With a voice like Marlboros and whiskey, the salesman tells me, “The barber's not in today,” as he peers out from behind a glass case of nicknacks. He then turns away to help another customer, leaving me alone with this old barber's chair that sits outside, its metal hot to the touch. Finding the Sky Drive-In Swap Meet wasn't exactly easy in the high desert heat of the Yucca Valley. Hours earlier, headed eastbound on the I-10 freeway from Los Angeles, I drove with one hand against the steering wheel while my other juggled some hastily thrown together directions and an e-mail I'd received days earlier from Calexico guitarist and vocalist Joey Burns.
In the e-mail, Burns detailed a series of off-road treasure troves from Los Angeles to Arizona that would allow me to physically retrace the story behind Calexico's new album, Carried to Dust. The album unfolds like a traveler's cherished diary: The story of a Los Angeles writer who leaves the city on impulse and follows the Santa Ana wind east into the middle of nowhere, arriving at the Sky Drive-In. There he finds inspiration in an old road map with a route already inked in pen and hits the open highway.
According to Burns' notes, this is the place — the old wind-swept, desert swap meet, with its stacked rubber tires and cracked clothes trunks, vintage cash registers and Castrol motor oil pumps. There are rusted radio flyer wagons, broken pocket watches, a disco ball strung up from a coat rack, and an empty birdhouse crafted from a knee-high leather boot. Like Calexico's music, dubbed “desert noir” by their friend Fred Mills, this place is a layering of people's obscure histories and mythic dramas.
“You're stumbling into somebody’s living museum,” Burns says about the swap meet. “That’s the whole point of going to those places that aren’t your typical thrift store that you find on Melrose like Aardvark's. It's more about the story that’s behind the object. Those places that seem well-worn by people before us seem like they just fit you and all of your troubles and worries really well.” Burns used to go to the swap meet a lot. John Convertino turned him on to that place.
Before settling in the band's current home of Tucson, Arizona, Calexico drummer and second founding member John Convertino lived in Yucca Valley at a ranch called Rimrock, about five miles up the road from Pioneer Town near the Sky Drive-In. Ask Convertino about his time in the high desert and he'll tell you the desert changes people. “When you get out there and you have that space, you have that sense where nothingness is tangible,” he says. “I think that sinks into your bones and sinks into your soul. You start taking deeper breaths and you have longer periods of time in between your thoughts. You need to find a balance between the clamor and the space.”
Burns and Convertino began playing music together after meeting in Los Angeles in 1990, though it wasn't until the pair settled down with Touch and Go Records in 1997 that they became known as Calexico. They released their debut Spoke that same year, followed in 1998 by The Black Light — the album that put Calexico on the map thematically for its cinematic treatment of Arizonan and Mexican iconography. With Carried to Dust, the band's sweeping sixth studio album, Convertino reveals that the unsung landmarks of gritty, urban Los Angeles play as equal a part in Calexico's songwriting as does the desert. A longtime fan of Charles Bukowski and Italian-American writer John Fante, Convertino fell in love with the blue-collar romanticism of those writers early on and spent time soaking up the vibe at places like Cole's Buffet off 6th Street and Main, now just an abandoned, boarded up relic of historic Los Angeles.
“In the West you [attach] a preciousness to the nostalgic places because they can be so easily demolished,” Convertino says. “Cole's was such a drinking bar. People would barf on the bar. It was very much squalor. I mainly liked to go there because they had some great old pictures of L.A. and tables actually made out of old Red Cars. I used to love to go to this little bar called the Sideshow. It’s long gone but it was touted for a long time as Hollywood’s oldest bar; it was even older than the Frolic Room. It was such a dive.” Convertino remembers that the bar was completely plastered with foreign currency from all over the world. One night he went in there and the money was gone. In its place, “this beautiful mirror behind the bar with little circus animals etched into it, and that had been there for all those years but I'd never seen it. The funny thing is, they probably peeled that money off because they needed to pay the rent.”
Again, like scraping off that antique mirror, this idea of layering factors hugely in Calexico's music, particularly Carried to Dust with its many contributors — Iron and Wine's Sam Beam (“House of Valparaiso”), Pieta Brown (“Slowness”), Amparo Sanchez (“Inpiracion”), Jairo Zavala (“Victor Jara's Hands”), Douglas McCombs (of Chicago's Tortoise) (“Contention City”) and Mickey Raphael (“Bend to the Road”) — all who bring their own histories to the songs. Calexico's Burns and Convertino are explorers of texture and tone and their creative restlessness mirrors the same venturous spirit that might lead one to hit the open road with nothing but curiosity and an old map.
Burns says there's probably more players on the new album than earlier efforts, which was intentional. “John and I both are fans of that kind of orchestral ensemble where there's a lot of instruments playing together but not always playing on top on each other, allowing for each other to breathe and to have space. That’s something that we’ve always been attracted to. We’ve always been a fan of the ambient world; the world that’s just beyond the foreground.”
Calexico plays the Henry Fonda Theater on Monday September 29.
Carried to Dust is out now on Touch and Go Records.