Joey Burns of Calexico on Longevity and the Art of Collaboration

Jasmine Albertson
Calexico and Iron & Wine at THING Fest // photo by Jake Hanson

For almost 25 years, Arizona-bred band Calexico have been weaving a tapestry of internationally-inspired music, with an emphasis on sounds south of the border. Founded by Joey Burns and John Convertino, the band's secret weapon is collaboration. Surrounding themselves with a bevy of supremely talented musicians, plucked from all regions of the world, is what keeps the Calexico sound constantly evolving and consistently fresh after multiple decades in the game.

This year's major release from the band comes stems from one of the most beloved collaborations of their career, with Sam Beam AKA Iron & Wine. Fourteen years after the release of their critically adored collaborative EP, In the Reins, the two bands finally unveiled their highly anticipated full-length, Years to Burn. A warm invitation into the minds of long-standing professional creatives, the record showcases Beam and Burns' skillfull ability to innovate while creating a record that sounds instantly timeless.

Apparently the Grammy's agree because Years to Burn has been nominated for Best Americana Album while lead single "Father Mountain" has received a nomination for Best American Roots Performance. Below, KEXP chats with Burns about their nomination, the art of collaboration, and his relationship with Neko Case ahead of their performance together at KEXP's Yule Benefit this Thursday, December 5.


KEXP: First of all, I want to say congratulations on receiving two Grammy nominations for Years to Burn! It's just been nominated for Best Americana album and Best American Roots Performance for the song "Father Mountain." How does it feel?

Joey Burns: Oh, it's super exciting. It's the first time for John and I and Calexico and even for Sam, who this is the third year in a row he's been nominated for a Grammy, he's also pretty excited too. So it's a great way to wake up on the other side of the world.

Oh, absolutely. This might be kind of a loaded or complicated question considering your nomination but what do you think about the major music awards? What role do you think they play in the overall cultural music landscape?

Well, I think it's just yet another sort of window in which people can view music and how it affects them personally or collectively. It's certainly a nice tip of the hat to get acknowledged by your peers. But when it comes to touring, like we're over here in Europe and the U.K. touring at the moment, you still have to dive deep into the heart of inspiration and we're up at 7:30 in the morning to do a radio show, which we did this morning. So it's a nice aspect to it all but at the end of the day, it's the music and it's the connection between artist and performer and community that is really at the heart of it all.

Absolutely. Let's get into the record Years to Burn – excuse me, the GRAMMY-nominated record, Years to Burn. It's kind of an understatement to say that it was highly anticipated and incredibly overdue. Your full-length with Iron & Wine came out this year, almost 15 years after your debut collaborative EP In the Reins. What happened to finally spur action on getting this record out?

Well, my side of the story is that it was around 2014 when we were celebrating the 10th anniversary of In the Reins that the idea started getting kicked around between both bands and it just took a little while to kind of really make that happen with all of the musicians and parties involved. So, for me, it was about finding that right time. And certainly with this kind of music, it can't be rushed, can't be forced. It just has to find its own time.


15 years is actually a really interesting amount of time because I think a lot about the cyclical nature of music and fashion and usually it's roughly 15 years for styles or genre trends to resurface. So in a way it's kind of the perfect time to release a follow up! Have you noticed any cycles or patterns with how your music has been received over the years?

No, not too much. I mean, you notice every now and then people will get into cumbia or people will get into singer-songwriter based music. I think it's always sort of been there. I mean, music is always there. And I'm not super into what is capturing the hearts and minds of a vast majority of people. But when I do travel... you know, just this week over here in the UK, people were telling us, "Oh yeah, people are really into folk music or Americana roots oriented music over here." Well, maybe a small fraction [laughs].

But I think I take it all with a grain of salt and as far as noticing what people are doing, I'm just excited that people are picking up instruments and writing songs and singing from their heart. That, to me, says a lot. I'm here at the Tate Modern Gallery of London and it's so great to see a whole span of art, starting from the 1800s all the way up to to today. And it's just really inspiring seeing all these different ideas and inspirations and expression. It's hard not to walk away feeling inspired.

Absolutely. It's especially interesting now that we're in this time period where it's harder to make money from music. That's probably even more inspiring to see people still put their all in to take music up even though they know, "I may never make money from this."

Yeah, for sure. And I would still be playing music even if I didn't have a way of making any sort of living from it. That's just me. But there are some other musicians and artists that they maybe wouldn't do that. But when I look around me and I see all the musicians that are making great art, I feel like it's the same for everyone. And growing up in Southern California in the '80s, I loved the whole Do It Yourself scene that came through punk and translated into indie rock or college rock, whatever you want to call it.

I really sort of love seeing people's creations where you get a sense that this is directly from the artist. There's no intermediary. There's not a lot of production. This is just the artist. I like some of those raw recordings. And that's just me, that's my ear. My ear and my eye are drawn to lines that are a little more wobbly and people who color outside of the margins.

I completely agree. And maybe it's helpful because there aren't as many gatekeepers. You can just put an album up on Bandcamp or whatever and you can make it however you want to. There's no one telling you not to.

Yeah and I think mostly everyone is pretty interested in reaching others, right? You want to find your group of peers or you want to play with certain musicians or you want to make music and send it to them. I certainly did that when I was a kid. I went and saw R.E.M. in concert and I brought them our vinyl way, way, way back when I was in high school. I brought them the vinyl record that we hand painted and everything and it just felt really satisfying giving it to a band that I looked up to at that time.

So yeah, and then you know that's part of it, but it certainly doesn't mean that that's the primary focus. I think it just feels good making something. I try to encourage my friends or even my kids, "Just don't worry about it being perfect. Just get in the habit of making something."

Did you ever hear back from R.E.M. on what they thought about your music?

No, I didn't. I didn't ask any of them when I saw them later because I knew they wouldn't remember and it wasn't what was important. What was important was just doing the record and then getting it to friends and people that we looked up to and. And I still really admire R.E.M.


Yeah, I think that idea of collaboration has always been kind of at the heart of Calexico. I don't think it's too far fetched to even call you the Collaboration King, which I'm going to mint right now.

[laughs] There you go! You can, Jasmine, you can make it.

I'm just making it! "Joey Burns: Collaboration King." [laughs] But yeah, all these amazing people you've worked with over the years, like Sam [Beam] and Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses and Neko Case. What do you love most about collaborating with other artists?

It's that spark. It's those first bars of music that you're playing together. It's the excitement that they're up for a collaboration, you know. And then they have a totally unique voice and when you combine it with what you're doing, it becomes something else. It sort of feels like time traveling and it feels like you're lifting up off the ground. It's sort of all those things wrapped together. It's just a feeling of encouragement, you know, that life exists [laughs]. It sounds strange but it's life affirming, you know? It's the embodiment of love, I think.


That's beautiful. Have you ever tried to collaborate with an artist where it just didn't work? Whether because of differences in artistic vision or ego challenges?

Totally. Yeah, all the time that happens. Talent on big scale, little scale, that stuff will happen. Even just trying to come up with a setlist, one person will have an idea and the other will have another idea. You sort of compromise. Or even during a show there is all sorts of communication that happens. And sometimes those cues or signals that you give one another, whether they're physical or mental, they just kind of drop out.

We were talking about it yesterday that like the worst thing actually is making eye contact. That can be more confusing when you're in the middle of a performance. But if you sort of steal it and read the body language or read the tonal language and the dynamics and all sorts of things. It's interesting, it's sort of like you're trying to get a bunch of your friends, with only two pairs of legs, try to move six individuals down the street or something. It's sort of defies a lot of laws, but yet you try to feel and breathe together. And with that comes, I think, sort of the certainty that there is going to be chaos and there's gonna be mistakes and to embrace and enjoy them because they really are sort of the things that we look for.

When I go to a show, I love seeing that human quality. I love seeing mistakes or people's comments that they make in between songs or during songs. Those things happen a lot with some of the people that we've collaborated with and I like to kind of make them part of our expression or identity. I enjoy it.

Yeah, I love the little mistake you made during your KEXP session for Thing Fest. The video just went up a couple weeks ago but you and Sam have a little mess up during one of the songs and it's so adorable and makes it really real.

Yeah, right? It is real. And I think that's one of those things that we look for and it's encouraging maybe to others who are also real and trying to make music. Certainly a lot of recordings in the past have all sorts of mistakes. Maybe some people recognized them and maybe people just love them and don't even know that it was a mistake. Yeah, it's a great way to sort of tentatively roll with it.

I think that's one of the things about being a musician as well, is that there are so many parts to what we do. That is, if you're good enough at your craft, or even if you're not, just sort of making room or space for things unexpected to happen. And if you know that it's going to be part of the mix, then it doesn't faze you as much and you just keep on going or get into something new.


And that's what makes a live performance so special is that, you know, I don't want to just listen to a copy of the record. I want something a little bit different and unique and an experience.

Yeah. I think that there's still an audience for music like that.

I think there definitely is. So what are the dynamics in Calexico? Is it a democracy or do you lead primarily and then give people opportunities to voice their opinions?

We try to map out just a general plan of where we're going to go and then we try to give everyone in the group a chance to shine. That's sort of my approach and that's been sort of the same thing that we're doing here with Calexico and Iron & Wine. There's quite a few great musicians that are here with us and at one point or another during the show each and every one gets a chance to shine and either do a solo or just be featured in a way that gets them the spotlight.

That's great. Especially since you bring in so many unique, eclectic musicians from all around the world. Why not let them shine?

Yeah, for sure. I mean, I'm a fan. So whether it's some musicians from Spain or Germany or from Arizona or New York, I want to hear what they have to say musically or politically or however. And that's kind of become our way in which we roll out when we go on stage or even on an album.

But I'm always up for changes too and trying things differently. There's no formula. I think we try to approach each record honestly as far as like, "Okay, where did we just come from?" So we just now released this record together with Iron & Wine which is very roots-oriented and very singer-songwriter. So I have no idea what the next Calexico record would be, but it might be sort of a reaction to that album, Years to Burn.

I mean, I've had a couple of conversations with friends and I could say I want to do one thing, but it might end up sounding completely different. And that's one of the reasons why I think John and I, when we go into the studio, we'll come with some ideas but we also try to just feel the moment. We like to write songs in the studio and so instead of making demos and then recording those ideas, we just kind of make up demos as we go along. Then either if we need to edit something then we might do that or if there's an odd number of bars for one verse, then so be it! It just becomes part of that arrangement.

Now that you're 25 years into it, which is insane, not only for a band to just exist in time, but to be consistently active and putting out new material, what fuels Calexico to keep going after all this time?

Well, I think playing live is a great way to sort of keep connected to not only the audiences but to all the other band members and still be able to perform a show. It would be easy to stay at home and just write songs and record them. But I think touring... I genuinely love traveling and I know a lot of the other band members do, too. So I think that's part of it, is that we've been really lucky and fortunate to be able to tour around the world and it's exciting and fun for all of us. And also, I think just changing up the music and bringing in different guests from time to time, doing all these collaborations is also another way to sort of keep things fresh.

Absolutely. I mentioned earlier Neko Case, who you go way back with and whom you're playing with for KEXP's Yule Benefit on December 5th. What's your relationship like?

We're friends, we've been friends for a long time, and so we've written each other to talk about trying to collaborate on something. And it's just really fun hanging out. The last time I saw her, we both played at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco and we played on stages that were back to back. So after our set, I ran over to catch the New Pornographers with Neko and I gave her and all the band a big hug after that and was super excited to get to see them. And so I'm sure it'll be a continuation of that. I'm excited to see her, I haven't seen her play in a long time. I did some work on her last studio record and I'm excited to see what she's got going on.


Oh, absolutely. Is there like a group chat between yourself and like all these cool musicians that the fans would love to know about?

Hmm well it's usually just she and I. Well, I love reading her Twitter feed. She's pretty, pretty amazing and she's turned me on to some really interesting individuals out there who are doing great work. But you know when it comes to chatting, it's more like, you know, "Tell me about your family or your animals. What's going on?" You know, the last chat was just basically, "Hey, we should do a song." "Yeah, let's do a song." "Okay." [laughs] So we've gotta pick that thread back up!

Pretty straightforward!

Yeah, pretty straightforward. Nothing out there. But certainly, I mean, I feel like I'm engaged because I'm reading every day what she posted. And she's so entertaining and so real. She's always been that way. And I really admire Neko a lot.

This might be an impossible question, but what does the future of Calexico look like to you? Do you see like a Mick Jagger-esque future for yourself, where you'll continue to play into your 70s – minus the tight leather pants, of course. Unless that's what you want to do as well!

Yeah, gosh. The future. If I could just continue being creative and making making music or art and encouraging others, both young and old, far and near, to make music, I would be super happy. You know, I feel like we could keep playing for quite a while really. I don't really think about any sort of timeframe or anything, I've never really thought about that. I feel like the music that we make won't feel dated or won't feel impossible to play if we're in our 60s or something, which will be next decade. So it's not that far off.

I feel really inspired. There's a lot of great music out there and all the musicians that we play with just keep getting better and more interesting and their character keeps kind of blossoming. It's really great to see and it's nice to be a part of something that has longevity. That's something my dad really instilled in me was just...and he's still around so I told him, "The greatest gift that you ever gave me wasn't going in 50/50 buying a Martin acoustic guitar. It's just your longevity, your being around and someone that I can talk to just as a point of reference." Also to kind of be that person you can go to in those times that are really important in your life. I feel like music can also be that for people.



Calexico will perform at KEXP and Redhook's Yule Benefit at McCaw Hall this Thursday,  December 5 with Neko Case. This concert is an opportunity to create a great experience for music lovers, and to raise funds and support for KEXP's nonprofit mission. Tickets are available here. Below, watch an intimate Calexico performance for KEXP live from Robert Lang Studios in 2015.



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