Fastidious Calexico on letting loose on stage

Calexico's John Convertino, left, and Joey Burns. Picture: Contributed
Calexico's John Convertino, left, and Joey Burns. Picture: Contributed
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THEY like to keep things concise in the studio, but Calexico are a different proposition live, as fans will find at this week’s Celtic Connections show

‘I’M GOING to finish talking to Claire and then I’m going to hang out with you guys,” Joey Burns, co-founder of Calexico, says to someone who, from his tone, I’m guessing is about three years old. “We can go to a cafe and then I need to pick up some beard oil for Sam Beam.”

Burns is talking to his young daughters who are getting bored with him being on the phone to me from their home in Arizona. I can’t help but laugh that beard oil is on his shopping list. “My friend is down here and he has his grandfather’s recipe for this tonic, this softening beard oil. I’ve no idea whether Sam will even use it.” I wonder if the other collaborators on Calexico’s new album can all expect such niche gifts?

Beam, better known as Iron And Wine, is one of a long list of collaborators on Calexico’s fine new album, Edge Of The Sun. Twelve new songs that are instantly, recognisably Calexico but that have a few surprises thrown in too. Technically speaking the album isn’t going to be announced until Tuesday but I’ve checked with Burns and he says I can talk about it. In fact he said: “Why not? Get the ball rolling.” So here I am, rolling the ball.

The album is everything you’d hope from a Calexico release in that it’s packed full of collaborations – guests on this one include Pieta Brown, Greg Leisz and Gaby Moreno – it’s cinematic at moments, spare at times and unexpectedly pop-like at others. And although the task of defining the sound of Calexico (desert noir? Americana? Tex-mex? Alt-country?) has flummoxed better than me, this album has exactly their indefinable yet identifiable sound.

“We never know when we sit down in the studio what’s going to come out,” says Burns. It’s been 20 years and eight albums, but the creative approach of Burns and his co-founder John Convertino has remained experimental and open. “When John and I sit down in the studio we’re trying to capture a mood or a feeling. Those first strokes on the canvas give us a sense of direction and then we have layers of instruments and vocals.

“It’s seemed more and more on these last couple of records there’s less homework gets done before we go into the studio.” He means writing songs and pre-production. “But there’s always been that enjoyment in the studio of the feel that comes up. We’re lucky, of course, that we keep things pretty low budget so we can afford to spend some time in the studio. We also have great friends at Wavelab Studio [in Tucson] who have a big room full of instruments, vintage and new, that we get to play with and that’s a lot of fun.”

The other influence of working with the same people at Wavelab is that they’re used to the experimental way that Burns and Convertino work, so they can play their part. “They’re really good at sensing when something’s happening that we might want to record,” says Burns, “so without having to communicate much they often capture what’s happening in the moment. And that’s not easy to do and it certainly isn’t the way that people work these days. People often over-edit or over-programme – and we’re trying to find that balance too because we’re combining analogue and digital. More and more we pine for sticking within the analogue because it forces you to stay within so many tracks and there’s a certain amount of joy in not having too many choices. That’s probably a good lesson in life too.”

Known for working with a host of other musicians, Burns says that perhaps the greatest collaboration on this album came from within the band. He is referring to the keyboardist Sergio Mendoza, who grew up in Mexico and Arizona and played a much greater role in the making of this album than on previous ones. “He and I worked together a lot because John was in the process of moving from Ohio to El Paso, Texas. Sergio and I would just bounce ideas off each other. It was like, ‘We should get Carla Morrison on the phone’. ‘Do you think we could?’ ‘OK, let’s try’. That process was really fun and it was running parallel throughout the whole process of the record. There were some people who couldn’t make it but there were a lot of people who did and for me it lifted the spirit of making the record aside from just enjoying playing music and getting into the nuts of bolts of songs and lyrics.”

There was also, of course, what Burns calls the band’s “international ensemble”. He’s not exaggerating given the line-up includes musicians from Nashville, Madrid, Greece and Germany. Some were able to come to Tucson, others just sent tracks on the internet. The heritage and nationality of the musicians is interesting because Calexico are known for evoking a real sense of place in their music, usually the dusty, hot deserts of the southwest. Even the band’s name locates them – Calexico is a town on the California-Mexico border. “There’s definitely an ambience that makes up the Calexico sound both on record and at live shows,” says Burns, suggesting that it’s the sense of space and ambience that creates the feeling of place. “It’s not just southwestern or American, I think it goes deeper than that.”

The band are particular about where they go to write and record. For the last album, Algiers, it was New Orleans. For Edge Of The Sun, it was Mexico City. “We met up with some great local musicians and we invited them to some writing sessions. We ended up recording demos and those demos wound up being on the record as the tracks Falling From The Sky and When The Angels Played.” This sums up the Calexico approach. “At a certain point,” says Burns, “you just let go and when the music’s just going through you all sorts of things can happen. Sometimes that can be bad but there can also be wonderful surprises.”

In a way, Calexico replicate what often happens for bands when they’re touring – playing with other musicians, experimenting with their usual formats and sounds and ideas – in the writing and recording process. So what happens when they’re actually touring?

“On the album we’re trying to make things as concise as possible and there are pros and cons to that. The pro is that we’re trying to include as much musical diversity as possible so all the songs on the album are less than four minutes long. One of the cons about being in the studio is that we each put on headphones and it puts a wall up immediately. But when we play live we get the chance to open those songs back up to let them find the length they need to be. A live show is about being in the moment with a group of people and they will let you know if they’ve had enough or whether they want more. You can tell.”

His daughter returns, our time is up. “Hey,” he says, delaying her. “I’m talking to someone in Scotland. That’s where you’re from if you go right back.” There are Scottish roots on both sides of the Burns family – they made the pilgrimage over in the early 90s to trace their ancestry. “I’m really into that stuff,” he says. “I’m really looking forward to being part of this festival. We haven’t been able to play Scotland nearly enough. The name of the festival itself feels good.” And with that he’s gone – off to get his beard oil.

Calexico play the Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, on 1 February as part of Celtic Connections, celticconnections.com