Calexico's John Convertino on Music, Cultural Fusion and the Browning of America

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Joey & John from Calexico“I think what makes North America so great is its diversity. It can never be stopped. It’s what our nation is built on.” - John Convertino


Calexico is a Tuscon, AZ based band, co-founded by John Convertino (drums) and Joey Burns (guitar, vocals) in the late 90s. They contributed five tracks to the Todd Haynes film I’m Not There, also appearing in the movie. I’m a massive fan of theirs. Some of their songs have echoes of spaghetti western soundtracks, some are simply guitar based songs with power and integrity. I'd nominate their 2006 track Letter to Bowie Knife as the best song of the last ten years. In addition to their officially released studio albums they’ve put out another half a dozen albums available through their website and merch table. They’ve got a link to a free live album on their website. Joey Burns (on the left in that picture there) and John Convertino (right) have been active session musicians for more than twenty years, appearing on albums of Neko Case, Iron & Wine, Nancy Sinatra and many others. Calexico sometimes plays with a full mariachi band, and sometimes it’s just John and Joey. I think the world of popular music would do very well if all bands were as commited, skilled and sincere as Calexico.


SB 1070 is the controversial Arizona law which, among other things, proposed to allow police officers to stop anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant (read: anyone who “looks Mexican”), and demand they produce citizenship papers.  The law has drawn support from many and protests, boycotts and lawsuits from others.


John Convertino took time from his busy touring schedule to answer a few of my questions about the band’s history, their wide variety of influences, and what it’s like to be an Arizona based artist in the age of SB 1070.


TJ: You and Joey Burns moved from LA to Tucson in the mid 90s and formed Calexico. Why Tucson - especially considering what a big music centre LA is? What does Tucson have to offer?

Convertino: There is a bit more to the story than just moving to Tucson. I met Howe Gelb in LA when he moved into the same apartment building I was living in. His band was

Giant Sand album coverGiant Sand and they were from Tucson. His drummer Tommy Larkins chose not to move to LA, so Howe was looking for a drummer. He was on the first floor, I was on the third. I didn't get the gig till I moved to the second floor. We recorded the record The Love Songs by Giant Sand. Then we toured the states and Europe as a duo - this is in the late 80s - recorded another album Long Stem Rant and then added bass. This is when we met Joey Burns. As a trio we recorded Ramp, Swerve, and Center of the Universe. At that point Howe had made the decision to move back to Tucson. Shortly thereafter I moved, then Joey. That’s when we did the record Purge & Slouch and then Glum. The final record Joey and I officially did with Giant Sand was Chore of Enchantment.


It made a lot more sense to live in Tucson at that time. The rent was cheap, the food was great, but mostly there was more time and space to have fun with music. LA had become a quagmire of bands doing the same thing to achieve the same goal, which was some kind of record deal that was going to save your life. The independent music scene was starting to do better, and we were able to make a living in Tucson by touring constantly in Europe and the States. Joey and I had started playing in the band The Friends of Dean Martin. This music was cashing on in the lounge band scene - music that was still hip and fun to listen to that wasn't cranked to 10, and played with long hair and ripped jeans. I think that at this time this is what started influencing us, which answers your next question, which is what came out of playing with The Friends.


TJ: Calexico incorporates a wide variety of musical influences - Mexican, Nashville, Ennio Morricone soundtracks, surf rock, Portuguese music, 50s jazz. Various band members come from different states and countries. Even the name “Calexico” implies a cultural mix. Was it your inclination from the start to synthesize a diversity of sources, or did that just kind of happen as you listened to this and that and made music that interested you?


Convertino: It all just kind of started to happen with the playing of instrumental music... concert poster for Calexicolistening to old lounge records, Herb Alpert, Al Caiola, Martin Denny, Esquival. A mariachi orchestra was recording in the studio where Giant Sand recorded and the Friends of Dean Martin - that’s Wavelab Studios. We wanted to bring some of that element of a mini orchestra to the band. We were having lots of fun with playing different instruments too - mandolins, accordions, vibes, cellos, etc. I have an Italian backround, Joey is Irish. We had been traveling all through Europe with Giant Sand and later as Calexico, picking up influences and music as we went along, meeting musicians from Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany and Holland, as well as Denmark and Sweden. The original name of the band was Spoke. That had to change because of another band in Florida with the same name. We liked the name Calexico from traveling often on I10 to San Diego for gigs, passing the sign, seeing it as a sign, and then ultimatly realizing it fit our music well, we used it as the name of our band...


TJ: Various Calexico songs and lyrics are in Spanish, and a number of album tracks feature Mariachi Luz de Luna - a traditional mariachi band. How cross-cultural is your audience? What’s the reaction of Latinos (especially in the Southwest) to Calexico’s incorporation of Mexican music?

concert poster for Calexico

Convertino: I've never had anyone come up to me and tell to me they thought we were exploiting Mexican music or tradition in any way. Quite the opposite, we have always had great support from the community. That's the beauty of music, it knows no borders, there is no such thing as musical fences you have to sneak over or break in to. Joey likes to sing in Spanish, so does Jacob. Jairo and Amparo are from Spain, they like to sing in English and Spanish. Different languages are beautiful, and sound like different melodies, which is great for music. We have done songs in French and Italian as well.


TJ: The theme of border jumping has appeared in various Calexico songs - Across the Wire, Crystal Frontier, Roka. Has living in the Southwest made you more conscious of these events and the people involved with them?


Convertino: Of course. You can't help but be influenced by your surroundings. My art teacher in high school told me to paint what surrounds you, paint what you live. That always stuck with me. I think that is what Calexico does, we listen and learn and feel what is around us, and put it in the songs.


TJ: What would the musical and social landscape of Arizona - or of North America - look like if there were more laws preventing cross-pollination between cultures?


Convertino: I think what makes North America so great is its diversity. It can never be stopped. It’s what our nation is built on. My grandparents came over here from Italy. Grandpa worked in the steel mills, and my grandmother stitched catcher's mitts for Spaulding. There is not one person in the great US of A that hasn't been touched by immigration.


TJ: The passing of SB 1070 could lead to people to think that everyone in Arizona approves of keeping the state white and English speaking. Is this the case? How divisive an issue is it? What’s been the response of the arts community - or of other sectors?

Calexico on stage

Convertino: The law was passed, but the racial profiling aspect of it was knocked out by a Supreme Court judge. It's impossible to have an all white english speaking Arizona. I love that the U.S. has no official language. Most of us speak English, so if you come here, most likely you will have to learn to speak at least some English. I think there will be people who fight that, but the more you fight it, the worse it will become. The “browning” of America is inevitable, and I think it’s great. Whitey has had a long reign, and it’s time for the whites to be the minority.


TJ: Some musical acts have been outspoken about boycotting Arizona because of SB 1070, others are saying that this is when artists are needed there the most. What are your thoughts on this?


Convertino: Well, living and being from Arizona, I think the latter, but I respect those who boycott. I think both work, actually. Boycotting has some negative effects on the community trying to make ends meet, but it also works in that the pinch starts to hurt, and people don't like to hurt. At the same time, having a different kind of platform to express your views on the matter can work as well, like artists for action.


TJ: Some say it’s the duty of an artist to speak out about social issues in their society, others tell them to shut up and play music people can dance to. Where do you fall between those two poles? Is it possible for art not to be political?


Convertino: I think it’s whatever the artist wants to do. If you are moved and compelled to write a song or paint a painting about political issues you should, and in that light, it is your duty to your art. There are no limits to art. I think those folks who want the musicians to shut up and play dance music should go to the local top 40 club and dance the night away!




The website will give you plenty more information on artist activism against SB 1070. For more information on Calexico’s music and tour schedule, go to For a free download of a Calexico live performance from Nuremberg, Germany in 2009, go to 



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  • Comment Link efd Tuesday, 28 September 2010 20:36 posted by efd

    great article, great sound--excellent!

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