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KXCI interviews Calexico in Studio 2B
KXCI interviews Calexico in Studio 2B Crocodile Cafe, Seattle, WA - 6-8-01
Calexico is kicking off their North American tour and we are kicking off our redesigned website with the following in-depth interview of Joey Burns. Calexico kicked off their North American tour with a full band including Mariachi Luz de Luna at the Tucson Museum of Art on September 12, 2003. Calexico will be on the road touring through the United States and Canada until late October. Joey Burns came in to Studio 2B at KXCI, 91.3 FM, Tucson¿s community radio station, to help us kick off our redesigned web-site with the following interview.

Cecily: When I was at the concert the other night - which was a great concert, by the way, I listened in to the audience around me, to see what they were having questions about and I thought I would ask you some deep background questions, like old history, so I was curious how you and John met?

Joey Burns: Well John and I met in Los Angeles back in 1990 through a mutual friend who knew that Giant Sand, which was comprised back then of Howe Gelb and John Convertino, needed an upright bass player so they brought me along. I have been playing with them ever since. And then in 1994, or around that time, ¿93 to ¿94, we all moved out to Tucson, Arizona.

C: So all of that was in L.A. Giant Sand and everything was in L.A.?

JB: ¿For several years. There has been a lot of migration going on back and forth between different coasts and the Sonoran Desert.

C: I have been reading all these old interviews¿ Giant Sand got dropped by V2 label. What effect did that have on the process of making music and the evolution of Calexico?

JB: Well I guess just having seen this experience of working with a major label, I think it was, um, and it¿s something that everyone kind of knows could happen when working with a major label, it just shows the fragility of doing such a deal, and you never know what¿s going to happen. Whereas when you work with an independent label, yeah you may not have some doors open that a major label might have in regards to press, and promotion, and radio but I think you are going to be dealing with a lot more honesty and a lot more integrity. As far as the creative process, it was a difficult time but I think that ultimately the best thing happened, and that the record did come out on a great label, Thrill Jockey Records out of Chicago, which is also an independent label, much like¿

C: You are talking about ¿Chore of Enchantment?¿

JB: Yes, I am talking about the record that you are referring to, and it is ¿Chore of Enchantment¿ and it¿s one of the best records I think that Giant Sand has made.

C: I wanted you to, for people that aren¿t familiar with the Tucson area because this may go out to more than that, could you talk a little more about Rainer Ptacek and the effect he had on you personally and the music scene in general, especially here in Tucson, but I think he also was pretty well known in Europe.

JB: Sure, I would love to. Yeah, I think so. Rainer was a very important musician here in Tucson, Arizona. Now granted I am not from Tucson so I don¿t really have the ¿or, I wasn¿t here when Rainer first moved here in the seventies, but to give you a little background on Rainer, from what I know¿ He was born in Berlin around the time of the forming of the Berlin Wall. So he and his family, his older brother and his mom and dad, escaped East Berlin and shortly thereafter moved to Chicago, Illinois. And that is where he began his interest in music and playing slide guitar and guitar and songwriting. He was most influenced by the Delta blues and in fact, at one point, he went down to Mississippi to do some research and wound up meeting some musicians down there which had a profound effect on him both as a person and as a musician. And he is of Czech and German descent. He¿s just a wonderful person and a really warm human being and always was giving of himself to his family first, and then of course, to friends and musicians. He¿s put out a number of records that you can find here locally in Tucson or on the Internet you can find them on. There are a whole slew of records that he has made over several years. He did some touring in Europe and he wound up befriending Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, who wound up hiring him to come and record some songs with him and I think there is talk of, I talked to his family, and they said they might be releasing some of those unreleased tracks or some of those tracks on an upcoming compilation of Robert Plant¿s solo records.

C: Would you say he¿s affected you and Calexico musically?

JB: Oh, by all means, and I think he has influenced a lot of musicians, both here locally in Tucson and also abroad and throughout the States. He had a really rare sense of spirit with his playing of the slide guitar. He played the guitar, the slide, on his pinky on his left hand which enabled him to form and change chords and voicings behind the slide bar and, um, just his spirit I think was incredible, his sense of space and experimentation, combining blues with all sorts of different kinds of music; jazz and eastern influences... He was always pushing the envelope as far as what music could be and using loops and samples, he was really, he was always very experimental in his approach but it
was always very organic and soulful.

C: I saw him a number of times in the last few years before he died and ¿ but that last album he put out, ¿The Farm,¿ the one that has ¿Joy is Now.¿ I can¿t even listen to it without crying. It¿s so spiritual and beautiful.

JB: Yeah it¿s a real tearjerker.

C: I read somewhere that the first songs you recorded were recorded on an answering machine.

JB: That is true. I mean especially for this project, and at the time, when I first moved out to Tucson I stayed at John¿s apartment and so having all this music and instruments lying around we decided to make some outgoing messages. And those wound up being on the first record, ¿Spoke,¿ and those in turn became¿

C: Unadulterated, the original tracks?

JB: Oh yeah.

C: the answering machine¿

JB: Its called ¿Navy Cut¿ and that wound up becoming the song ¿Windjammer.¿

C: Cool.

JB: Yeah so, you know, as silly as all that is, we didn¿t really have any intention of doing this more than just, uh, you know recording in our living rooms and then performing locally at the Airport Lounge or at the Shelter and stuff like that.

C: ¿Crystal Frontier¿ is a story by Carlos Fuentes and your song is based on that, right?

JB: It is based on part of that story and also other accounts of stories like Cabeza de Vaca, and other stories that I have read in the Tucson Weekly about people that live in and around the U.S., Mexican border.

C: And then I know when I saw you in November and at the last show you¿ve been mentioning Mr. Urrea, which is Luis Alberto Urrea. Have you met him?

JB: Uh, no I haven¿t, but I have corresponded with him via email.

C: Because he used to live here.

JB: Yeah I know. That is why I was kind of intrigued by him and I think his writing is great.

C: Have you read any of his poetry?

JB: Well I have read some of his writing about the stories along the border between the U.S. and Mexico and his experiences down there in Tijuana helping with the missionaries and helping the kids down there.

C: So did you write ¿Across the Wire¿ based on his book or was that a coincidence?

JB: No it was using his title, but it was more about the book that he wrote called ¿By the Lake of Sleeping Children¿ which is a very influential aspect to one of the lines in the second verse of that song ¿Across the Wire.¿ It was really; he was very nice in his email and said, ¿Thanks a lot. I like the music and thanks for the nod.¿ And lo and behold the sales of the book have been climbing on

C: Oh really, that¿s wild. You were talking at the concert and I would like to get this in the interview- your story of Love¿s ¿Alone Again Or.¿ I heard it was number three on the BBC right now.

JB: Oh really? I don¿t know. I think that the BBC had been playing that song, our version, during the summer. You know it was interesting
because the band had been reformed by Arthur Lee, who was, I guess, in jail for a while. And so it was interesting because they were playing the same festivals over there that we were, but we didn¿t get to actually meet, unfortunately. When I was in California around 1989 I was working at SST Records and I remember answering the phone one day and Arthur Lee was on the line so¿ It¿s just funny how all these connections are made and how they come together and go apart and come back together.

C: I listened to it on Saturday because I read an interview that said you played it in London when you played with Yo La Tengo at Somerset House so I put it on and it already sounds like a Calexico song.

JB: Yeah and that¿s the interesting kind of connection because the drummer of this band Black Heart Procession, Joe Plummer the drummer, (laughs) recommended that we maybe cover the song, or at least listen to it. And also our tour manager at the time, Woody Bezosky, who lives here in town, had also suggested checking out that first album of
theirs called ¿Forever Changes¿ and it is a fantastic album. Bryan Maclean is the one who wrote the song and unfortunately he¿s passed away.

C: It was a great cover.

JB: Oh, thanks. Yeah I like the song a lot.

C: I¿m curious as to what fuels you creatively as a band. Calexico is known for creating an evocative cinematic sound but your songs also express the reality of the border and the inequity of what happens in such places. Its like mood but it also has a message.

JB: Yeah, I guess lots of things go into the inspiration behind music. It could be anything really. But definitely living here is¿ Without over-romanticizing the place because of course we don¿t need more tourists here, right? Also traveling I think has a big influence on us and getting the opportunity to travel here in the States a lot, Canada, and Europe especially. That is, I mean, it¿s mind blowing over there. And it¿s great to talk to people over there and realize that some of the situations that are going on over here between economies and countries that are so close together like the United States and Mexico, where the economies are so vastly different, the same problems
that go on over here are existing in many places around the world; Europe, is one of them. So it¿s been a good perspective in doing all this traveling and talking to people, journalists, other musicians, artists, and listeners. But then it¿s always nice to come back home and this is does feel like home to me. It¿s close to where I grew up which is quite the opposite. I grew up near the water in California, in southern California. The feeling here and the openness in the cultural diversity I think is what is really attractive to me. Last night hanging out and meeting at the Congress for drinks with some of the members of Mariachi Luz de Luna after the weekend and before we hit the road¿. It was really nice to kind of reflect, and the things that were really being expressed was this kind of openness within each other and the experience of not only playing music but becoming friends and hearing each other¿s story. I¿m always intrigued by people¿s stories and there is a lot of character here in this town and a lot of great storytellers. So for me, I just enjoy the stories. Maybe I am being influenced by them and meeting writers like Mitch Cullin and the late Lawrence Clark Powell, we got to meet him through Tasha Bundy¿s grandmother, Winifred Bundy, who has a bookstore down in Benson called Singing Wind Bookstore, which we¿ve gone down there many a time in the past and been asked to play at the readings and signings of local authors. And I just like the sense of community here. It¿s a strong one and it¿s also very eclectic and individualistic one too. But at the same time, its nice to go and travel and I really do enjoy

C: Get the best of both worlds.

JB: I guess, you know there are certain advantages, disadvantages of traveling a lot so, yeah; this seems to be a good place. Its close enough to my family on the West Coast and I¿ve got a lot of friends and second family here now.

C: Great. Let¿s see, I had a couple more things¿ Celia (Blackwood) was telling me you guys are doing a remix thing with Thievery Corporation.

JB: We hope. Celia is actually responsible for making the connection, which I think is really great. We really like what they do and love the fact that they make their own mix tapes. We¿ve been collaborating with some other electronic musicians in Europe like Jazzanova, Cinematic Orchestra¿ Gotan Project is a really great one, I got to meet them in Paris and see their studio and they asked us first to remix one of their tracks and that was a lot of fun. We wound up doing that, not at the usual studio where we work with Craig Schumacher at Wave Lab, but with Jim Waters over at Waterworks Studio here in town because it was kind of a ProTool electronic digital set-up. It was a lot of fun doing that and I would like to do more of that.

C: It sounds like you¿re going to.

JB: Yeah, yeah¿ we¿ve got a lot of tracks already. At the same time it would be nice to maybe do something really minimal or do a two-piece recording session or maybe do a, um, kind of a real acoustic, laid-back, quiet record.

C: So the musicians that are going to be on tour with you, I wanted to find out a little bit about them. The original musicians are you and John¿

JB: John and I started this thing off back in 1996. Jacob Valenzuela is probably the newest addition to the ensemble. He lives here in Tucson, Arizona and he studied here at the University of Arizona. He studied jazz and classical but he¿s been playing mariachi music and every now and then plays, sits in with Latino Solido over at El Parador on the weekends. He¿s an outstanding musician and a really great individual. Paul Niehaus was probably the second to newest member of the band and we met him touring with the band Lambchop. He lives in Nashville. He plays pedal steel and steel guitar. It was interesting when we played here the other night somebody spoke up and asked where he was; he was at home (laughs)¿

C: That¿s who you were talking about. I remember you saying that, (he¿s home) with his wife.

JB: And the other two musicians are, oddly enough, from Europe. They are from Germany and the reason why we met Martin Wenk and Volker Zander was through our record company over there based in Berlin. Cityslang Records were asking how many musicians were coming on tour and we said, ¿Well there¿s just two of us.¿ We had spent the whole month before opening up for The Dirty Three as a two-piece and it worked pretty well and it was experimental and very improvisational. They were saying, ¿It¿s a shame, it would be really great to hear some of those songs fleshed out like they are on the record.¿ So they offered up some numbers and the record company president gave me the number of his brother-in-law Martin Wenk, who plays trumpet, and guitar, and accordion, and ¿.

C: Was he the guy that was playing everything?

JB: That would be the multi-instrumentalist. (laughs) He is always running from one instrument to another but he does a really great job and has continued to grow and learn many different instruments and Volker Zander plays the contrabass.

C: Is that the same, I am not a musician, is that the same- you were playing¿

JB: The upright bass, that¿s him, yeah.

C: Now was he the guy playing the conch shell back at Plush?

JB: No that was¿ a conch shell, that sounds like Noah, Noah Thomas, another local trumpet player, who is fantastic. He¿s getting his masters here in archeology.

C: It¿s been such a privilege to be able to see you perform here in Tucson. Did you always perform very much here? It seems like recently you have been performing¿

JB: Oh yeah.

C: Bigger venues, maybe I should say.

JB: Playing at the Tucson Museum of Art was a nice opportunity to play an early show outdoors so that people like our friend, Winifred Bundy, who lives in Benson and it¿s a long drive¿ She¿s older so she doesn¿t like going into clubs that are smoky and dark. So it¿s a great opportunity for her and some of her friends to come up and hang out and family members. So when they said all ages they really mean all ages. Eight year olds on up.

C: I just have to ask. You¿ve been saying, there are quotes I keep seeing about some Portuguese¿

JB: Fado.

C: Yeah what¿s that about? Is it a song? Is it a type of music?

JB: Portuguese fado music ¿ its like a traditional form of music. It seems like its somewhere between, kind of like¿ fado and gypsy music are very dark and slow and very melancholic. It¿s kind of like a really early form of goth music.

C: Do you have any of that? You have to give us some to play. Joey¿s fado music. It can go right into the Music Mix.

JB: Oh yeah. I have lots of it. Great. I can see my neighbors rolling their eyes. Not that CD again. Please turn it off. There is
this one really important singer that has passed away a few years ago named Amalia Rodrigues and she was kind of like the Billie Holliday of Portuguese fado.

C: Was she from Portugal or Brazil?

JB: She was from Lisbon. You look back and you think, this style of music, it¿s very simple, kind of like with a nylon string guitar and then its also usually accompanied by a Portuguese guitar which is like a bigger version, many more strings, of a mandolin, kind of like a lower tuned instrument too. It sounds at time like a harpsichord, at times like a troubadour/ trouvair music from years gone by. It¿s usually in the minor key. It seems like its very old and yet it¿s kind
of like an early form of the blues really. Minor blues. Which I like and I love the music of Django Reinhardt and gypsy music and yeah. Actually I was here in Tucson, Arizona walking down Congress and I went into thrift store and a friend of mine was with me from LA and we heard this music and we started talking about it and then next thing I knew I was sent in the mail this album of Amalia Rodrigues. Some of that has been influential. On the Black Light album we had this song ¿The Gypsy¿s Curse¿ which is very much inspired by some of this form of music. Kind of minor blues. Which could be, you know you put the electric guitar on and it could be the Ventures or Link Wray or Duane Eddy kind of be more twisted and dark and European.

C: I gotta get me some Link Wray.

JB: Link Wray was a very important¿ He used to live in Tucson.

C: Really?

JB: Um, hmm. He¿s got a song called ¿Tucson, Arizona.¿ So you can maybe check that out.

C: So do you have any videos out?

JB: Unfortunately we¿ve made some videos. They¿re always kind of embarrassing on the one hand but I think there have been some good ones. We¿ve used this one director, who lives half the time in Joshua Tree and the other half of the time he spends in New York City, in Manhattan. His name is John Pirozzi and he did some videos. Some of them are pretty good. But it seems like such a thing of the past.

C: We had this idea for you to do one in the Chicago Store for Halloween. You are always talking about these dead musical instruments. You could do one and it would be really dark.

JB: John would be Phil and I would be Joe, the owners of the Chicago Store. Maybe.

C: I don¿t know.

JB: I would love to dress up as those guys and go into character.

C: And start testing out the instruments.

JB: Or just smashing them.

C: Is that a thing you haven¿t gotten out of your system yet? Joey Pete Townsend¿

JB: Yeah I think there¿s all these instruments that are already smashed so I¿m wondering what happened. What happened? What happened here? This one is missing its soul, its guts are ripped out, you know. What kind of vampire came and murdered this instrument?

C: Celia was saying this summer you did some really big venues in Europe?

JB: We did a few. It was both intimidating and exciting. And who knows. I think we¿ve been doing this long enough to know that any kind of opportunity that you get, it may never come again. Just be thankful for being able to tour over there and the great thing is that we felt so much at home because it was so hot over there and there were fires raging in the south of France and heat waves across France and Germany. There were fires in Portugal¿and Italy and Spain¿were just like being
back home in Arizona.

C: (laughing) We had fires and heat¿.it¿s not good though.

JB: Yeah, exactly. I was kind of comparing¿ My friends would email and say ¿So you feeling at home over there?¿ and of course, I was.

C: Well thank you so much for coming in and doing the interview. I just have one cover suggestion.

JB: Okay, lay it on me.

C: One of my favorite musicians, J.J. Cale.

JB: Oh, yeah. I love J.J. Cale, and John, of course, is from Oklahoma so I am sure¿

C: I was just listening to J.J. Cale this morning. Eric Clapton did ¿Traveling Light¿ on his ¿Reptile¿ album and it¿s bizarre. At first I thought ¿This is J.J. Cale¿ and its Eric Clapton and I thought, wow if this guy covers him to the point where he sounds exactly like him ¿ and then I thought Calexico! They need to do a J.J. Cale ¿

JB: Eric Clapton came to Okalahoma and hung out with J.J. Cale and Leon Russell and was playing with a lot of those musicians in J.J.¿s band. And that¿s cool because it¿s opened up the whole world to Oklahoma, Stillwater and Tulsa. Do you know what the song is or are you just saying do a J.J. Cale song?

C: What was I listening to today? ¿Hey baby¿? No, I¿ll have to pass it on¿

JB: Please do and I¿ll ask Mr. Convertino, the Okie in the bunch.

C: Alright. Thanks a lot.

JB: Thank you.

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