Composing the new Western: Calexico

  • John Convertino, left, and Joey Burns of Calexico

    Emily Wilson photo courtesy Touch and Go/Quarterstick Records
  NEW YORK CITY, New York — Joey Burns, the guitarist and singer of the rock band Calexico, is sitting just a few blocks from Ground Zero, looking across the water at the Statue of Liberty. It is the Fourth of July. He assesses the situation with rock ’n’ roll profundity: "It’s a trip, man — we’re in New York City."

It is a trip, because Burns and drummer John Convertino, Calexico’s core, along with the band’s other four members, create music that seems thoroughly rooted in the desert Southwest around Tucson, Ariz., where they live.

Most regional Western music, like pulp Western novels and movies, descends from the old myth of the frontier. White cowboys sing during the lonesome stretches between battles with outlaws and Indians. Modern country singers recycle cookie-cutter small-town tales.

Burns continues country-western’s storytelling tradition with lyrics that are darker and more varied than the old clichés, but just as evocative: illegal migrants dodging "across the wire"; other Westerners living in "chain-store ghost towns"; maquiladora workers "sweating on the TV factory line"; and strange tragedies such as car crashes, fires, or a welder’s fall from a freeway overpass "like a burning star."

In spite of the tragedy in Burns’ lyrics, the band’s music (many of their songs are instrumental) can be uplifting, with touches of trumpet, soaring steel guitar and mystical desert ambience. It’s not country-western, or mariachi, or desert space-out rock, or Mexican norteño music, but somehow all of these and more. Calexico’s music, which includes four albums and several shorter collections and side projects, forms part of a new literature of the Southwest.

A mosaic of influences

"Washed my face in the rivers of empire," Burns sings in "Sunken Waltz." "Made my bed from a cardboard crate / Down in the city of quartz."

There, in the first seconds of Calexico’s most recent album, Feast of Wire, Burns links two works of Western history (Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire and Mike Davis’ study of Los Angeles urban planning, City of Quartz) to the everyday lives of average Westerners. Everyone’s tap water and real estate, the song suggests, come to us through the grand myths that shape the region.

The old tales of rough-hewn settlers making the desert bloom might still inspire today’s motorized cowboys on ATVs or developers in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson. But in the last few decades, the frontier notion of "progress" has soured for many, and the Western has lost its standing as a mainstream genre.

Many books (and movies) have offered newer, more complicated portraits of the Southwest. Burns cites Charles Bowden, Cormac McCarthy, Edward Abbey and Carlos Fuentes, among other writers, as influences; Calexico has recorded songs named after McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and Fuentes’ The Crystal Frontier.

But Calexico’s music does something that books can’t: It forms a sort of grout that cements all the fractured tiles and asphalt and broken glass into a coherent mosaic. A song can seamlessly join a spaghetti Western’s Spanish guitar, a norteño accordion, and a story about modern suburban sprawl. Where the frontier story no longer rings true, Calexico sparks hope that a region some see as hopelessly divided can be united, at least in song.

The many styles of music the band assimilates "kind of began filtering in just by being in the proximity of this area," Burns says. But, he adds, Calexico is careful to treat "all of these influences with a lot of respect, without it being a cliché or making fun, but actually really loving the tradition and where it comes from, and trying to find out as much as we can."

Citizen artists

After moving to Tucson from Los Angeles with the band Giant Sand over a decade ago, Burns and Convertino founded Calexico in 1996. The band has achieved modest commercial success, climbing the college radio charts and performing internationally. Touring around the world has given the musicians a broader sense of political and cultural possibilities at home.

But Burns doesn’t see the band’s music as directly political. "You have to ask yourself how many times have you looked to song lyrics or music as an influence for your political ideas," he says. "I mean, if I want to find out about politics, I’m going to read the newspaper."

Music’s role, he says, is "to give feeling or give emotion to what’s going on around us day to day, whether it’s personal, emotional, spiritual, political, environmental, all those things."

Nevertheless, like many artists, Burns wonders about the band members’ responsibilities as citizens: "Are we musicians or artists or just everyday people?" He says Calexico lent a song to The Nature Conservancy for a video on overgrazing, and expresses regret over having licensed a song to Adidas for a shoe commercial, in light of the company’s employment of sweatshop labor.

"From that experience, we learned more about what’s going on with those companies," Burns says.

After the Independence Day show in New York City, Calexico traveled to its namesake town in California to perform there for the first time. The concert was a benefit for an organization called Border Angels, which places water and winter clothing stations in the deserts of Southern California to save the lives of illegal immigrants. In appreciation of both the band’s "own unique sound" and its contribution to preventing "unnecessary deaths," Congressman Bob Filner proclaimed July 9, 2004, "Calexico Day" in California’s 51st Congressional District.

But Burns believes that the landscape of the Southwest holds more hope than either politics or rock ’n’ roll. In another song, "Service and Repair," Calexico plays on both real estate’s conception of "properties" and the New Age mysticism that flourishes in the Southwest: "They say deep down inside, lie properties of a healing kind, / If so it’d better come around soon / … and offer up another chance / at sewing the dream better suited for both soul and soil."

The author lives in Brooklyn, New York.