These days, Calexico's having a hard time fitting all of its members into one van. It used to be just John and Joey loading the drums and guitar into a car and driving. They could unload, set up and soundcheck as effortlessly as your average lead singer could mumble, "Testing, one, two. Testing. Testing." Their ability to, in the immortal words of the Minutemen, "jam econo" was unparalleled, the result of years of learning the touring ropes, first as the rhythm section for fellow Tucsoners Giant Sand, then as a rhythm section for hire (for, among others, Victoria Williams, Richard Buckner and Barbara Manning) and, finally, as the duo Calexico -- two guys in a car traveling around America, stopping every 400 miles to play their pared-down brand of countryish desert-rock. But those days are gone.
The Germans were the first to arrive, imported to add some meat to the bone -- some bass and more guitar texture. Then there was the pedal-steel player, brought in to add a dollop of Western whine. Finally there was the most recent addition, a luxury afforded the band by their European record label and an impending tour (which just concluded). Says guitarist/vocalist Joey Burns: "The record company said, 'Listen, it's our 10th anniversary -- we want to do something special. So if there are any guests you want to bring, let us know.' So I said, 'Of course. We want to bring the mariachis."
That, "of course," would be Mariachi Luz de Luna, a seven-piece Latino band that transformed Calexico, a two- to five-man band of American and European Anglos, into Calexico, a 12-member multinational Cali-Mexi mariachi jazz-rock band. "We brought seven mariachis," continues Burns, "the whole group Luz de Luna. We played London and Berlin in front of 1,000 and 4,000 people, and people freaked out. They were wearing their trajes and their hats, and they just kicked ass. We play our set, and halfway through we bring out these guys and we did songs off The Hot Rail and The Black Light, and people loved it."
They ended up -- the Germans, the Latinos, the Americans -- on a bus driving around Europe. Continues Burns: "I'm sitting there absorbing it all. I'm like a sponge, and the guitarist, John Contrares, he's showing me techniques on strumming: 'That's really close to what you're doing, to a wapango, but it's not quite right. Try it like this.' And I go and I try and try and I come back, and then he helps me a bit more. At the same time we're on the bus partying until 3 in the morning -- or whenever the sun rises over there -- and playing Led Zeppelin and Ozzy Osbourne songs. It's amazing, the bridges that we cross musically hanging out together. It felt so beautiful."
How a duo so seamlessly crosses cultures known more for their ambivalence toward each other than for creative harmony and suddenly finds itself as a 12-some on a Berlin stage, at least as Burns tells it, could consume pages, but the Cliff's version is easier: "You have to do it with respect; you have to do it with integrity and honesty.... It naturally happened on its own. When we were in the studio working on The Black Light, there was a mariachi group that was recording and performing at the same time. So I go in early and I hear these recordings that Craig Schumacher, the engineer at Wavelab, was working on, and I was blown away. Some of it was very raw, and I like that. I like the rawness of the strings, the slightly out-of-tune quality of the violin, just the differences that came about because of the players." The band asked a few of the players to record with Calexico, which led to their meeting a few others, including the lot of Luz de Lunes. Now, laughs Burns, "they call me 'Maestro.'"
But to label the band a merger of American and Latino sensibilities -- although, on the surface, this is the case -- is to deny the expansive curiosity of the hub of Calexico, Burns and percussionist John Convertino. Convertino's drumming melds tight, seamless jazz riffs with subtle rock accents; he has the cherished ability to create drama with a well-placed snare roll and a single cymbal snap, and his appreciation of open space makes each Calexico song breathe. Burns often simply strums the big structures and sings, but he's the one who does most of the songwriting and the ever-evolving arranging (it's easy to arrange for two but much more of a juggle to arrange for 12).
A Calexico song comes from all directions; you can hear the spaghetti-Western twang of soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone at the heart of 1998's The Black Light. It's in Burns' guitar style, all hollow and a tad sinister; it's in the instrumentation, which moves with ease from accordion to violin to plinky piano to toy xylophone to mandolin. An acoustic bass adds authority. There's some twang in there, but not enough for Calexico to be considered an "insurgent-country" band; Burns doesn't affect a Southern accent or any such ridiculousness, and his vocals trace out his lyrics, lyrics concerned with darkness, alienation and danger. You can hear the soft expanse of jazz within, and it adds a warm richness that drenches tones that just before seemed parched and cracked. Though Calexico stays more focused than Chicago's Tortoise, you can hear their influence in there as well.
On their most recent full-length, The Hot Rail (Quarterstick), it only takes a moment -- four beats of the bass drum, to be exact -- before you hear Calexico's Great Leap Forward -- the arrival of the full-blown mariachi sensibility, which appears in the assured tone of trumpeter Ruben Moreno, who blows a melody that recalls the moment in a Sergio Leone Western when the cigar-chomping, five-day-stubbled bandito walks into a bar. The first lyrics out of Burns' mouth set the tone for the entire record: "I live out yonder where the snakes and scorpions run, got myself a little goldmine to bank on/But one day my heart sank when I saw Madame in town/I knew her love would be the death of mine." It sounds like something straight out of Cormac McCarthy, and the whole of The Hot Rail examines similar themes, addressing the existentialism of an empty desert and a person's place in -- and outside -- of it.
One result of Calexico's stylistic openness is last year's glorious Calexico remix EP, Descamino. Curious and appreciative of new electronic music ("I'm a big fan of Oval; I love Mouse on Mars; I love Thrill Jockey," Burns says), the band was open to the idea of remixing, and through an employee at Thrill Jockey was put in contact with Chicago producer/musician Bundy K. Brown, best known for his work in Tortoise and as Directions in Music. Brown took samples of Calexico's music, then reorganized and recontextualized them to create the beautiful centerpiece of Descamino. "He took all these elements, added some ambient noise, (Tortoise's ) Doug McCombs' Fender six bass playing. Even the buzz from his amplifier is in there. And of course (Chicago Underground Duo member) Rob Mazurek's cornet. I loved it. I thought, 'God, this is it. I love this combination. This is what I want to do for the new record.' And some people go, 'Yeah!' and some go, 'Whoa.' I say, 'What do you mean? This is great! Come on, people.' I'm trying to bridge these worlds together, and a lot of people want to keep them separate. I like to open up and share and experience and create new feelings with these elements." (In another addition to their résumé, Calexico was just commissioned by hip Brit electronic label Warp Records to remix a cut by famed London DJ Andrew Weatherall and his ongoing musical concern, Two Lone Swordsmen.)
For his part, says Burns, Convertino added "the Eric Satie influence that John couldn't get enough of before the record. And it's very important for me to allow him, and to push him, to do something. Whether it was on the Friends of Dean Martinez record, or on the Spoke or Black Light albums, I'm like, 'John, you have to do this.' I have to thoroughly encourage him. He'll say, 'No, no, you're the songwriter. You do this stuff.' But a lot of the music, Giant Sand or Calexico, wouldn't be possible without his being there. He's the most amazing drummer."
For this tour, Calexico won't be toting the entire mariachi ensemble; rather, they'll be pared down to a sextet consisting of the Americans (including pedal-steel player Eric Haywood, who has worked with, among others, Son Volt, Richard Buckner and Freakwater), the Germans and a Latino (Jacob Valenzuela, whom Burns describes as a "young budding John Coltrane/Miles Davis wrapped into an enchilada"). Of the combination, Burns says simply, "It's a great mixture."
Calexico performs at the Side Door on Friday, June 16. Boston guitar trio Wheat opens.