Calexico’s sounds of the Southwest

Tex-Mex group delves into the sounds of its home

John Convertino and Joey Burns
Photo courtesy of Calexico

Calexico’s John Convertino was fielding questions from the media recently; we were his last interview that day, but also at least his second interview prepping the Boulder market for the Tucson-based outfit’s upcoming Fox Theatre gig. The first one caught him a little off-guard.

“Yeah,” he remembers. “They called up and said, ‘Oh, we’ll have Cathy on the line here in a minute’. I go, OK, no problem, and then she gets on the phone and she’s DJ-ing, she says the name of the tune she was just playing, and then says, ‘Oh, and now we have John Convertino from Calexico on the line. … John, are you there?’

“I was like, ‘Whoa, I guess I’m live on the radio.’ Ha! But it’s all fine, we’re really looking forward to coming back to Colorado, it’s been a while.”

A little press juice isn’t the worst thing in the world for these guys, and Boulder is probably catching them, rested and chilled after the holiday break, at just the right time. The band released its sixth long player (and first in four years) a few months ago, Algiers, and plenty of their followers are suggesting that after 16 years as a going concern, the indie Southwest alt-TexMex duo of Convertino and Joey Burns (plus backing band) might have just achieved vintage status.

Algiers paints its stories in pastels; calloused frontier loners (“Splitter”), reluctant lovers (“Para”), determined and probably hopeless Cuban refugees (“Sinner in the Sea”), grimly desperate modern Gypsies (“Better and Better”), all set against a relaxed but meticulously orchestrated bed of buoyant six-strings, a garnish of mariachi horns and background vocals that harmonize and wail gently in the fringy recesses of the canvas, like Calexico member Jacob Valenzuela’s melancholy and silky smooth trumpet lines on his own composition “No Te Vas.”

Completely without guile or inauthentic sampling, this is music that seduces and persuades, borrowing its southwest Mexican influences with dignified elegance, and if it takes a few spins before the lyrics fully frame the scene, the effort is more than worth it.

This is a band that has grown up.

Convertino agrees, and to some extent credits the band’s longtime producer and counsel Craig Schumacher for the album’s confident and deftly executed stride.

“When Craig catches that one moment, when you’re listening to the basic tracks — like just guitar and drums, or a piano line and drums, or even if Joey is in there by himself — it’s like the song automatically tells you what it wants next. It’s a really interesting process, and there are times when … it’s done.”

These moments of spontaneity and self-confidence happen a lot when a band is in a familiar environment — a home studio, a regular-gig stage.

Instead, though, Calexico actually recorded the CD — counter-intuitively, for all its turquoise and rawhide texturing — at The Living Room Studio in New Orleans, a small converted woodframe house (formerly a church) under a bridge and across the river from downtown, in the neighborhood which bears its name.

The album doesn’t sound like it; don’t strain too hard listening for brass parade flourishes or honkytonk piano. This is a true-to-the-queso Calexico CD. But Convertino says that New Orleans, a musical landscape with plenty of ghosts of its own, cast its spell on Burns and Convertino. Anyone who has spent time following the band over its years as its own franchise, or as soundtrack and collaboration artists, would probably not find that surprising. Calexico absorbs and reflects a compelling sense of place in its writing and playing.

“Yeah, that’s really true,” Convertino says, “and I appreciate you picking up on it. … I really think musicians are like antennas and we’re just picking up these signals.

“One thing I noticed walking around the neighborhood in Algiers were these little historic plates, they would say something like, ‘So and so lived here. He was the piano player with Louie Armstrong.’ … That combination of culture and instruments that came together in New Orleans, I mean, it couldn’t have happened anywhere else. That definitely affected us.”

But none of it — the ghosts, the history, the culture — helped Convertino with his Spanish.

He laughs.

“My Spanish is terrible. We have Jacob and Jairo [Zavala] in the band. Those guys speak fluent Spanish, and we gringos just ‘Spanglish’ away. We hear them singing, and we go, ‘Man, that just sounds so much better in Spanish!’”

Calexico plays the Fox Theatre Friday, Jan. 18. Doors at 8:30 p.m. Call 303-443-3399.