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Eclectic sound, collaborative spirit

Calexico doesn't see boundaries in its music, defying classification with its blend of mariachi, rock, folk and whatever else sounds good.

Published March 18, 2004

Joey Burns and John Convertino, who record and perform as Calexico, come from a musical tradition where borders between genre and nationality are ignored, if not entirely subverted.

The band's roots-rock music dodges categorization with eclectic orchestrations and a global awareness. And its sound fuses elements endemic to Mexico - think mariachi - with very postmodern rock 'n' roll leanings.

Burns, the lead singer, also plays numerous instruments, from mandolin to pump organ. He says the band's Southwestern flavor is more than just a matter of geography.

"Our music has this fluidity with the themes of this region, the Southwest and the border that exists between the two countries," Burns says from home in Tucson, Ariz. "It's a crossroads here."

Burns and his band, which swells to a sextet with the addition of session players on tour, come for a show Tuesday at Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa. On this, their first Florida tour, Burns and company will perform songs from their forthcoming EP, Convict Pool, due out in the spring.

The title track "is just stripped down to two piece, acoustic guitar, vocal and drums," Burns said. "I don't know if that has any bearing on where things are going."

But critics and Calexico's fans rely on the band's creative experimentation and its layered orchestrations. On its last full album, Feast of Wire, released in February 2003, Burns and Convertino pushed their innovations even further, marrying mariachi with haunting string arrangements, folksy pedal steel with electronic bleeps and burbles.

Songs such as Black Heart feature loping strings and a noirlike feel that's alternately eerie and seductive. Another song, the instrumental Attack el Robot! Attack simmers with understated brass and jazzy phrasing. Sonically and thematically, the song exemplifies Burns' hybrid concept.

"It's kind of a combination of that idea of technology advancement and borders and how technology is aiding all of us but at the same time there are a lot of people that are left out," Burns says. "So, while one side might be feasting, the other could be starving."

The album's title focuses on this dichotomy. Burns says he was influenced by the stories of progress in many cities.

"I think it's really inspiring to see what's going on in cities like El Paso and Juarez and even San Diego and Tijuana," he says. "The contrast is so huge that you can't help but be in awe of how it all intersperses with one another and then how some things are just completely shut off."

These exploratory tendencies - and the band's unclassifiable sound - have earned its music descriptions like "desert noir" ("I think that's a pretty good one," Burns says) or "spaghetti western fusion," which Burns laughs off.

"We get lumped in with alternative country because there are some traditional elements like upright bass and pedal steel in there, (but) to me, the community is wide."

By breaking from conventions, Burns says he feels welcome in many circles. Musicians can often be exclusive, restricting themselves by genre, but Burns calls collaboration the reason to create.

"To me, that's the whole point of doing this, is to get off on that experience (of) improvising or collaborating in these communities and not being restrained to just the town you live in," he says.

But Arizona weighs heavily on Calexico's sound. The band even name-checks a fellow Arizonian in one of its poppiest songs from Feast of Wire, the soaring Not Even Stevie Nicks.

"That song was one of those inspired moments where you have a few bits of tape left on the reel-to-reel, and we just started making something up," Burns said. "And it reminded me of something very Fleetwood Mac, and I was kind of surprised, so as kind of a joke I just called it Not Even Stevie Nicks."

Despite the musical influence, Burns promises that Nicks hasn't rubbed off on him on the style front.

"There's a friend of mine visiting from Belgium and she's wearing a black shawl," he says, joking. "And she's walking around town with this kind of loose waltz in her step."

He won't even consider a very Nicks-esque cape for his Florida fans?

"A cape," he says with a chuckle. "I'm sure she has one somewhere in her luggage."

PREVIEW: Calexico, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Skipper's Smokehouse, 910 Skipper Road, Tampa. $12 in advance, $15 at the door. For information, call WMNF-FM 88.5 at (813) 238-8001.

[Last modified March 17, 2004, 13:41:11]

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