In ‘Algiers,’ Calexico Wanders Close to Southwestern Roots

BY Saskia De Melker  November 8, 2012 at 11:16 AM EDT

Filmed by Saskia de Melker and Beth Garbitelli.

Geography has always played an important role in Calexico‘s music. You hear it in lyrics about drifters and border crossings and in the instrumentals that straddle traditions from Latin and North America. It’s even apparent in the band’s name — Calexico is a town on the California-Mexico border.

For the band’s latest album, its first in four years, wandering dominates again.

“There is a lot of people moving to and fro, inside and out. I think it’s just as a result of having had the chance to kind of sit and be in one place for a while and not being on tour,” frontman Joey Burns says. “Your mind wonders and your imagination goes to where you are not.”

There’s also a new twist to the geographic inspiration — the band decided to stray from its home base in Tucson, Ariz., to record in an old church in the New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers, after which the record is named.

But at the root of the new album remains the band’s inextricable tie to the Southwest that has defined its signature sound. Burns got his inspiration for the album’s first single, “Splitter,” from a book of stark portraits by photographer Richard Avedon called “In the American West.”

While migration and movement are universal themes, Calexico’s Tucson roots make them particularly salient subjects, says Burns. “It really rings true for me. I live in the state of Arizona where in more recent years immigration has become a very hot topic for discussion, and it’s kind of spun out in some really extreme ways.”

“I’m part of a community that is already straddling two different cultures and countries,” he says. “That theme comes up a lot in our music – seeing people making it work and having one foot in one language and other foot in another.”

In the video above, Art Beat catches up with Joey Burns of Calexico at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. Below, watch the music video for the song “Splitter.”