Calexico, California, is a town on the US border with Mexico. It’s a sure bet that when the multi-instrumentalist and singer Joey Burns and drummer and percussionist John Convertino named their band Calexico, they thought about borders. Physical borders translate or mistranslate into cultural boundaries, liminal zones where, if possible, materials of different kinds from different sources blend and blur.
At hard borders, such as the former Berlin Wall, mixing doesn’t happen except by accident, subterfuge, or sheer determination. At porous borders, such as that between Mexico and the southern US, mixing happens every day automatically. The Spanish word mestizaje refers to mixing ethnic and cultural groups in Mexico. Mestizaje occurs in small and large ways, involving people and things, not just at the physical Mexico-US border but everywhere that south of the border meets and mingles with the north of the border.
South-north mixes seem to come naturally to Burns and Convertino. When in 1995, they formed the band Spoke, which they redubbed Calexico after switching record labels, they were living in Tucson, Arizona, a mere 60 miles from the Mexican border. They’d already played in the southwestern-noir, boundary-defying indie-rock bands Giant Sand, led by the singer-songwriter Howe Gelb, and Friends of Dean Martinez, which was more of a collective, devoted to instrumental music such as lounge and surf. By virtue of their adopted locale and a shared predilection, Burns and Convertino have spent decades exploring arid locales, real or metaphorical, where neither Spanish nor English but Spanglish is the likely tongue.
The Spoke album (1996) introduced one major strain in Calexico’s music: atmospheric instrumentals. They represent the basic Calexico sound, which suggests spaghetti-western soundtracks by Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone but broken up into segments of three minutes or less and filtered through a Velvet Underground demo.
Accompanied by drummer Tasha Bundy, violinist Bridget Keating, and guitarist David Coffman, Burns, and Convertino recorded these tracks in their homes with varying levels of audio fidelity. The album credits thank Tucson producers/recording engineers Craig Schumacher and Nick Luca for “kind assistance”, and sound effects and a sidewalk-cafe ambience keep the proceedings from inducing claustrophobia, but the collection has a homespun feel. Inchoate, ramshackle rhythms yield fragmentary impressions: a warm wind blows a curtain just enough to yield a picture of the landscape, but the details prove hard to grasp. There are songs, not just noises, but the vocals and lyrics seldom rise into consciousness or gain the prominence of the strummed guitars or shimmering vibraphone. The overall effect is of skeletal rockabilly, as though the bones of vintage Sun Records productions—early Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, et al.—have been picked clean.
Halfway through, the near-title track, “Spokes”, features a beautiful melody, as Burns’ croon proves the equal of, say, John Doe’s. (Doe, of the Los Angeles band X, has long been a fellow indie-rock explorer of cultural and musical boundaries. Another touchstone for Burns and Convertino must have been Los Angeles’ Los Lobos, who’d been blurring borders since the late 1970s. Both X and Los Lobos originally recorded for Slash Records, and much of the early Slash catalog prefigures Calexico’s work. Think the Blasters, Violent Femmes, Green on Red, the Gun Club.) At this point on Spoke, the band’s initial milling-about coheres into a flow. If you see the aim of the project, you just might be won over and be willing to return, partly to enjoy the textures and partly to figure out the lyrics.
On their next full-length, The Black Light (1998), Burns and Convertino took a major step forward, perhaps from side project to band, with all the confidence and fulfilled promise that shift implies. The opener, “Gypsy’s Curse”, delivers more atmosphere and hooks than rock instrumentals normally can carry. And if this track presents the opening credits, then the collection’s finale, “Frontera”, suggests, as the closing credits roll, that the confident, optimistic beginning has been filtered through layers of experience, some of that experience involving blood.
The music again draws on Leone and Morricone, weaving in their fellow soundtrack composer Nino Rota, if all three composers were fed a diet of the Ventures, Link Wray, and some combination of violin and accordion perfected over generations in a small village. Throw in Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs (1985), with its unapologetic and hugely influential assemblage of cross-cultural references and musical styles.
Burns and Convertino produce; Craig Schumacher and Nick Luca now engineers. Returning from Spoke are Tasha Bundy on backing vocals and Bridget Keating on violin. Additional musicians include Luca on Spanish guitar and claves, Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb on keyboards, Neil Harry on pedal steel, and the trumpeters Rigo Pedroza, Fernando Sanchez, and Al Tapatio. Indeed, Calexico proves unafraid of full-tilt mariachi horns. However, when I saw them live in New York City at this time, Burns and Convertino performed as a duo accompanied by tape recordings. Whether Calexico is a duo joined by other musicians or is a larger band led by the duo seems to change from release to release.
The Black Light’s track 3, “The Ride (Pt. II)”, brings to the fore the second major strain of Calexico’s music: solid, graspable songs that may tell little stories and may prove emotionally gripping, though they tend to shy away from direct emotional appeal. While the music tends to do the talking, the basic Calexico narrative suggests Kris Kristofferson’s folk-country slice-of-life vignettes circa the early 1970s, but in place of Kristofferson’s down-and-outers and thwarted romantics, Calexico describes either struggling migrants or working people facing forces larger than themselves. Throughout Calexico’s catalog, even the most “written” lyrics can be treated as another element in the mix, no more important than the instruments. Here, Burns’ vocals have been raised just enough that deciphering lyrics becomes more an adventure than an expedition:
Beneath the neon hub of downtown
The local hotel ghosts blow back around
Descend on those drugstore cowboy nights
Cling to the bar, and disappear from sight
Back to the daily regime
Where the late-night graveyard shift dampens your dreams
Bitten by desire and the spell
That leaves you stranded out
On the other side of town
The low-key charm of Spoke remains on The Black Light, but the track sequence has gained focus and the sound has improved in clarity and richness so that the details—slightly stinging guitars, drumsticks hitting taut skins—announce themselves. In its weaving together of memorable instrumentals and eloquent songs, The Black Lightcould be an indie-rock Dark Side of the Moon made by Americans fond of, say, tequila and the Criterion Collection.
Two years later, Calexico delivered Hot Rail. Completists should note, by the way, that the band’s complete works can prove overwhelming. Thus this article focuses on the band’s early major releases and omits interim recordings, such as 2000’s Travelall, that Calexico self-released and sold on tour.
On Hot Rail, Burns and Convertino are spelled out clearly as Calexico. Below their names is a list of eight additional musicians; only engineers Schumacher, on harmonica, and Luca, on guitar, remain from the previous releases. Burns and Convertino again produce.
The music picks up where The Black Light left off, guitars strumming and mariachi horns blazing. Add to the list of Burns and Convertino’s influences the 1960s Los Angeles band Love, whose “Alone Again Or” Calexico have covered. “Alone Again Or” comes from Love’s 1967 album Forever Changes, a marvel of strummed guitars, mariachi horns, and inspired, chance-taking songwriting.
For an example of Calexico’s most memorable and imaginative songwriting, consider “Ballad of Cable Hogue”, which finds Burns in character: “I live out yonder / Where the snakes and scorpions run.”
Despite the nod to Sam Peckinpah’s 1970 revisionist western of the same title, which is set in Arizona, this Cable Hogue isn’t quite the character played by Jason Robards (nor is he the Cable Hogue of John Cale’s 1975 song). Burns duets with the French-born singer-songwriter Marianne Dissard, whose verses are in her native language, so the scenario takes on aspects of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, hapless protagonist and femme fatale. The dramatic climax delivers laughs: “She told me she’d be there when I returned / She didn’t say she’d have an army there as well.”
For Calexico’s soundtrack-inspired-instrumental strain, consider the jazzy “Fade” or the electronic textures, drones even, that could be Brian Eno’s solo work or passages in U2’s recordings where Eno’s influence as producer seems the strongest. Overall, Hot Rail, as it emphasizes strumming rather than picking and drifts off with the airy guitar notes of the instrumental title track, might be seen as a return to the lower-key, now-you-see-it/now-you-don’t approach of Spoke as opposed to the harder-edged, more forthright The Black Light.
Feast of Wire—the band’s next full-length, which in 2023 hits its 20th anniversary—combines the two approaches, not changing the band’s sound but tweaking the mixture. Schumacher now produces with Burns and Convertino; Schumacher also engineers with Nick Luca, who on two tracks arranges strings with Burns. Calexico expanded beyond the duo to include Paul Niehaus on pedal steel; Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet; Martin Wenk on trumpet, accordion, and bowed vibes; and Volker Zander on upright bass. Guest musicians include Schumacher, Luca, and a host of newcomers on flute, violin, synthesizer, and more. This personnel makes Feast of Wire a big-band affair.
In addition to the changes in sonic architecture, and perhaps even more notable, are the differences in structure. For example, Spoke, The Black Light, and Hot Rail felt largely instrumental, with vocals providing climactic points. Here, brief instrumental interludes tend to come between major pieces.
That the album aimed to broaden Calexico’s audience is signaled by the opening, which for the first time on one of their recordings isn’t an instrumental. Indeed, the first three songs front-load the album with hooks that might—and to some extent did—attract radio play, opening ears to this ongoing concern with a cult following.
Track one, “Sunken Waltz”, has the loping rhythm of The Black Light’s opening instrumental, but here Burns declares himself a character in transit: “Washed my face in the rivers of empire / Made my bed from a cardboard crate / Down in a city of quartz.”
Don’t expect to hear this character’s life story, however. After the scene is set, the speaker shifts perspective, illustrating his own movement by asking us to “Take the story of Carpenter Mike / Who dropped his tools and his keys and left.” The ending finds not the speaker but Mike taking “flight / At first light / Of new morning.” The jump cut, like a stoner’s change of focus but more enlightening, grabs attention by letting the listener fill in the gap.
On “Quattro (World Drifts In)”, the steady strum plus gently floating guitar lines again invite a U2 comparison, while the horns abandon the mariachi fun for ear-catching punctuation. Maybe this is U2 if it were given not to anthems but to understated soul. The lyrics, meanwhile, deliver an imagistic exploration of the need to get away, to “hit the ground running”.
“Black Heart”, up next, brings the rock or at least a heavy tread new for Calexico. Also new is the big production, with soaring strings and the wide screen of a John Ford western. The drums sound the closest that Convertino’s ever come to Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. The lyrics prove hard to decipher but are worth reading online, as the speaker is an eloquent desperado—stuck, threatened by nature and the unnatural, and losing options. “One man’s righteousness / Is another man’s long haul / One man’s close pursuit / Is another man’s last chance”.
After “Pepita”, another atmospheric transition very much in the Spoke/Hot Rail mode, comes a song that, unusually for Calexico, nods to the larger world of pop culture. The title, “Not Even Stevie Nicks…”, signals a bid for mainstream acceptance, but the Fleetwood Mac star isn’t named in the lyrics. Instead, she appears to be “the priestess / With her wrenches and secret powers” who can’t save a tormented man as he drives off a cliff. Far more commercial than the death-driven narrative is the sound of the track, whose guitar strumming somehow becomes catchy when coupled with a lively percussion pattern.
“Close Behind” then picks up the strumming but adds pedal steel, mariachi horns, accordion, and more soaring strings. Quite the full production, this one could be the perfect opening-credits music for a TV show. On “Woven Birds”, Calexico reverts to its quieter side. Accompanied by vibraphone and ethereal backup vocals, Burns delivers one of his most beautiful melodies. In a nod to magical realism, the lyrics depict the miraculous rebirth of a ruined village.
Two more instrumentals follow: the soberly titled “The Book and the Canal”, dominated by solo piano, and the goofily titled “Attack El Robot! Attack!”, which incorporates some electronics. “Across the Wire” then revs up the engine, accessing the accessibility of the CD’s openers, applying a lighthearted lilt to a story-song involving two migrant brothers: “Alberto y Hermano on the coyote’s trail / And dodging the shadows of the border patrol / Out in the wastelands wandering for days / The future looks bleak with / No sign of change.”
The charming music draws you into the dire situation. Indeed, Calexico and the singer seem to be enjoying the party so much that a hugely ironic gap opens between their presentation and the facts of the matter: “Darkness in the eye and down / In the soul / All across the wire to those in control / Holding so much / With no show of heart / You think it’d be crazy / To watch it all fall apart / Falling apart never sounded like so much fun.”
Of course, migrants in the southwest have endured or succumbed to perils since long before Calexico existed. In 2023, however, Burns and Convertino seem two decades ahead of their time in focusing on migrants’ plights. At the same time, in the midst of our emotionally and rhetorically brutal culture wars, commentators on the right and left might take these Anglos to task for even broaching the subject.
In fact, the very mestizaje that constitutes Calexico’s project may now cause concern or worse. Feast of Wire’s next track, “Dub Latina”, could, in its gently potent way, encapsulate Calexico’s raison d’etre. The rumbling bass and interweaving melodicacome from dub, while the guitar lines reflect the southwest and the vibraphone notes add the touch of lounge that so often saves Calexico’s music from being pastiche or robbery. Burns and Convertino have done this kind of thing going back to Spoke, but they seem so firmly in control of their materials here that these few minutes of music contain multitudes. Yet, whose multitudes are being represented?
As if to underline the blurring of boundaries, “Guero Canelo” does much the same thing as “Dub Latina” musically, but somehow the addition of vocals chanting phrases enespañol brings the terms cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism to mind, if that hasn’t already occurred somewhere in the band’s catalog. Here, Burns’ heavily processed vocals make detecting the “lyrics” nearly impossible, but online renderings reveal them as referring to gang life. It’s easy to imagine Latinos objecting to Burns and Convertino’s use of this material, no matter how good the duo’s intentions.
To reject those intentions, perhaps to deny Calexico’s “right” to draw on sources outside their own backgrounds, would end up rendering much of the band’s music off limits. The cry-like instrumental “Whipping the Horse’s Eyes”, which sounds absolutely nothing like its title, leads into “Crumble”. This one takes Calexico’s earlier nods toward jazz into a full blowout, with a punchy bass line, trumpet solos atop a horn section, and the swinging guitar solo that Gabor Szabo delivered on his own cultural mashups, such as Jazz Raga (1967), after he relocated to the U.S. from his native Hungary. Who gave Calexico license to play jazz? For that matter, who gave it to Szabo? Well, each one took that license.
“Culture is always about absorbing idea from other places,” Brian Eno told The Guardian’s Kate Hutchinson in 2022, in an article about his and David Byrne’s cross-cultural assemblages on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (from 1981). “It really depends, I think, on respect and how prepared you are to acknowledge that you took this thing from somewhere else, that it wasn’t your idea alone”.
While to the best of my knowledge, Eno hasn’t worked with Burns and Convertino, that ambient gamester may be a presiding spirit during this period of Calexico. “No Doze” ends Feast of Wire amorphously, with extended lines and sporadic rumbles, as if the title track to Hot Rail had acquired vocals, as though Eno were watching the Tucson sun go down. It’s easy to imagine him writing and singing the lyrics, which read, in their entirety: “Ball of flame, it’s all I saw / It pulled us in / Spirit search, no angels dear / Will find us here.”
If Eno feels like a presence on Feast of Wire, then at least some of the models for this collection may be the first two albums he and David Bowie created in Berlin: 1977’s Low and “Heroes”, where in a bit of conceptual bait-and-switch, the first sides deliver the comparatively more-conventional songs with lyrics and the second sides concentrate on instrumental textures. Those albums remain aesthetic touchstones, but because of their content and sequencing, they represent a retreat from commerciality.
Calexico would never have the sex appeal of David Bowie, of course. When asked to cover their favorite love song for the Sweetheart 2005 compilation from Starbucks’ Hear Music label, they chose Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”! That’s a crowd-pleaser of an entirely different order. “I don’t appeal to the masses,” as the singer-songwriter Graham Parker once put it, “and they don’t appeal to me.”
While Feast of Wire ventured out of the indie-focused world, it hardly stormed the charts. Surely neither Calexico nor their label, Quarterstick, expected it to. In fact, the advance-and-retreat, hide-and-seek aspect of the band’s early releases reflect the indie world’s ambivalence toward the mainstream marketplace. Calexico was willing to reach out toward the wider world with a flat-out catchy pop song such as “Not Even Stevie Nicks…” It was not, however, about to present an entire album of such songs. There would always be detours and atmospherics, opaquenesses, and ellipses.
Plus, no matter how hard he drums, Convertino generally sounds like he’s playing with brushes. No matter how forcefully he sings, Burns seems to be whispering in your ear. Or he muffles climactic moments by filtering his voice as though temperamentally given to presentational understatement. These attributes tend not to fill arenas.
Other “alternative” artists, such as the Flaming Lips and Modest Mouse, have turned their quirks into stardom. Perhaps the most apt comparison for Calexico is R.E.M., who removed the murk from their sound and the indecipherability of their lyrics and thus became arena-filling stars. They didn’t “sell out”, exactly, or dumb down their offerings, mostly. They just rebranded a bit so their art could find mainstream acceptance.
Calexico are certainly aware of that model. At a 2009 R.E.M. tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, they performed the honoree’s pre-mainstream “Wendell Gee”. They also backed a few singers, including Bob Mould, Rhett Miller, and Jolie Holland—each of whom has rebranded a bit over the years, though not with noteworthy commercial impact.
Calexico, though, would need more than a bit of rebranding to reach a general audience. Their next full-length after Feast of Wire, 2006’s Garden Ruin, threw many different approaches at the wall to see if anything stuck. This collection included pop songs (even sunshine pop songs), rock songs (and hard-rocking ones at that), and no instrumentals (the instrumental portions now being politely tucked within the tunes). Yet this bid for a wider audience hardly made the band a household name.
Kudos to Burns and Convertino for pushing the boundaries of their brand, not making the same album over and over but redefining their sound while keeping it recognizable. It’d be fascinating to sort through all the band‘s releases and assemble an essentials collection, one that did justice to both major strains of their music. But even years after Feast of Wire—when their recordings have been licensed for actual soundtracks, their albums have become streamlined and song-oriented, and their art embraces more wholes than fragments—the band has remained too low-key to break out. That’s not a problem if they don’t see it as one.
Burns and Convertino could write an album’s worth of viral-ready love songs, novelties, party anthems. Their quality control is certainly high enough. See, for example, 2012’s Algiers or an even more accessible collection, 2015’s Edge of the Sun. On these recordings, every track is a keeper. However, no track looks likely to become a popular favorite. The music can be easy to grasp, but the lyrics are nonintuitive, associative rather than linear, often unrhyming and pronounced unconventionally—bent, elongated, or otherwise distorted to fit rhythms—so that even if you grasp some of the words their meanings remain opaque. No clues or cues suggest the surrounding words.
As written, they conjure surreal scenarios. As sung, they mainly contribute to the waves of sound. Such choices happen so often that they must be deliberate. If Calexico had a chart hit on its hands, the project’s two head honchos would probably thwart the potential popularity, content to remain on a path of their own choosing.