What happens with Tucson-based Calexico records in New Orleans?

Photo of Calexico

[This is an encore presentation of a story that first ran January 24, 2013 under the name, "When the Desert Meets the Mississippi." Calexico will play the Gentilly Stage at Jazz Fest Sunday at 3:25 p.m.]

"When we went down there, it wasn't so much about trying to make a New Orleans record as it was about getting away from our own backyard and out of our comfort zone," producer Craig Schumacher says.

Schumacher has long been a fan of New Orleans having come here many times for Jazz Fest. He brought the TapeOp Conference to New Orleans twice and its follow-up, PotLuck, once. He has produced and engineered the Tucson-based Calexico's recordings from the start, and for years he has encouraged them to visit New Orleans to recharge their musical batteries. It took until late 2011 to make that happen. That December, Joey Burns and John Convertino moved into The Living Room, a studio on the West Bank, to lay down the basic tracks and brainstorm on the album that would become Algiers, which they released last fall. Calexico returns tonight at One Eyed Jacks.

For Calexico, recording in New Orleans was a precarious step. To date, they had recorded primarily at Schumacher's WaveLab Studios in Tucson, and many of the sounds that are associated with the band were created in that studio. That sound is their calling card more than any song. Their use of nylon-stringed acoustic guitars and mariachi horns, coupled with a spacious mix, creates a music that could be the soundtrack for a Wim Wenders film set along the US/Mexico border. Would their musical signature hold up in a state defined by mud and water instead of sand and stone?

By 2011, Calexico had moved into musical middle age. They're no longer the rhythm section from Giant Sand, and the recordings that defined their sound were largely cut in the early 2000s. While they've never become mainstream, they're not an insurgent or underground band anymore. For the soundtrack to the Dylan film I'm Not There, they backed Willie Nelson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Iron & Wine and My Morning Jacket's Jim James (and they appeared as the Confederate band backing James in Todd Haynes' movie). By the time they got to 2006's Garden Ruin and 2008's Carried to Dust, their musical ambition seemed to have narrowed, perhaps befitting a band that changed its place in the world in terms of respect if not sales. When it came time to start work on a new album in 2011, Burns and Convertino were finally ready for a road trip.

They had already cut a bunch of demos, but according to Convertino, "I think we only got so far with that in Tucson because we don’t have that freedom there, like we did 10 years ago. It’s gotten more complicated. There’s families there. We know it so well that we know so many people now. It’s more complicated. Getting to New Orleans, we were able to work off of a great vibe that you have down there and have that kind of seclusion, a comfortable feeling."

They wanted to reconnect with their more experimental impulses, not to make an experimental record but to give themselves a chance to happen across ideas - a luxury they didn't feel like they had at home. "I don't know that we would have had the same sense of musical camaraderie had we not gone to [The Living Room]," Schumacher says. "That studio gave us the freedom to not be prepared, and the environment really fostered creativity."

This was not Calexico's first time recording in New Orleans. The last time was in 1994, when they cut Glum as part of Giant Sand with Howe Gelb at Daniel Lanois' Kingsway Studio on the edge of the French Quarter. Glum featured a large musical cast including Susan Cowsill, Peter Holsapple and Mark Walton of the Continental Drifters, and it was a party time. The New Orleans sessions for Algiers were more subdued. The Living Room is a nondescript, converted church located almost directly under the Crescent City Connection. Its owners aren't celebrities, it's not easily accessible, and it's not in the middle of everything. Convertino got up and went for a run on the levee in the mornings. Burns read Ned Sublette's The World That Made New Orleans. They drank coffee, ate red beans, crossed the river for dinner then went back to the studio to hang out in the attached quonset hut, listen to vinyl records and fly radio-controlled airplanes. That close-enough-but-not-too-close relationship to New Orleans was good for them.

"It was perfect," Convertino says. "We knew that we were in New Orleans, but we didn’t have to deal with the tourism or the clog and commotion. We could look across the river and go, 'Oh, there it is over there,' and just sit back. The few little places that are in Algiers are kind of perfect: the little cafe by the square, the bar down there at the point. The levee was beautiful. In December, it’s hot outside still, but you have the cool air coming off of the river. The water’s colder in the winter, right? The air is warmer, so you get this cool fog in the morning."

When they came to town, Burns had the seeds of almost 30 songs in some form on his computer. On the first day, he, Convertino and Schumacher prioritized them, putting aside some that seemed too familiar, too obvious or too sketchy, then the next day they started tracking. Right from the start, they found the room and the instruments Living Room owners Chris George and Daniel Majorie had accumulated inspired experimentation, something that Convertino considers an essential part of a good Calexico track. "Being spontaneous, but not so spontaneous that we don’t where we’re going," he says. One of those moments came during the recording of the track that would become "Para."

"It’s a total New Orleans drum beat," he says. "We were saying, 'We didn’t do second line stuff,' but if you listening to that beat, you’ve got the high hat hitting on the offbeat and it’s very parade-like. It’s super swampy and it’s coming off the floor tom. When we were recording, I didn’t know how I was doing it. I really didn’t. I was like, 'I don’t get how this is happening, but I’m going to keep going with it.' We stopped, and I told Craig, 'You should press Record because this is one of those things that I might not be able to ever do again.'"

While they knew they didn't want to make a "New Orleans" album, the city crept in anyway. Some imagery spawned songs, such as "Fortune Teller." In "Sinner in the Sea," Burns sings, "There’s a piano playing on the ocean floor between Havana and New Orleans," linking Cuba and New Orleans in a way inspired by Ned Sublette's book. "Those songs came directly from the vibe we were working off of," Convertino says. "Being close to the river, being in New Orleans, being in that church, in that neighborhood. That’s our New Orleans sound."

For the sessions, they brought in trombone player Craig Klein and sax player Jason Mingledorff. Klein had met Schumacher through common friends, and he added trombone parts to "Sinner in the Sea." 

"We weren't as prepared as we could have been," Schumacher says in retrospect. They knew they wanted a trombone, but they had only a vague sense of what they wanted. His parts are straightforward and don't ask much of him, but or Klein it was still fun. "There was nothing written, but they had ideas what they wanted, so we put it together," he remembers. "I like doing it like that. It gives you a little freedom." Schumacher walked away with the sense that it was a squandered opportunity.

Mingledorff performed on two songs. He was brought in to double a baritone guitar part with baritone sax on a song Schumacher says was faintly reminiscent of The Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon." It had a soundtrack-like quality, so much so that it seemed like it could stand as an instrumental. That is a stage many Calexico songs go through, but while listening to the playback, Mingledorff remembers, "I made a statement that it sounded like a long road through a desert, and I think I jinxed it right there." He wasn't that familiar with the band and didn't realize he'd said the thing that has been said about their songs for more than a decade, but he noticed body language that told him he had just said something wrong. When Algiers came out, that song wasn't on it. The other song he played on - "Splitter," the first video from the album - was.

That track was one of the ideas in the Maybe pile since it was little more than a chord progression. On a hunch, they asked him to throw some baritone sax on it as well, and he came up with a charging line that he then doubled on tenor sax. In the control room at The Living Room, people put down their iPads and stopped checking their mail. It was clear that something had been found. "He gave it a kick in the butt it didn't have," Schumacher says. "That's one reason that song rose to the top. It found a new direction, and that was that unexpected thing." After a week at The Living Room, they returned to Tucson and WaveLab to sort through what they'd done and finish the album. Lyrics were written, arrangements were finished and the songs were fleshed out. Convertino has mixed feelings about what "Splitter" had become by the end of the process. "It’s still a pretty upbeat song, but not as raw," he says.

For Mingledorff, it was a good experience. "I was thinking, 'If this was a local band, it's a band I'd like to be in.'" He also appreciated that the sessions were analog instead of digital, and that the recording was on tape, not ProTools. "He was excited that we were going to use his parts and that they weren't going to get edited into something else, that we were committing to his sound as much as he was," Schumacher says.

The resulting album is akin to Calexico recordings from the early 2000s, but it's not a step backwards. Algiers doesn't sound like the band's older albums, but it takes chances in the same way that Feast of Wire did. Algiers also shares a spiritual undercurrent with its predecessors, Convertino says. "Being in Louisiana, I think you get the kind of spiritual vibe which happens in the desert. It probably happens in the mountains. It happens when you’re standing by the sea. They all have their own form of space that influences music. There’s a lot of songs on this new record about water. I guess at one time, the desert was completely underwater."

When the band prepared to go on tour last fall, Convertino had to learn to play tracks from the new album in concert, but he didn't go back to Algiers. "I’ve been listening to rough mixes," he says. "I have the mastered version on a computer somewhere stuck in a file, but I really don’t sit down and listen to music off of computers. I have this CD that Craig burned for me in Tucson before we mixed, before we got a lot of the string parts down. It’s really been fun for me to listen to these rough mixes because they sound great. There’s always something really special about those mixes before all of the treatment gets put on. There’s a lot of rough edges still on there. I’m listening to it so I can relearn the arrangements and get the basic feel, try to get myself back into that mindset of where I was when the songs were being created."