They call New Orleans a melting pot. When one thinks about it like that, it’s hardly surprising that this is where CALEXICO reconvened to record their seventh full-length album, ALGIERS. Joey Burns and John Convertino have long called upon an extended range of musical influences, blending them together so distinctly that the results have almost become a genre of their own. Nonetheless, the choice of New Orleans may still come as a surprise to many. CALEXICO are, after all, associated with a style that their name – borrowed from a small town of less than 40,000 inhabitants on the border between the US and Mexico – has always defined with an unusual precision. Their work has spoken of dusty deserts and the loners that inhabit them, mixing America’s country music heritage with that of a Latin persuasion. In other words, it isn’t obviously affiliated with the sounds that have made New Orleans one of the premiere tourist destinations in the US. What’s emerged as a result of this decision, however, is arguably the most exciting and accessible record CALEXICO have made. It’s a fact emphasised by the band’s decision to name the album in tribute to the neighbourhood where they worked: Algiers.
“When I say New Orleans, you think…. ’what?’” Burns elaborates. “Preservation Hall Band, Wynton Marsalis, Treme, Satchmo, Dr John, The Funky Butt, The Meters, Fats Domino, Boswell Sisters, Quintron, Trombone Shorty, Galactic, Harry Connick Jr, Brad Pitt, Daniel Lanois. And so do I. But when you are there, on Algiers Point or on the river or standing outside the chain link fence at Congo Square, you go back across the water to Haiti, Cuba, Africa. Some strange circles down there resurface.”
The feel of ALGIERS is recognisably classic CALEXICO, but their style been revitalised and reborn by the experience of recording in the city. Its influence isn't necessarily sonically evident, but there’s a strange, powerful connection to the sounds that have always coloured their own, influences Burns has previously identified as including “Portugese fado, 50’s jazz, gypsy or romani music and its offshoots, 60’s surf and twang from Link Wray to country’s Duane Eddy, the spaghetti western epics of Ennio Morricone and dark indie rock singer songwriters.”
You can hear ample proof of this in the dozen songs that make up ALGIERS. ‘Epic’, the magical opening track, swoons with an unexpected, easy-going romance and boasts a strangely calming, emotive chorus, and ‘Para’ – which Burns admits nearly didn’t make the record as “it felt too confessional” – is dark and brooding. ‘Hush’, featuring Paul Niehaus on both his trademark pedal steel and Moog synth, meanwhile finds Burns at his most sensitive, echoes in his delivery of Bruce Springsteen at his most melancholic, a comparison one might also draw, for other reasons, when confronted by ‘Splitter’’s uplifting rumble. Then there’s ‘No Te Vayas’, a collaboration between long-term CALEXICO member Jacob Valenzuela and Jairo Zavala of Depedro, and the trumpet-embellished drama of ‘Sinner In The Sea’, which reflects Burns’ desire “to map out a song that embraced our west coast roots to our experience working in Havana with Amparo Sanchez a few years ago” and which he flippantly describes as, “LA Woman heads to the Florida Keys and drives across the water to Cuba”. One can’t ignore the majestic closer, ‘The
Vanishing Mind’, either, arguably as powerful as anything they’ve ever written. New Orleans, it seems, agrees witb CALEXICO.
“I’ve always loved New Orleans,” confirms John Convertino, who first met Joey Burns in 1990 when they began playing together in Giant Sand with Howe Gelb. “I knew that just by being in that place, with all that history that is so rooted in music, things would be different. You can't help but pick up the vibe. The air itself moves you in a way that is very different from anywhere else.”
Of course, it’s not the first time CALEXICO have worked away from their hometown base of Tucson, Arizona (and the city’s Wavelab Studios) since they first started recording under the name in 1996. Garden Ruin was recorded in Bisbee and mixed in Brooklyn, for instance, and their cover of Love’s ‘Alone Again Or’ was laid down in Nashville. But, after their initial attempts to start work on the new record proved troubling, Burns and Convertino were on the hunt for fresh perspectives: “I remember the first day Joey and I got together in our little studio to start,” Convertino recalls. “It was a cold, cold morning in Tucson, and we both played about two notes each and got the hell out of there.”
“I was looking for a renewal of energy and to wake up in a different environment,” Burns adds. “I didn't have too many expectations, but was hoping we could tap into a creative vibe and find that balance of our striving for newness and remaining true to our aesthetics. Working out of town not only opens up the musical palate, but gives you a perspective of the emotional landscape back home.”
The choice of New Orleans was largely down to long time collaborator, producer Craig Schumacher. “We were talking about wanting to go to Europe and record,” Burns says, “but we never get our shit together in time to make plans that far in advance. So where do you go that is nearby and has a European feel? New Orleans. The place is strong and bold, soulful to the core, but surrounded by a sea of darkness. There is a heaviness there that I like, and in some way Tucson shares a similar vibe. There's something creepy and old on the edge of town and written throughout the town's histories. Those kinds of aesthetics help with the writing and chipping away at the abstract shapes and colours.”
Conscious of the clichés that can sometimes afflict acts working in a city with such a strong identity, Burns, Convertino and Schumacher chose to avoid the bigger, better known studios in favour of a smaller, more intimate setting. The Living Room Studio in Algiers, owned by Chris George and Daniel Majorie and situated across the Mississippi River from the main city, was perfect for their needs.
“There's always vinyl playing either on an old jukebox in the garage or on the turntable near the kitchen,” Burns fondly recalls. “Their roommate, Kevin Barrios, cooked lunch and dinner everyday, so come noontime you couldn't help but be drawn into the kitchen to see what he had going on. It always smelled and tasted good. Shrimp Creole, Jambalaya, Fried Frog Legs, Root Beer BBQ Pork Chops, Red Beans and Rice. Our senses were awakened.”
Their musical diet was equally wild and eclectic, ranging from The Boswell Sisters – “creepy shit!” Burns laughs – to Jackie Mittoo, from Duke Ellington to The Band. Their working methods, however, changed, with Burns putting aside his nylon string guitar when he was
writing in favour of either an electric guitar or even the piano, and Convertino in turn inspired to play with sticks more than his trademark brushes. And, because they were resident in the studio, they collaborated more closely than for some considerable time, with Convertino adding lyrics and playing a greater role in the song’s arrangements.
“The Living Room studio wound up being the perfect place to set up camp,” Burns concludes. “Not only is the design and restoration of the old church structure done tastefully, but the feel of the place, with its high ceilings, helped make John's vintage Ludwig and Gretsch drums sound massive, very different to Tucson, which has concrete floors. I don't why, but the fact that we were in this old wooden chamber of a church really worked well with our acoustic instruments. The fact that we were surrounded by water, the Mississippi River, also gave us some new light and depth.”
So, some 22 years since they first met, Joey Burns and John Convertino – joined as ever by a cast of musicians from across the globe – add yet another successful musical adventure to their list. You might think that, after six studio albums and a suitcase of tour CDs, collaborations with the likes of Victoria Williams, Iron & Wine, Willie Nelson, Roger McGuinn and Nancy Sinatra, and soundtrack work to boot, there wasn’t much more they could achieve. But you’d be wrong. New Orleans clearly inspired them to make an album that sees them stretch out more effortlessly than ever but, while you can take the men out of CALEXICO, but you can’t take CALEXICO out of the men…