Black Deer Festival Interview: Joey Burns (Calexico) talks longevity, collaboration, festivals and future plans

Photo: Nick Barber

For many lovers of americana music, the name of Calexico would have been one of those which caught the eye amongst a very strong billing at this year’s Black Deer Festival. Since their ‘Spoke’ debut album in 1996, the band have released a further eleven studio albums culminating in the excellent ‘El Mirador’ last year. Whilst their sound has developed and incorporated new elements along the way, their ability to be consistent in the quality of their work and to remain innovative and interesting has won them a very loyal fanbase in the UK, and for many, their Saturday afternoon set on the Main Stage at the Black Deer Festival was one of the weekend’s highlights.

Prior that set I caught up with Calexico’s Joey Burns backstage and found him to be a genuinely lovely and approachable guy who started off by formally introducing himself and stating that it was a real pleasure to have the opportunity to talk to AUK which we greatly appreciate. I began by asking him about the band’s longevity and how he kept up his enthusiasm and creativity.

JB: One of the keys to longevity is just mixing things up and experimenting, listening to yourself and your inner instinct, wanting to try new things but also listening to your colleagues, your friends, and other musicians. Collaborations have been a real saving grace for us. It’s opened us up, it’s kept us busy, and collaborations can be with other artists, they could be with films and cinema, in the community doing volunteer work or playing shows for benefit causes. All those things really help out.

How has the way that you operate changed since you started in the 1990’s?

Well let’s face it everyone nowadays has a screen in front of their face and at their fingertips, so it takes a bit more discipline, which is hard to do. It’s very addictive and easy to just scroll and veg out, but it can be a very great tool – it can introduce you to people. You can suddenly get a message from somebody on the other side of the world. I’ve reached out to people, musicians and others doing interesting things, I’ve built a rapport with people, struck up friendships and started collaborations, so there’s two sides to the sword.

Talking of collaborations, you’ve recently been working with Dean Owens who is a big favourite of ours at AUK. How did that come about?

Well he was in Tucson doing some writing and researching and he knew who we were. I saw him and he looked like he was a band member because he was wearing a western shirt and I said, “what’s going on” and he said, “I’m investigating coming back and making a record” so I said “we can help you with that”. I think he was just struck by our openness and willingness. Once I heard the song and his voice, I immediately felt a kinship and when we started singing some harmonies together I realised that it was much deeper than that, something that is hard to describe, he’s fun and he’s a great songwriter, a really good hang and a good friend now. I’m really happy that he’s been getting things going over here. I hear interesting news of him winning things here and really inspiring others and that’s what it’s all about.

Your involvement has seemingly given him something of a leg-up to reaching a wider audience.

Yes, but it goes both ways and we’re all kinda helping each other out and connecting people. After we did the record John (Convertino) connected him with some friends of ours in Italy so now he’s planning to go down there and do some work and the reason why is because he’s got some ancestral roots that go back to this part of Italy. So it’s a beautiful thing that the music is not just a vehicle but it also helps get you emotionally and esoterically to connect with places and that in turn reinforces why you do what you do.

Can I be a little bit colloquial and ask you about playing in the UK – you’ve been coming over here for a lot of years and you clearly enjoy it because you keep coming back. Does it differ in any way to playing in the States?

It does now. Ever since I started seeing some of these more boutique festivals like this one, Green Man, End of the Road and a few others, really beautiful festivals – I like the big ones too, don’t get me wrong, I love being in the thick of it, I love Glastonbury in that I love that it provides a lot of things for a lot of people, especially someone like Joe Strummer who means an awful lot to me, and his transformation. Festivals help bring us together and from that we spin out and produce incredible things. I think that the UK is really blossoming. I really enjoy playing in the clubs too right back to the Mean Fiddler in the Nineties, so I like all those avenues.

Before you go on stage a bit later, I’d like to ask you about your set. Obviously, you have a huge back catalogue so how do you decide what you are going to play?

You know what I do? I write a setlist and then add on a section of ‘extras’ four, five or six songs, so that way if I feel like changing a song, I’ll call it and then let everybody know or not. Today at this show it should be a really good place to play ‘Fortune Teller’ solo, but we’re on this big stage and I don’t know what’s gonna happen, so every day is different, every show is different so I like to get around, walk around, take a temperature read, talk to people and just see. I got a message from somebody, this family is here with their kids, so I asked them “what songs do your kids want to hear?” and they said “we’re really enjoying the 20th anniversary edition of your album ‘Feast of Wire’ – we love ‘Sunken Wall’, ‘Close Behind’ and ‘Across the Wire’” I said “good, we’ve got two of those in the set”.

And how do you approach a festival as opposed to your own headline gigs? You are going to have a core of people who are going to be packing down the front because it’s Calexico but also a lot more peripheral people perhaps less familiar with you, so who are you playing to?

I think today it’s just relax and be who you are. Last night we played a big festival in Spain, in the Basque region and the Pretenders were also on that bill, who were incredible. I’d never seen them before and I was blown away. I think Chrissie Hynde is one of the most amazing singer-songwriters, I’m just so happy that she’s still doing what she does because its just so inspiring. At that show I was definitely and openly trying to connect with the crowd, and it worked, it was beautiful. We got them to sing ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ acapella which was beautiful, and I started almost tearing up, but today I think it’s just really laid back. I was going to see if I could get over and talk to Allison Russell, I’ve never met her, and part of me would love to invite her on to do a song or see if we could back her up on something, just kind of learn something backstage, but at the same time I want to be respectful and show time and show space. Also this is the third of three days of festivals and we’ve had maybe six hours sleep so we are very tired, so I’m thinking how much do I really want to put myself through the ringer? But Allison Russell is incredible, so is Chrissie, so is Lucinda (who although originally billed didn’t play unfortunately) and Bonnie (Raitt) is here and it will only be the second time I’ve seen her play, so I’m pretty excited.

You mentioned the 20th Anniversary Edition of ‘Feast of Wire’ What are you planning next?

Yes, there is this anniversary edition of the album ‘Feast of Wire’ and last year we brought out a record called ‘El Mirador’. I’m not sure where to go next, musically there’s so many places,  musically and physically there are lots of places I’d like to visit. I think collaboration is at the head of all that. I think right now I want to reach out to more artists. I want to sing harmony with people, whether it’s Dean or finding somebody as talented and incredible as Allison Russell. I think that’s what I want to do.

In that regard, I suppose festivals are a good place to touch base with people.

They are. Festivals is where you get to meet people. Not at the kitchen sink at home in Boise, Idaho or rehearsing in Tucson.  I’m out. Festivals here remind me a lot of Canadian folk festivals which have been going on for decades, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver to name just a few. Those are like this, but then they have these workshop stages where say Andrew Bird, Joey Burns and Alison Russell will just play some songs and if they want to play with each other they can. It’s an open door and a lot of times people do and it’s a lot of fun in beautiful settings and those are really special. They encourage that, and I love that. I’m sure there will be a lot of people here camping who have brought their guitars, violins, mandolins whatever. So this is a good place, for want of a better word, for folk and rock music to touch with blues and soul and gospel too. That’s what I really like to see. Today’s bill, especially on the stage that Allison is playing, is such a beautiful thing (the stage was given over entirely to black female artists). So I think there’s a lot of things growing. In 2003 when ‘Feast of Wire’ came out we played this festival called ‘Beyond Nashville’ and it’s the same thing. You’re firmly rooted in a tradition but it’s planted in the present and you’re doing you own interpretation and that will never fade, that will never go away, so it’s nice to see that flourish over here.

About Clint West 321 Articles
From buying my first record aged 10 and attending my first gig at 14, music has been a lifelong obsession. A proud native of Suffolk, I have lived in and around Manchester for the best part of 30 years. My idea of a perfect day would be a new record arriving in the post in the morning, watching Ipswich Town win in the afternoon followed by a gig and a pint with my mates at night,
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