in that we played Former Yugoslavia, Belgrade for the first time, and Serbia. We went to the Croatian coast, had a swim in the Adriatic, and then went to Budapest, played this big huge festival called Sziget and heard some amazing music over there. Blur played, which isn’t unusual, for us to be on the same festival as Blur. But also we were on the same stage as one of my favourite musicians, Emir Kustirica; who’s also a filmmaker. And we’ve kind of wound up wandering through Austria and now we’re in Hamburg where we’re going to have a big outdoor show here, and the sun is shining.

You seem to have timed it quite well with the weather, what with Europe going through a bit of a heat wave.

Yeah it’s perfect. Their heat wave is my ideal situation.

What are the plans for the rest of the day, how would you normally spend the build up to an evening show?

Today? Well I wouldn’t mind going to do a little shopping round the corner. There’s a couple of cool kids stores, I was thinking of getting something for my twin daughters. There’s also a nice wine shop over there too. I wouldn’t mind taking a look to see what they’ve got. But the bus is pretty well stocked with French wine right now. So I think we’re OK on that front.

Sometimes I’ll go to whatever kind of market, see what they’ve got. Get some fresh cheeses. I like local cheeses. I like to do that kind of shopping. I’m going to be going over a couple of songs, maybe just rehearse some old songs – just to kind of dust them off, and perform tonight if we get a nice crowd. There’s a fan that’s coming over from England, she lives in London, and it’s her birthday, so she’s got a request. She’s been to a couple of shows in the UK and Paris.

You seem to have one hell of a hectic tour schedule this year.

Yeah! That’s what my wife says too.

Do you get a lot of time off on tour, or is always one the move to the next place?

Oh we’re always on the move to the next place. If you look at the tour schedule, we usually have one day off per week. So that means at the end of the night, you pack up. Hop onto the bus or sleeper coach, which is usually a double decker bus, and you get to bed around 3 or 4 in the morning, and you wake up at 10 or 11 in the morning and do it all over again.

It’s great though. We love it. We love touring with each other. We have a great time; we’ve got seven musicians with us performing on stage. So we’ve got in addition to John and I, we’ve got Martin Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet, and they also float, or should I say, sprint around stage picking up different instruments the whole time. Which is always a lot of fun to watch. Jairo Zavala is from Madrid, Spain. Martin Wenk the other trumpet player is from Berlin. Jacob is from Tucson, Sergio Mendoza is from Tucson also he’s from Nogales, Mexico and Nogales, Arizona. He’s a true border child, if there ever was one. So he’s playing keyboards and the vihuela, which is a Mexican five-string guitar, which is used predominantly with mariachi music. And he’s also a great accordion player. Who else we got? Ryan Alfred is playing bass now; we’ve got a bass player who’s from Tucson.

So there’s not a lot of room up on stage then?

No it’s great, and lots of instruments too. Usually our sound checks take the whole day.

It’s going to be your first visit down to Australia since 2010, are you looking forward to coming back?

I am, I am really looking forward to coming back. I was just talking to this other journalist, you know we’re all really excited about going to Australia and New Zealand, we don’t often get to go there, but in the last ten or so years we’ve been able to go a couple of times. But the first time was thanks to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, they invited us to do a big show at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne, so that kind of kick started everything for us. So we’re forever indebted to them.

But just getting to go down there and connect with people, and to see what’s going on. There are a lot of similarities I think in some ways, just the crowds, the environment, and the climate. All that sort of stuff you know. It feels really good.

I think consistency is one of the most important things to what you do, and especially in this line of work. I’ve seen so many bands switch labels constantly, or been erratic in their output or in their touring. We’ve tried to be pretty consistent, and I think I’ve seen the effects of that the last time we were down there in Australia. It felt like we were connecting deeper, and I hope that it continues.

That last tour was actually the first time I’d seen you live, and it was probably one of the best shows I went to that year.

Which city are you in?


Perth, oh yeah that was a good one. If I remember correctly I was having a rough night that night, and afterwards the guy from the support band, was “no that’s cool I like your attitude like that. I like when you’re a little dark”. I was “OK, good to know that”.

And you’re coming back to West Australia a bit longer this time as well, you’re going to be playing the Wave Rock Weekender as well, are you going to be sticking around for the whole weekend?

We’re excited about that. I think I’ve got to get home; I’ll be leaving like midnight Sunday. I’ve only got three days off before a couple of shows in the US. I know Jairo and some of the other guys might be staying, because Jairo is going to be playing his own show as Depedro. I know he’s doing that, but I’ve got to get going back.

Yeah, you’ve only got three days off between Australia and California isn’t it?

Yeah California, and I still need to find a pedal steel player to help us out at that show.

Now I just wanted to talk about the album Algiers a little bit, if that’s ok. It was easily one of my favourite albums of last year.

Thanks, thanks so much.

With that record you decamped to New Orleans for the recording, what prompted that move?

Lots of things. First and foremost it was to kind of change up our comfort zone, to get outside of what we normally do and to afford ourselves at least twelve hours a day to work and just focus, because I’d just had twin daughters and it was hard for me to break away from wanting to help out.

So we spent like two weeks down there in New Orleans in December of 2011, which was great. It was a really great environment. The studio was this fantastic old structure, it was mostly wood. There are not a lot of structures or buildings like that in Arizona. So already it’s got a different tone when you set up and start playing. And immediately when we set up we started writing new songs. Which is what we were hoping for. Songs like “Epic” “Para” “Fortune Teller” and “Hush” were all written down there in New Orleans with some of the other ones written in Tucson.

So you didn’t go down with a complete set of songs ready to record?

No, we were needing some of that spark to find us, or for us to find it. And it (New Orleans) definitely afforded that. It also felt really good being in a city, which is in some way, a border town. It’s that perfect embodiment of that Northern and Southern hemisphere and all the many crazy influences that are shared between the two. So that was great. John and I had been to Cuba a few years prior working with a Spanish female singer named Amparo Sanchez, and whilst we were in Havana we couldn’t help but notice the similarities, the vibe is so similar to New Orleans. It was like that connection was even stronger. Some of those themes have been in our music, even from the Black Light, when we were listening to a lot of Afro-Cuban music or New York Salsa, just taking inspiration from these recordings, it’s always been part of our make up. So it’s great to be able to be closer to where that source is coming from.

I think whenever anyone says New Orleans they always think Jazz or they think Blues, but forget that there is always so much more going on under the surface.

Like a lot of things, it’s like so many things. Like even our music, when people call it Tex-Mex, and It’s like “well I understand what you’re trying to say, but it’s actually quite different”. Tex-Mex is Norteño music, which has a whole slue of different instruments and a different feel. That’s not really what we’ve been doing. OK maybe we’ve covered a Doug Sahm tune once or twice, but we’re not Norteño.

But then again we’re not really anything else either. We’re kind of mixing it all up so I can’t get too hung up on things like that. But the point being there’s so much more beneath the surface. That’s a good thing. I don’t get hung up on the little details; I’m looking at the big picture.

Going to New Orleans too, felt really good. Bringing some business down to Louisiana and especially New Orleans. It’s good for them, it’s great that we’re talking about New Orleans and they could still use some help.

Not that I want to rush you, but has work begun on a follow up at all?

We kind of just got together and did some recording, and to our surprise a couple of ideas came out of that that were nice. So I’m happy about that. I still really don’t know, if we were just to go into the studio and make some music it would be easy, but putting out a record these days is not as simple as that. It involves a lot more creativity on the part of getting the frame; it’s story and dressing it up, or placing it somewhere. And I’m giving that some thought.

One idea I had on this tour, was why don’t we just set up a small portable studio, which isn’t always easy to do of course, but just record each of the band and the crew, over here in Europe especially, in their living rooms. Just go from city to city. We’ve got members that live in Glasgow, we’ve got members living in Utrecht, Holland or Amsterdam. We’ve got band and crew living in Madrid, Berlin, Ohio now, Nashville, Tucson, and LA. It would be fun just to take these little living room sessions and put them together, and accompany them with either film, or especially with photos. I think it would be interesting to see into the lives of all the different people that make up, especially the live version of Calexico, the whole band and crew.

I hadn’t realised that the band and the crew stretch so far around the world.

Yeah, and for quite a few years now too, we’ve been working with some of these musicians for well over ten years now. It’s really quite a family unit, when we get out on tour, especially over in Europe. We can’t always afford to bring the crew to say Australia or maybe South America, so when we do get together it’s like a reunion; it’s great.

Whilst we’re talking about making it portable, and working on the move, are you able to get much writing done whilst on tour?

Not too much no. Not me. Usually that’s not my time to sit in and write, it’s my time to go out, take lots of pictures, meet people. Get out on the street walking. A lot of the guys are into running, so they’re usually off somewhere running.

Do these pictures and the people you meet, do they influence you further down the line when you start to write.

I’m sure of it. I just did an interview with a journalist from Portugal yesterday, and she turned me onto this new singer, who’s a Fado singer from Lisbon. Her name is Gisela Joao, and I was just blown away, so I spent an hour or two just scanning the Internet to find videos of her performing. You find yourself doing that, and I have time to do that now. When I’m at home I have to take care of my family. I don’t have as much time to focus on this kind of stuff. So it’s really my time to do some homework and it becomes a sort of gestation period.

Earlier this year you released Spiritoso digitally, a live orchestral recording. You already work with seven or more musicians, what was it like working with an orchestra?

It was like a dream.

Is it something you’d revisit for future projects?

I would love to. Every time I hear a snippet from that session I get excited just hearing all the textures, all the voicing, the instrumentation, the feel. I love it. The idea came about after we turned in the album, Algiers, to the record company in Europe here, City Slang records, based in Berlin.

The owner Christof Ellinghaus says “this is a fantastic work; it would be really nice to give something even more to audiences, just to show off this landmark record at this time in your career. What if we have some of these new songs orchestrated and record them with a symphony and record some of your older songs” because he knew we had maybe six or seven older songs already arranged for a symphony.

And he just jumped on it. The fact that we have a record company that a) is that enthusiastic and b) is that capable at getting shit done is amazing. And we’re really proud of the release and putting out Spiritoso but also to have such a great record company and great friends working with us for so many years. Being that consistent has really paid off I think.

You’ve also worked on a couple of movie soundtracks, is that quite a different process to making a normal album?

No, it’s actually a lot easier for me. The director is giving us feedback, whether it’s more fine-tuned or hands off. We go in, it’s super minimal, you don’t need as many layers or as much instrumentation for film. You’ve got to just keep things sparse and it’s really a lot of fun. You should definitely put a little side note in there; “we’re looking for Australian directors and film makers”

It seems surprising that no one has hired you guys to soundtrack a Western yet.

Well you know The Guard is an Irish western. That’s the whole point, and it’s hilarious and also a lot of fun. There have been several that have come out, and there have been songs that have been used in that kind of setting. Like The Sopranos, one of the last episodes used the song “Minas De Cobre” from The Black Light album, in a scene where Tony Soprano is kind of tripping and going out into the desert, with this young girl. So that music’s been touched on. Michael Mann is another director who has been gracious to use our music in several movies; and even had us appear in Collateral.

It does seem like TV and film is becoming a new place to discover new music and artists.

Yeah, I noticed that too. It’s cool. Everything’s changing; you’ve just got to be open to different avenues. I know a couple of years ago there was more hope put into music being used for video games, but that seems to have dropped off a little bit from the conversation.

Basically at the end of the day it’s just getting an instrument and getting a bunch of people together and performing in front of a live audience – there’s nothing like it. I mean it’s the best. And it is getting harder and harder to fund tours. I’m noticing that tours aren’t going as long. I look back to our tour schedule in 2003 and we’d sometimes play bigger cities, the main capital cities, twice through on an album cycle.

Now it’s just once. So I’m a little saddened by that, that we don’t have that opportunity to do more than one show in places. We played Brooklyn, in one of the most beautiful lives venues; it’s called Prospect Park, there’s a band shelter there. And we were lucky to play there a couple of months after we played New York City. But it’s a challenge, and it’s always going to be that. It’s only going to get harder and harder to take larger groups out onto the road, but it’s so important and it’s worth it in every way.

I’ll wrap it up there I think time is nearly up

Yeah, and the sky’s just turned grey, our outdoor show in Hamburg might get a little soggy. But I’m sure it won’t stop the locals.

Thank you so much for talking to me, good luck with the rest of the European tour, and see you down in Australia.

Yeah, thank you too. It’s been a pleasure talking to you too.


The Australian leg of the tour begins September 17th with a show at the Brisbane Festival before then working its way across the country, before finishing at the Wave Rock Weekender in Western Australia. Full dates below:

17th – 18th September: Brisbane Festival – The Spiegeltent, Brisbane, QLD
20th September: Byron Theatre, Byron Bay, NSW
21st September: Meeniyan Town Hall, Meeniyan, VIC
22nd September: Sydney Opera House, Sydney, NSW
24th September: Athenaeum Theate, Melbourne, VIC
25th September: Corner Hotel, Melbourne, VIC
26th September: The Gov, Adelaide, SA
27th September: The Astor Theatre, Perth WA
28th September: Wave Rock Weekender, Hyden, WA


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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.