“There are certainly a lot of ways you can interpret a title such as that.”
Calexico has soldiered on for more than 20 years, combining its Southwest-inflected indie rock with sonic experimentation and collaborating with everyone from Iron & Wine to Neko Case. Touring behind excellent new album, The Thread That Keeps Us, the band stopped in Portland to play before a sold-out audience. Singer/guitarist Joey Burns sat down with me, giving me a generous hour of his time, to talk about the new record, Calexico’s legacy and politics. I had last interviewed Burns eight years ago and this conversation felt like a natural extension of the prior one. I am pleased to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Joey Burns.
The title of your new album, The Thread That Keeps Us, seems open to interpretation.
There are certainly a lot of ways you can interpret a title such as that. That was sort of the appeal for me. The title reflects a question: what is the thread that keeps us and who is us? I’ve had everyone from my family to journalists to strangers ask me what it is. On a day-to-day level, it changes. It definitely made it hard to decide what images to put on the cover, because if it was an image of two individuals, then that turned it into a Hallmark card and it didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel indie rock at that point. Originally, the title was The Distance Between Us, The Thread That Keeps Us, and I sent that idea over to John [Convertino]. He said, “I like it, but just narrow it down to The Thread That Keeps Us. I could give you a gazillion answers, and I think they are all relevant and important. It’s just the sheer act of asking is the importance of having a title like that. For me, on a daily level, it’s a ritual of getting up and making coffee. That keeps my family connected.
(laughs) Yeah, the coffee-making in the morning. Rituals are important. The overarching theme is L-O-V-E. It’s love and understanding and compassion. After the last presidential election, we were standing there trying to pick up the pieces. It was very painful and frustrating for everyone on many levels. John and I wanted to get back into the studio as soon as possible to write and record and then go back out on the road to connect with places and people. It became easier when we traveled to Northern California and we started writing music where I felt we were onto something. Up until that point, we had been writing demos in Tucson and in John’s hometown of El Paso. We weren’t really coming up with anything good. It didn’t feel like we had anything. We generally lead with our musical foot first, and once we did that in Northern California, it felt like we had something stable to build on. I felt like I could see characters and a direction.
When we spoke eight years ago, you told me your aspirations were to play large venues like arenas. What’s the thread that’s kept the band together for so many years?
Gosh, I wish the band was doing better than we are right now. I am told that a lot of bands are having a really hard time maintaining any kind of success. It’s just a difficult time. It’s just the way things are, and things have changed a lot since then. Technology has been a big factor and an unforeseen one eight years ago.
Do you mean streaming?
Yeah, everything. The business. The audience’s attention. Distractions. A lot of musicians, like ourselves, will continue to do what they love the most because they are really passionate about it. We are going to do it regardless of whether we are able to tour or whether we’re playing to 200 people or to 2,000 people. That’s what makes for a good experience on both sides. You just want to see people who are doing it for all the right reasons.
Did you get a chance to check out this venue? It’s cooler than an impersonal stadium, isn’t it?
Well, yeah. Success can’t be measured in one way or another. It’s your own personal happiness. There might be people who are filling up stadiums who are completely unhappy and then decide they don’t want to do it. There might be people who enjoy doing that and yet are still looking for something else. I think a true artist or musician is always going to be searching for something to do next.
Have you heard any songs where you feel like, “This is amazing!”
Sure, I’m a big fan of music. When I heard Natalia Lafourcade, I thought, “Wow! This woman’s music from Mexico is fantastic.” Her record, Hasta la Raíz, is beautiful. I love her voice. I love what Nick Cave has been doing. I love the arc of his career. Or even following someone like Neil Young. All of these people, they are part of the musical makeup. It’s not so much about yourself. It’s about the community. Again, I think that’s why I’m so drawn to music, because it’s so community-driven. It’s not about me and what I like and my personal success or my feelings of accomplishment. It’s like where are we going or where are we at and where are we heading as a planet. I am really a social person. I enjoy having music as a bridge to conversation whether it be with you, or with friends, or with people out on the street, or in the café, or at a train station or out in a crowd. That’s what I yearn for: having meaningful conversations. That influences me and the direction I am taking as a person. It just so happens that I play music.
I’d like to talk about three songs from the new album. The first is “Eyes Wide Awake,” which is my favorite Calexico song in years. I love how aggressive the guitar is. It feels different.
Just because we’ve recorded certain styles of music in the past doesn’t mean we can’t do a song that has a lot of guitars up in the mix. That song was recorded in John Convertino’s living room in El Paso looking out over the US-Mexico border. That was inspired by the wind in El Paso, which is really fierce and constantly blowing. I love that idea of it being a windblown town. It influenced the music and it influenced the lyrics. I’m glad you like it. We haven’t really played that song live very much. Maybe we’ll pull it out tonight and dust it off.
Sense of place is really important with Calexico. There is something about your music that embodies the Southwest. What do you think it is?
There’s a danger to saying that we are the sound of one region when there are so many musicians and artists doing better work, whether they have been doing it longer or for shorter amount of time. We enjoy a certain style of music that has been shaped over time. It’s a reflection of who we are as people. There is quite a bit of tradition in the instrumentation and the production style. We’ve also experimented. I enjoy going off our signature sound and doing new things. When you’re putting together new records, you get a chance to explore and take out whatever this thing is and reinvent it. We are trying to lose ourselves in our identity.
When you include a cumbia or something from a Mexican tradition in a song, have people criticized you, being white, for doing so? And if so, what has been your response?
Music is an art that is a shared experience. There are people who are from a certain region where that style or that expression has originated, and they are connected to it. When it comes to paint and color and mood and expression, these are all universal things. We’re all connected. We’re all on the same planet. As far as I am concerned, artists who treat various forms of expression with respect, I see only more good coming from that. Sure, you’re always going to have differences of opinion. That is just par for the course. But, for the most part, we’ve gotten more compliments than criticism. Again, there is a lot of respect that we give to various traditions of music. We do a lot of collaborations where we feature people from various points around the globe. We’re fans. It’s a great opportunity to show others, “Hey! I’m really into this Portuguese singer. I think you might like this too. Check this person out, and here is a little song we made together.” It’s just an expression of love rather than it being a dark, greedy, selfish thing that feels like it’s not helping the world. It’s not putting anything positive back into the universe.
You mentioned experimenting and reaching forward. I also like that you’re not afraid to look back. The song “Under the Wheels” reminds me of the classic Calexico sound, yet it fits right in on the new record.
Well, thank you. That’s a nice compliment. The music was written by our keyboardist Sergio Mendoza. He’s got his own project called Orkesta Mendoza, which plays mambos and cumbias in an indie-rock way. We have been playing music together, sharing demos. We were working on a groove and then I left to go home and take care of the family. He kept on working, and later that night he sent this idea and I liked it. It’s working title was, “Cumbia Disco.” It took me a while to wrap my head around how I was going to sing this song, because it’s going by pretty quick. I like it and I like the chorus and verse sections. It just threw me for a while. It was a challenge, and I really appreciated that. I finally realized that I had to sit down and write some words and just kind of speak them. I’m almost rapping in a way. I’m talking about what’s important to me. Because there’s a drum machine, I’m thinking about machines and the war machine. In the era in which we’re living, it seems the war machine is on steroids. So that’s where the chorus wound up focusing on: the feeling that we’re under the wheels. Living in Tucson, we are living under an active Air Force base, the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Constantly, there are massive jets and cargo and bombers flying overhead. It’s a bit ominous. There’s also the airplane graveyard there too. So, you have the start-up of these machines so you can see how much money it’s taking to sustain this machine. Then you see the graveyard where things are winding up. It just seems like a lot of money and energy is going into this. You can see it right there in one stretch of land. It’s an incredible contrast to the eye, especially when you’re flying over it. But you can drive right through the middle, as well. That song almost didn’t make the sequence on the album. John wasn’t really super into it until he suggested adding distortion to the vocals, and then that, to him, connected the lyrics and the vocals to the music and the theme.
While that song feels familiar, the last song on the album, “Music Box,” seems a little different. The lyrics are more on the nose, in some ways.
Yeah, why not? Why not try something different? For me, it felt more punk, in a way, to be direct like that. Just saying, “I want you to know this song is for you. I need you to know that I love you.” Especially after what we’ve been living through with the post-Trump-election, I feel like we’re in this era of extremes. We’re getting further and further apart from one another. We’re setting ourselves up for a big fall, I think.
It’s close to “I Just Called to Say I Love You” territory, but it’s not as cheesy.
Yeah, it’s just being honest and sincere and there’s nothing wrong with that. When I was playing back the rough sketch to my wife, she said, “I really like that line, ‘I need you now more than ever.’” It’s true, yet we as people tend to push each other away.
You’re just usually not that direct as a lyricist.
It felt good embracing that. I think that instead of ending the album on an ominous note and more of a darker tone…John and I went back and forth, “Do we end it on the song “Thrown to the Wild,” or do we include one more song?” We knew there were pros and cons to both. If it was 20 years ago, I think we would have ended the record on “Thrown to the Wild,” and that would have been it. I felt like, “This is 2018 and life is short and we are 50.” So this is an important thing to stand behind. When you put out enough music, there will always be people who resonate with certain parts to what you do and others not so much. You have to, first and foremost, listen to yourself and make those steps forward. However it may seem at the time, you will figure it out at the end.
Arizona is politically fascinating right now. You have two senators that are on the way out.
Flake and McCain have had some nice contrast within the Republican Party. Again, these are just people and we’re seeing a generational shift. Because that’s the hope, kids. That is the hope. The students in Parkland, Florida are really inspiring to me. For me, the music business might be subsiding or difficult, but the thing that I am focused on is being involved with the communities. Especially in Arizona because that’s where I live. I’m going to try and connect with high school artists, activists, poets, painters. You name it. I feel like there is less restrictions in regards to ideas. They see things as more possible. They feel the urgency.
What kind of senators are we going to see replace these guys?
I don’t know. I’m going to do my best to get involved. I’ve reached out the band Spoon and members of Arcade Fire. They are planning on coming to Arizona in mid-October. Inspiring people of all ages and backgrounds to register and go vote is a big thing. They feel like it doesn’t matter. But when you see some of these elections come down to a couple hundred votes difference then you know it’s important.
Is Joe Arpaio running for senator?
Not for senator. I forget what he’s running for right now. He, unfortunately, feels like it’s important for him to be out there. That’s what happens when you get pardoned for some heinous crimes.
Since you live so close to the border do you have any experiences seeing what’s happening with the kids being separated from their families?
I’m not seeing it, but I’m reading about it just as you are from the same news sources. There are a lot of people who are working to get representation for immigrants. Some of my friends who used to work for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords are in D.C. and they’ve seen that this current administration is moving very quickly to try to make it very difficult for immigrants. We’re seeing these results and it’s devastating. It’s really appalling. Again, voicing our opinions and getting out there and protesting in the streets is super important. Whether you are in Portland or in Los Angeles or Phoenix or Tucson or El Paso or Austin. There’s so many things. There’s education, equal rights for women, for all backgrounds and orientations. There’s so much to be concerned about. I think some artists are wrestling with whether it’s important to get involved. Everyone has to ask themselves, “What can I do and what do I feel comfortable with?” Just by asking questions or reading the news or getting involved or talking to people, I think it’s becoming clear that we can’t take things for granted. We have to get involved. I think people are separated too much, oddly enough. It’s really important to try to stay connected and to find common ground to have healthy, civil conversations.
That is something that doesn’t exist these days. It seems like political conversation always devolves into a shouting match.
Yeah, I agree. The more sensational the headline or the story, the more hits it gets. And that equates to what? Business? So, families and communities are being separated from talking about things. It’s really inspiring though that after so many school shootings we’re finally having some students who are really standing their ground. They are taking a lot of flak.
Is it hard not to get cynical sometimes?
What do you think? Sure. Everyone, I think, is feeling the same way. It’s easy to do that and then let go or tune out. It’s really important to focus on local. When I tour the country and talk with friends and people like yourself, the thing that comes back is starting with your own neighborhood, your own community. What can you do to make it a better place? From there, reaching out and gradually widening that reach. What kind of world do you want to live in? Everyone has to ask themselves that question. It ties right back into the same question we started with. Then what is the thread that keeps us? What keeps us sane? What keeps us safe? What keeps us healthy? What keeps us growing? What keeps us loving? What keeps us open?
But we also have to fight to keep from getting under the wheels of corporations.
That is a big topic I’m trying to meditate on: the corporate interest in our country and how it’s shaping our lives and direction. It’s really rewarding and comforting to come to a city like Portland because there seems to be a bit more independence here and promoting local ideas and local businesses. These are things that are influencing me. Twenty years ago, I was just concerned about a band surviving on the road, and now I’m really weighing and thinking about how do I support the community where I live.
What’s the biggest difference between a song on Spoke and a song on the new album?
You can look at it many different ways. The recording technology is different. One was a home recording on a reel-to-reel, and this was recorded in a studio on digital and analog machines. There’s more production value there. A lot more time taken and focus. A lot more experience under our belt. Maybe the songs are little more well-crafted. Maybe Spoke is a little more raw. It’s just something I made in my adobe apartment in downtown Tucson rather than being in the studio. One might be more sentimental and sweet and light. The other might have a little more weight to it and is ready to travel around the world and can stand a crowd of 3,000 people in Europe or 800 people here in Portland. The artwork, oddly enough, sort of has a connection. Both have this well-worn postcard feel to them. It’s a great question. I like it. I appreciate looking at the beginning and where we are 22 years down the road. We’re still kind of the same people living by the same aesthetics. We’re still open-minded and optimistic despite the fact that there are some things that are not optimal and could use some attention. I think that the world has become a little more serious. These 20-year-olds now have families. Oddly enough, John Convertino’s daughter was on that recording, in the background sitting on a wood floor playing with cassette tapes. You can hear her say my name and dropping some cassette tapes. It’s just a little bit of an intro. It’s easy to miss. Now, she’s married. She is married to her boyfriend who was a DACA kid at risk for being deported. It’s a totally different world that we’re living in now. She’s the same age now that we were when we started making that music. It’s kind of an interesting full circle. I really enjoy that question. I could think about it for a while.