Joey Burns of Calexico is talking to me on the phone from a busy London street after his band played a small gig in Rough Trade Record Shop. On the eve of a British tour and an album release, he doesn't know why the band have got such a big appeal in this country, when they have such a distinctively American sound: "I know that we're kind of under the umbrella of Americana over here, and even in the States, but those bands that I like under that category like Will Oldham or Bill Callahan really challenge that identity and themselves as well as the kind of people that like Johnny Cash. You need that edge and that element of chaos."
The American collective of Joey Burns and John Convertino release their eighth studio album 'Algiers', named after the neighbourhood in New Orleans, where they recorded. Joey feels that the city had an indelible effect on the writing and recording process: “New Orleans is a port city, and there was a time in the ‘50s before the Cuban Revolution when there was a lot of traffic between New Orleans and Havana and that music dialogue was more active.”
It is this transcendental musical dialogue that drives, feeds and informs everything Calexico do. For Burns, the city – including its music scene- still has its demons to recover from post-Katrina, and it was important for Calexico to try and give back to a city so steeped in the kind of roots music that inspires them:
“It’s a mysterious place, there’s a darkness there. When it comes to helping our neighbours we have these walls and barriers that are separating us and it’s not doing us any good" he said. “There needs to be open dialogue and I think as musicians we gravitate towards these areas and I think the music helps to be an active ingredient or catalyst in bringing about change for the good.”
With Calexico, there are no half-measures, they are not posing, they see this kind of roots music like soil and the earth, with a passion reminiscent of artists like The Band. Indeed just like The Band on the seminal 'Music From Big Pink', they also lived, ate and slept where they recorded.
“It was just this ritual of taking our time, working as long and as late as we wanted. There were a lot of incredible instruments at the studio, usually we have to fly everything over from our base in Tucson, Arizona we’re not your conventional two guitars, drums band.”
Calexico also found that they shared the same musical headspace as the engineer that worked with them in the studio, Chris Schultz. “You don’t have to speak, they can feel it, they’re in the same room as you… to have that instinctual connection is really important. They gave us a lot more than we expected, it surprised us and made us feel even more at home.”
'Algiers' represents a liberation of sorts for Calexico, from life and it’s responsibilities to a place where they find themselves making music again. In the last two years, Joey had twins, John’s wife was in full-time education and their producer - and friend - Craig Schumacher was suffering from throat cancer: "When he came out to record with us, I could see him getting better with each day passing, and his spirit lifting and his body coming back to its normal self; and I think that had an influence on me seeing that healing process happen".
“We all make records for very obvious reasons. We write songs, put out a record, go on tour.. but beyond that, deeper than that, is the core of it; why we’re here, this connection we have with each other."
Words by Stephen Walsh
- - -
'Algiers' is out now.