Exotic Animals and Southwest Spice: An Interview with Calexico

Eddie Ciminelli

Calexico's John Convertino on working with more -- and fewer -- artists.

Nobody likes to see something they love tampered with. Change tends to make people nervous. But when I heard that Sam Beam of Iron and Wine was planning on working with Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico on a collaborative EP, I immediately became excited. I have long enjoyed the campfire whispers of Beam and was curious to see what would result if some Southwest spice was thrown into the recipe This story goes back further than most are aware.

When Beam recorded his debut The Creek Drank the Cradle at home four years ago, he considered re-recording the songs with Calexico backing him, in order to clean up the sound and production value. In the end the new recording never took place and ironically it was this gritty intimate low-fi sound that put Iron and Wine on the map. But as both bands found increased success in the years that followed combined with their continued friendship, a collaborative effort always seemed to be in the works. In December of last year this plan went into action and the result is the short but elegant, In the Reins.

Fans of either band will not be disappointed when they listen to these tracks. Beam's characteristic heartbreaking stories are now dressed in clean white production and enhanced by the rolling drums and reverbed guitars from Calexico. In a few songs each group sheds their comfortable skin and aims for something new. While touring the west coast, each group will play their own set of original material, alternating opening slots each night before playing In the Reins together in its entirety. In order for such a combination to flourish, it is necessary for egos to take a backseat to the benefit of the final product. And it seems that the mutual respect that each band had for one another, combined with their history, not only made this pairing go smoothly, but by the sounds of it was rather enjoyable. After Calexico's John Convertino and I played phone tag for a few days we were able to engage in this e-mail exchange about In the Reins.

* * *

PopMatters: How did you and Joey first meet Sam?

John Convertino: Through Howard Greynolds of Overcoat Recordings.

PM: I understand that Sam was planning on using Calexico as his backing band for his debut. These songs are Iron and Wine originals. Were these some of the songs he initially conceived to be part of The Creek Drank the Cradle?

JC: That's what I have heard, too. It's pretty amazing that we were able to pull this off, seeing as how we were all so busy with bands, babies and breakups and downs and all the rest of it.

PM: Did Sam write the acoustic skeletons of the songs and you guys came in and added layers?

JC: That is exactly how it went down. Sam got specific about some things but he gave us free rein.

PM: Tell me about guest vocalist Salvator Duran's appearance on the album [on the track "He Lays in Reins"]. Did you guys really pull him from the hotel lobby?

JC: Yes. Joey and I (had) met him a few years ago and he had opened up for us a few times and astonished us all. Sam saw him play in the lobby of Hotel Congress in Tucson after we had recorded all day. Sam could not keep the smile off his serious face all night.

PM: Are there any other acts right now you are itching to work with?

JC: It would be great to work with Lisa Germano again or this amazing singer Ihasa from Canada. We played with Feist once and had a lot of fun. Doug McCombs of Tortoise and Brokeback, Mariachi Luz de Luna.

PM: Tell me about your solo project, Ragland.

JC: I spent about a year with the idea but couldn't record until I moved into this amazing little house built in the '20s. The piano and drums sound perfect in this house.

PM: You originally hail from Long Island. What prompted the move to Tucson?

JC: My family moved around a lot. I met Howe Gelb in Los Angeles -- he was from Tucson. We would play shows in Tucson. It was so cheap to rent and made sense to keep a low overhead with a higher ceiling.

PM: Calexico is one of the only indie bands plugged with a "southwest" label. What does southwest music mean to you and do you find it appropriate for Calexico?

JC: Labels are tough for musicians. They think they should be doing something you have never heard before. It is hard for us to put words to that stuff. I guess because we blend the mariachi sound with what we do it sounds southwest.

PM: Are there any plans to come visit us folks in the Northeast?

JC: I was just in Vermont -- it is so very pretty there. Burlington would be a great place to play. [I] have never played in Maine, would love that or Halifax. I think we are playing Atlanta. I love the 40 Watt in Athens.

PM: How do you think these songs will translate live?

JC: So far very good. They recorded so easy. [They are] easy to play live.

PM: The bill has promised exotic animals and surprise guests. Can you shed some light on this or is this something we will have to wait and see?

JC: Wait and see...

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