Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted by our dear friend and former marketing director Matthew Kopel.
By late afternoon, the sun had decided to let Pittsburgh relax a little bit, so that it was a warm June day, but not swelteringly so. Legal pad and recorder in hand, I chain smoked in front of the Rex Theater on East Carson Street in the South Side district of Pittsburgh, talking to the owner Chris about hip clothing.
“I want some good tight bell bottoms, man, loose in the crotch, but tight, comfortable. See that girl? Excuse me, Miss? See this girl, it’s all tight on her, it looks good, I want clothes like that, but for guys, and have it be cool.” I told him I’d see what I could do.
Mike, the tour manager, waved me around the corner of the building, telling me there had been a mix up, but that it was all settled out now. I walked through the stage door to see Joey Burns, who saw me and immediately asked “Interview?” with a solid, subtle smile on his face. We strolled outside and on to the street, walking in the sunshine towards a guitar shop a block and a half down.
M: How was Chicago last night?
J: Amazing. So much fun.
M: Where was the gig?
J: The Metro.
M: Okay, yeah.
J: We had fun. Also, the intonation festival was going on at the same time this weekend. Everybody was pretty excited at the prospect of the festival coming up. Seems to me like there are a lot more festivals going on these days.
M: Yeah, it’s nice to see the resurgence. I think this weekend in (Cincinnati) there’s the Desdemona Festival, I think it’s being cosponsored by WOXY who just moved to Cinci-
J: I haven’t heard of them.
M: They’re a big online independent music radio station. They’ve been around (in some form) for around twenty years now. Five or six online. Between them and KEXP out of Seattle-
J: I do like KEXP.
M: Yeah, they’ve both got quite a bit of good music.
We strolled into the guitar shop on E. Carson Street to find a few older hipsters browsing about. Joey had the look of a kid in a candy store when he bumped into one of his friends. We walked about, talking about guitars. It was then that the conversation began to normalize a little bit. Joey’d been in a van traveling from Chicago for hours. Now he had a chance to stretch his legs, and surround himself with a great passion: guitars. He was fluent in the language in ways that I won’t pretend to be here or anywhere else. With every detailed glance he gave, there was an element of parental love, wanting to appreciate the smallest facets, the uniqueness, of each piece. To be quite honest, I was fascinated, but realized that our conversation wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be. This wasn’t going to be a sit down interview, and I had to acclimate to the change in events.
M: Out of all the bands you’ve played with, and all of your colleagues and peers, if you could steal one guitar from them, which one, and who would it be?
Of course, I had meant the question innocently enough. We’d spent about ten minutes talking about classic guitars, and appreciation of the variance in sound. He was a bit taken aback at first:
J: I’m not really into stealing.
M: Well, not stealing, but to borrow to use, or have an exact replica made.
J: Well, hard question. I think it’s important for everyone to find their own guitar, their own voice. I’m more inspired by people who find their own voice, whether through their instruments or their voice. So I’m kind of more inspired by that, than to replicate, or to copy, but more to be inspired to do your own thing. That’s kind of what I, I get off on.
M: For the past ten years, the voice that you have found has served you so incredibly well. The morphing that has happened-
J: Morphing is inevitable.
M: And it’s something that you’ve done well.
Calexico members call Arizona their home base. With that in mind, we discussed the recent hot topic of immigration.
J: It’s a very important issue for us. The members in our band, we’re from all over the country, all over the world. You know, I’m not a politician, and I’m not a diplomat, but I’d like to think that if we saw a person lying on the street there, we would, someone would help that person. Back home, where I’m from, in Arizona it’s an everyday issue. There were these kids in college, down at the University of Arizona, that were helping out installing water into a couple of these water jugs placed along the border so that in the event that someone is coming across and dying of thirst…they won’t die. They’ll have water they can drink. And there’s these big, huge tall flags that reach up about two stories high, with a blue flag on there, letting you know that there’s something there. They were going down there to help refill some of the water tanks, and they saw someone stumbling out of the brush, dying. They rush to the hospital, save this person’s life. Border patrol saw them driving, saw there was somebody in the back. They weren’t trying to conceal this individual. And they were arrested and charged with smuggling an illegal alien. It’s being contested right now in the courts down in Arizona. This raises an interesting point, you know, like when is it being a good neighbor, or when is humanitarian aid ever a crime? I think it’s putting some good questions into the stream of debate, and all of this uproar. And there’s a lot of people that are kind of speaking out that have a very planted view of the world. It kind of goes along with our media’s focus on the fear factor. And it’s too bad, because there’s a lot more good, I think, that’s happening in the world. But this is not being picked up on, or doesn’t sell as many numbers. Those are some important things for me.
M: It seems as though, within music culture, or within American music culture, the political place waxes and wanes.
J: I think it’s always there. There’s always artists that are always going to be talking about that stuff.
M: It’s seems like you need a base of passion in what’s going on around you, you have to get passionate about it.
J: There’s a lot to be passionate about today. There’s a lot to write about. And I think there’s been a growing tension more so. And I think that has been a big influence for us. Not the biggest, but it’s been a big influence, so that thematically, and in the text of this record, Garden Ruin, it’s been more condensed. And there is sort of a pessimism, or severity in the themes on that record, in the text, and the music, to me, is the contrast, it offers a sense of hope so that there’s balance, you know? I think the contrast is important, both in terms of just the music, the lyrics themselves, the way they come together, the artwork, the band, where they’re coming from. Contrast is good. It gives a sense of pace, and a sense of movement.
We were both silent for a moment, reflecting, and absorbing the subject. Looking over at Joey, having a few more years under his belt, and a library of knowledge to go with it, I could sense the contrasts between us. Our different daily agendas, our desires, our hobbies and knowledge bases. What was more tangible, because of these differences, were our common grounds, which would later be further reinforced. But first, in hopes that the conversation would not wane in this reflection, I stirred thing back up with some basic questions about Calexico’s growth.
M: On a different tangent, since 2003, the attention given to Calexico has gone up. It seems as though you have a very wide audience. You’re featured on All Songs Considered from NPR, and then on stations like KEXP and WOXY. Since this surge has happened, how do you see that you’re audience has changed, or how your audience response has changed?
J: I think what you just mentioned says a lot about the audience itself. That people are getting more creative, or that they are not just taken what they are prescribed. They might listen to one station for a while, and then change the channel. They’re thinking outside of what corporate radio or corporate entertainment wants us to follow. That’s a good sign.
M: That’s a very good sign.
J: I like that. Whatever growth we’ve experience has been very minimal. It’s not like things have changed overnight. Things are gradually, slowly…just really slowly changing. And that’s good. I’d rather have that than have things blow up, and be left with that sense of post-explosion depression.
M: Like “What do we do?”
J: Right, what do we do now? That would be really painful. But fortunately for us, it’s been more gradually, a wavering, shifting back and forth, which is natural. But it’s all been good, and it’s all given us the inspiration to keep on doing this. Because after a while, like a lot of bands, after a while, If you have a family, and John ( Last Name) is the only one in the group that has a family, that is an important part of life. It changes things, and it changes what you can do away from home, or what you can’t do. It kind of sets boundaries, which again are really good, too. And we’ve always been pretty open minded about making decisions as far as getting songs into movies, that’s really been helpful. Or stations like NPR have been really supportive since early on, which has been really great. And then the stations that have been gradually over years developing not only a local following, but being accepted on the internet: KEXP, KCRW. So then, there’s been the internet, as kind of a vehicle, or kind of a channel. People are more in control of change: What they like, what they don’t want to hear, what they do want to hear. They can follow tangents, which is very natural. We’re walking, and we see something, and we go off on a tangent, that’s pretty natural. It’s unnatural for us to be hit by repetition and bored over by monotony. We want a change, but the corporate world does not want that, they want control. So, it’s good, I think there is something taking root right now.
M: Do you see that root as…whether it’s music and the way culture appreciates these things, and how that translates into people desires to make changes in other parts of their lives-
J: Yeah, I think it’s all relative, and hopefully, it will affect people’s ability to vote, and not be thwarted by inefficient, non-working voting machines, ballot machines. That to me is a big fear. The bus was driving through Ohio today, and I was thinking about the fact that elections are being stolen. It’s really…that’s scary. When that starts happening, then my idea, or my dream…like the song on Garden Ruin, you know, “All Systems Red.” It’s that sense of wanting to tear it down, and build it up again. It’s the fear that things are not changing, but getting worse. It leaves that sense of frustration that’s built overtime. Seeing that happen in every election, not only domestically, but internationally as well. We’re just watching other countries just fall by this weakness, or this…inaccuracy. And they’ve just got to accept it. And all of that stuff is relative. It’s good, a good topic to discuss, because it does influence, and it-
At this point, standing outside the Rex Theater, Joey’s band mate and longtime friend John Convertino walks by. Joey stops and introduces us. “I’m out on the corner, doing an interview on the street.” He says. John nods in a way that implies that this makes sense, and surveys the people dashing about in the late afternoon city sweat, before continuing on his way.
J: And I think for us, variety is key. And that’s natural of people everywhere, no matter what their favorite music is. If they’re into heavy metal, they’re going to want to check out a band like Queens of The Stone Age, because they rock, but they’re also kind of weird in a very eclectic way. So it might open them up into listening to Hansel and Johnny. Or their older projects, or their offshoot projects. Or Broken Social Scene, or a lot of bands that have collectives.
M: It seems as though independent music is happening in a similar way. You get bands like the New Pornographers, who have Neko Case, and she has an entire audience, so you get a crossover there. There’s this whole other current of independent music going on that (Calexico) and Neko are a part of. It’s the relationships and the spectrum that are expanding within music. I grew up in the nineties, and it just wasn’t there as much.
J: It was like that in the sixties and seventies before that. It was a time when one band was one band. They might have split off and done solo projects, but I think back then, there were things happening that just weren’t emphasized as much in mainstream media. Again, corporate labels are going to push that one entity, because it’s easier to hold on to. They’re still putting out new Beatles records. We just can’t let go, but that’s alright. There are those people that are more into diversity, and will dig down and find what’s going on beneath the scene. They want to read…what’s frustrating with what’s going on with the mp3 player is that there’s no information on who produced it, who recorded it, who were the musicians, who wrote the song, who published the song. I mean, what was the poetry, were there any photos, we’re missing all of that.
M: It’s that feeling that you get when you open it and put it in for the first time, and you sit in your chair, flipping through (the booklet) as the music is going on.
J: It’s kind of a bummer, so I’m hoping that’ll be the future. What’s interesting now is that sometimes on the mp3 player, there is the color photo of the album cover, and even that kind of gets me excited because it’s some image that’s associated with it. Not that I need that, but it reminds me of what things…what might be better. It’s definitely better sound wise. The sound quality has gotten worse and worse, and the price has just gone up and up. Unbelievable. And it’s sad because all of these studios that were fantastic are just fizzling out. It’s an end of an era of quality.
M: All of the huge consolidations that are going on.
J: Yeah. Kind of going back to where we started with instruments, that’s why I like old instruments, old microphones. Old outboard gear, back gear. Places. I’d much rather be playing (The Rex Theater) than a mini-mall. It’s a great part of town, got a lot of character. It’s beautiful. All of those things go into the aesthetic, and the style and the character, and it influences the music. And maybe you’re influenced by music from the past, and you interpret it, and you make it your own. It’s one way of kind of bridging, and maybe kind of going back to…reconnecting things that were left out of the mix. I think that’s why in the eighties there’s a lot of that “cow punk” they called it back then. It later became alternative country, or whatever. But there were a lot of influences from Johnny Cash, George Jones, Hank Williams Sr., Patsy Cline, and so on and so forth, but it took a lot of musicians, because it wasn’t carried through major avenues of country and western, so it came out in independent music and pop.
Joey and I parted ways, me off to grab dinner and a beer, he to probably do the same before the show. The room filled with the mix of people that we had talked about through our walk. The NPR crowd, the hip-kid crowd. In many ways, I doubt that the audience was expecting Calexico (whose sound, for me, is related to relaxed, easy going thought) to rock out nearly half as hard as they did. They exploded with each and every song, but it wasn’t just so much noise. It was cohesive, it was heavy. It was, to say the least, meaningful.
I’d like to thank Joey, Calexico’s tour manager Mike, and Brendan Bourke at Tag Team Media for allowing this interview to take place. Additionally, thank you to all of the members of Calexico for an outstanding show on that warm summer night.