Interview: Giorgos Bilios
Calexico are coming back to Athens, straight from Mexico, with their luggage full of music (new album Edge of the sun came out on April 2015) and experiences to share, in a delightful interview for City Code magazine of this month.
You said in an interview that “our window is always facing not just south, but to east and globally”. Is it a matter of perspective?
John: Yes, from where we sit, the South is where we live, and if we go further South we are in Mexico, and we love Mexico. But we also travel a lot in other parts of the world and dream further still of playing places we have never played. So it’s a matter of having an open mind and heart and allowing for things to happen.
Joey: This openness was there at an early age for me. Through music I got to hear and feel what the world was like outside my hometown. As I became older I was fortunate to travel as a musician and meet people from all over the world. For sure meeting people from other countries and cultures shapes your perspective of how the world works and how good the world can be. It’s definitely enhanced my outlook and experiences. Music has been the vehicle to travel and I look forward to seeing more of the world in the years to come.
How Mexico helped in the creation of last album?
John: Coyoacan was a place where -like Algiers before it, and Austin Texas before it- we could focus on the music and playing, and find ourselves in a place where we could work without distractions. I think too the beauty of the neighborhood and the food and love we felt from our friends there helped immensely.
Joey: Mexico is close to where we live and Mexico City is a massive city both ancient and modern. It is a haunted place but also a city of dreams. I love the layers of life that one sees when visiting parts of the city especially the pyramids of Teotihuacan. The bohemian neighborhood of Coyoácan felt like a natural and wonderful place to spend time to write, reflect and create music. I can’t wait to return. In some ways working there has carried this thread throughout the interviews about the album, almost a promise we hope that we will be able to return to Mexico City and Coyoácan soon.
I believe that the basic ingredient of your success is the way you blend Americana with Spanish tunes. You sound traditional and fresh at the same time. Is there any specific recipe in writing or is it just a way of expression? What are your major influences that led you to this amalgam?
John: It does sound fresh, and I think that even surprises us. I think that could be a key, allowing to surprise yourself. Listening back to some Latin Jazz Classics in the 90’s we wanted to work some of those beats into our songs, loving the Beastie Boys we thought we would try to sample some things, but came to find out that you have to pay and pay for samples, so we created our own samples of pieces of music that we loved. For me as the drummer, playing those beats opened a whole new world and I was thrilled to see people dancing at our shows.
Joey: Aesthetics and style of direction have a lot to do with the choices that we make with the instrumentation, the music, the blending of genres and influences. It says a lot about who we are and what we are about. There is space in the music that enables various influences to meet and find their connection. There is a fluidity in the way that the band switches gears and changes expression through dynamics. ‘Phrasing, breath, and space’ are words that come to mind.
You’ve been having a lot of collaborations with Spanish-language vocalists over the years, to give the appropriate color to the singing of your songs. Which are the criteria to choose each one of those? Do you write having a specific voice in your head or do you finish the song and then try to fit a voice in it?
John: Spanish is such a beautiful language, we here it a lot in the Southwest, my 10 year old son prefers Mexican radio because he likes to hear Spanish. I don’t think we really chose to put Spanish in our songs, it chose us, it’s where we live and if you think about it, it’s really more an official language of the Americas than English. I continue to try and learn, but in the meantime, if it shows up, it’s even more of a treat.
Joey: We have met many artists both locally and internationally who sing and speak Spanish, like Amparo Sanchez, Manu Chao, Gaby Moreno, Lhasa de Sela, Mariachi Luz de Luna, Nortec Collective, Mexican Institute of Sound, Salvador Duran not to mention some of the members in our band Sergio Mendoza, Jacob Valenzuela and Jairo Zavala who are all fluent in Spanish. The aesthetics of latin culture have always had a big influence on the writing and character of our direction. In regards to composing music and matching vocalists, we usually write the song or music first and then find someone to collaborate with to match the mood and sentiment of the song.
“Bullets & Rocks” refers to immigration, a social phenomenon which is in great outbreak, with the Syrian issue especially, nowadays. How difficult is for our society to embrace dissimilarity?
John: I don’t think it’s difficult at all. I think the majority of people on the planet are willing to help, I think we will see more positive outcomes from the people and countries that help refugees, than the people who continue to fight it.
Joey: Hopefully through the media there can be more examples of positive outreach and support for immigrants around the globe rather than hearing the negative few who act out of fear and insecurity. I agree with John that there are many who are helping and more who want to help. We all can relate to the story of immigration, it is our shared history. Through various forms of artistic expression we can relate to the more recent stories. Music can be the bridge and the song can be the seed for change.
If you had to mention 3 records that changed your life path which would you choose?
The Beatles Let it Be
The Police Outlandos de Amour
Miles Davis Kind of Blue
Vic Chesnutt “West of Rome” 1991
Tom Waits “Bone Machine” 1992
Latin Playboys “self titled” 1994
Do you have a life motto?
John: It’s something my father told me….allow it happen….per Sempre’
Joey: take three breaths or more if needed
On our last issue of City Code we had an interview of Eric Burdon and on this one we will have Takim. You’ve collaborated with both of them on “Roll Tango”. How did you experience that meeting?
John: Joey and Ryan had set this up on a day off we had in Athens Greece, by the time I showed up they were working on Roll Tango and it was very exciting. Takim were amazing, so positive and generous, the love of music just floods out of those guys. When Eric showed up we were all humbled and honored to be in the presence of such a legacy of sound and song. I love it when his voice comes in on the song, such character and drama and that melody coming from Takim is what swings the song right on out.
Joey: I too was honored to be working with such talented and inspiring musicians from the group Takim as well as with Eric Burdon. I love how music can bring people and their stories together. The spontaneity and magic that happens is always a gift for both artists and audiences. A big thanks too is credited to Dimitris Karpouzas for helping create a wonderful opportunity and environment at his amazing studio in Athens, Lizard Sound Studio. I would love to return to do more work with the musicians and studio. We’ve always loved traveling to and playing in Greece. This was one the highlights of our experiences there.
Any idea of Calexico’s next step?
John: I don’t really know……I will try my best to allow it to happen though.
Joey: I look forward to continuing work on new projects with Calexico and other collaborations whether it will be with other artists or working together making soundtracks for motion pictures.