By Brett Leigh Dicks
Twenty years ago, Tucson, Arizona was a very different place. Local representative Gabby Giffords had just been elected as the youngest woman to serve in the Arizona Senate, Wavelab Studios was flying high recording everybody from Neko Case to Evan Dando, Café Poca Cosa was raising eyebrows across the country for its sophisticated and delectable homespun Mexican cuisine, and a giant 280-foot concrete and metal rattlesnake, complete with glowing eyes and rattling tail, had slithered over Broadway Boulevard to help pedestrians and cyclists cross the busy thoroughfare. And then of course there was local musical icons Calexico, who were putting the city on the international musical map.
In 2002, after the Tucson-based collective returned home from an extensive bout of touring, it retreated to Craig Schumacher’s Wavelab Studios to record a follow up album to its 2000 release, Hot Rail. Riding high on the back of a European tour with local mariachi ensemble, Mariachi luz de Luna, the rising acclaim and broadening awareness meant that Calexico entered the studio with an air of expectation. The end result was everything pundits and fans were hoping for. As engaging as it is inquisitive the resulting album, Feast of Wire, captured Calexico at its creative and seductive best.
On the back of the album’s 2003 release, I drove out to Tucson from Santa Barbara, California to interview Calexico co-founder Joey Burns for a Californian newspaper. We met in the lounge of the city’s musical heart and soul, Hotel Congress, and passed the afternoon conversing about some of the inspirations behind Feast of Wire – the impact of urban sprawl on the surrounding desert, violence along the US-Mexico border, our shared love of writers like Charles Bowden and Luis Alberto Urrea, the demise of the Tarahumara Indians and their culture, and what exactly constitutes a Sonoran Hot Dog.
Having revisited its southwestern roots on its last studio album, El Mirador, Calexico recently released a 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of Feast of Wire and are bringing its supporting tour to Australia, playing the entire album from start to finish. Twenty years after we first spoke about Feast of Wire, Joey now finds himself in Boise, Idaho while I’m in Fremantle, Western Australia. After inquiring about recent doings, the conversation swings to mutual friends which leads us to Allison Russell and her musical ascendance, at which point we assume our roles of music journalist and musician …
I’m thrilled to see Allison among the Grammy nominations again. But what’s impressive is that it’s come via telling her own deeply personal truths. She sang about her childhood trauma back in the Po’ Girl days but nobody wanted to hear it. Venues even told the band they were not welcome back. What’s different now, do you think?
That’s a great question and something that’s been on my mind too. I think parts of the world are really ready for change and honesty and integrity and open-mindedness and we’re seeing that with Allison’s success. But then there’s other parts of the world that are holding onto old ways which to me point back to white male dominated society. That ties into things like environmentalism, division, greed, and even war. These are big themes engulfing us and we probably think about them more these days because you and me and Allison, we’re all parents now. We think about these things a lot because when we think about the future, we think about what our kids are going to have to deal with.
Let’s delve back into the past a little. You’re headed to Australia to celebrate the release of the Feast of Wire 20thAnniversary Deluxe Edition. Feast of Wire was something of a landmark record. It closed the southwestern chapter of the band’s sonic journey before its successor, Garden Ruin, turned the page to a new chapter …
I think Feast of Wire is the third part in that sequence of records, from 1998 to 2003. It embraces the thrift store orchestra approach of the previous two records and we definitely wanted to try something different to that with Garden Ruin. We wanted to challenge not only ourselves, but also our identity. We had made a record with a bunch of Texan musicians – Los Super Seven – called Heard it on the X which kind of felt like we were doing the same thing. And we had just done a record, an EP actually, with Iron & Wine so we felt that Garden Ruin was a good moment to try some acoustic pop and rock songwriting.
The thing that stands out for me with Feast of Wire is that it’s so perfectly balanced. It continued the journey you started with The Black Light and Hot Rail, but expanded the territory you were exploring. And I adore its musical curiosity. What do you think accounted for that synergy?
I think it comes down to time and experience working together. A whole bunch of things play into that, including things like traveling and collaborations. I learned a lot from those first two albums and their tours over in Europe. Talking to journalist there I learned a whole bunch about globalism and what borders mean to people in Europe as opposed to people in north and central America. And I had also started diving into writers such as Charles Bowden and Luis Alberto Urrea who influenced the album title. I feel like it’s that growth that’s being distilled.
An interesting aspect of that growth is how the songs from Feast of Wire have evolved with the band over the years. There’s that iconic recording of “Sunken Waltz” in all its accordion glory from the Barbican in London, but then you did a delicate stripped-down performance at KEXP in Seattle with Sergio playing piano. What drives that process?
Well, it’s not that unusual for us to do that with our songs and I think it comes pretty naturally for us. It’s just a matter of taking the ingredients that are there and adapting them to whatever arrangement is available. I think that comes with just being confident in the song. I know there are some artists that can only play a certain song on one instrument and they can’t really adapt it, but we enjoy playing around with those elements and that identity as well. On our last tour of Europe there was a lot of switching around of instruments – which has been in our wheelhouse for a while because everybody in the band is multi-instrumental to some degree – and there is more of that this time around. Part of that was not bringing a designated bass player so there was a lot of switching in and out which was really fun for not only the musicians but for the audience as well. We love to improvise. I think improvisation is one of the most interesting elements of music. It’s born from spur of the moment ideas and it’s the gateway to transition which are my favorite moments of music, whether its classical or folk or otherwise.
Given that, what’s it like to revisit these songs with the current ensemble as there are some different faces on stage to the ones that recorded Feast of Wire?
That’s a great question because often when a band does an album tour it’s with the original lineup. There was a conversation about bringing a pedal steel player, bringing Paul Neihaus to be more precise, but in addition to playing Feast of Wire there’s a lot of other material we’ll play at the end of the night that’s more suited to this current ensemble so we decided not to bring steel. Martin Wenks, our trumpet player from Germany, plays a little bit of slide guitar and will do some woodshedding and play that on some of the instrumental pieces and on “Black Heart.” He’s not playing pedal steel, but a lap steel with a couple of levers where you can bend the notes. What he’s doing is beautiful. He rose to the occasion which is pretty adventurous and that’s what I love about Calexico.
What I love is how after all these years of doing this you still get excited about trying something new or changing the shape of something familiar. There are bands of your ilk that have transitioned into legacy mode, but you seem to have an endless passion for creating …
Revisiting this album has been fun, but what I’ve found a lot of joy in is finding some of the smaller nuances that we could change. I started looking for those more and more on the last Feast of Wire tour we did. We don’t like to feel we’re being held down to a specific routine or album – which we are in this instance – so we started making up some material in between songs. That’s what I love about someone like Victoria Williams where, whenever they’re forced into a mold, there’s part of your creative spirit that wants to challenge that and see what you can come up with. Even though we’re playing these songs there’s still room to experiment, it might be 30 minutes or it might be 3 minutes, but we still do those improvisational tunes along the way. We play the whole album in sequence, including “No Dose” at the end and that song has become a really beautiful moment, especially for John where he’s got the wheel and is driving the bus. I love that about that song. It’s spacy and open and free and we’re all listening and creating our own little bubble of noise and we just find our way. The thing about Feast of Wire is that we made the album sequence to match our live dynamics and the live set so it works really beautifully on stage.
How do you look back on the album 20 years later?
Feast of Wire is a stepping off point. So was The Black Light in some ways but The Black Light was a bit darker and a bit more sinister and desert noir whereas there’s a bit more desert sun shining through in some of the moments on Feast of Wire.
Don’t sell yourself short, Feast of Wire has its darker moments too. And I love the way you presented them. The narrative in “Across the Wire” comes with some pretty heavy overtones, but it’s presented almost as a caricature.
I think that also came out of the live shows. A song like “Stray” from The Black Light is related in that way too and even “Crystal Frontier” from the following record, Hot Rail, is as well. I think that’s where I was developing this idea of keeping things light and moving while still singing about things that are really important to me and trying to convey a message. I will never forget playing “Across the Wire” for one of the mariachis. He said ‘that’s a really cool tune, but man it’s a very heavy song.’ I asked if they would be interested in playing on it and we ended up doing some touring together for this record. They were there at the Barbican show in London which was at the beginning of the Feast of Wire era.
It’s been interesting to see how some of the songs have also taken on a life of their own. Michael Mann grabbed “Güero Canelo” and put it into a film he did with Tom Cruise and I remember Chris Thile doing an empathetic version of “Sunken Waltz.” Then of course Robert Plant and Alison Krauss recorded “Quattro (World Drifts In)” to great acclaim. What do those things mean to you?
They’re some of the biggest compliments you could possibly receive as a songwriter, especially the later. Not only that, but some of the words they used to describe the band and the music coming from musicians as incredible as Robert Plant and Alison Krauss really means a lot. It gives you a bit of hope, but there are still times you feel as though you’re in the middle of nowhere and can’t wait to get back on the road again and keep this thing going. It’s not about money or awards or recognition, it’s those comments, even ones from everyday people that come up and tell me they love that song “Quattro,” that mean a lot. That’s the beauty of music and it’s the stuff that keeps me going.
Now that you’ve spent the recent past looking back, what does 2024 hold for Calexico?
Coming out of the pandemic, making that last record, El Mirador, was a good way to reenter and now that we have, and that we’ve celebrated this record, I feel like I’m ready for some more experimental projects, whether they’re called Calexico or not. That usually comes in the form of collaboration so it’s been great to be out on the road catching up with people. I want to stay curious – that’s my favorite word you used to describe us – so knows where those things will lead?
CALEXICO TOUR DATES
Friday 9 February – The Opera House, Wellington, NZ
Sat, 10 February – The Loons – Lyttelton, New Zealand
Sun, 11 February – Powerstation, Auckland, New Zealand
Wed, 14 February – Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne, Australia
Thur 15 February – Melbourne Recital Centre: Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Land, Melbourne (with Grace Cummings)
Fri 16 February – Theatre Royal: Dja Dja Wurrung Land, Castlemaine (with Grace Cummings)
Saturday 17 February – Lorne Theatre, Lorne, VIC
Sun 18 February – Factory Theatre: Gadigal Land, Sydney (with Maple Glider)
Wed 21 February – Rechabite Hall: Whadjuk Noongar Land, Perth Festival (with Sunshine Brothers)
Thur 22 February – The Gov: Kaura Land, Adelaide (with Babitha)
Fri 23 February – Meeniyan Town Hall: Bunurong Land, Meeniyan (with Maple Glider)
Sat 24 February – Meeniyan Town Hall: Bunurong Land, Meeniyan (with Maple Glider)