Calexico — the eclectic musical pairing of Joey Burns and John Convertino — have returned with Algiers, an album named for and recorded in the Algiers District of New Orleans. As the band prepares to promote their new album, Consequence of Sound caught up with Joey Burns, as he and his dog Ida went out for a walk “into the cool Arizona morning.” We discussed Algiers, why the two decided to trek down to the Crescent City, and the mystique that surrounds New Orleans both musically and historically.
I mean this with all respect. There is something about a lot of your music that makes me feel like I am listening to A&M records from the ’60s.
[Laughs.] That’s great. Like which records of A&M?
Well, Herb Alpert. Some of the instrumentation obviously would go with that. But it was more just that, when I was listening to Algiers the other day, some of the instrumentation just took me back to the early era of the label, when it was less constricted by the business side of things.
Yeah. That’s cool. I love just hearing a lot of those acoustic instruments, especially upright bass and drums and piano. It’s just so classic. It could be Nat King Cole from the ’40s. It could be Duke Ellington from the ’50s, or ’40s, and ’60s. Those instruments, they just sound great, you know. They don’t need a lot, except for maybe a room mic, a mic that’s picking up the room sound.
You often use a lot of non-traditional instruments. Do they appear on Algiers?
For sure. [Laughs.] It’s funny. You know, that Mellotron keyboard from the late ’60s, early ’70s, they’re pretty rare. The only one I’ve seen is the one at Ardent Studios in Memphis. That was used for Zeppelin and a couple of other people who had recorded there back in the day. And it’s such a fascinating instrument, especially now with the idea of sampling and technology, because… are you familiar with the Mellotron keyboard?
Ok, great, so I don’t need to explain it. So, it winds up that Wavelab Studio in Tucson, owned by Craig Schumacher, found one and bought one and has got it working, which is fantastic. So, that’s on this record. When we went to New Orleans and worked at the Living Room Studio, the owners, Chris and Daniel, they had found a Mellotron keyboard as well and fixed it, restored it, repainted it, got it working. It’s kind of crazy, this really rare keyboard, which is super, super delicate and not easy to maintain. It takes a lot of special attention. These guys both had this amazing keyboard, so we used it on a number of tracks.
That’s a sign.
Yeah, that was really fun. So that’s our special, new guest instrument in our Calexico repertoire. Love it. Love the keyboard.
Are you going to be able to take it out on the road, though?
Hell no. Are you kidding!? [Laughs.] I mean, those things, the mechanisms inside are really fragile. Each key has a series of tape, analog tape, quarter-inch loops. It’s great for studio. I like the fact that you mentioned that some of these recordings, and maybe the approach in the playing, too, the way of the upright bass, the way that John Convertino’s playing the drums… He’s constantly listening to old jazz records. He’s a big fan of Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Max Roach. Those are his heroes, so that’s the tone he’s going for. And the style, too. He’s not playing like your typical indie rocker or folk musician. He’s more intoning that jazz sensibility in his style, much like someone like Jim White from the Dirty Three approaches his way of drumming. In fact, those two are good friends, and our first tour of America, as a two-piece, was opening up for the Dirty Three. And I just noticed that they have a new record coming out. I’m so excited.
Yeah. One of my favorite things by the Dirty Three was when they collaborated with Low, and they did Neil Young’s “Down by the River”.
That’s a great EP. That’s the Fishtank series. I think that’s a great, two great bands. Really, really cool.
Let’s talk about Algiers. You recorded it down in New Orleans. Did you and John emigrate to New Orleans or move down there around the time of working on the album? Did you actually become residents of the city?
[Laughs.] No. I wish. I think that’s always the dream of any place you go, whether you’re on tour or recording on a session. You’re like, “Wow, I’d love to live here.” So, in some ways, secretly, yeah, one way of becoming a resident is booking studio time or booking a tour. For John and I, since we both now have families, that’s a little more hard to do. But we went down there for like two weeks in December of last year. We had already started work on the record at Wavelab Studio in Tucson, and we had a couple reels of tape. We were recording on analog tape machines. It was a big, huge inspiration behind this record. We brought some tapes with us; we picked up some new tapes when we were down there. We went there thinking, “Let’s see what we can come up with. Maybe we could write some new ideas. If not, we had some songs already started. We can just work on those and get some locals to play on them or who knows, we’ll just see.”
But I definitely realized in having become a recent father that I needed to go somewhere for like two weeks or 10 days and spend several hours a day living, breathing music, and recording. It was getting really challenging with trying to break away from home, finish tours, and feel like everyone’s taken care of, mom and the girls are taken care of. So, once we got to a place where the kids were old enough, and Melba [Joey’s wife], she realized it, too. She was, “Yeah, you definitely need to go, and we’ll have some support here at home.” So, it wound up working out great.
Craig, the owner of Wavelab, has always suggested going down to New Orleans. He and his wife go to Jazzfest every year. He’s had a couple of audio conferences that he’s put together called Potluck. He’s organized those down in New Orleans, and we’ve even gone and participated. We went there thinking we’ll go to one of those big studios in New Orleans that has a lot of history, a lot of mojo coming in from all the oozing of music and the stuff that’s just collecting in the air there. Then we realized we’re gonna have to drive down there in order to bring all of our gear. I don’t want to have Craig to have to drive a van with gear. There’s gotta be a studio down there that is like Wavelab that has a bunch of gear already there.
Sure enough, one of Craig’s friends said, “Yeah, you never asked The Living Room Studio, those young guys. They renovated that old Baptist church in Algiers, just across the river.” I saw some pictures online. I had made a phone call and immediately felt that this was the place to be. Super low pressure. The studio rate was great. They even have a roommate that’s a cook, so he cooked lunch and dinner every day. We had shrimp Creole; we had jambalaya; we had red beans and rice; we had barbecue. We had everything going on. So, while we’re working in the studio, their friend Kevin Barrios is cooking. It was fantastic. It was a wonderful mini-biosphere in some kind of way. A miniature biosphere.
In addition to your friend telling you to go to New Orleans, did you have a specific narrative in mind involving the city?
Yeah, a little bit. John and I had been asked to go down to Cuba a couple years ago with a Spanish singer named Amparo Sanchez. She started recording in Tucson, and then she had gone down to Havana and fallen in love and married a Cubano. She said, “I gotta bring you guys down here. We gotta record at EGREM Studios where they recorded the Buena Vista Social Club. And I want you to bring your families.” So, we did.
Before I left, I went to the book fair here in Tucson at the university. They just started this book fair. A bunch of writers come, and they read their works, and they sign books. One of my favorite writers here in the southwest is Charles Bowden. He does a lot of work involving the border, immigration, and narco-traficante. I’ve known him for a while, and I told him about this trip, and he goes, “Oh, you gotta get this book, Joey. Ned Sublette has written this book called The World That Made New Orleans.” It talks about the connection between Haiti, Cuba, New Orleans, and, of course, the colonial and African slaves whose paths were crossed there. It’s a great book, and it got me thinking about this connection. I never realized there was such a strong connection in the past between these cities and countries. Having gone to Cuba, it reminded me of those parts of New Orleans that I love.
You know, a strong sense of music, a strong sense of African influence, strong colonial architecture and stuff… great food, great vibes. So, on one of the songs, I wanted to bridge that influence, and that wound up being the song “Sinner in the Sea”, which was the first song that we were recording in Tucson that felt like we’ve finally arrived here at material that I think is defining the heart of this new record.
I was going to ask you about that book, because I had read that you had felt that it was really important.
Yeah, it really was. Deep down inside, I’m a frustrated ethno-musicologist, and I just love history, and I love music and culture, so it’s no surprise. I’m like everyone else. I like a good documentary, too. So, with the music, I don’t know why, but with Ned, I started checking out some of his conversations on YouTube. And he gave some kind of keynote speech about New Orleans, and he talked about how the southern hemisphere of the Americas was influenced by, of course, the Portuguese and the Spanish influence, a stronger Catholic influence, as well as the African influence and indigenous, and that that had shaped this completely different musical impression. And the north, it’s more Protestant, and it’s more Anglo, as well as some African influence.
I realized that I understand now why I’m attracted to the music of the southern hemisphere. It explains why I love Portuguese fada music from the ’40s and ’50s and why I love Afro-Cuban music and why I love some mariachi music or Afro-Caribbean music. That stuff really just kind of touches some kind of vein inside of my ear and my heart. Not that I’m trying to be something that I’m not, but it’s just music that I think… maybe it’s needing to feel like that presence is missing somewhere in the north. And growing up in California, moving to Tucson, Arizona, I’m that much closer to that southern hemisphere.
Growing up playing jazz when I was in high school, I was really into playing jazz so much so that I got the Louis Armstrong award. It really meant a lot to me. Our high school jazz band won some competition among the other high schools, and we got to play at the Playboy Jazz Festival, where I got to meet Charlie Haden, Jaco Pastorius, Ray Charles’ bass player, and Diana Reeves. It was really cool. It really kind of shaped me growing up, being part of a huge festival with all these heavy jazz musicians. And in jazz, there’s that southern element, that Latin influence, bossa nova, Afro-Cuban influence.
It’s definitely made you quite prolific. To even say you’re prolific is a serious understatement. The diversity of artists you’ve worked with is pretty impressive. Didn’t you say something about how last year alone you worked on almost eight different projects? When did you begin to realize you’re on everybody’s short list?
It doesn’t really feel like that. It’s a nice compliment; I appreciate it. I think it’s more of people have to be into that kind of philosophy. And I don’t think it’s a regional thing, too. Sometimes I wonder if people want to come here and work, because they like the influence of the southwest. But, then again, we don’t really make a very southwest-sounding record. Some people do. Some people want the two trumpets, and they want the Spanish guitar. And, actually, those are kind of less common. People like Iron & Wine, Neko Case, Amos Lee, they want to stay true to what they do, and so in a similar way when we went to New Orleans, we wanted to stay true to what we do as well.
With regards to the band, you’ve had a pretty consistent lineup for the last few albums. When did you and John actually decide that you wanted a band rather than hired guns?
Well, ever since we recorded our first record, and then we went on the road and realized we could only do minimal versions of these songs. Because, in our hearts, we’re thinking, “Let’s just overdub some parts here. Let’s get some accordions going. How ’bout a little violin, some cello, marimba, vibraphone, mandolin, you name it. Let’s see what we can pile on here to kind of make this more an orchestral or ensemble kind of recording.” We’ve always been fans of, not necessarily big bands, but more ensemble. With that, you have more color to choose from. Your palette becomes wider, and you’re able to try different styles of songs, too.
With that in mind, let’s talk about the Louisville Orchestra. Was that Calexico material rearranged for orchestra?
It was Calexico songs that had arrangements written for a 70-piece symphony orchestra. We enlisted several different people to help with that job. Actually, last week we were in Vienna and then in Berlin, and we recorded those songs and performed them live as well, adding four more songs, three new songs, and the song “Black Heart” from Feast of Wire. So, now we have 11 songs, which we can hopefully do more of these kinds of performances with symphonies that are open to that. Non-traditional programming.
When you worked with Nancy Sinatra, did you actually get to work with her, or was it one of those sessions where you did your part, she did hers, and they pieced it together in post?
Yeah, right. She was in Los Angeles; we were in New York. There was a deadline. We called up and asked which key would work better for her, and then we wrote and recorded the song [“Burnin’ Down the Spark”]. It was actually July 4th, quite a few years ago. We sent it out to her, and she put on some vocals. I had a pilot vocal on there. And then she sent it back, and we mixed it. So, yeah, that was one of those Internet…
Did you ever get to meet her, though?
We did. Afterwards, we were playing the Getty Museum in L.A., and she wanted to come and say hi. She stopped by the hotel and bought us all breakfast, and we hung out with her and her daughter, A.J. Azzarto. It was really great getting to hang out with her. [Laughs.] She’s really sweet. I would love to hang out some more with her. I think she’s really cool. The fact that she still supports veterans and does a lot of great causes… I love listening to her records and hearing her sing. Of course, she has that connection with Lee Hazelwood, who’s originally from Phoenix, Arizona. That brought us to actually meeting Lee Hazelwood as well, before he passed away.
We met in 2000 in London, and then he came with us and a bunch of other bands that were celebrating the 10th anniversary of City Slang Records, and I said, “One of our songs is really inspired by your work, so I apologize in advance.” [Laughs.] And he went, “I loved it. It was great. I love what you guys do.” We had brought with us members of a local group called Mariachi Luz de Luna, light of the moon, and we all just partied, like… incredibly… hard. It was a lot of fun.
He joined us on tour. We were on the bus, going to the airport. The bus breaks down, and we’re all just in the bus, dying of heat. [Laughs.] And there’s Lee, hanging out with us. It was incredible. And then we’re on the plane, and of course, we had so much weight to our bags that they didn’t have the ability to bring on the beverage cart, so it was really interesting seeing how Lee Hazelwood was so cool in that situation, as well as everyone else. Musicians were pretty thirsty at that point. They wanted to keep the party going the first thing in the morning. Then we wound up doing a song. I think we recorded a song for a Lee Hazelwood tribute.
Oh, Totally Lee?
Yeah, exactly. It was just great getting to hang out with him for a bit there towards the back end of his career. So much so that when he passed away, they had a memorial in Phoenix, and they asked us to come up and perform some songs that his wife had chosen. That was incredible. It was a medium-small gathering of very close friends, and we performed. I have a lot of respect for him, and, of course, for Nancy, too. You hear about these people; you read about them all the time. You’ll see them in magazines, or you’ll have their records, and there they are, right there in front of you. There’s something about that, too, connecting with people, whether they’re of that stature or just your own friends and family around you. As life goes on, of course, there’s just more of those life experiences, both good and bad, that are around you.
Like, Craig Schumacher was diagnosed with cancer. He had throat cancer a year or so ago. As for starting to work on this record, the question is, “What are we gonna do?” We have to wait for Craig, because there was a certain point when he couldn’t stay at the studio and work. He’d come in for a couple hours a week. For me, it changed the way I was approaching going to the studio. Similarly, our record company had folded. Touch & Go kind of dissolved from being a label that put out new music. They’re still going with maintaining the catalog. And then we also did that vinyl release of the tour-only albums. It also kind of changed our sense of home.
What? Losing the label, not having Craig there with you, or all of it?
Both. The joys were, for me, having started a family. In April 2011, my wife and I had twin girls. A lot of new elements added to my life, both good and bad. Those somehow change your approach to songwriting and change your approach to what it is that you do, whatever you do for a living. And so, when Craig was getting better, it was like, let’s celebrate. Let’s take Craig and go to New Orleans and see what we can come up with. The instant we stepped off the plane and we got a shrimp po’ boy, I sensed Craig’s spirit lift. At dinner that night, at Cochon, the barbecue restaurant there, I toasted to him. I said, “We’re here because of you, Craig. I know we’re here to make a record, but that’s an excuse to celebrate you being here.” It was very emotional. The only thing different was that we were all drinking root beer as opposed to beer that night. I don’t know why. [Laughs.] And then we went in the studio, and we just started getting inspired by that space. The Living Room Studio is an old Baptist church that’s been renovated several times to become, now, this incredible recording studio. And it’s massive. It’s a huge space.
Do you watch the show Tremé? Just watching it makes me want to run down there and listen to the music.
It’s a great series, and we were watching some episodes, because the German bass player had never seen it and was kind of fascinated by the fact that there’s this HBO series. I guess he hadn’t seen it in Germany. He was watching that at night while his jet lag is coming on.
I like how it gives a little bit of the history of the city, musically. It talks about the Indians and all the different forms of jazz. I’m more intrigued by the music than I am the actual story of the characters.
Right, the music is great. Getting to see some of those people and the fact that it’s emphasizing that this city has something that is unique that you can’t just put up into a mini mall in the middle of the country or you can’t replicate in Las Vegas with a water park… This is the only New Orleans, and it’s important to preserve it. It felt really good bringing business down there. That’s another reason why I felt good about going there.
I was playing at a festival in Chicago, and I was talking with some booking agents that work with people like Amos Lee and Bob Dylan. We were just talking about the stuff that they were doing. It’s called Cultivate, and it was started by the guy who had started Chipotle Grill. He had sold it to McDonald’s, and he wasn’t happy with the way that McDonald’s was taking Chipotle Grill, so he bought it back, and by doing so, he wound up spreading the message of using fresh ingredients and supporting local business and growers. He did this big festival in Chicago.
I was talking with these booking agents and said, “You should do this in other parts of the country. It’d be great. Like New Orleans.” And he said, “You know what? As a booking agency, we go to New Orleans every year and help raise money.” And I was like, “I want to go to New Orleans.” That, combined with Craig loving New Orleans and telling us for years we should go there… Everything lined up beautifully.
Do you see yourself going back to record again?
Without a doubt. And I would love to bring Cuban musicians and record both in New Orleans with them and bring New Orleans musicians and record down in Cuba. That would be a dream. One of many.
You have plenty of time. No need to rush it all. [Laughs.]
Don’t rush it now. You got a lot to do. [Laughs.]
Ok. This is kind of off topic. With regards to the Friends of Dean Martinez…
I have seen information saying that you and John helped form the band with Bill [Elm] and other information saying you joined an already existing band. Which is it?
Ok, let’s see. I think Bill had started with the idea of doing the band the Friends of Dean Martin [original name] a little bit prior with Van Christian and another guitarist, and they had done one show at the Ronald McDonald House. That was it. So, they had kind of started, but they didn’t have the… it didn’t seem like the band was going anywhere else. Bill Elm started playing… actually, we became friends, and we started playing music together, learning Santo & Johnny songs. I started helping him get Friends of Dean Martin going. I was playing in Giant Sand, got Bill into the band, and we wind up doing lap-steel with Giant Sand a little bit in ’93-’94. And then, my friend at Sub Pop Records said [they’ll] put out a single. I think John and I were very instrumental in getting that band going. We wrote a lot of the songs, the original songs. At first, Sub Pop thought they were going to be signing a cover band. You can take that information and make your own decision. I don’t know if the Friends of Dean Martin or Dean Martinez would have been continuing on as strong, but that’s my interpretation.
And you only appeared on the first two albums, right?
We did two records with them, yeah. And, since then, he had another guitarist come in. It was pretty clear that Bill… I love Bill; he’s great, but he could be a little difficult to work with sometimes. Or, back then, it was pretty difficult to work with him. And John and I were really excited about writing new material, so we kept on writing new material at home, and that wound up being a record called Spoke that a very small German label put out. It’s just a way musicians get inspired. They keep writing and recording.
You were even called Spoke at that point in time, too, weren’t you?
That’s right, yeah.
How did Howard Greynolds get involved with you and Sam Beam?
Howard is a good friend of both bands and had this idea of doing a series of collaborations, and so he put those wheels in motion. And it was great. Do you know Howard?
No. I saw he was instrumental in getting you and Sam Beam to work together, and I was just curious about what his role was.
I would call that being a friend of everyone, who had this idea. I guess you’d call that an executive producer in the movie world. You could probably call it that here in the musical world, too. He is the owner of his label, Overcoat Records, and he did this project with Tortoise and Will Oldham. It’s great. And I love Iron & Wine. It was really fun to get to work with Sam early on, before he really started blossoming and trying more of the full-band approach to his music. He had just come from having a very minimal lineup and very minimal-sounding recordings, and he had just done the Woman King EP before we had done this EP together.
I like the stuff he’s done with the band, but I have to say The Creek Drank the Cradle, his first album, just hits it every time.
I mean, it’s a great record, and he does it so well as a singer-songwriter and minimal guitar and overdub. That kind of lo-fi quality in his voice, the breathiness, it works so well together. But I love all the stuff he does, I gotta say. I mean, that’s the thing. It’s always a challenge. That’s why musicians, ourselves included, do this, because you’re looking for that same thrill that you get when you make a big record like that or your first record. It keeps you; it compels you. You’re always looking for those moments to transpire, both in performance and in recording or onstage. You don’t do this to push the repeat button, like, “Oh, let’s just go on autopilot.” And I’ve been in bands, we mentioned one earlier, where the musicians in the band just are not interested in engaging musically and creatively onstage, and so things cease to happen. I want to be in a group that is more active and more imaginative. I think most musicians are like that. They’re looking for that interaction.
So, you’ve released many, many tour albums, tour-only albums, and now you’ve recently compiled them into one collection. Did you feel it was just time to give anyone who wanted the music a chance to have it?
It’s always been available, but this is the first time they’re available on vinyl. We’ve always sold them at the shows, and we’ve had them on our website. You could buy the CDs. At a certain point, we were wondering, “Should we put these out of print?” And then we saw some of them being sold on eBay for abnormal amounts. This was ridiculous. “Let’s just keep them in print and just sell them.” They were also available digitally through the Touch & Go Records website. So, they’re available.
One last question here. This is kind of tongue-in-cheek. When visiting Pablo Neruda’s house while on tour in Chile, you said something along the lines of how you could relate to him regarding his being a collector of things. Are you trying to say you’re a closet hoarder?
[Laughs.] Oh my god, I was just watching that show last night. I’m sure my wife feels differently about it than I do, but I am not a hoarder like that. No. But just collecting interesting objects and things that have themes. He has a strong nautical theme running through the place in Valparaiso. He always had a little bar. I love that, because growing up, our house in California had a bar. Not that we used it all for serving drinks, but it was more for the kids to play around in. Pablo Neruda always felt like it was important to drink through colored glass, because the beautiful quality of the light shining through the glass, he felt, was too precious to waste with just a plain, clear glass. I’m not sure I agree with that now, because when I’m drinking really nice wine through a clear glass, I can really see and appreciate the color of the wine and of the grapes. I really enjoy seeing that. So, if I’m drinking an old Riesling, I really like to see that dark yellow tone and amber color coming through.
But I like the fact that he had these little impressions, or not impressions, but he had these attributes to designing and living at home. They’re all super-customized homes. They’re really cool. If you ever go down there, you definitely gotta check it out. Chile is an incredible country. South America, I’ve only been there once, to Chile and Argentina, and I’m hoping that we’ll get to play Brazil this year or next. We’re so close. It’s just so crazy that our relationship to our neighbors here to the south is just so estranged. You go to Europe; it’s not so much that way. I’m super-influenced by southern America, all the Americas.
I was at a world music festival called WOMAD in Australia. I was there with our band, and we brought with us the Spanish guitar player who’s featured on this record and on the last record, Jairo Zavala. He has a band called Depedro, who we’ve worked with a lot. We’re standing there, and we go meet at the hotel lobby. There is Alejandro Ochoa of Cuba and the Buena Vista Social Club, great guitar player, and I just wanted to say hi. I’m not fluent in Spanish enough to carry on a conversation, and, of course, Jairo is from Spain. And I say to him, “Soy Americano,” and he turns to Jairo and he goes, in Spanish, “Yeah, we’re all Americans.” Nice! And Jairo was cracking up, and he never let it down.
But it’s true. We have this very isolationist perspective. One of the things that Ned Sublette talks about in his book is that he feels that New Orleans is one of the most American cities that there is. And when he says “American,” he means both North and South American. We should be really proud of that. I am really proud of it. In reading his works and hearing him talk about New Orleans, it’s fascinating. And in going there, still, it’s an incredible place. Just being there the short time that we were recording, and John Convertino going jogging along the levies of the Mississippi… He’d come back with these great stories and visions of what he’d seen and felt, and some of that makes it into the spirit of the recording. I wouldn’t say that we’re trying to capture this stuff note by note, but I think you can feel it.
You did say something about there being a creepiness to New Orleans that helped the aesthetics of your writing.
For sure, yeah. And I like that. I’ve always been into those kind of dark and twisted themes. There sure is a lot of them. There’s still a lot of murder going on down there. But, just the fact that you’re in this completely different environment, you’re in the lowlands, it’s an incredible place.
Their resilience is something to be noted as well.
And you know there’s still a lot of people that are trying to get back that have no way of getting back. That’s really fascinating. And that series Tremé has done a lot of good. Some of our friends that live in New Orleans, or Algiers, they’ve been directly [involved], and even the studio is featured in one of the scenes. They’ve done a lot of good for bringing business as well. And a sense of pride. They always say, “There’s pride on Bourbon,” and it’s important to recognize that even though it’s muddled up with tourism and debauchery, it’s a great place.
You know, oddly enough, we went to Europe two weeks ago. A week ago we came back. We landed in Paris, and we’re staying at this hotel called the Elba Opera hotel. We walk up to the front of the hotel, and there on this big plaque: “Louis Armstrong stayed here from 1934 to 1935.” I can’t believe this. Of all the hotels that we stayed at in Paris, having this New Orleans connection on kind of a subterranean level for us, it was great. We walked up to the place where he walked up to for one year straight. They still have the old elevator in there that you never see in the States. It’s like a tiny wooden box, and it’s all exposed. You can see around it. It has the sliding metal gate. And of course, the stairways are tiny, and the rooms have super-high ceilings. It was a great place for us to call home for those four or so days that we were there in Paris.
Aren’t you doing a European leg, an America leg, a European leg?
Yeah, that’s what we do, man. It’s been a long time since we’ve toured. And, you know, too, the whole state of the recording industry’s changed, and so has the touring industry. It’s like, people can’t tour as much anymore. We used to be able to tour twice through New York City, or some of the bigger cities here in the States, on a record, and now we just can’t do that. You gotta play one — your one club show or your one venue or theater — and then maybe you can play a festival or something. Or, I guess you could do a residency, which would be really fun. It’s been kind of a dream as well, to just hang in a city for a while and do a series of smaller shows.
I can understand about the record-purchasing side of things, but why can’t you tour the way you used to?
Just because there are less people buying tickets. Tickets are expensive. We’re taking caution ensuring our ticket prices aren’t too high. We’re trying to make sure we play venues where we can have a nice room, a nice full room, and hopefully a sold-out show, other than shooting for a bigger room. These are all things that we have to keep in mind. I think a lot of people are doing this, even those people who are trying to play at Radio City Music Hall. They might not be able to sell it out, so it’s a tricky one. And you want to be able to make some kind of living off of what you do, so every decision becomes super important.
It seems like the festival circuit is an outlet for a lot of people, but at the same time, the limited time frame… You don’t really get much creative expression out on the stage like you would if you were doing your own tour, wouldn’t you say?
Right, right. Yeah, I mean, festivals are about playing in front of, hopefully, a larger amount of people. But even festivals are having a hard time. We played a festival in San Diego a number of years ago that went bankrupt, so they couldn’t pay us.
Which one was that? Was that Street Scene?
They’re not doing that anymore?
I’m not sure if they’re back up and running, but at that time they ran out of money.
You see these lineups of all these great festivals, and you never think about how much it actually costs to make those great lineups. And you think, “With lineups like this, how could they ever go out of business? There’s always someone going to show up.” But I guess that’s not always the case.
Yeah, it would seem like that. One of my favorite festivals in the States is Bonnaroo. They have a really great, solid base crowd that’s going to go there, of course, coming out of the jam band scene. But they bring in great names, whether it’s Stevie Wonder or people from far away, like Manu Chao. They’ll have certain themed nights. They had a Mexico-themed night one year, when they had a bunch of Nortec Collective bands and Camino Lara of the Mexican Institute of Sound, where it was more techno-oriented and sample-based. They mix it up, and they always sell out, and it’s a great facility. They take care of the crowd; they take care of the artists backstage.
And it’s usually before the summer gets too boiling.
It’s usually pretty boiling down there. [Laughs.] It’s really hot, but it’s kinda great, too. You go with it. When we played there the last time, we went on right after Tinariwen. It was in the afternoon, and these guys came out and did this meditative… I want to call it a raga. It was more this introductory, long, ambient tune that just kind of made everyone feel sound. And then they slowly worked out their songs and the repertoire. It was amazing. I was so happy to be there watching them and not stuck on a bus or backstage in an air-conditioned room. I was just right there on the stage, soaking it up.
I am envious after talking with you.
You’re a journalist, so you have the opportunity. You said where you’re based, right?
The site is based in Chicago, but I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. So, I go to see shows in the Carolinas, DC, and Richmond.
That’s right. I love DC.
Yeah, the 9:30 Club is one of my favorite venues.
Mine, too. On this tour coming up, I said to our booking agent, “Whatever we can do, I would really love to play the 9:30 Club.” It feels like the crowd there, the last couple of times we played, has been solid. It’s a great town. It’s got that international influence, people coming in from all around the world. Which I love. I love seeing people from wherever across the globe, in the States, at a show. New York, DC. Those are the bigger… sometimes San Francisco, but mainly New York and DC, you’ll see a lot of those people come out.
Well, the 9:30 Club is right in the middle of a giant ethnocentric area, all different kinds of things right there on that corner.
I love it. And of course, the staff. The way they run that place is just on par man. It’s one of the best.