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¡Viva La Musica!


For Tucson-based Calexico, the desert is alive with the sound of the world’s music

By Kelly Vaughn

Drawing influences from global sounds, Calexico’s newest album, Edge of the Sun, was written and recorded in Tucson and Mexico City.
Drawing influences from global sounds, Calexico’s newest album, Edge of the Sun, was written and recorded in Tucson and Mexico City.

For Calexico’s Joey Burns, the desert is a revelation.

“I’m inspired by the openness of Arizona,” he says. “There’s an element of space here — space in the music, space in the location.”

It’s no surprise then that the band’s new album, Edge of the Sun, celebrates the musical exploration that comes from embracing variety, something the Tucson-based group has long done. The record, the band’s ninth studio effort, features collaborations with Neko Case, Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell and more. Although much of the work on the album was done in Tucson, the band recorded it in Mexico City, just blocks away from artist Frida Kahlo’s famed Casa Azul.

“We made the connection through friends of keyboardist Sergio Mendoza,” Burns says. “That was a nice way for us to go to work and be inspired by the backdrop at the same time.”

Indeed, international sounds pervade Calexico’s work, from the Latin and Afro-Cuban styles Burns admires to pieces of instrumental inspiration the band draws from places like the Mediterranean — which, incidentally, reminds Burns of the desert. “The record is an expansive piece of work,” he says. “The band is made up of members from around the world, and that’s the core of Calexico’s vision. We all love to travel, so we incorporate music from around the world. We have a signature sound, but it’s a subtle thing.”

That sound, a little folksy, a little alt-country and a little Latino, combines a slew of instruments to back Burns’ vocals — from violins and organs to Greek instruments.

The band, named for the town on the California-Mexico border, is touring now in support of Edge of the Sun, and according to Burns, he and his five musical counterparts — John Convertino, Paul Niehaus, Jacob Valenzuela, Martin Wenk and Volker Zander — will continue their tradition of seeking out places that will become their favorite global spots. That means taking cabs, walking or biking to restaurants that locals have recommended, or stumbling on an unexpectedly great hole in the wall before a show and being saved from eating lukewarm food from aluminum containers.

And, of course, the band is looking to once again connect with its fans. “People respond to the depth, not only in the music, but in the lyrics,” Burns says. “It transports people. Maybe they’ve gone through a difficult time — the music is sympathetic to the listener. When we sequence a record, we want it to feel natural, like you’re opening a book or watching a movie. You’re on your own journey. The record is a living, breathing entity.”

As Burns and the other band members age, they find themselves working on living and breathing themselves. Some have taken to running. Others practice yoga. They all have a special affinity for the green poblano hot sauce Burns picks up at the Tucson airport before each tour.

More than anything, though, Calexico is continuing a musical evolution and finding its space in a cluttered world.

“Calexico is about a lot of moods, a lot of setting,” Burns says. “There are two trails ahead of you, right? We are the trail that’s most definitely less traveled. And on that trail — at times — it doesn’t make sense, and it’s treacherous and there’s a dark cloud over the trail. It looks like there’s rain. But, somehow, it looks like there’s some sort of glow from beyond the darkness. You can just make out the edge of a Southwestern sun.”

We’re so hip, we’ve been listening to Calexico since before they were cool. Click here for an essential Calexico playlist.
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