His records don't always reflect it, but Calexico singer/guitarist Joey Burns is a natural born traveler. On tour during the last few months, Burns' recent itinerary reads like a Google Maps inquiry gone awry: Tucson, Tokyo, New York, Wellington, Melbourne. Not that he's complaining.
"It's amazing to go to those countries," says Burns, launching into a prolonged travelogue that would make guidebook troubadour Rick Steves a little teary-eyed. "Japan is always interesting. It's a very poetic place. New Zealand ... I shouldn't talk about New Zealand, because it should probably be kept under wraps. Wellington is one of my favorite cities. Australia's incredible -- the whole Pacific, really."
Packing for the trip Down Under, Burns included some regionally appropriate entertainment: Aussie rocker Nick Cave's 2006 film The Proposition, a savage depiction of outlaw justice set in the 19th century Outback.
"I got a kick out of it because the three bandits are 'the Burns brothers,'" he says laughing. "And just seeing [Cave's] writing come through in the screenplay. Much like in the States, there's this conquest element. It's a universal theme: What is our connection to God through all this? Because it's all done in God's name. The script reminds me of one of my favorite writers in the American Southwest, Cormac McCarthy, who has influenced many a Calexico song."
After a decade fronting the eclectic desert collective, Burns has been described as an indie-rock Ennio Morricone, a worldly composer so representative of barren Southwestern landscapes (from his iconic soundtracks for Sergio Leone-directed spaghetti Westerns such as The Good, The Bad And The Ugly) that even ardent fans can forget Morricone actually comes from Rome.
Burns says the same mirage obfuscates Calexico's work on occasion: "One of the biggest questions I get [on tour] is, 'Are you bringing the horns?' And I say, 'Yes, I'm bringing the horns.' There have been a lot of changes over the years that were pointing in this direction, so I'm surprised that people were caught off-guard. But I'm just glad they're listening."
He's referring to the direction taken on 2006's Garden Ruin (Quarterstick), the band's fifth and most recent full-length release. A departure of sorts from the modern-mariachi sounds of fan favorites The Black Light (1998) and Feast Of Wire (2003), the country-influenced record is Calexico's most guitar-centric release to date.
"Garden Ruin was an important album to make," explains Burns, "just to remind people that, hey, this is not the only thing we do. In some ways, it's more for ourselves, too, just to change up the way that we write and record an album."
In fact, making albums isn't the only thing they do. Burns has successfully parlayed Calexico's popularity into a number of ancillary gigs: soundtrack work for feature films like Committed and upcoming Dylan biopic I'm Not There; session work (recognize the trumpets on the new Arcade Fire music?); and charitable causes close to the band's heart, including "Rock The Net," the Future Of Music Coalition's fight to keep Internet access free and equal, and Humane Borders, which aims to quell needless deaths arising from illegal immigration in Arizona. In 2006, Burns lent a track to Graciously: A Gulf Relief Compilation (Funzalo), a project spearheaded by longtime collaborator and Wavelab Studio wizard Craig Schumacher.
"Craig has a strong connection to New Orleans," says Burns. "He's part of the Tape Op Conference, and he and his wife, Karen, have been going to Jazz Fest for years. He wants to organize a music trade show there in the future, because he feels so strongly about bringing the music and people back. We all do."