"We wanted to get a 45 on the Tap Room jukebox," Burns explains, "so we pressed a single and got a copy to David Forbes (the "curator" of the vintage platter-spinner in Hotel Congress's Tap Room), and we therefore achieved our only goal as Calexico."
Nearly nine years later, Burns and Convertino--along with native Tucsonan Jacob Valenzuela, Nashville resident Paul Niehaus, and Martin Wenk and Volker Zander, both from Germany--form perhaps the world's most geographically disparate band. "It just takes extra planning," Burns says of the arrangement. "We have to map out more of what we do as a band in advance. But we also like to play with Tucson musicians like Nick Luca (of Wavelab Recording Studio and the Nick Luca Trio) when the rest of the band is elsewhere."
In those intervening years, Calexico have gone from side project to main vehicle, crossed oceans and cultures to ever-expand their sound and have made themselves indelibly important to Tucson's musical history. This is in no small part attributable to the premium they place on collaboration with other artists and performers, an ethos that has served Burns and Convertino well over the years, first as a rhythm section for a who's-who of independent musicians (recently including Al Perry and Nancy Sinatra) and then in their sonic explorations as Calexico. Notably, during the recording process for their second album, The Black Light, they began to incorporate mariachi. Burns describes the genesis of that fruitful, ongoing experiment: "We were at Wavelab one day, and there was a mariachi group there doing some recording, and what we heard over the monitor speakers was just fantastic, and it occurred to us that this might fit well with some of what we were doing. This led us to Ruben Moreno and Mariachi Luz de Luna."
The moody vibe of Calexico's cinematic jazz-rock paired with the dynamic brass and passionate strings of mariachi has resulted in a unique and distinctly Southwestern sound that has become their signature, upon which they add layers of new ideas and influences. "We try to push ourselves," Burns says of the writing and recording process, "in the sense that we like to constantly try new sounds and combinations of things."
They also like to explore other media. There's the blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearance in Collateral, Michael Mann's recent assassin opus that stars Tom Cruise, in which they perform "Guero Canelo." When asked if Cruise attempted to convert them to Scientology, the coffee-obsessed Burns merely notes that Cruise graciously paid for a deluxe espresso cart during the three-day period in which they were in L.A. filming.
They've also made a foray into the world of commercial advertising, supplying "Pepita" for the Adidas campaign "Impossible Is Nothing," which featured "Rumble in the Jungle"-era footage of Muhammad Ali. As Burns tells it, they appreciated the aesthetics of the commercial itself, but subsequently learned of sweatshop abuses by Adidas in Third World countries. "We wouldn't have done the commercial if we had done our homework beforehand," says Burns.
And there's also the group's first DVD, released last month by their label Quarterstick/Touch and Go. World Drifts In is a concert film of their appearance with Luz de Luna at London's Barbican Theatre in November 2002, and it beautifully captures the appeal of the band at full-strength. The disc includes several short films, including Burns' short documentary feature on mariachi and an animated segment by Dave Berg and George Evelyn. When discussing some of Calexico's videos, also included on the DVD, the modest and somewhat shy Burns expresses his desire not to appear in them. "They should all be animated," he says, and then hatches an idea about using Victor Gastelum's art to do so. Gastelum has done all the covers and posters for Calexico's records, and Burns seemed quite intrigued, suddenly, by the idea of animated Gastelum. You heard it here first.
Calexico is currently mustering their ranks in preparation for a few tour dates that will take them through the holiday shopping season. Stops will include an all-ages show at City Limits on Friday; support of Wilco in Tempe and Utah, and some East Coast dates that include participation in Yo La Tengo's quasi-annual Hanukkah celebration at Maxwell's in Hoboken, N.J. It should be noted that DVDs make excellent Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa gifts.