Calexico's Joey Burns Talks Music, Movies, Cultural Melting Pots & Growing Up In L.A.
The lights went out last time Calexico visited Los Angeles. Fans at the Fonda Theatre waited for hours in darkness, but a Hollywood Boulevard power outage literally stole the show. "My parents were there, my sister and the whole label and we're all sitting in the dark," said Joey Burns, singer and guitarist for the band. "I loved every moment and we probably could've played acoustically, but there were safety concerns."
Calexico's seventh long-player, Algiers, had recently dropped, marking the band's first opportunity to play live for its new label, Anti. But after a short acoustic song, Burns bid the remaining crowd good night with a promise to return in January. And tonight, Calexico makes good on its promise at the El Rey.
We caught up with Joey Burns, Calexico's principal member, to talk about his L.A. upbringing, life in Tucson and more.
LAist: Everybody talks about Calexico being a Tucson band, but you actually started out here in Southern California?
Joey Burns: Yes. In high school I was in bands that played Gazzarri's on the Sunset Strip, among other places like Madame Wong's East and West, and my favorite band from back then was a band from San Pedro called The Minutemen. Great punk rock band, Mike Watt's still touring and playing — really fun to watch.
Any favorite spots you like hitting when you return to L.A.?
I like to go to the water nowadays because I live in the desert. That's the first destination. I like to go to places that I haven't really been before, so I've been enjoying checking out East L.A., just checking out parts of town that I didn't really hang out much in, and so that's always been kind of fun. There's a Levi's Showroom on the Sunset Strip that I might check out — pretty excited about that. I hear they have some rare vintage shirts. All the used clothing stores — I used to go to Aardvark's a lot. Record stores: Amoeba's always a good one; Aaron's was a good one, too.
I used to work at a record store in San Pedro, but I don't think it's around anymore. It was called Soundsations. There was a store, I think it was in Inglewood for a while, and then one opened up in San Pedro for a short while.
You grew up in San Pedro?
Well, I grew up in South Bay — various places in South Bay. I went to high school in Palos Verdes, so that's even further remote. I went to college in Irvine — that's pretty far away, I wouldn't call that Los Angeles at all. But I used to drive up the Harbor Freeway a lot to get up to Hollywood.
We're really excited to come back. L.A. is where John and I first met in 1990. I was working at SST Records after college, and we became friends through a studio. '89 was the end of a lot of the big stuff at SST, a lot of them went to Geffen. A lot of people went to major labels. Firehose went to Columbia for a while; everyone had to kinda jump ship. It was kind of the end. It was Cruz Records that was being pushed at the time.
We met up through a mutual connection at Radio Tokyo, which was a recording studio in Venice Beach. We met up there in L.A., started playing together and now we're going back!
What brought you out to Tucson originally?
We were playing in Giant Sand for a while and wanted to have more of our own time. I think in L.A. having to work several jobs... you can get away with working less out here and just focus more on music. So the overhead was lower, and there's a lot more characters out here. We enjoyed the change of pace, and Tucson is a much more down to earth place. And downtown has always been an interesting part to Tucson: a lot of artists, a lot of warehouse spaces and interesting venues that have come down throughout the years. Places like Rialto Theatre and Hotel Congress, which has a club in it, have always been the mainstays for both national and local touring acts.
In some ways, coming to Tucson definitely nurtured that one foot in tradition, one foot in experimentation approach. Taking some of the ideas we were kicking around and developing them.
What kind of music were you playing prior to Calexico?
I played in a garage rock band, an experimental jazz group, some orchestral stuff in college, jazz band in high school — so a lot of variety for me growing up in music groups that I played in.
No! Mostly bass. Upright bass and electric bass. And I think that's what kind of connected John and I because he liked a wide variety of stuff. He loves listening to jazz and classical music, and I think it shows in his playing. He's definitely one of those kinds of drummers that has a different sort of approach, much like Jim White of The Dirty Three who has also played with Cat Power.
Both John and I, when we moved to Tucson — I think he moved in '92 and I moved in '93 — we wound up to looking for old and unusual looking instruments. Things that people back then didn't want. Accordions, mandolins, marimba, vibraphoone... nobody wanted those things. And there were a lot of musicians who had retired here who were interested in getting rid of stuff. It was readily available. Along with a lot of Western shirts, y'know, things people really just weren't wearing back in those days. So it was an interesting time coming out here and tapping into something I think that is part nostalgic and part reinventing something, taking these pieces, whether they're instruments or influences, and making your own statement. Giving these things its own voice by way of your own story and where we came from.
Algiers was recorded in New Orleans. Is it the first album you've recorded outside of Tucson?
We recorded in Nashville a little bit, the Convict Pool with the cover of Love's "Alone Again Or." But with there being a lot of family and kids around, it made sense to get out of town. We couldn't think of a more eclectic place: philosophy, themes and music. And Craig Schumacher of Wavelab Studio had just gotten over cancer, and part of that recovery was going to New Orleans and surrounding him with all the things that he loves and bringing business to a city like New Orleans.
Is location and travel a big part of what inspires a Calexico record?
Yes. With our previous record, Carried From Dust, there are definitely influences from our travels to South America, which happened in 2007. Songs like "Victor Jara's Hands" or "House of Valparaiso," those songs were definitely influenced by going down there.
Travel has always been a big influence on our music. We've got band members from Europe and around the States — Paul Niehaus from Nashville, Tennessee; Martin Wenk from Berlin, Germany. Last couple years we had somebody from Spain joining us, who also sits in on the new record as well as the last album. So there's always been this sort of multilingual, multicultural influence.
How does being such a cultural melting pot affect life on the road for the band?
We all hang out. I often get asked, "How do you guys rehearse?" and, well, we're going to be rehearsing Sunday and Monday before we hit the road, and, of course, we toured a bunch, so we already have a very deep working relationship, and it doesn't take very long before we fall back into a rhythm. But it makes it nice, especially when the Europeans come over and they see what's happening with politics and just the general direction where things are going. Sometimes they're really surprised. For example, the idea of a wall between U.S. and Mexico: You mention that to somebody from Berlin, and they can't help but to do a double take. It's like: "What? What are you talking about?"
Themes of immigration — there's a different approach to things like that overseas. But it's all really good. Even within the band the European crisis, you've got a Spaniard and you've got a German in the band and their viewpoints are quite different. For me it's interesting to see how they interpret what's going on both in their own countries and in Europe as a whole. And that's really been the first time there's been something that severe going on. Most of the time it's focusing on the wars that have been happening in the past, going for years and years now.
Do you have an expanded touring band again on this tour?
Yes, seven musicians. Paul Niehaus is playing, Martin Wenk on trumpet and multi-instrumental stuff, Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet and doing a lot of different things. Sergio Mendoza on piano, who was born and raised in Nogales, Arizona, and lived in Sonora, northern Mexico for a while. And Ryan Alfred is playing bass. He and Sergio are the newer members. So seven musicians on a stage, and it's incredible getting to see how things have evolved both on a personal level and in regards to audience and industry. The music industry has changed a lot. Of course, the European Union has formed.
It had been a while since we had been back to Europe, so when we went in the fall, I was excited to see where things are at for the band and if there'd be people coming to the shows. And of course there were a lot of people coming to the shows. There were a fair amount of sold out shows, which is really cool, and people were excited to see the band. Some even saying they were some of the best shows that they've seen to date, people who had seen us eight, nine, 10 times. So that meant a lot to me. And getting to reunite with people and venues we've played in the past — the Muffathalle in Munich, or the Forum in London, the Paradiso in Amsterdam, or in Belgium we played one of the first sold out shows at Ancienne Belgique.
For me it feels good to connect with Europe because we've drawn so much influence from the European aesthetic. I think it's influenced the sensibility and the tone — it's hard to put it into words without generalizing... but the attitude — it's kind of a combination of North American and European. I noticed it when I first met John, the drummer. He's really quite a unique person. He loves the things that are made with the intention of being around for a long time. He loves vintage drums, old cars... things that are built to last. And I really learned to appreciate that. I didn't really think about these things before I met John, whether it was houses or architecture or homes or clothing, which comes full circle to the Levi's showroom. He was the one who asked, hey is it possible to check out this "House of Strauss" because Paul [Niehaus] was on tour with Justin Townes Earle, who is connected to these clothing circles and was able to get in and have an appointment with the showroom.
I'd say that aesthetic extends to the music, too. That sort of timelessness. Algiers sounds immediately familiar, even though it's more expansive and complex than previous Calexico records. Is it a challenge to keep writing new songs. Do you ever hit walls?
You've gotta keep it going. We love it. You need the songs in order to go on the road. And similarly you need the road in order to inspire experiences and songs and writing. Over the past couple years just about everyone in the band has settled down and had families. Both Jacob and Paul have kids. Jairo has three kids. John has three kids. I've got two kids. So the familial quality that happens at this point in most people's lives really makes us appreciate having our jobs. It makes it special for us all to get together. We love hanging out, and it shows on stage. I kept on getting that comment in Europe last fall. People could really tell that we were enjoying each others company and that booking agents and promoters were having a great time backstage with us as well.
We love this job and we're looking forward to coming to L.A. Man, it's been a while.
It's been a while since you've played with the lights on. Any other collaborations you're looking forward to?
Our office hours are always open. We love doing collaborations. We recently did some recording with Neko Case for her upcoming record. Variety keeps it fun and interesting.
Is there any artist that you'd like to get a phone call from?
I've been hearing some new Bob Dylan on the radio here in Tucson and you know, that's one of those things that, well, if you mention it, you'll curse it. But getting the opportunity to work on soundtracks and especially the film I'm Not There was a great example of just that. We got the opportunity to collaborate with a whole slew of artists, some we even suggested, like "Hey, Charlotte Gainsbourg is in the movie, can we send her some tracks and see if she'd like to sing on them?" And the answer that we got back was yes, so that was one of those lessons where nowadays you can just about send tracks to everyone and hope for the best. I think certain artists are really open to trying new things. We got to work with Roger McGuinn in a similar way. Getting to meet Jim James [of My Morning Jacket] was a lot of fun, and Willie Nelson, and of course we knew Iron & Wine. It was great to get to do a lot of different collaborations all under the umbrella of one movie and one project. That was really thanks to Randall Poster, the music supervisor who connected us with soundtrack work previously.
I thought "Goin to Acapulco" was one of the most poignant moments in the movie, with Jim James singing and Calexico performing and actually appearing on set.
Being on set was a lot of fun. No one had really heard that song and there was a lot going on in that movie and in that scene in general. There were a lot of things happening. You're on location. It was shot outside of Montreal, Canada. Everyone's in character, and it's pretty amazing.
When we got there they were working with Richard Gere; he was on horseback. Before we had gotten to the set, the horse had acted up, and they nearly had an accident. So people were a little bit on edge. And then this huge mess of a rainstorm came in, and everybody took a break for lunch. We came back and everyone is pretty relaxed and chill and we begin working on the scene that we're in.
And they pump the music through the PA system, and it's resonating through the area, basically out in the middle of nowhere. It really took people by surprise but got people in the mood so we could get in character and into the scene. There was a real person pretending to be a corpse right in front of you. It's pretty creepy and wonderful at the same time.
I'm sure we will have some more acting opportunities. These things just kind of happen all by themselves. Hollywood's a bizarre place I love it. You never what might happen from whatever project or collaboration you do. The music has continued to have a bridge to soundtracks and movies. Seems like every day I get an email or a request to watch something. Tonight I'm supposed to watch a documentary on Wild Horses in North America, so that would be the next collaboration, seeing what music would work with that. We also get a lot of requests for songs to be used in documentaries regarding immigration, and I'm really proud of that. In the future I'd love to get some calls from directors like Wes Anderson or Jim Jarmusch. Something that's outside of the Southwest, something a little different. Who knows, I don't know if I'll be able to go to Sundance this month since we'll be on tour, but someday I'd love to check out more film festivals, whether it's Berlin or L.A. or Toronto or New York, meet people and get involved. Who knows, maybe I'll just write a screenplay and a soundtrack and see if I can get someone to make the movie.
You mentioned documentaries on immigration. How is Calexico getting involved with these issues?
I would like to play more benefits for sure. Humane Borders is one of the groups that we've helped out consistently over the years. The only time we ever played Calexico, California, was a benefit for another border group called Border Angels. And interestingly enough, in Europe, immigration is becoming more of an issue, just like in the States. Hopefully we can come up with a better exchange program or better legislation for workers — people who are here and have been paying taxes. I guess for most people it's just not simple enough to file the proper paperwork to come here and work. It should be simpler.
I was born in Montreal, so I had to become a citizen at some point. I'm sure there was a lot of paperwork back then. I know my dad was trying to make sure my brothers and I wouldn't act out and say something silly and stupid when we went for the interview. It's given me the perspective of not taking things for granted over here and also being sympathetic to those who don't have a lot and are coming here because they need to. It's survival, especially from Mexico. How do we as a country make sure that our neighbors are doing alright? You want to make sure everyone in the hemisphere — and world — is doing alright, not just in your own backyard. But that's a much bigger topic.
And SB 1070...
Yeah. Now Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Maricopa County — the same guy who was doing raids on businesses suspected of having immigrants working there — is in the news saying he wants to have armed citizens patrolling around schools. Not professional police offers, citizens, y'know, 500 of his gang to go patrol around schools, and that's going to be intimidating and send the wrong message. It's just kind of confrontational. And of course it's the same guy causing the negativity with SB1070. It's one of the things that on one hand, I don't like about Arizona, that there are a lot of conservative people throughout the state, whereas little islands like Bisbee, or Flagstaff or Tucson are more balanced.
I'm also really happy to be here because I feel like I can do something. Our involvement with immigration or I'm helping out with raising awareness around the shooting that involved our Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. We got involved with the Fund for Civility Respect and Community. It meant a lot to me because I felt I was doing something directly for my community. And it's hard to feel that important in a bigger city or bigger state. And I'm hoping that our music can be an influence at least on a very small level. We do a benefit for our local community-sponsored radio station. We can raise money for a cool radio station, KXCI, and they play a lot of local music. It's pretty cool. It's nice because I like being in some of those smaller towns because you really get a sense of who people really are and what the spirit is of a place, but when you're in a big city you can be anywhere. That's my little rant about being in Tucson.
Calexico plays tonight, January 16, at The El Rey Theatre. Bahamas opens. Tickets ($20 + fees) are available at Ticketmaster.