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by Matt Dornan
"Shall we talk about Mariachi Post Rock?" asks Joey Burns with a grin from across the table. Momentarily perturbed by this willingness to embrace the dreaded term I ask if he's decided to adopt the Post Rock tag in the absence any other takers.
"Just for today. Tomorrow we could call it Ambient Mariachi Death Rock." And then, after a pause,
"death to the Post Rock". Seems he's a little more serious than we thought. But only a little.
" All those labels and categories, I mean... [he scans the copy of CWAS#2 in front of him]
maybe we should quote some Mark Eitzel. It's nobody's fuckin' business what 'rock' it is. I rock and that's it."
What we shall talk about is Calexico, the project that, alongside drummer John Convertino, Burns finds the time to record between a plethora of other commitments such as Giant Sand and backing the likes of Victoria Williams, Bill Janovitz, Barbara Manning, Richard Buckner, and OP8, the Lisa Germano / Giant Sand collaboration of last year. Calexico's latest, The Black Light, is a less sketchy and more realised album than 1996's Spoke. For one thing the duo have utilised a 16-track studio in preference to their usual 8-track demo set-up for this cool 'concept' album. Not lost in the transition, however, is the intimacy of the Calexico sound.
"Sometimes you gotta kick all the engineers out and get it down to like a... woodshed. The studio is downtown in Tucson amongst all the warehouse spaces. There's plenty of inspiration there and plenty of ghosts that are trapped inside. There's a train that blows right past the front door and a lot of times when we're recording the train gets on the tape and there's not much you can do. We always say 'horn section brought to you today by Southern Pacific'! We like keeping in the mistakes. It gives a nice shape to the music."
With a multitude of musicians drafted in to help create the atmospheres that tell the story of the Black Light, and the multi-instrumental abilities of the central duo, the arrangements are complex yet subtle, fusing a mariachi horn section with pedal steel, vibraphone, accordion, organ and violin without ever losing the narrative flow. Burns remains modest about his arranging skills, claiming it to be the natural result of
the ongoing process of learning when to play and when not to play." The same idea transfers to working with new instruments and trying to give them their rightful time. Trying to balance it all whilst still allowing for space, the ambience... mariachi post rock. [He leans toward the mic]
Said with a smile!" A perfect representation of this and, perhaps, The Black Light's finest six minutes is Missing, one of the half dozen tracks to feature Joey's restrained vocal. Building slowly and elegantly blending vibraphone and pedal steel, Joey's affecting lyrics and restrained piano coda help secure the song classic status.
I like that idea, over the course of an album or a song, of bringing up these different instruments and letting them build over time. I like the idea of slow moving shapes and colours and the way how when they come together you see this new colour before it starts to change into the next. Maybe that's the reason why we do so many of those side projects." Perhaps the artists who call upon the services of Burns and Convertino are aware that they rarely, if ever, involve themselves with anything less than exemplary.
"Maybe [what appeals]
ability to listen and to be able to follow them. And also having, maybe, a unique style but it not be overbearing so that it doesn't squash their sound. And really trying to get behind their styles. And then, maybe, that we bring this whole vanload of different instruments. These little bags of tricks that we enlist to give each song its unique statement. So, versatility, the array of colour. The palette keeps on widening. That's the thing that's gonna propel us in new directions. Now, with us getting involved more with samplers and using the computer in the studio, we're able to widen the variety of sound and sculpt it. Shape it. Twist it. Dunk it. Punt it."
I ask which of the collaborations has been the most satisfying for Joey on a personal level. His response is instant.
" That would have to be Rainer Ptácek. He passed away last November. He's this amazing National Steel Dobro player. Are you familiar with his music?" I confess to having seen him once on an early Later with Jools Holland and being aware of a tribute album featuring Giant Sand and Bill Janovitz.
"Yeah, The Inner Flame. Howe Gelb [Giant Sand frontman]
helped to put it out with Robert Plant, who's in a band called Led Zeppelin I think. He's a nice guy. Kind of a nerd though. But Rainer, man, he could take these forms of blues and make it completely unique, make it his own and make you feel like you were somewhere very foreign. Like you were on Mars or something. And, at the same time, feel very comfortable. We got a chance to work with him last July. Just working with him, knowing him, was the single most... and his presence is felt on [The Black Light]
, he influenced us a lot. We've dedicated the album to him."
Another distinguished name receiving a namecheck on the album is that of author Cormack McArthy. An influence on Burns' lyrical slant, I wonder?
" Yes, there is some of that. I like what he does, how he treats his characters. Takes these innocent kids fresh off the farm and kinda chucks them headfirst into this dark world that you never thought existed out there. Sure enough, after reading some of his books, you can identify with some of his characters. And so, this idea of a storyboard was done, in part, after we'd started the process of recording the record. We had all these songs and I thought it would be interesting to take the lyrics and meld them into a story and to use both the instrumental aspects as well as the lyrical, to kinda tie in this idea of a story or soundtrack. We'd wanted to do some work on a film for a while but, it seems like, Hollywood's a congested place. But there is a movie going to be made based on Cormack McArthy's book All The Pretty Horses. I'm going to see what I can do. Make an offer, bang on a few doors, see what happens."
It would appear that Joey Burns lives for music. But, then, what else is there?
"Well, I hang out with my girlfriend and I drink lots of lemonade with maple syrup and cayenne pepper and go on these week or ten day fasts. It's like a natural way of doing psychedelics. And it's good for you. I like to ride my bike around in and around the town and get lost. That seems to be an ongoing hobby of mine. Just hang out and try not to do too much music. But I do love music though! I say all that and it's like 'Mmm. I got this idea. I met Bundy K Brown a couple of times in Chicago and, maybe, I'll send him a letter or something..." It seems that the Arizona based Burns / Convertino axis empathise with their equally adaptable Chicago peers. Burns tells us that Richard Buckner, whom they backed on the superb Devotion and Doubt, is currently working with John McEntire and David Grubbs on its follow-up.
"There seems to be that recurring theme in a lot of musicians. You know it was happening a lot in the old 50s and 60s jazz recordings. You had to Duke Ellington backed up by Charles Mingus and Max Roach. And those guys had their own paths they would experiment with. It just seems really natural. It's so funny that so many people want to pinpoint a band or a group of musicians into doing one thing. I wanted to bring up the idea of borders, because this going back and forth and not really being stopped by different categories of music seems to be one that... With computers, the ability to be able to communicate across the globe seems to be opening the doors. Here, in Europe, you have the EC and it's even easier to go across and not get stopped and asked a million irrelevant questions. Also, bringing with these travels, different styles and different approaches-improvisation being the biggest. In Tucson, however, more and more build-up on the borders is getting really kind of intimidating. You hear about people trying to come across here's the United States, 'land of the free', getting caught up in its double speak. But, I think, the music finds its way of going through the barbed wire or past the helicopter's electric eye. It seems like people are expanding their ideas of what music could be. And should be."
CWAS #3 - Summer 1998