Calexico has always been one of the most adventerous-sounding indie rock bands on the scene and their new album The Thread That Keeps Us finds the Arizona-based group operating at full-form sonic fearlessness. In our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One, we interviewed Calexico’s Joey Burns to find out the behind-the-scenes story of the writing and recording of The Thread That Keeps Us, what drives the band’s varied musical styles and flourishes, how their inspired instrumentals function within the overall album, and who the notorious collaborators would like to work with in the future.
NoiseTrade: Your new album The Thread That Keeps Us (out January 26 on Anti-) follows up your guest-filled 2015 album Edge of the Sun. What are some of the themes and inspirations that contributed to your new batch of songs and what let you know it was time to get back in the studio?
Joey Burns: We generally have a three year album and touring cycle. After the 2016 US elections we felt the urge to get back to work as soon as possible. In the face of fear and hatred spewing from the channels, it made me want to connect with people in person and on tour knowing that music can be the bridge to hope. My first instinct was to tour the middle of the US. We will be heading there this April 2018. Another big factor that inspired the new album was traveling to John’s hometown of El Paso to do some writing and home recording. At his home we wrote and recorded the song “Eyes Wide Awake” which is sort of a full throttle cathartic release. We followed up with writing and recording in Marin, California and back in Tucson. Since the summer in Arizona was seeing all-time high temperatures it felt equally good to be on the Pacific Coast and to work in an incredible home studio called The Panoramic House which is made from found materials and stocked full of vintage gear and instruments. It felt like we found a secret gold mine of recording studios. In addition we could walk down trails thru rain forests to get to the sublime Stinson Beach.
NT: From leaving the familiarity of Arizona, traveling to the scenic Northern California coast, and recording in the makeshift Panoramic House studio, how much of an impact did geography and a sense of space have a direct impact on the writing and recording of the new album?
Burns: One of the surprising things that came up for me was being reminded of what it felt like to grow up in Southern California on the coast during the 1970s and how connected some of the major themes are to today’s news and concerns. From that perspective I imagine a series of characters and made up a story line which helped me get into writing the lyrics. I felt like we stepped thru the lens of a Wes Anderson movie and were seeing a story unfold, one that had to do with saving a town from corporate over development, protecting the ocean and forest, young love, and fighting of the demons in the internal and external landscapes.
NT: I read that you guys have said that your new album has “a little more chaos and noise in the mix” than your previous albums. What inspired the new sonic direction and how did you go about achieving that vision during the recording sessions?
Burns: We have a great lineup of musicians in our band and for the last few years the shows have been getting better and better. Part of the highlight on the guitars comes from the live show energy, but also some of the chaos is the reflection of tension and frustration we feel from the news of the day. There is still a lot of variety of instrumentation and music styles on the album. I think it is our most varied sounding album since Feast of Wire in 2003. We had a lot of mixing it up and trying new things. John and I constantly record new ideas, and if some of them sound too familiar we set them aside and keep writing and recording. Also, the band members had a lot to do with the direction of arrangements and overdubs. Martin Wenk our multi instrumental wizard from Berlin offered up not only great trumpet parts but did a lot of innovative electric guitar parts on songs like “End of The World With You” and helped give Jairo Zavala some Robert Fripp songs to inspire his guitar parts.
NT: Your new NoiseTrade sampler features new songs “Under the Wheels” and “Voices in the Field.” What can you tell us about these two specific tracks and how do they fit into the larger context of the new album?
Burns: “Under The Wheels” The music is composed by our keyboardist Sergio Mendoza and I wrote the text. I like the way it starts out with a drum machine and for the longest time, the working title was “Cumbia Disco”. It moves. There’s some interesting harmonies and arrangements at work that I’m sure people will enjoy. It’s playful and yet has this incredible groove that John, Jairo and Sergio laid down. It took me a while to find a way in with the lyrics and shaping a melody. I wound up speaking the verses and singing the chorus sections. There’s contrast at play and it felt fresh and unique for us. So we kept it. I like how the ‘war machine’ lyrics in the chorus symbolize our own internal thoughts at odds with ourselves. The push and pull between the mind and heart, the safety at home and the risk of the outdoor world needed to be turned upside down for this song.
We have a warm spot in our musical heart for songs in 6/8 rhythm. On the song “Voices in The Field” John reinvented the way he normally approaches playing in this time signature and I tried to be as simple and drone like with repeating the same three chords over and over. We’d been spinning a bunch of vinyl that was at the recording studio. Everything from Talking Heads with Brian Eno to Hurray for the Riff Raff, and from Bombino to Bob Dylan. Somewhere in there we found connections to helping make this song. Lyrically I was inspired by reading poems written by Syrian refugees on postcards. It was part of their healing process. They were short, painfully honest and powerful to the core. I heard Mavis Staples singing somewhere and this song took a spiritual turn on the choruses. I started thinking about what I would say to my daughters if we had to run for our lives. I couldn’t put the pen down and kept writing.
NT: Amongst all of the various lyrical elements present on The Thread That Keeps Us, there’s also a couple entrancing instrumentals: “Unconditional Waltz” and “Spinball.” What inspired these creations and are they meant to be sonic palette cleansers between the headier lyrical tracks?
Burns: We’ve had a tradition of including instrumentals on albums in the past and have done a fair amount of soundtracks for films. One of the things I really wanted on this album was to bring back some of these sweet musical passages. They can be segues or palette cleansers, or be used as songs to fill your mix cassette tape with. They have a lot of versatility. “Unconditional Waltz” is written and recorded by Martin on the North coast of Germany. Maybe there is a coastal connection on this album, and we are just figuring it out now. “Spinball” features John’s fluid and signature drumming style. There is no one that drums like him and I love hearing his musical voice open up in this song and throughout the new album.
NT: Finally, from Neko Case to Iron & Wine to Nancy Sinatra to Maggie Bjorklund and many others, Calexico has quite a reputation for collaborating with some really adventurous artists. What are some of your favorite parts about musical collaboration and can you name three artists that you hope to eventually cross paths with one day?
Burns: I love collaborations and helping friends make new music. It’s one of the most incredible things to be a part of. It takes a lot of listening and being present enough to not say or play anything, as well as knowing when is the best time to offer any ideas if needed at all. Less is more. It’s simple but it’s true. I’m looking forward to doing more collaborative work down the road and would love to work combining acoustic and electronic elements. I’d love to work with Natalia Lafourcade, Tom Waits, and Hauschka.