Generally speaking, it can be hard for both musicians and music journalists to make a piece feel innovative. Often, the first thing I'll tell someone when I phone or sit down with them is that I'm sorry if they've heard similar questions already from other writers; they'll usually say it's OK, and we'll usually have a good talk—but it can be easy to fall back on rote questions and answers for both sides.
Calexico's Joey Burns, however, felt different. Maybe it's because the band's been at it practically forever, making Burns a seasoned vet at handling yahoo interviewers like me. Calexico released its ninth studio album, The Thread that Keeps Us, just last year to overwhelmingly positive reviews.
The Thread is unmistakably Calexico and rides that middle ground between indie rock and an almost Latin-meets-country sound fostered from years living near the US/Mexico border in Tucson, Arizona. And that doesn't even begin to cover the countless tours, collaborations, singles, et cetera they've presided over. Still, on the phone, Burns had a refreshing ease about him and a magnetic ability to free associate while staying focused. Here are some highlights:
On what exactly it is that Calexico does, Burns says, "I've been more open-minded when it comes to trying to define ourselves as a band. We'll play everything, from jazz, indie rock, folk festivals; anything, really, and I think there's a little something for everyone, even if that does sound cliché. We're still playing instruments, we're not going completely electronic, but that would be fun to do. We've collaborated with Goldfrapp, Nortec Collective, Mexican Institute of Sound, and being able to do that well is something we take a lot of pride in."
On those collaborations for which Calexico is known, Burns muses, "I think for musicians, it comes naturally and we've allowed [collaborations] to be more open-ended. In doing that, it's a reflection of who we are as people coming from the Southwest. It opens a lot to talk about. Even just here in Tucson, there's an openness and blending of ideas. Culturally and socially, people tend to be a little more open here."
On Calexico's varied sound and the concept of so-called "world music," Burns points out that, "French music isn't considered 'French' in France. It's just music. It's interesting—when you travel around the world, your concept of what's 'world music' changes. It's helped open the door for me musically, and a long time ago I stopped wondering what was cool. I love finding new stuff, and if it comes from a Putumayo CD, so be it. I'm constantly listening or finding new stuff that's off the beaten path, and it's easier now because you just find a podcast. One of the joys of touring, though, is that you get to go to new places and hear new music played live or playing somewhere."
On whether or not the newest album is is political, Burns thinks a moment, then answers: "I think we're all in the same boat, and some of the best stories can be interpreted in different ways. For me, the goal was to write really good songs with really good stories. Am I influenced by what's around me? Of course I am. Everyone is. That's just a product of where we are. There's stuff [on the album] that's politically charged, but as a friend of mine in Spain says, the most political thing is our heart. Really, all of what we're dealing with has to do with our hearts and how we interpret things in life; any kind of story that can highlight that and turn someone's head or open someone's eyes. … I'm banking on that. I want to be a good example for my kids. I try to reflect [the band] and who we are; what is it that's happening to me? What can I do to make it better? Certainly, our government pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord is a big wake-up call. I want to understand it more. What can we do to help each other? Music can help."
On songwriting with his kids, Burns sounds excited and says, "Sometimes I talk about my twin daughters [onstage]. They're 7 and they're really concerned with what's happening with the environment. We wrote this song called 'Girl in the Forest,' and I started bringing up themes of protest, people protecting water, people who want to develop and run pipelines and bring harmful fuels through them, and they just kind of looked at me and were like, 'Why can't the girl in the forest simply be about a girl who communicates with animals?' The end result is a combination of those things and feelings, and I think about them when I'm singing that song. I recorded a demo on a cassette four-track, and it had a certain 1970s slap-back feel because of the lo-fi.
On what he hypothesizes it might be like to see the band live, Burns says: "Because of the name of our band, because of the regional character of our music … people who come to a Calexico show walk away like they learned something new. It's affected them. And I'm happy to be doing this. I'm happy to keep fighting as long as I can."
7:30 pm Wednesday June 13. $28.
The Bridge at Santa Fe Brewing Co.,
Meanwhile, hot off a main stage appearance at the Kerville Folk Festival in Texas, semi-local duo Son of Town Hall comes to the oldest church in America with their three parts music/one part theater thing they do so well.
If the hats and shirts and such didn't tip you off, the project of Santa Fe singer-songwriter-author David Berkeley and London-based producer/songwriter Ben Parker has a sort of quirky '80s throwback feel—by which, of course, we mean 1880s. Think soft and beautiful finger-picking on acoustic guitars melding with vocal harmonies so sublimely tuned and timed it can be hard to tell who's singing which parts.
As the story goes, Berkeley and Parker met during a bar brawl over a woman in London. "I thought she was looking at me and David thought she was looking at him," Parker says of the chance meeting. "But she was looking at neither of us—she had a wonky eye, as we say in London."
OK, this is going to take some suspension of disbelief, but Berkeley tells SFR that most audiences are quick to embrace that. "We have this backstory where we're traveling from show to show by raft and people find themselves wanting to to believe that and travel with us," Berkeley says. "I love going as deep as we're able to go [with the story], and I'm well aware of the absurdity of it—but if you go see theater, you know the actors are going to take you on some sort of journey, and we're playing with that in a weird way—but it's still a concert and still very much about the music."
The show is participatory as well, and Berkeley stresses it's not particularly formal. "And this is coming from a songwriter who has dreaded sing-a-longs his entire career," Berkeley jokes. "It starts to break down the wall a little bit; we're all doing this together; that takes out a lot of the ego."
Son of Town Hall:
7:30 pm Thursday June 14. $15-$18.
San Miguel Mission,
401 Old Santa Fe Trail,