When it came time to record their first album in four years, Joey Burns and John Convertino – the two men behind Calexico’s diverse, Latin-influenced desert rock – left their native Arizona and resettled in New Orleans. There, they created Algiers, a cinematic album named after one of the Big Easy’s oldest neighborhoods. Burns talked with American Songwriter in July, two months before the record’s release, about those long days down south.
You moved to New Orleans to record Algiers. Tell me about the neighborhood. When you listen back to these songs, can you hear New Orleans?
Algiers and Algiers Point sit across the Mississippi from New Orleans and the French Quarter. Algiers is an old residential part of town, and non-touristic. There’s a vibe there, and I think in some ways it had an influence on the songwriting and music that John and I were writing in the studio. When I listen back, I hear a dark and moody recording, which makes sense with both the neighborhood and our sound in general. We felt really comfortable working at The Living Room studio, which was converted from an old wooden Baptist church sitting beneath the Crescent City Connection bridges. Every night, before I went to bed, I could hear the hum of traffic overhead — the perfect kind of white noise hum to drift off into sleep.
During the four-year period between Carried to Dust and Algiers, Calexico recorded soundtracks for two different movies. How does your songwriting change when you’re creating music for a film? Did you have to switch back into “album mode” when you started working on Algiers?
They are two different kinds of worlds, in a way. The director of the film ultimately has the final call on approval and gives direction on the music. Since we had done a substantial amount of soundtrack work, it influenced us to go straight into songwriting and less instrumental work. There were times when John Convertino and I were needing some outside influences to get the ball rolling at the start of making our new album, and probably could have used an energetic film director to offer ideas. But as we gradually got deeper into the body of work, it became easier and easier to focus on the music and songs. One of the things that helped me out was turning toward photography. I spent some time with Richard Avedon’s American West collection and began writing songs based on certain characters, especially Clarence Lippard, a drifter in Nevada.
Maybe there is residual influence from working with directors Aaron Schock and John McDonagh, and their sense of building characters thru stories.
What’s a song on this album that you’re particularly proud of?
“Fortune Teller” is a unique song. I was starting to come up with the chords and melody back home in Tucson. I may have sketched out the idea on a Walkman cassette recorder just so I wouldn’t forget it. I have hundreds of these sketches that never see the studio, or an album. It’s part of the process. When I got to The Living Room Studio in Algiers and was playing an old 1960’s Gibson acoustic guitar, the song found me. I was happy just to tap back into an older theme, and a good friend of mine, Pieta Brown, sent me some lyrics. Her words for “Fortune Teller” fit the melody and chords beautifully. John and I cut the song live that same night. I emailed Pieta the idea, and the next morning she wrote back saying how much she liked it. Collaboration is key for me, and this was one example of how the inspiration can find you if you let go and let the muse do its thing. A month or so later, Pieta was passing through Tucson and overdubbed some backing vocals, and I added ethereal pump organ and moog synth, kind of like the electronic pads I hear with the electronic music of Oval and Wechsel Garland.
Calexico has a long history of collaborating with top-shelf musicians. Who’s a person you’ve always wanted to work with, but haven’t been able to?
Brian Eno. I grew up listening to a lot of the ambient soundscape recordings he did with Harold Budd and Daniel Lanois. The Apollo album was a big influence for me and my oldest brother. We would turn the lights down and listen to the recordings in the dark, save the glow from the record player and stereo.
Can you take me through the writing process of another song from Algiers, from the initial spark to the way you feel about the finished track?
“Puerto” is influenced by an album our friend Victor Gastelum gave us. He turned us on to Rita Indiana & los Misterios’ El Juidero, and the title track is one of those songs that will haunt you for weeks on end. For me, it gave our family a limitless amount of strength after the birth of our twin girls. Hop in the car, put on this album and suddenly you have all of the energy in the world.
I [viewed] this album, with its fast paced meringue, as an energetic source of inspiration, and I knew that I really wanted to take one of our new songs down in a similar direction. So I started with the kick drum, Venezuelan cuatro guitar and baritone trombone sound. I wrote several different sections and started combining them haphazardly to see if they would all work together or not. The goal was to get lost in the tempo and groove, to see what melodies might surface. There is a beauty in the constant 4/4 beat of the kick drum, which is kind of rare in our music, since we do the ambient so well. It worked our pretty well, and soon parts started emerging. I guess I kept thinking about the live shows and the energy that comes from being onstage with the other musicians. So this song was written for that part of our identity. In New Orleans, at The Living Room Studio, we recorded a version, but upon listening back a month later while overdubbing, it felt like we needed to try another go at the basic tracks. We did, and this time John and Sergio Mendoza laid down some drums and percussion together to establish a solid take at Tucson’s Wavelab Studio.
I have to mention that all of the new album was recorded on analog tape machine, but I knew that this song was for sure going to be a digital recording since I was envisioning massive baritone trombone section and keyboard parts. So that’s what we did: we kept adding layers, instruments and parts until we reached that feeling of the song having one foot in the merengue/techno world and the other foot in our instrumentation. Lyrically, I wrote about three different characters making their way from home to look for new life and meaning. I had just read “Conquistador” by Buddy Levy, so I was weaving lines depicting scenes from the meeting of Hernan Cortes and Montezuma in there as well. It’s one of those crazy combinations that makes me love doing what we do. I look forward to bringing this song out on tour.