Rank Your Records: Joey Burns and John Convertino Sort Calexico’s Studio Albums
The long running musical duo whose blend of country, jazz and traditional Latin music has been described as ‘desert noir’, rank their eight studio albums.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Taking their name from the Californian and Mexican border town, Calexico have been creating their own brand of Tex-Mex, Americana, and indie rock, since the mid-90s.
Joey Burns and John Convertino, began their distinguished career playing together in Los Angeles group Giant Sand before relocating to Tucson, Arizona and establishing Calexico. Initially an alternative country band, over the course of eight studio albums (nearly all recorded at Tuscon’s WaveLab Studio), the band have merged jazz and traditional Latin influences such as mariachi, conjunto, cumbia, tejano to create a style that some have described as ‘desert noir’.
We asked Joey and John to rate their eight studio albums.
8. Garden Ruin (2006)
Noisey: Unlike earlier records this has no instrumentals and is more of a straight forward indie record. Was this is a conscious decision?
John Convertino: The conscious decision was more about working with our friend JD Foster, it was a lot of fun giving up the arduous decision making process to him. Maybe not one of the most favorite records, but we play a lot of songs off that record live, and they go over well.
Joey Burns: The albums can be reactions to earlier projects and in this case we had just worked with Los Super Seven and had done a lot of the Latin indie rock material we normally have done, and after having worked on a collaborative EP with Sam Beam of Iron & Wine I was inspired to write songs in different genres than we had in the past. I dig this album and I had a lot of fun making the record with JD Foster and and Andy Taub.
7. Hot Rail (2000)
Another album recorded at Tuscon’s Wavelab. What has it been like recording so many albums there?
John: It's our trusted friends. This was recorded at the new location on Pennington Street, you can hear how much brighter the room is. The studio has moved a third time now, and I think it has found a permanent home on South 6th Ave in downtown Tucson.
Joey: There's been a lot of great recordings and collaborations working together with Craig Schumacher and Chris Schultz at Wavelab. It's the kind of place where dogs are welcome, you can put your feet up on the furniture and there are a ton of amazing instruments and gear surrounding you. The places oozes inspiration.
6. Spoke (1997)
Your first album you were called Spoke. How long had you been calling yourselves that?
John: We weren't sure of the band name but liked the title Spoke for the record. We thought it could be a good band name but found out it had already been taken.
Joey: We were playing live on WFMU in East Orange NJ and the DJ showed us another album with the same band name 'Spoke' and asked if this was ours as well. It clearly wasn't. So with five minutes to spare before starting the show we settled on the name Calexico. There's nothing like having a little pressure to come up with and decide on a band name.
This was first released on German label Hausmusik. How did the Germans pick up on you?
John: Ah, the Germans, we had toured Germany a lot with Giant Sand, I think that might have been when Joey met Wolfgang Peters and Hausmusik, we were impressed with their artful hand made album jackets and experimental folk music.
Joey: They were making hand made album jackets and limited edition releases with not only local German artists but with people like Smog and Will Oldham from the States. Wolfgang Petters the owner was really supportive of us putting together a batch of recordings and really did a great job with the album cover and total production. It will always be the most impressive release since it was our first album and the quality done so well by the label.
5. Carried To Dust (2008)
Pitchfork gave this an 8.3 review. Do you care about reviews?
John: Probably more than I should, most of the time reviewers get it, other times not and it's irksome, but I get over it pretty quick and by the time we are on the road playing I've forgotten all about it.
Joey: I had a lot of fun collaborating with our friend and guitarist Jairo Zavala from Madrid. Amparo Sanchez also sits in on Jacob's song and has been a long time guest member. There is the return of diversity and variety of color and sound. The album reviews can be interesting to read and I know that they can help make or break some bands and artists. I'm extremely grateful that regardless of the review we still have people checking out the live shows and albums. In some way I don't want to know exactly what we are doing. I want to be surprised and to surprise the audience as well. I want to keep the mystery behind the music and how the music comes to be.
4. Algiers (2013)
There were changes here. Your first record on Anti and the first recorded in New Orleans post Katrina. How was the change?
John: It was great recording in a different studio, living in the studio, and being outside of Tucson. This big old wooden church that survived Hurricane Katrina, Craig Schumacher our producer/engineer was there having survived cancer, just a very unified chunk of music the way it was written and recorded.
Joey: This album helped open some doors for us musically and personally. I love the way John's drums sound. We might have to return there soon to do some more work. Plus who doesn't love New Orleans? This is one of my favorite albums.
3. Edge of The Sun (2015)
What was it like working with guests Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses, Neko Case and Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam?
John: The vocal collaborations came in at the end of the recording process, it was fun presenting these songs to our old and new friends and seeing what they came up with.
Joey: After having success of working in New Orleans we decided to roll the dice and pack our bags and gear to write and record demos in Mexico City. Now we have a travel theme with our first two releases with Anti Records. I keep wondering where we should go next to record. Any suggestions?
2. The Black Light (1998)
The album art is cool!
John: That's Victor Gastelum, brilliant stencils, and just a great human and friend.
Joey: Victor and I had worked together at SST Records and became good friends. I wanted to collaborate with him for a while when this album was being made. It was a lot of fun sending ideas and faxing images back and forth of low riders and iconic images of California and Arizona. When I asked Victor about using a 1970 Buick Riviera he put his foot down and said "hell no, we're using a Chevy Impala." I loved his influence. John was a Ford man. Victor was 100% Chevy. Three years later I wound up buying a 1960 Chevy Impala largely influenced by Victor.
You go more for the cinematic sounds?
John: We were loving the instrumentals, and loving our new found vintage instruments, reading Cormac McCarthy and experimenting in the studio late at night. What I love about this record too is that there is a lot of inconsequential sounds that made it on the record because of the studios proximity to the railroad tracks.
1. Feast of Wire (2003)
You had been releasing albums every year then a three-year break. Why the break?
John: Some of the breaks have even been longer, it seems we don't do as much writing on the road, after a record is done we tour pretty heavy for a few years before starting to record again. This is one of my favourite Calexico records, still lots of experimentation, but a solid foundation of song writing.
Joey: Touring and collaborations with other projects took up a big part of our schedule. The first two albums were done over a long stretch of time prior to their release. They just wound up being released closer together by chance.
Side note: Throughout the years we've recorded studio albums mostly instrumental based which we have released ourselves to sell only on tour. Hence we call them "tour only" albums. There's quite a few spread out over the years which was our way to give something back to the concert goers and listeners that wanted to see or hear another side of the band. Some of my favorites are Travelal ( 2000) and includes some friends improvising in a sort of an homage to late night jazz sessions. Another favorite is Aerocalexico (2001) which is kind of similar in spirit to The Black Light with all sorts of snippets, segues and songs.
Calexico Australia and New Zealand Tour:
Mar 2 - Melbourne at Hamer Hall
Mar 4 – Meeniyan at Meeniyan Town Hall
Mar 5 – Keiraville at University of Wollongong UNI BAR
Mar 6 – Sydney Festival at the Domain
Mar 8 – Newstead at the Triffid
Mar 9 – Byron Bay at Byron Theatre
Mar 11 – Canberra at Enlighten Festival
Mar 12 – Adelaide at WOMADelaide
Mar 16 – Perth at Freemantle Arts Centre
Mar 18 – New Plymouth at WOMAD