Interview: Joey Burns (of Calexico)


    Calexico — the eclectic musical pairing of Joey Burns and John Convertino — have returned with Algiers, an album named for and recorded in the Algiers District of New Orleans. As the band prepares to promote their new album, Consequence of Sound caught up with Joey Burns, as he and his dog Ida went out for a walk “into the cool Arizona morning.” We discussed Algiers why the two decided to trek down to the Crescent City, and the mystique that surrounds New Orleans both musically and historically.

    I mean this with all respect. There is something about a lot of your music that makes me feel like I am listening to A&M records from the ’60s.

    [Laughs.] That’s great. Like which records of A&M?

    Well, Herb Alpert. Some of the instrumentation obviously would go with that. But it was more just that, when I was listening to Algiers the other day, some of the instrumentation just took me back to the early era of the label, when it was less constricted by the business side of things.


    Yeah. That’s cool. I love just hearing a lot of those acoustic instruments, especially upright bass and drums and piano. It’s just so classic. It could be Nat King Cole from the ’40s. It could be Duke Ellington from the ’50s, or ’40s, and ’60s. Those instruments, they just sound great, you know. They don’t need a lot, except for maybe a room mic, a mic that’s picking up the room sound.

    You often use a lot of non-traditional instruments. Do they appear on Algiers?

    For sure. [Laughs.] It’s funny. You know, that Mellotron keyboard from the late ’60s, early ’70s, they’re pretty rare. The only one I’ve seen is the one at Ardent Studios in Memphis. That was used for Zeppelin and a couple of other people who had recorded there back in the day. And it’s such a fascinating instrument, especially now with the idea of sampling and technology, because… are you familiar with the Mellotron keyboard?


    Ok, great, so I don’t need to explain it. So, it winds up that Wavelab Studio in Tucson, owned by Craig Schumacher, found one and bought one and has got it working, which is fantastic. So, that’s on this record. When we went to New Orleans and worked at the Living Room Studio, the owners, Chris and Daniel, they had found a Mellotron keyboard as well and fixed it, restored it, repainted it, got it working. It’s kind of crazy, this really rare keyboard, which is super, super delicate and not easy to maintain. It takes a lot of special attention. These guys both had this amazing keyboard, so we used it on a number of tracks.


    That’s a sign.

    Yeah, that was really fun. So that’s our special, new guest instrument in our Calexico repertoire. Love it. Love the keyboard.

    Are you going to be able to take it out on the road, though?

    Hell no. Are you kidding!? [Laughs.] I mean, those things, the mechanisms inside are really fragile. Each key has a series of tape, analog tape, quarter-inch loops. It’s great for studio. I like the fact that you mentioned that some of these recordings, and maybe the approach in the playing, too, the way of the upright bass, the way that John Convertino’s playing the drums… He’s constantly listening to old jazz records. He’s a big fan of Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Max Roach. Those are his heroes, so that’s the tone he’s going for. And the style, too. He’s not playing like your typical indie rocker or folk musician. He’s more intoning that jazz sensibility in his style, much like someone like Jim White from the Dirty Three approaches his way of drumming. In fact, those two are good friends, and our first tour of America, as a two-piece, was opening up for the Dirty Three. And I just noticed that they have a new record coming out. I’m so excited.

    Yeah.  One of my favorite things by the Dirty Three was when they collaborated with Low, and they did Neil Young’s “Down by the River”.


    That’s a great EP. That’s the Fishtank series. I think that’s a great, two great bands. Really, really cool.

    Let’s talk about Algiers. You recorded it down in New Orleans. Did you and John emigrate to New Orleans or move down there around the time of working on the album? Did you actually become residents of the city?

    [Laughs.] No. I wish. I think that’s always the dream of any place you go, whether you’re on tour or recording on a session. You’re like, “Wow, I’d love to live here.” So, in some ways, secretly, yeah, one way of becoming a resident is booking studio time or booking a tour. For John and I, since we both now have families, that’s a little more hard to do. But we went down there for like two weeks in December of last year. We had already started work on the record at Wavelab Studio in Tucson, and we had a couple reels of tape. We were recording on analog tape machines. It was a big, huge inspiration behind this record. We brought some tapes with us; we picked up some new tapes when we were down there. We went there thinking, “Let’s see what we can come up with. Maybe we could write some new ideas. If not, we had some songs already started. We can just work on those and get some locals to play on them or who knows, we’ll just see.”


    But I definitely realized in having become a recent father that I needed to go somewhere for like two weeks or 10 days and spend several hours a day living, breathing music, and recording. It was getting really challenging with trying to break away from home, finish tours, and feel like everyone’s taken care of, mom and the girls are taken care of. So, once we got to a place where the kids were old enough, and Melba [Joey’s wife], she realized it, too. She was, “Yeah, you definitely need to go, and we’ll have some support here at home.” So, it wound up working out great.

    Craig, the owner of Wavelab, has always suggested going down to New Orleans. He and his wife go to Jazzfest every year. He’s had a couple of audio conferences that he’s put together called Potluck. He’s organized those down in New Orleans, and we’ve even gone and participated. We went there thinking we’ll go to one of those big studios in New Orleans that has a lot of history, a lot of mojo coming in from all the oozing of music and the stuff that’s just collecting in the air there. Then we realized we’re gonna have to drive down there in order to bring all of our gear. I don’t want to have Craig to have to drive a van with gear. There’s gotta be a studio down there that is like Wavelab that has a bunch of gear already there.

    Sure enough, one of Craig’s friends said, “Yeah, you never asked The Living Room Studio, those young guys. They renovated that old Baptist church in Algiers, just across the river.” I saw some pictures online. I had made a phone call and immediately felt that this was the place to be. Super low pressure. The studio rate was great. They even have a roommate that’s a cook, so he cooked lunch and dinner every day. We had shrimp Creole; we had jambalaya; we had red beans and rice; we had barbecue. We had everything going on. So, while we’re working in the studio, their friend Kevin Barrios is cooking. It was fantastic. It was a wonderful mini-biosphere in some kind of way. A miniature biosphere.


    In addition to your friend telling you to go to New Orleans, did you have a specific narrative in mind involving the city?

    Yeah, a little bit. John and I had been asked to go down to Cuba a couple years ago with a Spanish singer named Amparo Sanchez. She started recording in Tucson, and then she had gone down to Havana and fallen in love and married a Cubano. She said, “I gotta bring you guys down here. We gotta record at EGREM Studios where they recorded the Buena Vista Social Club. And I want you to bring your families.” So, we did.

    Before I left, I went to the book fair here in Tucson at the university. They just started this book fair. A bunch of writers come, and they read their works, and they sign books. One of my favorite writers here in the southwest is Charles Bowden. He does a lot of work involving the border, immigration, and narco-traficante. I’ve known him for a while, and I told him about this trip, and he goes, “Oh, you gotta get this book, Joey. Ned Sublette has written this book called The World That Made New Orleans.” It talks about the connection between Haiti, Cuba, New Orleans, and, of course, the colonial and African slaves whose paths were crossed there. It’s a great book, and it got me thinking about this connection. I never realized there was such a strong connection in the past between these cities and countries. Having gone to Cuba, it reminded me of those parts of New Orleans that I love.


    You know, a strong sense of music, a strong sense of African influence, strong colonial architecture and stuff… great food, great vibes. So, on one of the songs, I wanted to bridge that influence, and that wound up being the song “Sinner in the Sea”, which was the first song that we were recording in Tucson that felt like we’ve finally arrived here at material that I think is defining the heart of this new record.

    I was going to ask you about that book, because I had read that you had felt that it was really important.

    Yeah, it really was. Deep down inside, I’m a frustrated ethno-musicologist, and I just love history, and I love music and culture, so it’s no surprise. I’m like everyone else. I like a good documentary, too. So, with the music, I don’t know why, but with Ned, I started checking out some of his conversations on YouTube. And he gave some kind of keynote speech about New Orleans, and he talked about how the southern hemisphere of the Americas was influenced by, of course, the Portuguese and the Spanish influence, a stronger Catholic influence, as well as the African influence and indigenous, and that that had shaped this completely different musical impression. And the north, it’s more Protestant, and it’s more Anglo, as well as some African influence.


    I realized that I understand now why I’m attracted to the music of the southern hemisphere. It explains why I love Portuguese fada music from the ’40s and ’50s and why I love Afro-Cuban music and why I love some mariachi music or Afro-Caribbean music. That stuff really just kind of touches some kind of vein inside of my ear and my heart. Not that I’m trying to be something that I’m not, but it’s just music that I think… maybe it’s needing to feel like that presence is missing somewhere in the north. And growing up in California, moving to Tucson, Arizona, I’m that much closer to that southern hemisphere.

    Growing up playing jazz when I was in high school, I was really into playing jazz so much so that I got the Louis Armstrong award. It really meant a lot to me. Our high school jazz band won some competition among the other high schools, and we got to play at the Playboy Jazz Festival, where I got to meet Charlie Haden, Jaco Pastorius, Ray Charles’ bass player, and Diana Reeves. It was really cool. It really kind of shaped me growing up, being part of a huge festival with all these heavy jazz musicians. And in jazz, there’s that southern element, that Latin influence, bossa nova, Afro-Cuban influence.

    It’s definitely made you quite prolific. To even say you’re prolific is a serious understatement. The diversity of artists you’ve worked with is pretty impressive. Didn’t you say something about how last year alone you worked on almost eight different projects? When did you begin to realize you’re on everybody’s short list?


    It doesn’t really feel like that. It’s a nice compliment; I appreciate it. I think it’s more of people have to be into that kind of philosophy. And I don’t think it’s a regional thing, too. Sometimes I wonder if people want to come here and work, because they like the influence of the southwest. But, then again, we don’t really make a very southwest-sounding record. Some people do. Some people want the two trumpets, and they want the Spanish guitar. And, actually, those are kind of less common. People like Iron & Wine, Neko Case, Amos Lee, they want to stay true to what they do, and so in a similar way when we went to New Orleans, we wanted to stay true to what we do as well.

    With regards to the band, you’ve had a pretty consistent lineup for the last few albums. When did you and John actually decide that you wanted a band rather than hired guns?

    Well, ever since we recorded our first record, and then we went on the road and realized we could only do minimal versions of these songs. Because, in our hearts, we’re thinking, “Let’s just overdub some parts here. Let’s get some accordions going. How ’bout a little violin, some cello, marimba, vibraphone, mandolin, you name it. Let’s see what we can pile on here to kind of make this more an orchestral or ensemble kind of recording.” We’ve always been fans of, not necessarily big bands, but more ensemble. With that, you have more color to choose from. Your palette becomes wider, and you’re able to try different styles of songs, too.


    With that in mind, let’s talk about the Louisville Orchestra. Was that Calexico material rearranged for orchestra?

    It was Calexico songs that had arrangements written for a 70-piece symphony orchestra. We enlisted several different people to help with that job. Actually, last week we were in Vienna and then in Berlin, and we recorded those songs and performed them live as well, adding four more songs, three new songs, and the song “Black Heart” from Feast of Wire. So, now we have 11 songs, which we can hopefully do more of these kinds of performances with symphonies that are open to that. Non-traditional programming.

    When you worked with Nancy Sinatra, did you actually get to work with her, or was it one of those sessions where you did your part, she did hers, and they pieced it together in post?


    Yeah, right. She was in Los Angeles; we were in New York. There was a deadline. We called up and asked which key would work better for her, and then we wrote and recorded the song [“Burnin’ Down the Spark”]. It was actually July 4th, quite a few years ago. We sent it out to her, and she put on some vocals. I had a pilot vocal on there. And then she sent it back, and we mixed it. So, yeah, that was one of those Internet…

    Did you ever get to meet her, though?

    We did. Afterwards, we were playing the Getty Museum in L.A., and she wanted to come and say hi. She stopped by the hotel and bought us all breakfast, and we hung out with her and her daughter, A.J. Azzarto. It was really great getting to hang out with her. [Laughs.] She’s really sweet. I would love to hang out some more with her. I think she’s really cool. The fact that she still supports veterans and does a lot of great causes… I love listening to her records and hearing her sing. Of course, she has that connection with Lee Hazelwood, who’s originally from Phoenix, Arizona. That brought us to actually meeting Lee Hazelwood as well, before he passed away.

    We met in 2000 in London, and then he came with us and a bunch of other bands that were celebrating the 10th anniversary of City Slang Records, and I said, “One of our songs is really inspired by your work, so I apologize in advance.” [Laughs.] And he went, “I loved it. It was great. I love what you guys do.” We had brought with us members of a local group called Mariachi Luz de Luna, light of the moon, and we all just partied, like… incredibly… hard. It was a lot of fun.


    He joined us on tour. We were on the bus, going to the airport. The bus breaks down, and we’re all just in the bus, dying of heat. [Laughs.] And there’s Lee, hanging out with us. It was incredible. And then we’re on the plane, and of course, we had so much weight to our bags that they didn’t have the ability to bring on the beverage cart, so it was really interesting seeing how Lee Hazelwood was so cool in that situation, as well as everyone else. Musicians were pretty thirsty at that point. They wanted to keep the party going the first thing in the morning. Then we wound up doing a song. I think we recorded a song for a Lee Hazelwood tribute.

    Oh, Totally Lee?

    Yeah, exactly. It was just great getting to hang out with him for a bit there towards the back end of his career. So much so that when he passed away, they had a memorial in Phoenix, and they asked us to come up and perform some songs that his wife had chosen. That was incredible. It was a medium-small gathering of very close friends, and we performed. I have a lot of respect for him, and, of course, for Nancy, too. You hear about these people; you read about them all the time. You’ll see them in magazines, or you’ll have their records, and there they are, right there in front of you. There’s something about that, too, connecting with people, whether they’re of that stature or just your own friends and family around you. As life goes on, of course, there’s just more of those life experiences, both good and bad, that are around you.

    Like, Craig Schumacher was diagnosed with cancer. He had throat cancer a year or so ago. As for starting to work on this record, the question is, “What are we gonna do?” We have to wait for Craig, because there was a certain point when he couldn’t stay at the studio and work. He’d come in for a couple hours a week. For me, it changed the way I was approaching going to the studio. Similarly, our record company had folded. Touch & Go kind of dissolved from being a label that put out new music. They’re still going with maintaining the catalog. And then we also did that vinyl release of the tour-only albums. It also kind of changed our sense of home.


    What? Losing the label, not having Craig there with you, or all of it?

    Both. The joys were, for me, having started a family. In April 2011, my wife and I had twin girls. A lot of new elements added to my life, both good and bad. Those somehow change your approach to songwriting and change your approach to what it is that you do, whatever you do for a living. And so, when Craig was getting better, it was like, let’s celebrate. Let’s take Craig and go to New Orleans and see what we can come up with. The instant we stepped off the plane and we got a shrimp po’ boy, I sensed Craig’s spirit lift. At dinner that night, at Cochon, the barbecue restaurant there, I toasted to him. I said, “We’re here because of you, Craig. I know we’re here to make a record, but that’s an excuse to celebrate you being here.” It was very emotional. The only thing different was that we were all drinking root beer as opposed to beer that night. I don’t know why. [Laughs.] And then we went in the studio, and we just started getting inspired by that space. The Living Room Studio is an old Baptist church that’s been renovated several times to become, now, this incredible recording studio. And it’s massive. It’s a huge space.