Most years, Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico hit the road for a tour in the spring and summer, spending the hot days in cooler climes before returning in the fall to play one or two annual shows for local audiences.
But this year was different: Due to family obligations and other things, the Calexico crew stayed home.
And what a year to stay home.
"It's been a really emotional year," said Calexico guitarist and vocalist Joey Burns over the phone during a recent mini-tour of the West Coast. "Being with our families was a godsend, because we really needed it, for a lot of reasons."
This year alone, Calexico has celebrated the release of two films whose soundtracks they wrote and recorded. They played Jimmy Kimmel Live! on Cinco de Mayo, bringing Mariachi Luz de Luna with them to a national television audience. They played several benefits for political and community organizations, and participated in a press conference with Congressman Raúl Grijalva for Artists for Action as part of the fight against SB 1070. Burns was a guest on NPR, discussing Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and his reactions to the events on Jan. 8. Finally, the band was featured in Flor de Muertos, a locally produced film about the border and its many complexities.
"All sorts of local events which have happened have made it an emotionally difficult year for us," said Burns. "Normally, we would be on the road. We would be far away and not able to do all these kinds of events, like playing the concert for Ron Barber's Fund for Civility, Respect, and Understanding. That show was a dream. ... After all that happened in January and being here for however many years, since 1993, it just kind of made me realize that there's more that we all can do."
Calexico has a long history of using their music as a force for positive change in the Tucson community. That's one reason why Tucson Area Music Awards voters tabbed them as the 2011 Band/Musician of the Year, two years after their induction into the TAMMIES Hall of Fame.
"With our record Garden Ruin, somewhere around there in the (George W.) Bush era, when we were really getting frustrated with that administration and where things were going, it started to feel like we were getting more and more politically involved," explained Calexico drummer John Convertino. "And that's really tricky, because we are musicians; we're not politicians, but we want to help. We want to be able to support ideas that we believe are the better direction, so if music can do that, and we can do a benefit and help bring awareness, then we're willing to do that. We're willing to step up to the plate."
This year saw Calexico stepping up to the plate often, representing the Tucson musical and cultural community. Not just because they were here, but because there's been so much to call attention to.
"It's been a challenging year with the shooting incident; it's also been challenging because of the SB 1070 law and Sound Strike, and because of the ethnic-studies program being taken out of (the Tucson Unified School District), so there's a lot of negative energy around those things in our world," said Convertino. "The Calexico world, the music community, embraces multiculturalism; we embrace bilingualism; we embrace things that are different, so when we come up against laws, rules, doctrines that say, 'Nope, you can't do that,' it's challenging, and it gets difficult to find a way to get through it."
Part of what helps everyone get through it is the music of Calexico, with its seamless blend of cultures and styles, and its ability to aurally encompass what it's like to live in this desert—this tense liminal space between cultures and countries. Burns said that a few years back, when they first started doing soundtrack work, they met with film composer James Newton Howard, who told Burns and Convertino that many film-scorers try to re-create "the Calexico thing" themselves.
"There's a lot in it; there's not just one thing," said Burns. "I guess what Newton Howard was saying was there's this sensitivity, and there are textures, and there's almost this symphonic element to it, but it's very handmade and kind of rough and raw at the same time—'orchestral garage' or something. There have been lots of attempts to call it different things, but that side to what we do is what he was talking about."
Although the band hasn't released a full-length album since 2008's Carried to Dust, the two soundtracks they've penned recently have helped them expand their musical capabilities, giving even more depth to "the Calexico thing."
"We really take the opportunity when in the studio to explore layering, or (to explore) taking things out or building the song—doing things you really can't do live onstage," explained Burns. Soundtrack writing involves a lot more of that, of "using the studio as an instrument," he said.
Added Convertino, "(The soundtracks) kind of forced Joey and I to find a place to record, because we couldn't really record in either of our houses anymore. We used to be able to, but we have families now, and kids are sleeping, so it forced us to find a place to set up shop, and I think that helped us out a lot to get the creative process going for our next record."
The band is currently working on a new record, and in the very near future, they'll be releasing Road Atlas, a vinyl box set of all eight of their tour-only CDs.
The next year could be an even bigger (and hopefully less emotionally challenging) one for Calexico. For one thing, they hope to continue to do soundtracks. "It's becoming more of an outlet for musicians to experiment and expand on their identity," said Burns. "A lot of musicians are really talented, including a lot of our friends in Tucson."
They will also settle back into their normal touring schedule.
"We will be putting out a new record, and we will be touring in the states, North America and Europe, so we won't be around as much, so I'm really grateful that we've had this time to be here," said Burns.