Calexico goes to the Big Easy for latest album

Performs Sunday night at Mr. Smalls


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Calexico's music has become synonymous with the dry heat of the Arizona desert, but on a chilly Monday morning in October, we locate one of the band's principals, John Convertino, near the campus of Kent State University in northeast Ohio.

That's where the percussionist/keyboardist has newly settled, with his wife having finished her doctorate and taken a job at the university.

Calexico

With: The Dodos.

Where: Mr. Smalls, Millvale.

When: 8 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $20; 1-800-745-3000.

"I went for a walk this morning with my dog and it was great," he says on the phone. "I have to admit, I love the desert and I loved living in Tucson, but after 20 years, I was really missing the four seasons."

Although he was born in New York and grew up in Oklahoma, Mr. Convertino has long been associated with Arizona, having played in the indie band Giant Sand and then moving on to Calexico, named for a border town and famed for its dry, dusty sound, starting in earnest with its desert-themed 1998 album, "The Black Light."

"I think it's easy to attach the region to our sound because there's so many, I guess, cliches of the Southwest," he says. "Not cliches, but it's such a strong image, the Southwest, you have the Saguaro cactus, the sprawling desert, the constant sun and heat. So as soon as you say 'Arizona,' you automatically think that. So you listen to music from there, you're going to attach those images to music. I can see where that's an easy way to go with the music, but at the same time, we spend a lot of time on the road and a lot of time in Europe and Australia and Japan and South America. So there's a lot of other landscapes influencing the music."

For the band's seventh album, "Algiers," Calexico changed the scenery and set up operations in New Orleans, on the suggestion of the band's longtime producer Craig Schumacher. With his wife finishing her dissertation and his Calexico partner, Joey Burns, becoming a new father, they felt like they needed to find some "isolation" to work on the album.

"New Orleans seemed like a great spot," Mr. Convertino says, "because we wanted to get to a good place that kind of had that European feeling, and a place that had such incredible musical history that it really helped us out a lot."

Despite recording in the Big Easy, Calexico resisted the urge to flavor its songs with Dixieland or zydeco seasoning.

"We love all that music and we actually listened to it a lot while we were there, and we ate New Orleans food, but the bottom line is you have to find your own way with that stuff. You have to find your own connection to it. As soon as you put those elements on your record, it's going to make those associations too clear. We were going for that vibe, just that feeling of being close to the river, and below sea level, and the humidity. It's such a different environment from Tucson and the desert, that's where we let that seep into the moods of the songs, like 'Hush' and 'Para' and 'Epic.' If you listen to those songs they have this certain feel to them that's quite different than the ones recorded in Tucson."

It's been nicely described as Calexico's "headphone album," for the intimate feel of the songs and Mr. Burns' hushed vocals.

"I like the idea of it being a headphone record," the drummer says, "simply because I feel if you listen to a record with headphones, you have a tendency to listen deeper or listen to more of the subtleties when you don't have the outside distractions. I always felt like 'The Black Light' was a good headphone record because there's so much space in the songs and the parts are really subtle. I felt like that was the case on a lot of songs on the new record. They have a subtlety to them that lends themselves to nighttime listening -- put the headphones on and let it take you somewhere."

"Algiers" begins in a desert alt-country vein with "Epic" and "Splitter," gets a little swampy with "Sinner in the Sea" and the title track, and then mellows out with more Latin flavor as it rolls along.

"You want to try to make a record that has some variety on it, so we had 20-some songs to choose from and we were trying to mix it up," Mr. Convertino says. "Sequencing the record, it just felt like after 'Algiers,' the instrumental, it felt like the record just wanted to chill out. You have side A with these more sunny-sounding songs, or upbeat, and side B, it just felt like it needed to chill out. That's how the whole process starts. The songs from the beginning start to tell you what they want."

Having taken them out on a European tour, he likes the way they've taken shape live, even with the Vienna Radio Symphony and Berlin Soundtrack Orchestra.

"The new songs are really amiable, where you can move them around a lot. You can do them in a lot of different ways. That's a sign of a good song. Joey and I can get up there and play it just drums and guitars and he can sing it, or if we can do it with just trumpet, it shows that the song has some good bones to it."

Calexico's older songs have traveled beyond Europe, and on into space. The band was a supporter of former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a longtime fan of the band. She chose the song "Crystal Frontiers" for her astronaut husband Mark Kelly to wake up to in space. Then, after the assassination attempt on her life in January 2011, Mr. Kelly honored her by using "Slowness" as a wake-up song aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on its final flight that May.

"I thought it was really sweet that he chose that song," Mr. Convertino says. "I think he liked the song himself, but it was more about his wife and the things she loved about Tucson, and we were honored we could be a part of that and part of their healing. We also played with the Tucson Symphony on the year anniversary of the shooting, and she came and Mark, and there was a gathering there at the university. We played 'Crystal Frontier' with the Tucson Symphony, and it's just, music has that capacity to make feel people better and just feel together. You have those moments when everyone gets together and it feels mournful, and moments when people feel joyful, and that was a good combination of both."

music

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-262-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.


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