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Calexico: Cutting Through the Chaos

Ryan Reed | April 07, 2018

A new Calexico album, in the Donald Trump era, carries a crucial cultural weight. The president’s signature campaign promise was to “Make America Great Again,” and a major part of that plan involved building a massive wall on the U.S./ Mexico border—a supposed effort to keep out drugs and criminals. For Calexico, a multicultural band named after a California city on that very border, the only natural response was to protest through perseverance—to be a model of inclusivity in the face of wide division.

“We’re certainly in some tough and confusing times,” says singer-songwriter Joey Burns, who co-founded the project with drummer John Convertino in 1996. “After the last presidential election, and going into 2017, John and I were scratching our heads, like, ‘What do we do now?’ As a band that embraces a lot of different styles musically, and has members who come from different backgrounds and countries—Germany, Spain, the Southwest, Mexico, the U.S.—we just realized we had to start writing and recording, and get back on the road as soon as possible.”

That sense of urgency set Burns on the path toward Calexico’s cathartic ninth LP, The Thread That Keeps Us, a loosely connected song cycle about two children of different cultures who unite to confront bigotry and environmental destruction.

“I didn’t give the characters names, but I kinda pictured them,” he says. “They come from different backgrounds. One’s family speaks Spanish at home; the other speaks English. They’re both trying to come together and battle maybe offshore drilling or some kind of environmental development or getting rid of the rainforest. I thought, ‘I’m going to start off with these characters, and I feel like I’m looking through the lens of a Wes Anderson camera. On one hand, it felt incredibly nostalgic, and on the other, really poignant and relevant to what’s happening today. It was really helpful for me.”

The narrative unfolded in early 2017 as Burns began work on raw, minimalist demos at his family’s home in Tucson, Ariz. “I sat right at our piano, and I bought a really cheap Yamaha drum machine from [bandmate Sergio Mendoza],” he says. “It has 100 beats, and you can alter the tempo. The kids loved the drum fills. I’d sit here with a guitar or piano, just hammering out some ideas— anything from Latin to folk to rock to experimental. It all got recorded on this phone.”