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When a band has been in operation for a number of years, real life can come crashing in.
This certainly was the case with Arizona’s Calexico – leading to the uncharacteristic four-year gap between the usually prolific duo’s last album, Carried To Dust, and their majestic latest, Algiers.
“Usually when we do a record it takes two years to do the whole tour cycle,” says drummer John Convertino, who founded Calexico with former Giant Sand bandmate Joey Burns in 1996.
“Round about the time when we would start recording again we saw some big changes in our personal lives. Joey had twin daughters and my wife finished her doctorate degree by writing her dissertation.
“When Joey and I got together and tried to write some songs it wasn’t really happening.
“You can’t force these things, so we allowed ourselves some time to let our personal lives settle down and see what happened.”
The enforced gap worked – the songs started to come and arguably rank among the best of their career. Algiers keeps the distinct Calexico sound, a combination of desert blues, indie rock sensibilities, Tex Mex brass and Burns’ gentle but impassioned vocals.
But there is a louder, rockier feel to this album, helped by the decision to decamp to New Orleans for the recording sessions.
“Some of these cities we have played over the years have a certain vibe to them that we relate to and like to have resonate in our music,” says Convertino on a tour bus in Texas, in his gentle rambling style.
“With cities like Paris, Rome and Berlin we feel like there’s a certain connection and always dreamed of recording there, but budgets haven’t allowed that to happen.
“New Orleans has a cross-cultural feel that you can’t get anywhere else in the US.”
He is a big believer that what is going on in your life affects the music you make – even down to the style the band is following.
“If you have to be quiet around the house because there are babies sleeping then you won’t be listening to as much loud music,” he says. “When you go into the studio you might want to make some ambient, sleepy-time music – or you might want to do the opposite and rock it out.”
Certainly Algiers, which takes its name from the region of New Orleans the band was living in, has more of a rocky feeling to it – something Convertino says came about when they started making basic tracks for the recording sessions.
“It’s a little bit of a departure from our earlier records, where Joey was playing Spanish guitar and I was playing with brushes,” he says. “Then things were really close and quiet. We always added the electric guitars and louder-sounding brass later.
“Down in New Orleans when I started playing drums they resonated in the room. Joey played his guitar into an amp. It was really fun to be able to play like that in the studio.”
The recording methods were also different – with the album being captured on tape rather than digitally.
“Going back to analogue made a huge difference,” says Convertino. “There’s something really magical about tape rolling and the red light coming on. You have to step up to the plate – it’s more of a performance, rather than jamming and editing something together later.
“[The songs] Sinner In The Sea, Para, Hush and Algiers were still being formed when we recorded them – the arrangements weren’t completely figured out. We captured them in that magical place when we were still finding our way, which I think is a great way to capture a song.”
On tour, the songs are changing now as the band plays them live.
“A lot of times the songs which have a more melancholic identity sound darker and more subdued when you record them,” he says.
“When you start playing them live, they wake up. It’s a bit like a blues song – you sing about something sad or tragic but it makes you feel good.
“We have a lot of these songs where you play them live and look out into the crowd and everyone’s smiling, even though we’re singing about death.
“The song comes alive and I guess that’s what it’s all about – death is just a part of life.”
Support from The Dodos.
- Brighton Dome Corn Exchange, Church Street, Tuesday, February 19. Starts 8pm, tickets £16. Call 01273 709709