Many more people have heard of eccentric Arizona band Calexico than have actually heard them. Especially here in Florida, where the group has never played before now, and where radio, by and large, operates under orders from corporate HQ to fear, and therefore completely avoid, what it does not understand. This lack of first-hand experience has coupled with contemporary America's love for boiling things down to a bite-sized essence to produce an oft-repeated and frightfully narrow categorization of Calexico's style:"Yeah, they're that spaghetti-western band."
The nerve. It's enough to give the band's members fits, right?
"Nah, it's fine," says drummer John Convertino. "If that's what they like [about it], I think it's fine. Any band is gonna get stereotyped or pigeonholed."
If Convertino, who conceived Calexico with singer/multi-instrumentalist Joey Burns in 1996, sounds a little ambivalent about how the marvelously idiosyncratic project is frequently perceived, it's probably because the description is somewhat accurate, if definitely oversimplified. Several of Calexico's past albums lean heavily on the brassy unison trumpet melodies and evocative nylon-string acoustic guitar of Southwestern mariachi music.
And hey, at least people are talking about Calexico.
"We've been able to survive this long because of that," Convertino affirms. "It's always been more word-of-mouth than magazines telling people to buy us, or charts or radio play. And I like that better."
Convertino and Burns are intimately familiar with the power of the underground-music grapevine; both have labored outside the mainstream for their entire careers. The two men did time (and occasionally still participate) in quasi-legendary fringe-rock act Giant Sand, before they relocated from California to Tucson, Ariz. There, both men worked with the briefly trendy, skewed-lounge outfit Friends of Dean Martinez, mastering a more low-key musical dynamic and new instruments while soaking up Tucson's wealth of Mexican influence.
"[We] really didn't start branching out until we started doing the Friends of Dean Martinez, experimenting with Latin rhythms," says Convertino. "We weren't intentionally trying to be a lounge band, but we wanted to be a band that played softly, that could play anywhere. And it lends itself to playing with brushes, syncopation.
"It was a very natural progression, just seeing mariachis playing around in the restaurants. They have a huge mariachi convention in Tucson, and my daughter and I were just walking around downtown, and this guy gave us tickets, and we went. I was blown away by how diverse it was. There's so many different forms, small orchestras, huge ones, different arrangements. It was very eye-opening."
Immediately post-Dean Martinez, the duo's reputation landed them quite a bit of session work, much of it with leading-edge late '90s alt-country heroes like Victoria Williams, Vic Chesnutt and Richard Buckner. But their obsession with exploring their adopted hometown's multi-ethnic aural palette quickly became a full-time gig.
At the outset, Burns and Convertino were Calexico. They developed a tight relationship with Tucson engineer and musician Craig Schumacher (one gets the distinct impression from Convertino that he considers Schumacher an integral part of the group). Playing most of the instruments themselves, Calexico built their sound, layer by layer, over skeletal, spontaneous live takes. As the project evolved, however, the musicians they hired for touring and recording the instruments they couldn't play ended up as collaborating members of the band, contributing not only sounds but a spectrum of diverse influences.
"We picked up the German players Martin [Wenk] and Volker [Zander], and then we got Jacob Valenzuela who's from Tucson, and then Paul Niehaus joined us," Convertino says. "That really became like a solid band. We were actually creating new music together as a full band, as opposed to just Joe and I laying down the tracks."
Calexico's most recent full-length, last year's acclaimed Feast of Wire, is by far their most collaborative effort to date. It's also by far their most varied. While unarguably steeped in the moody, Ennio Morricone-indebted Southwestern flavor, the elements of blues, jazz and even pop that previously showed up as minor sideline flirtations now fully inform a number of songs. The resulting album comes off less as an ambitious departure than the logical next step, diverse but anchored by both Calexico's eclectic back catalog and the familiar styles of its players.
Though it wasn't ostensibly the intent, Feast of Wire certainly helps defuse the aforementioned notion that Calexico is simply "that spaghetti western band." And while an upcoming EP release, Convict Pool, harks back to earlier Calexico albums with its mix of evocative mariachi strumming and playful covers, Convertino admits that moving on, at least to some extent, is a priority these days.
"I think we have enough of the other influences coming through and balancing it out more," he says. "We were getting close to Calexico the name becoming synonymous with blasting trumpets in a mariachi kind of style, but with Feast of Wire we're showing more of a jazz influence, trumpets doing other things. And there's a lot more ideas [on display]."
He also hints that more stylistic roaming is in store, mentioning his partner Burns' affinity for dissecting electronic sounds and even speaking wistfully of relocation, of new cultures to digest and reflect.
"We've been talking about that, taking what we do and being absorbed by another area, hole up in Paris for a month, Berlin, Rome, hook up with players that live around there and pick up on those influences," he muses. "Or South America — go to Cuba before McDonald's gets there, that'd be great."
Wherever they go next, physically or stylistically, Calexico will likely remain the kind of band that more people know by name than by direct exposure to their music. For Burns and Convertino, it's far more about following their own musical interests, and expressing them, than about mass acceptance, and such bands rarely break through in a big way. But that's fine with Convertino, who thinks they're coming out on top in the deal.
"I think we're doing just fine the way we're going. Some of the bigger bands get to play on TV and open for even bigger bands, and it would be fun to do some of that stuff in the future, open for PJ Harvey or Wilco, bands that we respect," says the drummer. "But it takes time to get there, and I'd rather enjoy the longer life of being able to play, play in Europe, Japan, Australia, and still make a living at it. And not have the big pressure."
Contact Music Critic Scott Harrell at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].