Calexico
is a Tucson, Arizona-based Americana / Tex-Mex / indie rock band. The band’s two main members, Joey Burns and John Convertino, first played together in Los Angeles as part of the group Giant Sand. They have recorded a number of albums on Quarterstick Records, while their 2005 EP In the Reins recorded with Iron & Wine has reached the Billboard 200 album charts. Their musical style is influenced by traditional Latin sounds of mariachi / conjunto / cumbia / Tejano music and also the Southwestern United States country music as well as ’50s-’60s jazz and ’90s-’00s post-rock, and they have been described by some as “desert noir” or indie rock.

Sam Beam
(born 1974), better known by his stage and recording name Iron & Wine, is an American singer-songwriter. The name Iron & Wine is taken from a dietary supplement named “Beef Iron & Wine” that he found in a general store while shooting a film. Beam was raised in South Carolina before moving to Virginia and then Florida to attend school. He now resides in Dripping Springs, Texas, near Austin.

At that time, a mutual friend named Howard Greynolds suggested our making some kind of collaborative recording for his label, Overcoat Recordings. We all agreed pretty quickly but could never seem to clear our schedules until last December. The session was so much fun it seemed to be over as soon as it had begun. I can easily say that I’ve never worked with a more talented group in my life. I will always cherish Joey’s friendship and wonderful ear for music.”

Joey Burns: John Convertino and I met through a mutual friend in Los Angeles back in 1989. John was a member of the group Giant Sand and they were looking for an upright bass player versed in jazz, country, and rock and able to improvise. We played together in Los Angeles for some years before moving to Tucson, around 1993, where while playing with GS and other local groups like the Friends of Dean Martin(ez) John and I started writing and recording our own tunes in his apartment, on reel to reel 8 track around 1995. Before then we just made up tunes for the outgoing message machine on his phone or would carry around a cassette tape recorder with us, accumulated a batch of noise and snippets entitled “Superstition Highway”. This first outing was loaded with tape hiss that we tried to sell on the road in Europe with GS. I bought a cheap boom box there and some tapes and duped a few copies every day to sell that night. Only trouble was, I was either too tired from the travels or the partying or both so that some of the copies wound up being sold as blank cassettes. It took a while before we caught up with technology. Thanks to Wolfgang Petters, we released our first vinyl entitled “Spoke” on his Haus Musik label in 1996.

Sam Beam: What sort of musical backgrounds did the Calexico musicians have before joining the group? Did that influence the diverse styles of music the band performs?

JB: John Convertino grew up surrounded by music. His father and mother played accordion/piano and guitar respectively as did his three sisters and brother, who later went on to form a family band. John played with his family band for many years during his teens and early 20’s playing top 40s and some originals, from Texas to his home state of Oklahoma all the way north to Alaska. He studied by ear and with some training through a correspondence course. I also grew up in a large musical family and played in various garage bands all through my school years as well as studying jazz and classical music along the way. Growing up in Los Angeles I often spent weekends driving around from one show or rehearsal to the next with my upright bass.

I think the diverse musical backgrounds that John and I, as well as the rest of the guys in Calexico, grew up with has had a big influence on the wide range of sounds and musical directions that embody the group’s style. It’s a constant blend of esthetics and textures that we refer to instinctively whether we are playing in concert or in the studio. A lot is passed on from listening to the way a jazz or classical ensemble breathes and works, similarly found when listening to noise or punk bands or even traditional music from around the world. Being exposed to many different kinds of music growing up gave us a sense of universal space and phrasing that can be applied to anything. This isn’t however, something that we sit around and talk about. It’s more something felt and shared. Traveling and touring has helped a lot.

SB: How has the music changed since the inception of the group?

JB: Well, we started out as just a two piece, and we constructed songs in the studio or at home that would later on be transformed live with lots of improvising because we listened and could react to what the other was doing. Playing together for many years as a drums/bass rhythm section definitely helped reinforce that sort of musical telepathy. However, when we began touring in Europe in 1998 the label, City Slang, wondered if we would be into playing with some local musicians to help fill out the sound. Up till then we had kept it as a two piece for financial reasons and it was easier to open to bands like the Dirty Three and Barbara Manning. But we wound up connecting with some great musicians and sound engineers, Martin Wenk on trumpet, vibes, guitar, keyboard from Berlin Germany, Volker Zander on upright/ electric bass, samples and synth from Munich Germany, Jelle Kuiper on front of house sound from Utrecht Holland, as well as Paul Niehaus on pedal steel and guitar from Nashville TN and Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet, vibes, keyboards from Tucson.

With the addition of these core members since roughly 1998–2000 we have produced a much fuller sound and increased the dynamic range from the hush of our quieter numbers to a full blast with guitars, drums, bass and the two trumpets. Having the wide variety of sounds to choose from has been shaped by both the continual appreciation of multi instrumentation and various styles of music.

We’ve always mapped out a zigzag musical direction going from more acoustic songs whether folk, country or ambient, to the more easily identifiable mariachi horn based tunes, hovering around dark twang infused ballads with John’s circular brush work on the drums, vibes floating in the air and Paul’s haunting pedal steel washes and melodies lighting the way. People always comment on tour that audiences enjoy our live shows and that the dynamic spread is always engaging and entertaining. We try to mix it up, keep the energy moving, switch out instruments and change the mood as much as possible.