Joey Burns of Calexico Discusses the Inspiration Behind ‘The Thread That Keeps Us’
From Tucson, Arizona to the wild mountains of Northern California, the tex-mex indie band Calexico left their home base in the southwest to meander a totally different landscape for their latest album. “The Thread That Keeps Us” is a direct result of lead singer Joey Burns’ and his bandmates’ time spent embracing in nature. Consider it a call to arms, or at the very least, an ode to the ever-changing world which Burns and company hope to shine a light on. This of course makes sense as the band that makes up Calexico are from all over the globe. From Spain to Germany and all the way to Arizona and Mexico, this worldly origination of music is the perfect group to take on this ever-important message.
Though the adventure of creating the album is over, Burns’ next journey is just about to begin as Calexico is set to embark on a world tour spanning Europe, the UK and North America – stops which include the Music Hall of Williamsburg on April 28. Prior to the album’s release, Burns talked with Entertainment Voice about the new album and what fans can expect on the upcoming tour.
Your new album was recorded in Northern California, a world away from your hometown of Tucson. Do you feel the new landscape brought a different feel to “The Thread That Keeps Us?”
I think it was more symbolic than we initially had thought. We went there just because we have a friend who has a great studio up there called Panoramic House. It’s just north of San Francisco. It’s kind of tucked away. It’s hard to find. Not a lot of people go through there. You have to kind of go through John Muir National Woods first, and it’s a lot of winding roads. You could just about miss this place if you were traveling into that area because it’s tucked away in the hills. It’s kind of disappeared, which is beautiful.
There’s this beautiful home that was built by hand by this owner. It was a lot of found material, recycled material, reclaimed wood and what not. So, this idea of home, really, is kind of the big umbrella that launches over this record. It’s something that my wife kind of reminded me. Because when she was listening to some of the songs, some of the ideas, some of the conversation, it kept on coming back to home. So, it was apropos that (we) recorded in a bunch of home studios. We recorded at the Panoramic House, which is a home. It’s not a normal studio by any means. It felt really good to go back to California, the same state where I grew up. I grew up in Southern California, but also really close to the beach, the water. So, it kind of brought me back full circle in some ways. And some of the songs are looking at home, it could be your home town, or our home state, or more importantly, maybe our home as the United States of America and where things have shifted and how that feels. So, I kind of came up with a couple characters that kind of helped me reign in the scope of lyrics, and I followed their path. I imagined their path and I followed them to see where they would go. That’s kind of how this record got off to a start.
You’ve said the album has a bit more “chaos and noise” than your previous works. What drew you to inject more complex sound arrangements this time around?
Well, I think it felt like there was a bit more chaos in the air these days. It feels like we’re kind of in this age of extremes. So being in a band and having a lot of different instruments at our disposal, everyone was kind of picking up guitars more on some of these songs, other than picking up cellos or accordions or trumpets or mandolins. People were grabbing electric guitars and making noise and it felt really good to match the mood of the songs, and also connecting with what’s in the air. The albums in the past have felt a bit quieter in nature and tone. So, it felt good to kind of dig in.
The reggae-esque “Under the Wheels” is a great example of these sort of frenzied overlapping sounds. Will you talk about the creation of this single?
“Under the Wheels” is an interesting song. Musically, it was written by our keyboardist, Sergio Mendoza. Very talented. He sent me this idea…and I thought, ‘That’s great! Let’s work on that.’ Then we just transferred some of those tracks, the drum machine included, to the studio and John, our drummer, just played on top of that. I love the way there’s all these different instruments that are being featured. There’s trumpets, there some guitar, some wah wah. Musically, it was really evocative. I loved kind of the combination of ska with sort of like, I guess, disco grooves. But there’s so many interesting layers that it doesn’t feel like it’s in one genre. It feels like it’s really, kind of, uniquely on its own.
That being said, there are also simpler moments on the record like the acoustic “Girl in the Forest.” Is it true that your daughter helped create this story?
Yea, yea for sure. Actually, both my daughters were really helpful. I’ve got twin daughters who are age 6. Yea, they were helping talk about what was important to them. Of course, we went to Yellowstone National Park and they were blown away, and so was I. I think we all kind of walked away thinking and feeling that this was really important, to preserve our national parks. And you get a sense (that) there’s a depth there in our lives, in our world, that you don’t really notice every day when you’re back home in the city. So, we wanted to tap into (that) and it kind of brought us to thinking in a more open minded way. I was sharing my (writing) process with my daughters and it was getting a bit heavy for them. And they came back to me and said “Dad, why can’t it just be about this girl whose engaged with the trees and the animals and the forest?” And I just thought, ‘That is simply beautiful.’
You guys also skipped out on collaborations for the most part on album. After working with Neko Case, Iron & Wine and Band of Horses on your previous record (2015’s “Edge of the Sun”), what drove you to forgo features this time around?
Well, I really wanted to feature the band. The band are incredible. They are all incredible musicians and I wanted to react to the last album where every song on “Edge of the Sun” had a different guest. It was super fun and it sounded great. So, this time around I wanted to get the record done as soon as possible and I wanted to just feature the incredible talent from all the guys in the band. So, that’s why you have songs like “Flores y Tamales.” I wrote the music and Jairo, our guitarist and singer from Spain, he’s from Madrid, he came up with these lyrics that are just beautiful. It kind of tells the story of somebody whose passed away and he didn’t feel like it was his time to go yet. And he’s still trying to communicate to his loved ones he left behind and wishing he could be with her so that they could experience waking up together or sharing flowers or tamales. It’s kind of sentimental, but it’s got this really celebration-al rhythm.
What’s another example of a portion of the record where the band really shines?
There’s a small instrumental snippet called “Unconditional Waltz” that our German trumpet player, his name’s Martin Wenk, he’s based out of Berlin, and he wrote this song in his own home studio up in the north of Germany in his mother’s, sort of, beach house. And he wrote this beautiful song and sent it to me and said ‘Hey, maybe you guys can add to it, make it longer, do whatever.’ And I listened to the song and it’s so beautiful just by itself. It’s a beautiful segue, surrounded by all these songs with big production and all that stuff. It just felt like (a) moment. Almost like a breath, taking a breath. This record is kind of more about the band, and it feels good.
You’re about to set off on a massive tour spanning Europe, the UK and North America. What can fans expect to hear, or see, this time around?
Well, we’ll be playing quite a few of the new songs which translate really well to the stage. We’ve already played a couple shows with a few of us and it sounds great. We’re gonna try and bring out some old songs that haven’t been performed in a while. And of course, we love picking up ideas of taking cover songs and making them our own. We’ve got a couple ideas that we’re working on at the moment that we’ll be playing live on tour.
“The Thread That Keeps Us” is available Jan. 26 on Apple Music. The U.S. leg of Calexico’s tour kicks off April 19 with stops at New York’s Music Hall of Williamsburg April 28 and Bowery Ballroom April 29.