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Calexico: A band on the border


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John Convertino and Joey Burns grew up on opposite sides of the country, but settled together in the middle of the Southwest. There, in Tucson, they formed Calexico, a Tejano alt-country band that is deeply grounded in the sounds of the South. Burns (vocals, bass, guitars) and Convertino (drums, piano) blend the textures of traditional Mexican music and American folk, and solicit fellow Tucson musicians (like mariachi band Luz de Luna) to craft their dark, atmospheric albums. Makes sense for a band named after a Mexicali border town to pull inspiration from both sides of the separation wall that runs through it.

"I think that people think that mariachi music is just party music," said Convertino on the phone last week. "But really there's a lot of beautiful songs written in that format that are in the minor key. They're love songs and they have great yearning, whether it's for their home or for love."

New album Algiers is inspired by a different place - - the Algiers district of New Orleans, where the album was recorded. But to get to Convertino's real musical story, we have to come back home to Indianapolis, where his parents met while studying music.

NUVO: I've been a fan for a long time. I've been excited to talk to you.

Convertino: That's good. I was excited to talk to you too. I was thinking about it, and I realized that I wouldn't be talking to you if it hadn't been for Indianapolis.

NUVO: How so?

Convertino: That's where my parents met.

NUVO: Please tell me about that.

Convertino: I don't really know the whole story, I'm the youngest of five [and] both my parents are dead now. My dad was attending Butler University and was teaching accordion and my mom took accordion lessons from him. And they fell in love.

NUVO: I could not like that story more.

Convertino: They played accordion together. My mom's specialty was voice and guitar and drama. So, I think at some point way later, I was born in '63, I remember we had the Convertino School of Music in Mineola, N.Y. My Mom taught voice and guitar and my dad taught piano and accordion. He had a friend from Italy, who taught violin. And it was the Convertino School of Music, which was pretty sweet too, as I remember it. [I remember] seeing kids coming up and down the stairs. The studio was down in the basement of our house. Sometimes, these kids would come up after taking a lesson with my dad and they'd have tears in their eyes, because he was pretty strict.

NUVO: Well, I think you need that early on if you are going to stick with it. Maybe I'm just rationalizing my previous piano teachers' tactics.

Convertino: You do! You need that discipline. I remember my dad always saying "You have to discipline yourself." That helped me out too, as painful as it was.

NUVO: Was your dad your instructor on the first instruments you picked up?

Convertino: Yeah. He gave us all some accordion lessons and some piano lessons. But, I think he was way too busy with his own world of teaching and playing that it didn't really work out that well for us to be his students.

NUVO: I can imagine.

Convertino: When I started getting interested in drums, he really helped me out a lot with that. He wasn't a drummer, but he knew who the greats were from his time period and had a lot of great jazz records. He pointed me in the right direction for listening to drummers and learning from listening besides the whole pop/rock world which he really wasn't a part of.

Neither my mom or dad really were into pop/rock stuff. Which is kind of interesting, because Joey [Burns], he's not that much younger than me, but his parents were probably about 10 years younger than my parents and they embraced the pop/rock; they had the Beatles records and stuff. That is such a huge difference, and it's only really within a ten-year span, how that generation really changed.

NUVO: I'm sure it changes your musical DNA - - what's around and what's getting in your brain from when you're young affects what kind of music you want to make when you're older.

Convertino: See, that's so funny and interesting. There's a whole generation of people who grew up listening to '80s music, and I just can't hardly fathom that because it's kind of painful for me to hear a lot of it. I was in cover bands in the late '70s and early '80s, so I played all of that music.

Something just got super ugly there. It must have happened somewhere in the late '60s, early '70s and on through the '80s. Things really got ugly. But, what can you do.

NUVO: Keep making better music, I guess.

Convertino: Yeah, I hope so.

NUVO: I oversee a columnist who writes exclusively about world music and basically different artists who are looking to make social change and responsible art. We talk to a lot of people from Syria and Jerusalem, and all over the place. To me, you guys have always seemed like a band that's sitting on top of the separation wall, playing to both sides. If you could, talk about what draws you to that music.

Convertion: We get asked that quite a bit, actually. It was such an organic thing that happened when Joey and I moved to Tucson and to the Southwest. I think even going back to what we were talking about what we were listening to when we were kids. Joey, growing up in California, his parents taking vacations in Mexico and bringing back mariachi music and him listening to that.

When we moved here, it is just such a part of the culture here; mariachi music and Latin-based music just around every corner you hear it. As we started writing our own songs coming out of Giant Sand, we started collecting our instruments - accordions, marimbas, acoustic bass, vibes - all those instruments tie into that sound. It was a really organic thing.

We became friends with mariachi band Luz de Luna. They're super sweet guys. [They] were so open to playing with us on our songs and open to us playing on some of their songs where it worked. So, it just came from music. As cliché as it sounds, music is the universal language; it knows no borders. It communicates well on a spiritual level so you don't have to worry about words so much.

Immediately, when that started happening we started doing the collaborations in Europe and people started seeing that happening and we made the connection, "Oh, what about the border?" and the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. It's heavy talking about that as a musician, because it's a separate thing. It's just the world of politics and it just seems like a prickly business. It's like a snag.

I think for me, one of the pivotal moments was being invited to play in the town of Calexico and actually going there and seeing the massive wall. There is a wall right in the middle of town that separates Mexicali from Calexico. There's a part of the wall where you can actually see through it. There's these metal ridges and there it is. There's Mexicali over there. You can't get to it because of the giant wall. It's like when we first started playing over in Germany when the Berlin Wall was up. It's the same thing. It just seems so ridiculous. Especially when we've traveled over to Europe so many times and have seen their borders and their boundaries become less and less severe. Of course, they've had more years to deal with it than we have. None the less, you still see that their borders have come down where as our border to our brothers in the South have come more and more severe.

NUVO: Do you feel a pressure to communicate politically through your music, and do you feel like it comes naturally?

Convertion: I think it should come from a natural place. I think it shouldn't be forced. I think some people are born to have that kind of leadership. I don't really know where we stand in that. I feel like we really try to keep things in a really honest place and work from there. That's our starting point.

I know that there's some things you can do and we've done them and are still open to benefits - raising money for Border Angels or other organizations that deal with people dying in the desert and trying to bring some humanitarian aid to them. The buck pretty much stops there as far as you start putting our toes in the world of politics. I really don't know.

I feel like the best thing we can do is try to get leaders and elected officials that align with our kind of thinking into office. That's the best thing we can do: voter awareness, and stay on that path. But it's really hard. The politicians that we've talked to; it's super hard for them, especially in Arizona, I think. I think New Mexico has a little bit more going on. Texas, it's very difficult.

NUVO: The only time I've been in Texas has been in Austin, and I know that's not real Texas.

Convertion: No it isn't. That's like Tucson in Arizona. It's like the little drop of blue.

NUVO: That's kind of how Indianapolis is, honestly. I do remember reading that you played a show that Gabby Giffords was present at.

Convertion: Yes. She introduced us. We did a benefit for her and became friends with her. We really liked her a lot. She was a fan of our music. I was a little wary [at first]. This was a little early on when this started happening, when we started to get popular in our hometown. I was just like, "I don't know if I want to get involved with politics." [But] we've really got to know her. She's a great person and a super hard worker. Her husband, Mark Kelly, is as well. So, it became a real honor to be a part of her work and we tried to do whatever we could to help her out. Of course, when she got shot it was devastating. It was shocking to me that through that, still, we couldn't get the bill passed for gun control, which is unbelievable..

NUVO: Living in the Midwest, there's such a mystery still to the American West. There's such a darkness to so much of the music and art. I was reviewing some writing about your music, and you have some of the best genre descriptions about your music that I've ever read. Desert noir, and stuff like that. Do you think because of where you're making music that [reviewers] place a darkness on it? Do you feel like you're part of this mythology of the American West?

Convertion: I know that Joey and I like writing songs in the minor key, and that automatically puts you in a blue mood. The minor key is nighttime and the major key is daytime. That is a real dichotomy right there because it is sunny 350 days of the year in Tucson. You're aware of the fact that the sun is shining all the time but then you write songs or come from this place that is more in a minor mode.

I think too that people think that mariachi music is just party music, but really there's a lot of beautiful songs written in that format that are in the minor key. They're love songs and they have great yearning, whether it's for their home or for love. Those are all parts of what makes the sound.

I think too that people attach the region to our music because of the trumpets. It's such an identifiable region. There's no place like the Sonoran Desert anywhere. All of those things just happen. There is a lot more to the band than that, I think. I think more and more, like you were saying, that there is a lot more populations of people coming from the South, besides the Southwest. They're going to other places.

I thought this was kind of interesting. When we were in New Orleans, there was a lot of migrant workers from Mexico that were helping clean up after Katrina. There's a lot of Mexicans now in New Orleans. There's finally some really good Mexican food in New Orleans, which is awesome. I think it's great. It's such a great culture just south of us. Why [do] we put borders up and why [do] we make it so difficult for people to come?

Just think- people just want to work and make money like anybody else. The politicians use the drug cartels and drugs as this reason to put up a bigger border. All that has ever done is make the drug cartels stronger. It has made that whole situation worse. Really, I have always had this philosophy that I haven't said out loud very much, that I think that if you take the border completely down and open it up and see what happens, you'd find that there would be a lot of people coming in but a lot of people going back too. There might be a big wave of people coming in but then it would come back.

More and more I think that U.S. manufacturing and businesses would work more in Mexico than in China. Why wouldn't you? It's so much closer. There's such a great connection to the two countries. There is such a greater connection to the two countries. There's such a great sharing of cultures there. I'm not saying that the U.S. can't share Chinese culture either. Anybody can share any culture they want to.

NUVO: There is a lot more in the way between here and [China, though].

Convertion: There is a way lot more in the way. I actually read an article recently, I don't know where it was, that there's more U.S. businesses starting to work out of Mexico, which I think is a great thing.

NUVO: I think that there's a lot of fear going back and forth as well. There's a lot of fear about not being able to get back and not then being able to go back and see your family. Just to feel so locked in, I can't imagine.

Convertion: Yeah. It's really killing the border towns. The town, Calexico, is dying. It's pretty much dead since they raised the wall.

NUVO: Do you know when that wall went in?

Convertion: I don't know the exact time, but I know that after 9/11 when they stepped up the control so strong, that the New Mexicans couldn't come back through Calexico because it took three hours to cross the border. It just didn't make sense any more for them to go through Calexico and shop and bring their stuff back. Mexicali is a pretty cosmopolitan city. It's like three times the size of Calexico. It has a lot going on there. People have a good way of life there. It was really helpful for the California side when Mexican citizens would go up there and shop and go back and forth.

I was talking to a guy who is Mexican-American, a guy here in Tucson, and he was talking about how his grandmother would tell stories about crossing the border in Dallas when there was only a little station. There wasn't any checking of anything. There wasn't a fence or anything. People just walked back and forth or even drove through. I just think a lot of what you are talking about - the fear and people not being able to have a better way of life - causes desperation and causes the troubles.

NUVO: I noted something that Pitchfork had said in reference to Algiers, your last album. They said that consistency may not add any excitement over a new installment from the band. That's something I actually read recently about another band recently, The National. When you keep releasing these consistently excellent albums, it made me wonder if you ever felt compelled to release some kind of spectacular failure to negate that and get reviewers like me all fired up.

Convertion: I really appreciate that question and am glad you asked it because I was just talking about this the other day to Joey and Andy [Hughes], our guy from the record company, how the reviews of Algiers, was the first time I ever got pissed off at reviewers for saying things like that. It's really just annoying to me. I don't know.

It's kind of like the worst review you can have. It says, "Yeah, it's a good record, but not a great record and not a bad record." That really started to irritate me. We had some somewhat negative reviews for Garden Ruin and we've had some really great reviews for some of our earlier records. There were some really nice reviews for Algiers, too. I just felt like we really did something different with this record and I think that reviewers just have a tendency to follow the bouncing ball. I don't think, a lot of times, that they really take the time to get into a record.

It's hard, and it's getting hard to take the time to listen to a record these days because there's so much out there and it's so easy to skip around now that you have the digital devices. To really sit down and listen to a vinyl record and listen to Side A, turn it over, listen to Side B, and then maybe listen to it again just really doesn't happen too much anymore. Which is really sad because you have so many devices that you can listen to in your car or on your phone. There's so much multi-tasking going on that I think people are really missing a lot.

We did talk about yeah, let's make a small record. Why does every record have to be the best record we've ever made? I don't know. Maybe the next one will be really bad. I don't know. I really don't give it that kind of thought. I just feel so fortunate, and I know Joey does too, that we've been able to do this for so long. We just still love to do it. At some point, which we actually started doing this week, I sat behind the drums and he sat there with his guitar and we started playing again. Coming up with new ideas and we'll see what happens. Actually, we had some fun a few weeks ago. We recorded some cover songs from the '80s.

NUVO: And it all comes full circle.

Convertion: It does, it does.


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