Calexico: Cultural kaleidoscope

By Lydia Jenkin

Arizona roots rockers Calexico return to NZ with a shift in sound, writes Lydia Jenkin

Calexico's mainstays, John Convertino and Joey Burns.
Calexico's mainstays, John Convertino and Joey Burns.

Last time Calexico were in New Zealand, back in 2010, they got stuck in the wine cellar of a Wellington restaurant during a power cut.

"We were there for the International Arts Festival and one night we went to a bar and got talking to the manager, and then he took us downstairs to like this secret room or cellar with all these incredible wines. And then the power went out," laughs guitarist and singer Joey Burns.

"But the manager was really cool. They kept the drinks flowing, shut the doors, and made sure people had candles and continued partying. It was great."

Wine tasting is one of the pleasures the Calexico frontman has picked up while touring the world - everywhere from Europe to South America and all across the United States.

But make no mistake, they're not a band who laze around drinking all day. Since their last visit three years ago, when they also played at Womad, they've written a couple of film soundtracks, put out a compilation called Selections From Road Atlas, collaborated with a swag of other artists, produced albums for Amos Lee and Neko Case and, of course, released their seventh studio album, Algiers.

With Algiers they wanted to create a record that reflected the energy and inspiration of cultural harmony in New Orleans, without making a second line brass band album.

"The perspective of where New Orleans sits was very attractive, being the gate between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres in a way. There is a book called The World That Made New Orleans by Ned Sublette, and he says that New Orleans is the northernmost city of the saints and festivals belt, meaning they celebrate Mardi Gras and all these things that you experience in the Caribbean and South America, and then of course it's also that southernmost stepping-off point for a lot of aspects of the [Great] American Songbook, you know, the influence of the Northern Hemisphere and jazz and so on.

"That's very important to me personally, but also in what Calexico can be, you know, embracing different philosophies and influences and spirits."

The band normally record in their home town of Tucson, Arizona, but this time they found a studio in Algiers - on the banks of the Mississippi - called The Living Room, and spent several weeks there writing and soaking up the atmosphere.

"We went to write some songs, make some sketches and from there we filled out some of the lines and melodies and parts, and then we came back to Tucson. But we didn't go there to make a New Orleans-sounding record, you know, 'Hey, let's feature the Preservation Hall guys.' It would definitely be fun to do that, but it was important for us to make a Calexico record, and so that seemed to gravitate more between the seven musicians who make up the band and who will be on tour with us."

The album covers issues of loss, identity, community, and immigration - the challenges faced by Arizona, along with the rest of the world.

"In the last five or so years, with the direction that some of the politicians have been taking, Arizona has become so conservative and it kind of amazes me, you know, where is this animosity coming from? For me, Tucson is about diversity and being open rather than closed.

"It's really quite a contradiction, because the environment in which we live is staring us in the face with this openness, it's harsh, but there are so many layers of life that are roaming freely, so trying to put up walls or boundaries, not wanting students to learn about other cultures, it's all astonishing. And sad, too.

"But in some strange way, I think I'm attracted to this place more because of its adversity. My heart goes out to it, and I'm very grateful for it."

Who: Calexico
What: Latest album Algiers
Where and when: Powerstation, Auckland, September 12; Wellington Opera House, September 13; Festival Club, Christchurch, September 14 and 15

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