Mixing both the sounds and the sound of California and Mexico, Calexico has had an indie spirit from its lo-fi beginnings in the late 80s. And multi-instrumentalist, Joey Burns is half of the heart of this Latin-alternative band (the other half beating, figuratively and literally on percussion, through John Convertino). And although he’s got five albums under his belt and a boat-load of critical acclaim, he remains a humble guy. He’s just played an amazing set to thousands of dancing fans in front of and cheering for him at Lollapalooza 2006, all the while unable to hear his guitar, but it doesn’t phase him. “It’s a festival—there’s not enough lead-time to check these things,” he shrugs, laughing.
Lollapalooza this year has been “like a dream,” Joey says, recounting the great performances of friends and bands like Feist, Sonic Youth, and Manu Chou. “Seeing Sleater Kinney at one of their last shows was monumental. They taught everyone so much. They are so down to Earth, like, ‘you can do this,’ and they just do it very well. They show how good it is being in the moment, and they know when to put it away. What a great send-off. The Violent Femmes brought me back to old times—they have such great songs—and Sonic Youth! [he sighs]”
Manu Chou especially impresses Joey Burns. “His message is incredible and seeing his show will be an inspiration, trust me—he brings things back down to reality and he does away with the corporate stranglehold on music—in the same way Bob Marley and the Clash supported oppressed causes in their day.”
While he mentions his reverence for these politically-intense musical heroes, Joey Burns is as easy-going and laid-back of a guy as you’d ever want to meet. With his quick smile and warm demeanor, he’s the sort most anyone could envision as a new best friend after a few beers and a couple hours of conversation. In fact, it’d be almost too easy to get distracted and start answering the questions he’s asking me, seemingly out of genuine interest, as he fools with my malfunctioning tape recorder. (“I’m good with these kind of things,” he assures me. It’s almost as if he really cares—and he’s sweet enough that he probably does.)
Back to the subject at hand:
Lollapalooza has always been about a higher mission; creating music for unity, world peace, and an end to hunger—but doing it with fun and rhythm. Where does Calexico’s message fit in?
“We are trying to keep an individual identity—not limiting ourselves to any one message, form or definition for the band,” he says. This might come off sounding like a well-rehearsed speech from a lot of other guys, but with Joey, who leans back, wipes the sweat from his brow on this hot day and seems to really give this some thought, it feels natural and no-BS. “We’re just trying to keep an open mind and an open heart, and at the same time create music that is our own,” he says.
Performing at perhaps one of the most eclectic indie Lolla lineups ever, Burns agrees that Calexico is a natural to fill in the gaps between diverse acts that include Matisyahu, Gnarls Barkley, Wolfmother and Built to Spill. “This festival is different, more historic, than the other Lollapaloozas because it has more independent music bands that work outside the system. They don’t conform and copy the latest thing. It’s very much a Do Your Own Thing.”
Still touring for their fifth album, Garden Ruin [Quarterstick Records], and having completed a largely collaborative tour with Iron and Wine, Burns says Calexico is in a new, exciting phase.
“We’ve always learned from and enjoyed our collaborations through the eras, with people like Neko Case, Richard Buckner, and Victoria Williams. The brainchild of Howard Greynolds of Overcoat Records, a mutual friend of Iron and Wine and Calexico’s, the collaborative tour was a real high point for Burns, both personally and professionally.
“It all fell together so easily and worked so wonderfully. It was great to take the songs on the road and see what would happen when two different camps come together. The addition of [opening act] Salvador Doran also lent some real talent and gave us perspective on the project. It was like, ‘Look what we’re doing! Look what we can do!”
Burns, who used to work for SST Records back in 1989 “doing phones and promo, stuff like that”—says he was always in a band since he was young and playing piano. With a classical music background, he was determined to succeed. But living in Los Angeles, he saw the old sending-tapes-to-labels routine was not his style. Burns was keeping it indie all the way and enjoyed his time with notable bands Nothing Painted Blue and Giant Sand (also with Convertino).
Joey Burns says that old and new Calexico fans alike can look forward to more dynamic changes on the new tour since Iron and Wine—starting with building new and old songs into the set, and a substantial increase in performance time headlining their own bill. But you probably won’t see him pull up in a limo, signing autographs. He’d be more apt to sit on the curb outside and swap stories, uniting with the crowd in the same way his music unites cultural sounds and rhythms. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Catch Calexico in one of these cities:
Sept 03 Art & Soul Festival Oakland CA
Sept 18 One Eyed Jack's New Orleans LA
Sept 19 40 Watt Club Athens GA
Sept 20 Cat's Cradle Carrboro NC
Sept 21 Bijou Theater Knoxville TN
Sept 22 Headliners Music Hall Louisville KY
Sept 23 Mississippi Nights St. Louis MO
Sept 24 Buskirk-Chumley Theatre Bloomington IN
Sept 25 Beechland Ballroom Cleveland OH
Sept 27 Pabst Theater Milwaukee WI
Sept 28 Fine Line Music Cafe Minneapolis MN
Sept 29 Englert Civic Theatre Iowa City IA
Sept 30 Bottleneck Lawrence KS