I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
–Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”
“It’s not like we’re abandoning any one influence; we still play a variety of songs,” says Calexico co-leader Joey Burns of the Arizona band’s new adventures in a major mode, Garden Ruin. “Variety is always the key for us.”
The fact is, though, it would be impossible to cover all of Calexico’s influences in any one project: Portuguese fado, eastern European gypsy, electronica tango, jazz, Top 40, movies; the touch and feel of dozens of different instruments; the sound and personalities of the many artists they’ve backed, collaborated with or remixed.
There’s also the undeniable influence of more than a decade working and touring with inspiration-prone Howe Gelb (as members of Giant Sand and in other projects). There’s the mariachi tradition of the borderlands. There are the endless skies of their Tucson home, and the tiny European clubs they’ve come to love like home. There’s also the general serendipity of opportunity, or risk; not to mention life, in general, and being open to its messages.
Calexico’s 2003 album Feast Of Wire may have come closest to capturing the band’s range. A German oompah finds its way into the spaghetti-western accordion ballad “Sunken Waltz”. The dreamy, jazzy “Stucco” incorporates rich string arrangements. The exquisite, miniature “The Book And The Canal” features drummer John Convertino on piano, his first instrument. “Attack El Robot! Attack!” explores electronic effects in an instrumental soundscape. “Güero Canelo” is a mariachi rave-up from a lode Calexico has quarried since their 1998 disc The Black Light.
It turns out that the anomalously poppy Feast track “Not Even Stevie Nicks” was a harbinger of things to come. It announced to the world that Joey Burns can write a sing-along, verse-chorus-verse, less-than-three-minute pop song, and he might even like it.
The song also revealed the rock ‘n’ roll drummer dormant for more than a decade in Convertino’s sticks. Having spent the late ’70s in a touring cover band (“Top 40 stuff like the Doobie Brothers and Head East,” he says), Convertino had relished the switch to more open, lyrical drumming with Giant Sand and Calexico, and he never looked back. But of “Not Even Stevie Nicks”, he says, “Joey snuck it in and I just thought of Mick Fleetwood, and I started playing kind of a Mick Fleetwood beat. My first thought afterward was, ‘That was fun! It was fun to be able to do that.’”
J.D. Foster, who produced Garden Ruin (due out April 11 on Quarterstick Records), relates conversations he had with both Burns and Convertino leading up to the sessions. He notes that the band’s European label was looking for a more “hi-fi sound,” but more than that, “They both came to me, particularly John, and said they were really feeling like they were dug into this hole of being the cactus-head, western-landscape, playing-with-the-mariachi thing. They’re really intelligent, really talented guys, and musicians get bored and want to stretch. Those guys have the abilities to stretch in a lot of different ways.”
Longtime Calexico/Howe Gelb/Giant Sand engineer and de-facto producer Craig Schumacher, keeper of Tucson’s renowned Wavelab Studios, enthusiastically concurred that it was time for a new direction. “To the extent that there’s a Tucson sound,” he offers, “part of it is we’re not very careful. Music has to come first. It has to be about the moment and the inspiration and not caught up in the technology. [It] sort of has some sort of unpolished grit to it. I think for me Feast Of Wire is sort of the pinnacle of that process, and you just can’t keep going down that same road every time.”
Burns picks up the thread. “We were working on the Iron & Wine project [the 2005 In The Reins collaborative EP], and Howard Greynolds [longtime friend and owner of Overcoat Records] said, ‘Why don’t you get David Byrne?’ I thought, that could be really interesting, and maybe have it go in a different way. But John was I think a little more intimidated by the fact that he’d have to be talking to one of his favorite singers and bandleaders. It seemed like much more of a leap, and difficult to arrange schedules.”
Foster was a clearer choice. “Devotion & Doubt was a great time for us,” Burns says of the 1997 Richard Buckner album that he and Convertino played on, with Foster as producer and bassist. “The way [Foster] kind of allowed the songs to breathe, he was connecting us all together and yet being this fourth member of the ensemble, kind of listening to the whole picture. Not really telling you what to do, but showing where you wanted songs to kind of breathe, or open up.”
Ultimately, it was Foster’s emphasis on songcraft that most influenced Garden Ruin, because it bolstered Burns’ evolving focus on writing. Indeed, the liner notes to Garden Ruin are the first in the band’s ten-year history to include lyrics.
Bisbee, Arizona, is nestled in a precipitous, high-desert landscape among the ochre-striated, fault-thrust Mule Mountains, their blue tops laced with the silhouettes of century plants, yucca and scrappy Arizona pine. Its eastern mouth is gashed with deep, mile-wide, terraced basins left by a century of open-pit mining.
The mining culture departed as the value of Bisbee’s copper ore declined, but, owing to its bottomless vein of character, the town was never quite left to its storied ghosts. Bouquets of brightly colored houses are stilted and cantilevered across the acute slopes of the tiny canyon, among the thousands of concrete steps that comprise Brisbee’s main thoroughfares. The town itself is a testament to the indomitable creativity of its decades of inhabitants.