Having previously played in Giant Sand, Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino helped defined Alt Country's influential "Tucson sound". Yet for their most recent album Algiers the band relocated to the New Orleans neighbourhood of the same to record. With the band ending their winter hiatus later this month with a hometown festival (24 March), with dates in the US and in Europe to follow this summer, Burns explains the attraction of city hopping.
How the devil are you? "It's going really good I've got to say. This is the first record we've done since I had two twin daughters, so everything feels new."
Compared to new twins, a band must be easy? "It's so easy! They were my first, which is why I'm so ecstatic and showing everyone pictures. Everyone else is, Get over it! We only know what it's like to have two so it's good. Ironically my oldest brother had twins so I've been on the phone with him a lot. He's a great source of inspiration."
Does that explain why there was a four year gap between Calexico records? "Well we've been doing a lot, even with having kids. John and I did two soundtracks. One for an Irish film called The Guard, which featured Brendan Gleeson, and the other was a documentary about a Mexican family who are circus performers, called Circo. It's a heart-wrenching story about them. How they survive and breaking away from the grip of the grandparents who were telling them what to do. Basically it was a matter of money, they weren't getting a good cut. It's a beautiful story, the filmmakers lived with the family on the road."
Was soundtracks something you've always wanted to do? "It's something we've dabbled in, but with the touring schedule we didn't have much time to offer to a film, but as we did have a break it worked in our favourite. I also produced a record for Amos Lee [Mission Bell] which was Number 1 in the States. I can't believe I'm saying that - my name and Number 1."
And then you made another Calexico record, though this time not at home in Tucson, Arizona? "We've made records before in Brooklyn, Austin and California before and from those experiences we discovered we could get a lot of work done in a short amount of time. So after several months of doing our thing in Tucson - getting together, playing a couple of notes, going to get tacos... we realised we needed to go somewhere else! We've always wanted to go New Orleans, it's long been one of our favourite cities in North America, it's the portal to the Gulf Of Mexico, and having been to Cuba a few years ago to work with an artist called Amparo Sanchez, New Orleans reminded us of that experience: the architecture, the vibe and the soul. A friend recommended me this book by Ned Sublette called The World That Made New Orleans. It chronicles the history of the coming of the city and its music, talking a lot about the influence of Haiti and Cuba. So it all fell into place and it wound being the background for our song Sinner In The Sea. That was one of the first tracks we were able to finish recording and it really kicked off this record. All the songs before then didn't have that thrill we were looking for."
So you were deliberately looking for somewhere that would inspire you, as much as you wanted a location without any distractions? "Without a doubt! John did his daily run every morning along the levee and would comeback excited, telling us what he'd seen. We even saw partial icebergs floating down stream from up north. So we'd be in that frame of mind from the early morning. Then at night we'd go out and check out different restaurants and night life as much as we could. We were there to work of course, and the studio itself had a lot to offer, it just oozes character. It was a Baptist church in the 30s and the two guys that run it, renovated it themselves. Not may engineers I know got to that extreme. They've made this incredible studio out of an old church and that really inspired us."
So much so, you named the record after the neighbour it's in. Can you hear the area in the record? "I can, but I'm not sure the people who live there will. We went there to make a Calexico record, we didn't go there to make a snapshot, but there are elements of it. At the core of the album there's a certain feeling that I relate to the area. It's a dark place. It's eclectic, it's funky, it's scary at times and it's got this crazy history. It survived Katrina, it's got the healing vibes to it, it's got the soul, but it's edge too. It's not a place for everyone, but it's a place that certainly stands out. We went there to write and record, a lot of people go there to get drunk and fall on their face... and that's important too. So we went there specifically to get in touch with its soul and all the ghosts that come with it."
So what were you looking to get out of the album from a Calexico point of view? "Going back to that connection New Orleans once had to its neighbouring countries, like Cuba, I was really looking to that connection. For me the songs we ended-up writing and recording in New Orleans, songs like Epic and Para, were beautiful surprises for me. We didn't know what material we'd come away with and I was really happy with the results because they were close to our style and sound, it's not far from say Feast Of Wire and it feels like our band. I wasn't looking to reinvent the wheel, I was looking to work in a new environment and see what we would come up with. It's a strange location. You're next to the Mississippi river, which is higher than the ground you're standing on, you can look south and almost see Cuba. That writer I was telling you about says New Orleans is on the northern most edge of what he calls the Saints and Festivals Belt, which is the result of France and Spain coming and bringing Christianity and their own festivals. Tucson is on the same edge."
Do you feel you got that across on the record? "By being in that church it transported us. It felt like the vibe when we were recording in Havana. It didn't take much to connect with that style of music, or that spirit. We're not trying to be something that we're not, but we're singing and focusing it about it and that's enough to change your approach to your instrument or your song. It doesn't take much. It's funny, I've seen that with people covering a song, you play it for your friends and they go did you write it? It's having that glimmer of focus inside of you that changes your perception and what you do."
You co wrote a song with singer-songwriter Pieta Brown for the album, though it wasn't a standard collaboration, was it? "I don't keep a lot of notebooks, it's normally more tape recordings of ideas but I haven't had the time to do that, I've been so busy at home so I was really happy I was able to remember a couple of ideas. And there's something about that right? How does a song find you? One of the songs that hit me late at night in the church was a song called Fortune Teller. The same day I got an email from Pieta in Iowa who had a song of the same name. I just thought that was a nice coincidence, but when I read the lines, I made a few adjustments and we cut the song together the next morning and it really stands out. I love that, a collaboration with someone so far away. I asked her what it was about for her and she said she wrote it with this friend of ours in mind that was struggling with addiction. Yet at the same time it made perfect sense being down in New Orleans being close to that spiritual presence that you notice down here."
So the song almost came about by luck? "In this day where we all have chores and the whatnot and we're so used to the schedule being dictated to us it's nice to be open to receiving something like a song, or a body of work. It's important to get into that ritual of receiving something. It being not about you but it coming from somewhere. It's going through you and that is a really great description of what it's like being in New Orleans. We were in the neighbourhood of Algiers and we ran into our friend Susan Cowsill, she was in [US harmony group] The Coswills. They lost a family member back in the storm [Hurricane Katrina]. The water took him. We went to her house, she's got a spiritual side but it's not too preachy and she's got a little corner of her house where she goes to write, to think about people. Everyone has that in their lives, whether they realise it or not, and I like the way New Orleans shows that side of itself, they're very forward really open to showing that aspect of their live. Communing with another world or a spiritual place, with people who are on another side so to speak. That's very much part of the culture in Tucson, so it felt like a sister city so it felt like a natural step to be there making music. Seeing Susan was a really important part because you go to work and you're focused in this one direction but it you want to be open and receiving you need to let go as well, and so hanging out with her was that reminder it's all going to be Ok. If the storm comes and drags me away it's going to be Ok. You have to be Ok with the universe and you're place in it. Chaos can be a positive thing! In fact chaos is a really important. There can be a perfect performance, but for me what makes a recording special is when there's something that's not necessarily a mistake, but something that happened that's not planned. That spontaneity always seems to be the spark to that special quality, it reminds you how important chaos is." Paul Stokes @Stokesie
For more head to Casadecalexico.com.