Calexico: Talking Threads

For tenth studio album The Thread That Keeps Us, Arizona band Calexico retreated to a rustic home studio on the Californian coast. Laura Barton meets vocalist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino to find out how the pair’s enduring love of vinyl informed the record…

About 20 miles or so north of San Francisco, on the edge of Marin County, lies a small recording studio named Panoramic House. “It’s tucked away near the Muir Woods National Park,” says Joey Burns, Calexico’s frontman and multi-instrumentalist, who recorded there last year. “You could walk out the door to a trail that took you through a miniature rainforest and dumped you right out there on Highway 1. And right there, next to that, is Stinson Beach. And rising above all this is Mount Tamalpais, which was deemed sacred land by the native indigenous tribe. It’s a gorgeous stretch of land and I’d never been there, and it’s beautiful.”

For Burns, recording The Thread That Keeps Us, Calexico’s exquisite 10th studio record (including 2001 concert gift Aerocalexico), there felt like a return of sorts. Raised in Southern California, but now a long-term resident of Tucson, Arizona, he’d often thought back to the formative time spent in Northern California: visiting his older brother at college in Berkeley, trawling the music shops for records and magazines. 
“I really felt the connection with my Californian youth,” he says, “and I was reminded of some of the nightmares and some of the joys and some of the dreams that unfolded for me growing up in California. There was nature, there was love, but there was also conformity and how you fit in with different groups – the surfers, the punks, the stoners, the jocks… and how painful that was. 
“So the return to California was a return to look at that,” he continues. “And to look at the home of American counterculture in Berkeley and San Francisco.” He reels off a list, from City Lights bookstore to the environmentalist John Muir, after whom the woods surrounding Panoramic House are named. “I thought about all these people and how they must have intersected here at one point or another, and how all these themes that are weighing us down today were very much part of my childhood. So I saw a story unfolding.”
The story that runs through The Thread That Keeps Us is a sweet and simple one. “I imagined two kids fall in love, coming from two different kinds of backgrounds and there’s a lot of unknown inbetweens,” he explains. “And at the same time, there’s an antagonist, this larger-than-life character. And that could be any nightmarish figure, it could be Donald Trump, or I almost imagined it as an oil executive trying to put oil rigs off the coastline, and there’s an oil spill. So the kids seek refuge in the Muir Woods, and there they find their spirit guide, the girl in the forest. And they try to get their friends to come together to overcome the powers that be who are trying to poison and pollute the landscape and ruin the town.” 
He was inspired, he says, by his twin six-year-old daughters, Twyla and Genevieve, “By their love of stories and their love for nature”, he laughs. “The first time we went camping, they said: ‘Dad, can we live here?’”
Landscape, he suspects, can bleed into song. “I’m sure there’s something to do with physics and temperature and humidity,” he says. “Being right on the coast, there’s a lot of things in the air. John would go running every morning, through the trail, through the rainforest and down to the coast. He would be gone for two hours, and he even saw a whale one day. And how does seeing a whale influence your music? Well, it makes your day.” 
Stratas of rock
There is a line you can draw between surf rock and desert rock, Burns says, attributable perhaps to the fact that the desert was once the ocean floor. “There’s a style of 50s rock and pop that has a surf beat, but then if you put acoustic guitars on and add trumpet, it turns into something different, where it’s got one foot in Johnny Cash’s Ring Of Fire and another in Link Wray’s Rumble, and Dick Dale, and The Beach Boys, and The Ventures.”
He recalls how, a few years ago, Calexico provided the rhythm section for a “kind of Mexican surf-rock” record put together by Camilo Lara of the Mexican Institute Of Sound, which paid tribute to the songs of José Alfredo Jiménez – one of Mexico’s most noted singer-songwriters of traditional rancheras. “I love Camilo,” Burns says. “He’s just always got some interesting project going on. He’s someone I look up to a lot.”
The breadth of Burns’ musical taste and, correspondingly, his record collection, is quite astonishing. The seeds were sown early by his parents, who would travel for his father’s work “to Mexico, to Acapulco, to Trinidad, to New Orleans,” he recalls, “and they’d come back with music, with records or mostly they’d come back with a songbook. So my mom would play [popular Mexican song] Cielito Lindo, or Scott Joplin’s ragtime, as well as songs from Chorus Line and West Side Story on the piano.”
He still envies his mother’s record collection. “My mom had a book, like a scrapbook, and instead of pages, it had blank sleeves where you could place 45s. And she had some cool 45s in there – my favourite one would be the Everly Brothers’ Wake Up Little Susie and All I Have To Do Is Dream. There’s hope in those harmonies.”
His aunt, too, exerted a special musical influence – donating her record collection to Burns. “She mostly has a lot of classical, a lot of Broadway, some pop, a couple of rock records. She has The Kinks, and she’s also got a really beautiful Françoise Hardy record, The “Yeh-Yeh” Girl From Paris!
It was perhaps inevitable, then, that Burns would become a musician. He picked up his brother’s guitar early, joined the high-school jazz band and played in a symphony orchestra while working towards a degree in performance on the double bass. “All the while I really wanted to go to UCLA and study world music,” he says. “That would have been really exciting.”
For all that he loves live performance, Burns has a deep reverence for recorded music. “I worked in a record store in California, and I loved the bootlegs,” he remembers. “The bootleg is a really beautiful thing. Fans get a closer look. We would make vinyl copies, shrinkwrap them and sell them.” His favourite bootlegs include Bob Dylan’s Zimmerman Ten Of Swords and a version of Brian Wilson singing God Only Knows a cappella. “It’s divine,” he says. “It transports you somewhere else.” 
One that lingers from his record store days is a bootleg of The Police at Hatfield Polytechnic. “I love to play it for my kids,” he says, then quotes from the record’s onstage patter, does his best English accent, and laughs. “No, I’ve never been to Hatfield.”
minor miracle
One of Burns’ greatest musical discoveries has been the Portuguese Fado singer Amália Rodrigues. “It’s such a random way that I discovered her music,” he says. “I was walking through downtown Tucson past a used furniture store that’s no longer there, with some friends from LA, and I heard this music and I said: ‘Wow what is this?’, and my friend said, ‘Oh, that’s Amália Rodrigues!’”. Back in LA, the friend sent Burns one of Rodrigues’ albums: “And then I wound up going to Portugal to find out more about her.” 
Rodrigues died in 1999. “So, unfortunately, there was no chance of hearing her perform live,” he says. “But I did get to the part of Lisbon where she would perform, the Bairro Alto – and so that was a really important moment for me. I liked the way she embellished a melody or improvised a theme, but she was doing it under the umbrella of a tradition. The songs have a rolling feeling because of the Portuguese guitar – it’s almost like a Cuban tres, but it’s not as percussive as Cuban music.” 
Burns bought quite a lot of Rodrigues’ recordings on vinyl. “I love her voice and I love that connection to the minor blues,” he says. “When you hear a lot of Latin music, you hear a lot of songs that are in minor. Then you hear music from North America and for the most part, everything’s in a major mode. But for some reason or another, I really gravitate towards music in a minor mode. And there is a thread. That blue vein. And I’ve been picking up and finding traces of it, whether it be in surf music or Ennio Morricone’s Western soundtracks or Afro-Cuban folk or jazz music… That’s one of the things with music. It’s all connected. So when we’re in this era of extremes or attention-grabbing sensationalist bullshit, it’s like: ‘Come on people, get over yourselves, sit down and talk it out. Because we really are more closely connected than not.” 
a piano and a jazz haul
“Excuse the dogs barking,” says John Convertino, Calexico’s drummer. “I’m going outside right now into my garage. I work on my car here, it’s a 1958 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, but out here in the garage I also have stacks of records…” There’s the sound of doors opening, a flicker of record sleeves. “Actually, before I called you, I was listening to some of my favourites,” he continues from inside the garage. “And one of my favourites is Béla Bartók’s Piano Music…” 
He pauses while he looks at the sleeve – a tattered three-record collection he found going through the bins at a thrift store. “This is an original-issue vinyl record from the 50s, might be a little bit older,” he says. “He’s like super-experimental, there’s some pieces that he wrote for children on here, and it’s just an awesome record.”
Convertino’s second record is more recent, sent to him by his friend Jeremy Barnes, from A Hawk And A Hacksaw. “So Jeremy started his own label, it’s called LM Duplication and it’s just really great stuff on that label – interesting music from the East, Eastern Europe, really great traditional music he’s recorded with musicians from Turkey and Slovenia and Slovakia,” he explains. The record in his hands, though, is A Hawk And A Hacksaw’s own 2013 release, You Have Already Gone To The Other World – a concept album written as a retrospective soundtrack to the 1965 movie Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors by Sergei Parajanov. 
“It’s just beautiful,” says Convertino. “It’s solo piano music that Heather [Trost] plays, and there’s accordion and amazing percussion and it’s very Eastern European.” He pauses. “It’s interesting that Bartók is Hungarian, and I’ve chosen these two records. It’s something I didn’t even think of until right this second!”
A few years ago, Convertino expanded his record collection by chance, with two crates of records from a furniture mover. “He moved a piano I bought here in El Paso and he showed up to move it by himself,” he says with a laugh. “So I wound up helping him and I think he felt a little guilty. And he noticed that I had a record player and some records, so he said: ‘Hey, I moved a house the other day and they left these records they said they didn’t want… would you be interested in them?’. I said: ‘Yeah’, just thinking, ‘who knows, there could be something interesting in them’.” 
The following day, the furniture mover arrived at Convertino’s house with two large crates. “And I’m going through them and there’s Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane…” He still sounds faintly awed. “All original releases! And they’re in perfect shape!” One of his favourites from the haul is Thelonious Monk’s 1963 release Criss-Cross. “The cover is super-cool and it has some of his classics on it. I’m so happy I have this record.” 
There was a name written on some of the records in the crate, and Convertino, keen to know who had owned the collection, typed it into Google. “It turned out he was a World War Two veteran and after the war, he settled here in El Paso,” he says. “He was evidently quite a sophisticated music fan. He had a lot of great jazz, samba and bossa nova, but he also had a lot of cool classical stuff.” There were a few oddities in there, too. “A lot of men in those days collected those records for moods – Music For A Romantic Mood or whatever,” he laughs. “Some of the music’s pretty cheesy, but if anything, they’re just cool because the covers are so great. And you never know when you might need them.”
Recently, Convertino has been getting into The Smiths. “My son was really curious about Morrissey because I read the autobiography, and my son is a reader, too, and so he said: ‘Who is this guy? What’s he all about?’” he explains. “And so I said: ‘Well, let’s check it out’. So we went on YouTube and we watched some Smiths videos and he really liked them.” 
His son is 12 now, his musical adventures just beginning, and Convertino is enjoying following them along. “It’s interesting, it contrasts my own boyhood and his boyhood,” he notes. “You can imagine when I went to the store and bought records, it was quite a different experience from him surfing YouTube with me, watching Morrissey. There are so many more options now.” 
Convertino found most of his records via his older siblings – three older sisters and an older brother. “I just remember being in the fourth grade and coming home from school and putting the headphones on and listening to Harvest and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust…, and Jesus Christ Superstar,” he recalls. “I’d listen to all three of those records. I probably did that for half a year, every day after school, it was my little escape zone.”
He bought his first record three years later. Convertino’s brother had a friend who loved Yes and who loaned him their 1969 self-titled debut and 1971’s Fragile. Intrigued, Convertino took himself to the record store to find more. “And I looked in the bin with all the Yes records and I bought the live one, Yessongs.” It surprised him how different the live songs were to the studio versions. “Then I found out it was a different drummer,” he says. “I liked the studio version better, which was Bill Bruford.”
Calexico - The Thread That Keeps Us
Signature sound
Convertino’s voice takes on a special quality when he talks about drummers and drumming. He recalls a particularly enjoyable moment in the studio when he found an unexpected rhythm for the track Voices In The Field. “Joey wrote that in 6/8, which is real common for us,” he says. “It has a 123-123 feel that’s in a lot of our songs. But I kind of surprised him with this beat that’s half 3/4, and half sub-divided, so the first half is ‘um-cha-cha’, and the second half is like ‘um-cha-um-cha-um-cha-cha’.” He pauses. “I don’t know how you’re going to transcribe that,” he says, and laughs. 
Convertino first heard that rhythm on a Bob Dylan song. “I don’t remember which record, but I do remember looking and seeing the drummer was Kenny Buttrey, and he played drums on one of my favourite records – Neil Young’s Harvest. Super-simple drumming, very clean and very soulful. I didn’t know he’d ever drummed with Dylan.”
The Calexico recording process is often marked by moments of surprise. “Joey and I really don’t talk about the record beforehand,” Convertino explains. “I just show up. This time, I was really surprised at how complete some of the songs were – almost every record we’ve done, Joey’s just had real basic ideas, or a few chords and we just start working from there. But on this record, he had quite a few songs completed.” 
His voice smiles down the line. “And that made it real easy for me,” he says. “I could just go swimming with the whales.”