Country rock group
From their Southwestern home base of Tucson, Arizona, the duo of Joey Burns and John Convertino create music complimentary to their surroundings in the Sonoran desert. Theirs is a unique blend of Tex-Mex, folk-rock, and rumbling guitars, among other pop elements, that reveals a mysterious, cinematic quality. According to Burns, as he told Adrian Pannett for Under the Surface magazine, Tucson is the perfect town for finding mental images to write about: “The downtown is a damn soap opera, characters blow in like tumbleweeds and disappear like ghosts,” he said in a discussion of Calexico’s 1998 album The Black Light. “We just sit there with our instruments all day and score music as all this sh** is going down. It’s really slow, so it gives us a chance to try new instruments all the time. When a majority of the music was written it already had this picturesque quality to it. When it came time to sing over the stuff, I just sketched out a story, thinking of some of these characters that live downtown. Some of them are really talented and have multiple personalities.”
Prior to forming Calexico, multi-instrumentalists Burns and Convertino, who also live next door to each other in Tucson, spent years as relatively anonymous side-men playing music of varying styles with different collaborators. Some of their associates include Victoria Williams, Richard Buckner, Vic Chesnutt, and Barbara Manning. The pair first met in the early 1990s while working as the rhythm section of Giant Sand, a band that evolved—under the direction of Tucson-based singer-songwriter, guitarist, and keyboardist Howe Gelb—into a mix of country rock, swing, and beatnik lyricism.
The two continue to record and tour with Giant Sand, participating on the group’s acclaimed 2000 release Chore of Enchantment, as well as with OP8, another collaboration with Gelb as well as Lisa Germano. “With Giant Sand it has always been Howe. John and [me] following Howe,” said Burns for an interview with Lisa Weeks, as quoted by Calexico’s official website. “But that’s what makes it so great—because we can. That’s where we shine. Knowing him as we do, we can sometimes guess where he’s going to go… though he’s also full of surprises. That’s what’s made him so exciting to play with live, more than anyone else we’ve played with. OP8 is more of an equal split, with an added guest that will change from record to record.”
Calexico, however, is not just another name in their long list of side projects, but their main creative focus as songwriters. Upon relocating to Tucson—Convertino from New York via Oklahoma, and Burns from Montreal via Los Angeles—the pair put together a band called the Friends of Dean Martinez and scored a deal with Sub Pop Records. The lo-fi group provided a first opportunity for Burns and Convertino to develop their own ideas, although working relationships from the past and present served as an inescapable influence. “We’re lucky to be able to swap recipes with so many friends,” Burns told Pannett. “It’s a great excuse to get together and hang out.”
But both Burns and Convertino do not necessarily identify their music with the phenomenon known as alternative country. “We identify more with people like Victoria Williams, Vic Chesnutt, Will Oldham from Palace, Smog—the meatier songwriters as opposed to a lot of those bands that sound like Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo,” Burns explained to Sylvie Simmons, as quoted for Calexico’s website. “Those bands are great too, but there’s a lot of watered down versions flooding the record stores.”
Another apparent inspiration for Calexico came from the people and landscape of Tucson. Their songs— filled with Latin instruments, Western guitars, country atmospherics, and tales about wandering misfits— resulted from retreating to the Arizona desert. “In moving here, I really enjoyed being surrounded by a completely new environment,” said Burns to Billboard magazine’s Chris Morris. “The music here, the culture, it’s amazing. It’s the closest thing you can get to being in a foreign country while living in the States…. We picked up on some of the Latin rhythms and culture.”
In 1996, Calexico released their full-length debut, the low-key, soft-spoken Spoke, for the German label Haus Musik. They had connected with the label by chance at a Giant Sand show in Regensberg, Germany. “There’s this beautiful table of handmade
Members include Joey Burns (born in Los Angeles, CA), guitar, bass guitar, cello, mandolin, accordion, vocals; John Convertino (born in Oklahoma), drums, vibes, accordion, guitar, marimba.
Duo met while members of Giant Sand, early 1990s; released full-length debut, Spoke, as Calexico, 1996; released country-rock concept album, The Black Light, on Quarterstick Records, 1998; released Hot Rail and Tete a Tete, 2000; released Even My Sure Things Fall Through, 2001.
Addresses: Home— Casa De Calexico U.S.A., 2509 N. Campbell Ave., #335, Tucson, AZ 85719. Record company —Quarterstick Records, P.O. Box 25342, Chicago, IL 60625, phone: (773) 388-8888, fax: (773) 388-3888, e-mail: [email protected] Booking —Billions Corporation, Ali Giampino, phone: (312) 997-9999, e-mail:[email protected] E-mail —Joey Burns:[email protected]; John Convertino: [email protected]
records by this guy Wolfgang Petters,” Burns recalled to Morris. “He said, ‘Well, if you want to do a 7-inch or album, I don’t care.’” Taking Petters up on the offer, Burns and Convertino from their Tucson homes recorded an album’s worth of original material, which was released in a limited edition of 2, 000 copies in Europe. Soon, American labels began to take notice of Calexico, and the duo opted to sign a deal with Touch and Go Records subsidiary Quarterstick Records out of Chicago. Quarterstick re-issued Spoke on CD in August of 1997. It featured gentle tracks such as “Glimpse” and “Spokes,” as well as occasional rock tunes such as “Scout” and “Mazurka.”
The following year saw the release of Calexico’s second effort, The Black Light, a country-rock concept album about the desert terrain of Arizona and Mexico. The album received excellent reviews—Jim Fusilli of the Wall Street Journal listed it as one of the best records of the year, as well as the entire decade—and gained momentum among consumers as a top radio and record store request. Word of Calexico also spread through tours with the likes of Pavement, the Dirty Three, and Lambchop.
In May of 2000, Calexico returned with Hot Rail, an album combining elements of the evocative Spoke and the cinematic The Black Light while also taking their music in a new direction. Here, bursts of intense energy and full orchestration were countered with quieter moments, and Burns and Convertino opted for the addition of horns and violins on the instrumental “El Picador” and distorted Spanish guitar for “Muleta.” Tracks such as “Ballad of Cable Hogue” and “Service and Repair” also earned the duo raves for their song-writing abilities.
The fall of 2000 saw the release of Tete a Tete, recorded with two French friends, Nairn Amor and Thomas Belhorn, who had recently relocated to Tucson. Calexico’s Western tastes remained, yet the newcomers introduced European influences to tracks like the grand and moody “Gilbert” and classically inspired “Orange Trees in the Yard.” In May of 2001, Calexico released their fifth album, entitled Even My Sure Things Fall Through.
Spoke (Germany) Haus Musik, 1996; reissued, Quarterstick, 1997.
The Black Light, Quarterstick, 1998.
Hot Rail, Quarterstick, 2000.
Tete a Tete, Quarterstick, 2000.
Even My Sure Things Fall Through, Quarterstick, 2001.
Billboard, August 2, 1997.
Rolling Stone, April 13, 2000; June 22, 2000.
Village Voice, January 25, 2000.
Wall Street Journal, December 11, 1998; December 31, 1999.
Washington Post, May 15, 1998.
Casadecalexico—Calexico’s Home Page, http://www.casadecalexico.com (May 7, 2001).
"Calexico." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/calexico
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Calexico (kəlĕk´sĬkō), city (1990 pop. 18,633), Imperial co., S Calif., at the Mexican border; inc. 1908. A port of entry from adjacent Mexicali, Baja California, it is also a trade center for the southern part of the fertile Imperial Valley. Tourism is central to Calexico's economy; smuggling has long been a problem.
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