A cursory listen to Calexico‘s new album Algiers suggests that the Tuscon, Ariz. band are still pining over all things Southwestern. But a deeper dig reveals a lot of changes since 2008′s Carried to Dust, both personal and professional. Prior to recording, they joined Amparo Sanchez in Cuba for her album Corazon De La Realidad, and when it came time to settle into their own studio space, they chose to record Algiers in the New Orleans, instead of their longstanding residence at Tuscon’s Wavelab Studios. At times, guitarist/vocalist Joey Burns took a backseat in songwriting duties, too, co-writing a number with singer-songwriter Pieta Brown as well as a few with drummer John Convertino. While many of the songs on Algiers retain those warm, travelogue narratives that line so many Calexico albums of the past, the stories here are more direct and that simple fact breathes new life into the band’s unique blend of Americana and Mexican sounds. Hive spoke with Calexico’s Joey Burns about the changes over the last four years, fortune tellers and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, a longstanding fan of the band.
It’s been four years since your last record. Your label Quarterstick shuttered, you became a dad, there was the Gabrielle Giffords shooting in Tuscon. Do all of these things factor in when you made Algiers?
Yeah, they all do. They always do. It’s ingrained in the writing process and who you are. That’s what’s so cool about this record. It’s another shapshot. As much as there is all this joy in my personal life, there’s also these heavy things. We think about these things a lot.
Where were you on the day of the Gabby Giffords shooting?
I was here in Tuscon. Our keyboardist was working at another Safeway and his manager was called at an emergency, and was told that our Congresswoman and friend, Gabby Giffords, was shot. So I knew early on in the morning. That was a really tragic day, of course. But actually, I just saw her, two nights ago, at her house. She’s doing great. I was really impressed at how much she’s able to work and bring back some of her speech.
Has she been a long time Calexico supporter?
She has. And I was surprised early on to hear that. Through a mutual friend, Charlie Levy, who’s a promoter and owns the Crescent Ballroom up in Phoenix, he said “Why don’t you get together and meet up with Gabby Giffords.” This was years ago on her first election. And so we got involved then. And we’ve been friends ever since.
These tragedies are put on the national spotlight but after a certain period of time, the attention starts to fade away. What were some of the artistic responses you witnessed in Tucson in the months after?
There’s a local compilation called Luz de Vida that featured mostly local acts, but some international acts. There was that and I also played at the funeral for Gabe Zimmerman, who was Gabby’s staff member who was killed. I’ve done whatever I could, locally here.
Watch Calexico perform “Splitter” here:
Prior to this record, you and John traveled to Cuba and New Orleans. What would we be hearing would reflect that?
More from a writer’s angle, not necessarily from a borrowing position from each city. The décor of that experience of being on another side, looking across a boarder or that feeling of migration that some of our songwriting earlier … looking more at American people, rather than from the Southwestern perspective. Being a band made up of international members – some are from Spain, some are from Germany, and having collaborated with all sorts of musicians around the country and the fact that we travel, we get that chance to see what it’s like in different places and see how immigration is woven in everyone’s fabric.
Cuba is a place that a lot of people don’t get to experience.
I think that was a lot of the inspiration. It was like, “Wow, this feels like parts of New Orleans.” Before I went, a friend of ours who’s a writer, had recommended this book called The World That Made New Orleans. And that was great to have as a historical perspective of all that’s transpired between all of these places over time.
The title track “Algiers” is an instrumental. Is there any significance to that?
Well, we started off as an instrumental band. We came from having done a lot of work as the rhythm section, backing up a lot of people – Friends of Dean Martinez, for 10 years with Giant Sand, we always thought of ourselves as very instrumentally strong. When we were down in New Orleans, we came up with this tune, and it felt like it was coming from the moment [In the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans.] When it came time to name the record, John through out the idea and I wasn’t sure but our friend and designer Ryan Trayte, said “your band name borrows from a city, maybe you’re album title should as well.”
There are a few instances on Algiers where you mention fortune tellers. Were you guys patronizing fortune tellers?
[Laughs.] Yeah, the fortune teller in all of us. I kinda say that semi-lightheartedly, but I have friends, I know people who have that certain kind of talent — being a bit more open to things ,whether it’s energy, conscientiousness. In the writing, it’s used more as a reference to a place and also how that factors into that place of these songs. Whether it’s the southwest or certain culture in America that’s not necessarily from the mainstream. And of course, fortune tellers in New Orleans — they’re everywhere.
Watch the video for “Para” here:
Regarding a tarot card reader, a psychic or a fortune teller, I’m not sure what the preferred medium for telling my future would be.
I don’t know either. I’ve visited with several of the ones you listed above and they all kind of have their connection, you know? There’s times when I’m really skeptic and there are times when I’m pleasantly surprised. I think I would with the intention … the song “Fortune Teller” was a co-write with Pieta Brown. The last line of the last verse, she goes “With the fortune teller, I can see my own way home. I don’t want to be in the dark road anymore. I don’t want to be in this road for long.” I asked her what this song was all about, and she was like, “It was about this friend who was going through some tough times with addiction,” and that says it all.
It’s not the light-hearted jaunt I suspected.
Definitely not at all. But there’s a lot of great co-writes, especially that song. That’s one of the first ones that clung to my ribs instantly. I was very happy about that. Other songs, like “Vanishing Minds” and “Para” were co-writes with John. John did some lyrics and I was really pleased with how those came about. As a singer, he gives me opportunities to sing songs that I wouldn’t normally write. That might be a little more direct. On “Para,” I wasn’t sure that it would fit into the record, because there was already some mid-tempo, dirgy numbers. That song is so direct and so confessional, I’m not used to having songs like that on the records.
Algiers is out 9/11 on Anti Records. Stream it now via Calexico’s Facebook.