Frida Kahlo, Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell, the winged serpent god Quetzalcoatl, Neko Case, Mexico City, Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam, the Virgin of Guadalupe, DeVotchKa’s Nick Urata and Tom Hagerman, Pedro Reyes, Carla Morrison, Molotov, Gaby Moreno, Amparo Sanchez, Athens, Takim, Sergio Mendoza, Craig Schumacher, and Animals frontman Eric Burdon: In one way or another, all of these people — imaginary and otherwise — figured into Calexico’s richly textured new album, Edge of the Sun. Calexico, the veteran Tucson band whose creative core comprises guitarist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino, found inspiration and collaboration for their multifaceted record in Mexico City, Athens (of the Greek variety, not R.E.M.’s stomping grounds), and their hometown.
“John and I needed to find a way to get into the making of this record,” says Burns, speaking from Toronto during a tour stop. “We tried in Tucson, but it didn’t feel like we were diving into it. So our friend Sergio Mendoza recommended going to his friend’s house, just south of Mexico City, which has a small recording studio in it. We set up camp there for ten to twelve days and got some work done, and got to explore a little bit.”
Burns and Convertino explored wonders both modern and ancient, including Pedro Reyes’s Disarm, an installation created from broken weapons and guns the government had seized from drug cartels. “Pedro welded them into music instruments. A friend of a friend was working on a piece and we got to see them, and to try some of them. Some guys doing the welding were welding the pieces back into a weapon and those were on the wall. It was really fascinating,” he says of this powerful statement of pushing back against brutalization by the cartels. “And the government itself,” adds Burns. “The piece Pedro did before that was taking the same broken guns and melting them down into the spades of shovels, and those were used to plant trees.”
The pair also saw into the past, visiting the Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon in Teotihuacan before heading to one of the places where the Virgin of Guadalupe was seen. “At another ancient site I saw Quetzalcoatl, the serpent god with onyx eyes,” says Burns. “I love seeing, in person, these old relics. Growing up here in North America, I love that history goes back further than we actually do.”
On the next page: “We spend so much of our time traveling and we rarely have the opportunity to spend more than 24 hours in one place”
Though the sojourn near Mexico City was a profoundly beautiful experience, the impact on the songwriting for the album wasn’t direct. These aren’t songs about Mexico. “It was more supportive, in a way. It reaffirmed my intuition of my love for all places, but especially in the Americas. Certainly, we’ve been inspired by the culture of Mexico, South America, and Cuba in the past. But to go there and see them and feel the energy was invaluable. Our host is a musician himself and invited his musician friends from bands like Molotov, which would probably be most well-known north of the border.”
Once Calexico returned to Tucson and their usual recording environment — “studios with beer-soaked floors and cigarette butts in the carpet,” says Burns — they set busily to work, putting meat on the bones of what would become Edge of the Sun.
“The first thing was to get some songs recorded, then write some lyrics and add textures and layers, and overdubs,” Burns says. “Once we had it nailed down, Sergio and I started to come up with ideas of guests. Together, we know quite a lot of musicians — we asked Tom Hagerman from DeVotchKa, we’ve used him before, and Sergio plays in that band, so our circle has become tighter. Then…Neko [Case] was coming through town, and of course we’ve worked with her before. Sergio was pretty insistent: ‘Send her a text.’ We didn’t really hear from her until she showed up at the studio. That was really special. She added beautiful vocals to ‘Tapping on the Line.’ That made it for me. Sam and Ben being so busy, too. It meant a lot to all of us.”
The album wasn’t completed, however, until they made a trip to that other ancient city. By chance, on Calexico’s Mediterranean tour, they met more musicians in Athens, including locals like Takim, and also Burdon, who was playing a festival in town.
“It’s really nice we can do this,” Burns says of their international inspirations. “We’ve recorded so many years now in Tucson. On our album Algiers we went to New Orleans for a number of reasons. It was so nice to call New Orleans our home base for a little while as we did some writing. That kind of sparked something for us. We spend so much of our time traveling, and we rarely have the opportunity to spend more than 24 hours in one place.”
Calexico headline the Bowery Ballroom June 7 and June 8, which will give them the chance to spend more than 24 hours in one place, finally. The shows have sold out, but tickets are available on the secondary market.