Calexico – Come together
The trade in unique “Bisbee Blue” turquoise has sustained four generations of the family that produces it. Otherwise, artists, craftsmen, bikers and aging hippies anchored the community until in recent years it began to attract new investors in home restorations, bed & breakfasts, and performing arts. Even some offbeat trendiness has descended. Winter visitors make reservations days or sometimes weeks in advance for Cafe Roka, which offers perhaps the finest dining between Tucson and Mexico City.
Up three flights of carpeted stairs, Cafe Roka offers a space for special occasions. It rises ten feet from honey-colored hardwood floors to a tin ceiling, pressed in art-deco motifs. A flank of windows on its south wall overlooks Main Street and confronts a mountainside. The room was plenty long and wide enough to hold the Calexico cast, and all their instruments, for a week of woodshedding, an unprecedented pre-production event for a band that traditionally has written and recorded its material in the studio.
“We went there to do some writing, some regrouping, getting away from the normal habits,” Burns explains. “The cell phone doesn’t work so well down there. That sense of exploring is a great inspiration. There’s definitely some strangeness down there that we like — those haunted places….Everyone was kind of blown away with the images there.”
The trip was also something of a team-building exercise for Garden Ruin. Calexico’s entourage included Foster and Dutch soundman Jelle Kuiper, as well as the band’s core lineup since its tour behind 2000’s Hot Rail: bassist Volker Zander and multi-instrumentalist Martin Wenk from Germany, guitarist and pedal steel player Paul Niehaus from Nashville, and trumpeter and emerging multi-instrumentalist Jacob Valenzuela, the band’s only other Tucson resident.
Burns and Convertino had played most of the instruments on recordings made prior to Feast Of Wire, inviting others into the studio to add color. But as their tour opportunities grew in number and size, replicating the music was always problematic. Mariachi Luz De Luna played some dates in the United States and Europe behind 2000’s Hot Rail. Otherwise, Calexico tried to share members with other bands on the bill. This had limitations.
“It was pretty low-budget and we were opening up for Lambchop and Vic Chesnutt, so maybe some of the musicians would want to sit in with us,” Burns says by way of example. “They had some horn players we thought could play some of these parts. And we got the word back that the trumpet parts would be more demanding maybe than what they were used to. Just listening to The Black Light album, those trumpets were just crazy. And then you think about playing a whole night with Lambchop and then Calexico and Vic Chesnutt.”
The head of Calexico’s U.K. label, City Slang, offered some suggestions. “Christof Ellinghaus’ brother-in-law Martin [Wenk] had played some trumpet and some guitar and heard the music. Volker, the architect, plays cello and bass. So we met them and played a couple shows with Vic Chesnutt and Lambchop, and we stayed in touch and had fun playing over the years.”
So it was that Calexico became less of a loose collective and more of an actual band. The Bisbee sojourn produced the first music this band had created together.
Having changed the scenery, the process, and the focus of his preparation, Burns also changed instruments. A switch from nylon-string to steel-string guitar led to a shift toward the more pop-friendly major mode, and away from the minor mode that lent the southwestern mood to much previous Calexico music.
“Joey had three or four songs that were reasonably close to written,” says Foster, but “I totally admonished him a couple of times. I’d say, like, ‘Hey, Joey, instead of worrying about what musical instruments could go on this tune, go write fifteen more songs to choose from. I think that would help our position a lot more.’ Not that that exactly happened, but those guys obviously have no problem with musical ideas. They have a zillion musical ideas in their brains, so that’s not an issue.”
For inspiration, Burns drew from the atmosphere — the geographical atmosphere of Bisbee, and the psychological atmosphere of global social malaise. Whereas previous records had touched on themes related to the migrant trail from Mexico, Burns now found other, broader political notions shadowing his lyrical landscape: energy consumption, environmental abuse as represented in the gaping maws of Bisbee’s abandoned mines, a sense of diminishing freedom, the nature of evil. Oblique and impressionistic, these themes flicker in the new album’s lyric details and instrumental moods, in the background much as they are in most of our lives.
“As opposed to saying, ‘We’re gonna write a whole political record,'” Burns clarifies, “I think in some ways, all these topics, all these themes, all these extremes and struggles reside in many facets of life. Politics could be reflected in a personal relationship as well. You can’t just say that ‘this is about Bush.’ I mean, John sings this refrain about ‘Saddam Hussein/Bin Laden, gonna get your noggin’; he jokingly sings that over and over again, but that’s just as valid as some of the pro-right-wing Republican mentality songs that you hear on some radio stations, or the reverse. Who wants to hear that? It sounds more like slogans and campaign themes and motifs. To me it goes deeper than that.”