CALEXICO & IRON & WINE
Text by Sam Beam
“I met Joey Burns a few years ago at a venue we played called Solar Culture
in Tucson. I was a big fan of Calexico’s music (“Apoke” will always
be a favorite of mine), so making his acquaintance was a real pleasure.
— SAM BEAM (IRON & WINE)
is a Tucson, Arizona-based Americana / Tex-Mex / indie rock band. The band’s two main members, Joey Burns and John Convertino, first played together in Los Angeles as part of the group Giant Sand. They have recorded a number of albums on Quarterstick Records, while their 2005 EP In the Reins recorded with Iron & Wine has reached the Billboard 200 album charts. Their musical style is influenced by traditional Latin sounds of mariachi / conjunto / cumbia / Tejano music and also the Southwestern United States country music as well as ’50s-’60s jazz and ’90s-’00s post-rock, and they have been described by some as “desert noir” or indie rock.
(born 1974), better known by his stage and recording name Iron & Wine, is an American singer-songwriter. The name Iron & Wine is taken from a dietary supplement named “Beef Iron & Wine” that he found in a general store while shooting a film. Beam was raised in South Carolina before moving to Virginia and then Florida to attend school. He now resides in Dripping Springs, Texas, near Austin.
At that time, a mutual friend named Howard Greynolds suggested our making some kind of collaborative recording for his label, Overcoat Recordings. We all agreed pretty quickly but could never seem to clear our schedules until last December. The session was so much fun it seemed to be over as soon as it had begun. I can easily say that I’ve never worked with a more talented group in my life. I will always cherish Joey’s friendship and wonderful ear for music.”
Joey Burns: John Convertino and I met through a mutual friend in Los Angeles back in 1989. John was a member of the group Giant Sand and they were looking for an upright bass player versed in jazz, country, and rock and able to improvise. We played together in Los Angeles for some years before moving to Tucson, around 1993, where while playing with GS and other local groups like the Friends of Dean Martin(ez) John and I started writing and recording our own tunes in his apartment, on reel to reel 8 track around 1995. Before then we just made up tunes for the outgoing message machine on his phone or would carry around a cassette tape recorder with us, accumulated a batch of noise and snippets entitled “Superstition Highway”. This first outing was loaded with tape hiss that we tried to sell on the road in Europe with GS. I bought a cheap boom box there and some tapes and duped a few copies every day to sell that night. Only trouble was, I was either too tired from the travels or the partying or both so that some of the copies wound up being sold as blank cassettes. It took a while before we caught up with technology. Thanks to Wolfgang Petters, we released our first vinyl entitled “Spoke” on his Haus Musik label in 1996.
Sam Beam: What sort of musical backgrounds did the Calexico musicians have before joining the group? Did that influence the diverse styles of music the band performs?
JB: John Convertino grew up surrounded by music. His father and mother played accordion/piano and guitar respectively as did his three sisters and brother, who later went on to form a family band. John played with his family band for many years during his teens and early 20’s playing top 40s and some originals, from Texas to his home state of Oklahoma all the way north to Alaska. He studied by ear and with some training through a correspondence course. I also grew up in a large musical family and played in various garage bands all through my school years as well as studying jazz and classical music along the way. Growing up in Los Angeles I often spent weekends driving around from one show or rehearsal to the next with my upright bass.
I think the diverse musical backgrounds that John and I, as well as the rest of the guys in Calexico, grew up with has had a big influence on the wide range of sounds and musical directions that embody the group’s style. It’s a constant blend of esthetics and textures that we refer to instinctively whether we are playing in concert or in the studio. A lot is passed on from listening to the way a jazz or classical ensemble breathes and works, similarly found when listening to noise or punk bands or even traditional music from around the world. Being exposed to many different kinds of music growing up gave us a sense of universal space and phrasing that can be applied to anything. This isn’t however, something that we sit around and talk about. It’s more something felt and shared. Traveling and touring has helped a lot.
SB: How has the music changed since the inception of the group?
JB: Well, we started out as just a two piece, and we constructed songs in the studio or at home that would later on be transformed live with lots of improvising because we listened and could react to what the other was doing. Playing together for many years as a drums/bass rhythm section definitely helped reinforce that sort of musical telepathy. However, when we began touring in Europe in 1998 the label, City Slang, wondered if we would be into playing with some local musicians to help fill out the sound. Up till then we had kept it as a two piece for financial reasons and it was easier to open to bands like the Dirty Three and Barbara Manning. But we wound up connecting with some great musicians and sound engineers, Martin Wenk on trumpet, vibes, guitar, keyboard from Berlin Germany, Volker Zander on upright/ electric bass, samples and synth from Munich Germany, Jelle Kuiper on front of house sound from Utrecht Holland, as well as Paul Niehaus on pedal steel and guitar from Nashville TN and Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet, vibes, keyboards from Tucson.
With the addition of these core members since roughly 1998–2000 we have produced a much fuller sound and increased the dynamic range from the hush of our quieter numbers to a full blast with guitars, drums, bass and the two trumpets. Having the wide variety of sounds to choose from has been shaped by both the continual appreciation of multi instrumentation and various styles of music.
We’ve always mapped out a zigzag musical direction going from more acoustic songs whether folk, country or ambient, to the more easily identifiable mariachi horn based tunes, hovering around dark twang infused ballads with John’s circular brush work on the drums, vibes floating in the air and Paul’s haunting pedal steel washes and melodies lighting the way. People always comment on tour that audiences enjoy our live shows and that the dynamic spread is always engaging and entertaining. We try to mix it up, keep the energy moving, switch out instruments and change the mood as much as possible.
SB: What directions has the band taken in recent years that have had a direct influence on the rest of the members of the group?
JB: Well, there are musicians that can play all these parts and changes in instrumentation and the music can get out there in a live setting. Otherwise, the songs would stay in the studio and recording dimension. Also, as we have all gotten to know each other and work together more closely over the years, we have shared all sorts of influences with each other, in regards to all the arts and cultural differences between the countries we are from. It’s always interesting touring the States and seeing people’s reactions to the European band/crew members; they are intrigued about what lies on the other side of the Atlantic. People start talking about relatives or travels and ask questions about what life is like, what political opinions are different, opening the door to ideas and expression.
SB: There has been a lot of collaboration in remixes in recent years with electronica artists like Goldfrapp, Two Lone Swordsmen and Nortec Collective. How has this come about? What are the links between their musical worlds and yours?
JB: We were all surprised when Andrew Weatherall and Two Lone Swordsmen first asked us to do a remix of their song “Tiny Reminders N°3”. We never delved into the world of electronica or samples or even digitally originated music, but we had listened to some and had some interest in trying it someday. They reassured us when they wanted to have us record and produce the song, the same way we would do one of our tunes in the studio. So we did and started adding samples and snippets from their recording, experimenting in the studio more with effects both homemade and processed from outboard gear. Since then we’ve done work for Goldfrapp, Gotan Project and Nortec Collective always trying to push the envelope and go somewhere new with the renditions. I suppose that while both styles of music seem opposite to each other, there are deeper connections in regards to space and ambiance which we’ve always tried to include in our sound.
SB: Literary influences from writers such as Cormac McCarthy, Carlos Fuentes, and Luis Alberto Urrea seem to have made an impact on the lyrics in past Calexico albums. What other writers or influences have played an important part more recently?
JB: Recently, I have been reading “Down by The River” by Charles Bowden from Tucson and have met him a few times to discuss life in Arizona and the news of Mexican/ American border issues. He has been focusing on these topics for some time and is always inspiring to hang out with and to get a fresh perspective on things. In the past we also worked with a local writer who unfortunately passed away, Lawrence Clark Powell. We met him through John’s in-laws at the time who own and live on a ranch/bookstore called Singing Wind in Benson, Arizona, about an hour’s drive south-east of Tucson. They have book readings and signings every November around Thanksgiving, so we met Mr. Powell as well as the talented Mitch Cullin. Besides literature, there are always other songwriters who play an important part in influence, such as Vic Chesnutt, Bill Callahan, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan as well as more recent writers/artist like Sufjan Stevens and Manu Chao.
SB: How much does landscape and where you live influence your music and writing, not so much the Sonoran Desert but the city of Tucson? And from your travels?
“I MOVED FROM LIVING NEAR THE PACIFIC OCEAN TO BEING IN THE SONORAN DESERT. THE EXTREMES ARE WONDERFUL AND INSPIRE CREATIVITY AND CURSING ALL THE TIME” — BURNS
JB: Not sure, I guess initially landscape works on your consciousness and if you move location then you have the memories to haunt you. I moved from near the Pacific Ocean to the Sonoran Desert. The extremes are wonderful and inspire creativity and cursing all the time. The city of Tucson is a beautiful and strange bird here and I love the town and all the many different people very much. There’s tons of space, there’s suburban sprawl, a downtown scene complete with artists, hobos, 9-5 workers and growing appreciation for the historic aspects, making this place so unique. As for travels, meeting musicians from all over has definitely helped make some past collaboration possible. Without it, I doubt they would have occurred. Playing in an old castle in former East Germany, or in one of the old amphitheaters high above Athens has given us some confidence to keep on doing what we do. It helps make up for the long drives and lame clubs here at home.
SB: How has working with other artists shaped your musical vision?
JB: Every time you back up another artist you learn something new. I love collaborating and playing accompaniment, especially playing upright bass.
Holding on to that instrument and laying down the root is like meditating for me.
SB: How much influence does the audience have on what you do both live and on recordings? You have had a steady touring schedule in the past, how has performing live changed your lives and your music?
JB: I suppose performing and interacting with the audience, watching them react to certain songs or dynamics, other artists and instruments, helps build your knowledge of what you do, more like a coexisting world that has a life all its own. There are times when our tour schedule is out of balance and the only thing that makes it worth doing, is meeting people whose lives have been seriously changed by music. It’s a gift to see their surprise or their hearts light up, like a photo you will never forget. Musically we’ve been influenced by seeing how the dynamics shape the music more and more. This also comes from just watching others play live, say like Yo La Tengo who always has put on an incredible live show and taken the audience to places far from the norm.
JB: What do you do to get into the music and begin writing and recording, touring and performing live?
JB: Um … do something distracting or the opposite of what you would
normally do. Being in a group, just hanging out is sometimes better than any kind of rehearsal, finding the dynamics between each other more than the right notes.
SB: What are some challenges Calexico has faced as you record more and more albums? Is it difficult to think up original material?
JB: I wouldn’t say that it is difficult to find more original material or new songs because new tunes are always popping up or collaboration in the works, there is more effort dealing with the behind the scenes aspect of running the group. Since we don’t have a manager, a lot of the decisions and office work piles up on the band itself. Thankfully, we work with extremely efficient and helpful labels; Quarterstick (USA) and City Slang (Europe), and booking agents; Billions (USA) and Berthold Seliger (Europe). Without their aid the band would bog down under a heap of mud. I suppose if we stepped up to the plate and got some home recording gear, we’d help ourselves immensely.
SB: Who has influenced you recently?
JB: Francoise Hardy the Vogue years, Luis Alberto Urrea’s book The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Jean-Luc Goddard’s film Contempt, Bridget Bardot, Sufjan Stevens, Golden Boots from Tucson, Micah P. HInson, Miles Davis On the Corner, Dirty Three, Sparklehorse, Lhasa and Brazilian field recordings.
SB: How was your approach to recording In The Reins different from Calexico’s approach to making albums?
JB: Since these were all yours, we took your lead on the direction of instrumentation and production. You were pretty open minded during the whole process, so we all got together the night before, went through the tunes and made some slight alterations. Once we were in the studio, if there was a part that one of us heard we would run it by you and everyone else. I could see that you have an incredible sense of layering harmonies, rhythms and textures. You would bring the chunk and we would match it with the space. There were a lot of things that were left in from the initial ideas for overdubs. So, during the mixing stage, John and I wanted to take things out of the mix and make it leaner. However, you wanted to make it as much of a departure from the sound of your recordings as it was from ours.
“I COULD SEE THAT [SAM] HAS AN INCREDIBLE SENSE OF LAYERING HARMONIES, RHYTHMS AND TEXTURES. [HE] WOULD BRING THE CHUNK AND WE WOULD MATCH IT WITH THE SPACE.” — BURNS
SB: Did you enjoy this more or less than you do recording with just Calexico?
JB: We all had a great time making this EP, Craig Schumacher and Nick Luca, from Wavelab Studio got involved, engineering and performing some key overdubs and parts on the recording. Since we only had a few days, time was tight, and we didn’t spend long on overdubs, so when I listen back I remember that window of time and the feeling in the room. Recently, Calexico has generally spent a bit more time in the studio sketching out parts and recording ideas spontaneously, so this was one of the main differences between the two. I really enjoyed watching Salvador Duran coming into the studio and laying down his vocals, boot percussion and sound effects. After one night in the studio we all walked over to the Hotel Congress lobby to get a drink and Salvador was there performing. He is from Mexico and is a painter/musician who lives in the warehouse studios district. I liked filling out the horns on the tune “History of Lovers” by adding local baritone/tenor sax player Ryan Roscoe, it shifted our horns section more towards Memphis than Mexico City.
I gotta say that I also really like that this is an EP, short and sweet, yet the collaboration sticks with you when it’s over. I’m curious about the fall/winter 2005 tour, what it brings about; new tunes, interesting covers, different guests. It will be a memorable concert not unlike Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Tour.
SB: Do you have any other plans for collaboration in the near future?
JB: John and I did some recent work with Neko Case on her new album. It sounds amazing. We’ve also been working with French transplant Naim Amor in Tucson. Other than that we’ll be working on a new Calexico album after some July dates at home and abroad. It would be nice to get some guests to come in and record, Lhasa, Neko and maybe you Sam, if your schedule permits.
SB: If you could collaborate with anyone (alive or dead) whom would you choose?
JB: Duke Ellington Orchestra, Lhasa, Taraf de Houdouks, Amalia Rodrigues, Tom Waits, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Schoenberg, and Eric Dolphy, and how about Sufjan Stevens, too.
Calaexico W/ Iron & Wine
In The Reins (Subpop) 2005
Spoke 1997: THe Black Light 1998: Hot Rail 2000: Feast of Wire 2003 (Hausmusik / Quarterstick)
Aerocalexico 2001: The Book and the Canal 2005 (Our Soil, Our Strength)
Iron & Wine Discography:
The Creek Drank the Cradle 2002: The Sea And THe Rhythm 2003: Our Endless Numbered Days 2004: Passing Afternoon 2004: Woman King 2005 (Sub Pop Records)