The first time I tried to reach Giant Sand, OP8 and Calexico drummer/multi-instrumentalist John Convertino at his Tucson, Arizona home he didn't answer the phone. It seemed only natural that when he called back he told me he hadn't heard the ring because he was playing the drums. He and the other musical head behind Calexico, Joey Burns, have been busy. With the follow-up to their first record Spoke, the latest Calexico release The Black Light has kept them on the road in Europe and around the States, seemingly around the clock. But in addition to their rigorous road diet, they have managed to play and record with artists such as Richard Buckner, Barbara Manning, Doug McCombs and their musical alter egos (with long time friend and Tucson music-man Howe Gelb) Giant Sand and OP8. I talked to both of them during some of their time off and asked them about the recordings, the bands, the music business, and Tucson.
First I talked to John
All these great records have come out of Tucson that you've been a part of. Is Giant Sand sort of the hub of the wheel of projects so to speak (OP8, Calexico, Giant Sand)?
I've heard other people use this word a lot, like Howe especially: reinvention. I think as a way of being able to survive as a musician you have to be able to reinvent what you do. If I scale it down to what I do as a drummer... if I set my drums up different or use a different drum set or even if I just turn a cymbal upside down it will just automatically make me think and play a different way. With that same concept if it reverberates out and you do something as drastic as change the name of the band even, it's going to totally change what you do. I think Giant Sand kind of centered around what Howe would bring to the table and Joey and I would add our ingredients to the dinner. OP8 was originally Howe, Joey and I experimenting with different ways of putting songs together. You know I'm playing vibes now and accordion, and Joey's playing guitar more now. So it was branching out on different instruments. Then Lisa Germano jumped in there and it became a whole record.
How did Lisa get involved?
Her record company at the time was wanting their artists to work with different musicians. Since we met her in New Orleans, when we (Giant Sand) were doing the Glum record, we all got along really well. So when the label challenged her to work with other people she said "I wanna work with the Giant Sand guys." Her label didn't really like what she was doing with us so that freed us up to finish it, do a whole record and then shop it around. That, consequently, got the V2 [records] thing going for Giant Sand.
So I heard the new OP8 is not going to be with Lisa Germano?
The idea was to try and bring in different people. To leave it more open.
You and Joey seem like the dream session players for so much stuff. You did the Barbara Manning and the Richard Buckner records. Do you promote yourself as session players?
No, it just pretty much happens. If a person hears something they like and they think we can work with us they contact us. Although there are people I'd love to work with like Chan from Cat Power. I really like that record (Moon Pix). I think she would be a great OP8 candidate. I'd love to work with Lisa again but it's hard with schedules. It's hard to force these things. You kind of have to allow them to happen. That's like the first OP8 record. It's weird when things get forced and expectations get put on it. It ruins it.
The new album that you just did... did you write stuff like you always have in Giant Sand or more like "reinvention" of an old band?
I think Howe really had to dig deep and go into different more territories than he has before because he was working with a major label. I think they were wanting something more specific than Giant Sand has ever had to come up with. More radio friendly. For me personally it was a more difficult thing for me.
In the recording process?
Yeah. There were ideas that I had that weren't really able to happen because we were working with a producer and on a major label. It just wasn't as free. The label (V2) put up a budget. It's all in the contracts. The studio and the producers all have to be approved by both sides: the band and the label.
Your Calexico records came out on Quarterstick, an indie label.
Yeah totally independent, practically no budget.
You're able to have total freedom when you record something. How do you feel about having more money to record?
With Glum (Giant Sand) it was neat because we got to go to New Orleans (Kingsway Studio) and live in the studio and work with really good mics and a really good engineer and get good sounds. That was a great experience. That was when big budget worked for Giant Sand. Then it was kind of interesting. The day our record was done our A & R person got fired and the label kind of went bankrupt. Even though the record didn't get promoted very well, at least we didn't have to pay back that huge budget.
What did you spend on Glum?
I don't know, $75,000. For us that was big. Mostly, just being able to be in that big house there in that French quarter, living there. When you woke up in the morning and you stumbled down the stairs and there was your drum set all mic'ed up and the engineer was already buzzed on three cups of coffee and ready to go. It was great. I think with this new Giant Sand record it was fractured because we never really had that place. We recorded some of it in Memphis, some in Tucson, some at home. it was more mixed up. Ultimately it is going to present a very interesting and diverse sounding record.
You and Joey did the first Calexico record, Spoke, and the new one, The Black Light, yourselves right?
Yeah. Craig (Schumacher, of Wavelab) helps a lot. Even with the Spoke record, although we recorded at our houses, we took it to Wavelab and threw a lot of stuff into ProTools and did editing.
How do you feel about ProTools? You know digital editing and using computers?
I think it's great. It's exactly what it is, a tool, you know. Another way of helping things along. You just have to not let it be a master of you. For me I just want things to sound real. You gotta have that feel to it. Psychologically it took me awhile to come to grips with the digital world. It's so weird that the music is going into these boxes. Like with the Glum record, the engineer, she did most of the editing on the 2-inch tape right there. With a razor blade. She would be tapping her foot and slice the tape. It's hairy but I dug it. I loved the reality and the instantaneous of it all. There is a margin of error there. The digital world is super clean.
Yeah I just bought a computer a couple of months ago. It'd be cool to be able to store mixes.
Yeah and I like being able to loop things too. There's those accidents that actually wind up being the coolest part of a song and you can build a song out of that. Even if it is just looping it to remember it.
In terms of the records you've played drums on, there is a definite link between all the recordings and the sounds of the drums. The drums are totally unique but they have a "feel". I like to A/B the OP8 and Calexico records a lot when I'm mixing. I associate the recordings of those records mostly with your drumming and the drum sounds.
Well, it could be the sound, the actual sound of the drum set. That has something to do with it. But I think more than anything it's capturing performances. And this is something we've all learned from Howe more than anybody. The way he plays and the way he comes up with his music is very in the moment. And if you don't capture that moment it's pretty much gone. A lot of the stuff that was recorded at Wavelab, whether it was by Nick (the engineer) or Craig they were astute enough to tell when something was happening, really happening, when the band was playing and to press that fricken' record button. You know? It would be like I'd go out to the drums, Howe's startin' to play guitar and Craig would go "Oh this is happening" and he'll press record. Instead of saying "Let's tape this. let's make this a take." Stopping the band. A lot of engineers make the mistake of going "Wow that was great, let's take one." Then it's gone. You can try a go again the same way and it just does not work. It's bizarre, the whole sound, the physical sound of the drums and everything starts changing.
Would Craig be rolling tape all the time?
Yeah. Sometimes he would have a DAT going. Something un-tangible happens. I think John Coltrane may have said it once: "You will always play different when the tape is rolling." When we were recording the Glum record Malcom Burn would say " Yeah that was great do it again." And we just couldn't. I would think I'm a lame-ass drummer. I can't come up that grove we were just playing. A lot of times a producer won't take no for an answer and you'll spend the whole night working on the song and it's really just a waste of time.
Are you good at knowing when that's happening?
No. I'm not. There were times when I thought a take was really good and it sucked. In that Memphis session (for the new Giant Sand record), we did a take, then did a second take, then a third. And we all agreed that the second take was the best. Then the engineer rewound the tape and went past the second take and we were listening to the first take. We were all going this doesn't sound like the second take but we were all diggin' it. It was a happy accident. We listened to the second take and it really sucked.
So do you and Joey both have studios in your house?
No. I'd like to. The Spoke record was done on 8-track that the Friends of Dean Martinez had bought. It was in Joey's apartment for awhile and then in mine. Just two microphones. This house I'm living in now has an amazing sound. It's got 14 foot ceilings, all stucco inside. It s just a regular brick house. It has this weird hallway, you know? Rooms with lots of doorways leading into this hallway with this high ceiling. Lots of room for notes, sounds, to go off into a little corner and circulate. You put mics around in different corners.
The drum sounds, specifically the kick, are all so similar. You can tell it's the same drummer. But there seems to be a specific mic approach too. Is it something you picked up from Craig or is it the way you like to hear your kit?
I got into this thing where I didn't want to have anything in my drum. I got this Ludwig kit about twelve years ago that has this sound. I think it has something to do with the fact the the shells are thin. When you hear the Ludwig, the bass drum opens up. It's an open sound. You're hearing like this subsonic reverberation. You're feeling it more than you're hearing. It's just a double headed bass drum with no hole cut in it. I think a lot of it has to do with heads too, made in the 60s.
Does a lot of that sound come from the warehouse at Wavelab?
Yeah it's a great sounding room. And in the house here too, it sounds really good. There are some things about that Spoke record that I like better. More open. You hear the air.
The drums sound incredible on the first song on the Buckner "Devotion and Doubt" record. Especially the kick.
Yeah I think that was a first or second take. You have to give Craig credit too. He would just go with that. He's got a lot of enthusiasm and energy. If it's not happening he'll just move mics around and put them in different parts of the room. He's not like "Take the front head off, blah, blah, blah."
Experimenting is good.
The bottom line is just getting things to reverberate. I gotta feel like the wood is vibrating. When Joey's playing the acoustic bass you can walk right up to it and put your hand on it and feel it vibrating. When we were on tour on with the Dirty Three I just had to walk up to Warren's violin and put my hand on it.
Then I called Joey...
How important do you feel the recordings are, as aesthetic, to your records? I try to think of the recording process as another band member. The silent band member. Doesn't watch, just listens. Depending on what machine you record on it can give your album a totally different vibe.
The Black Light... unlike Spoke, you did at Wavelab. What was the main difference in terms of your involvement?
We've worked with Craig and Nick Luca (Wavelab engineer) so much. Those guys are so used to us that a lot of times they set us up with a few mics and say "Alright, we'll see you guys later." During the Friends of Dean Martinez records and the Calexico records we'd be engineering ourselves. Craig and Nick would help get the basics and we'd jump in and do overdubs.
Would they help you mix?
Yeah we would all mix together. It was hard because the budget was minimal. We were kind of pushing our limit as far as time in the studio. Not only that... there is a certain natural time that feels good to be in a studio and if you go over that it can pretty devastating. If you're going over and over on a take it can completely ruin the song. You might as well call it a day and go and get some Mexican food. Go watch the sunset and come back later that night or the next day. The tape doesn't lie, it's going to play back whatever you do. On the The Black Light we wanted to have a little better sounding recording. Spoke is a different vibe, more like a home vibe.
So you don't necessarily have a preference?
No, it depends on the song. What you want to paint.
If you had had more of a budget for those records would you have wanted to spend more money and go into a big time studio?
No. Wavelab moved recently.
Oh really? So now what does that mean?
That means no more trains on the recordings. Right next door there was a dance studio. So a lot times we had to wait for the train to go by, and then wait for the dance class, or go over and say "Hey we're going to record this song could you just hold off for five minutes." Sometimes they would sometimes they wouldn't.
So did Craig get a nice new space?
It's still a nice size room. He's built a small dry room. He doesn't have a wall for the control room. It might be nice to have some separation from mixing. Right now it's pretty open and we like it.
Have you tracked a lot in there already?
We did a project with this guy named Jean Louis Mirat from France. And then I did some stuff with Doug McCombs of Tortoise. We got a great vibe, great sound. Just set up some mics, sat around in a semi-circle, threw up a couple baffles, and it all went to tape.
Do you and John always start recording with the two of you playing live?
Yeah, well we just try and get a good take. With The Black Light I decided I wanted to try and do some stuff at home so I borrowed a 4-track and did some rhythmic stuff. I wanted to break up the songs and the huge amounts of orchestrations with really simple, monotonous things. To put you in the trance state. John came over one day and picked up the bass and I hopped on a pot or a pan or a shaker and recorded a couple of songs like "Fake Fur" and "Chach".
Is there a lot of improvisation on The Black Light?
Yeah, but I wanted to go more away from improvisation and into orchestration and arrangement.
Like the "Where Water Flows"? It is so beautiful.
Just vibes, guitar and cello on a 4-track at home. Sometimes on these records there's a lot of stuff. There'll be like an accordion, old world, Italian waltz. John has been doing that for a while because that's his roots. There's a tradition that comes through on each record. It's got that flavor. For me it's like the Spaghetti in the Spaghetti Western. We have all these different styles. Sometimes I think we could do a whole record of stuff like "Where Water Flows." I wanted to utilize all these different instruments we've been collecting, like marimbas, vibes, mandolin, the accordion. Here where we live it's called Barrio Viejo. Some of the oldest buildings in Tucson are right here. So you have a lot of old Mexican families here, the music blaring on Sundays. The family coming by, the low-riders crammed with kids. The life down here breathes a completely different kind of breath. At times you can lose yourself. Am I in Mexico or in America?
So how did the whole Richard Buckner connection work out for his record Devotion and Doubt?
We were all down at SXSW a few years ago and Buckner came to our show and John checked out his show. We had met JD Foster [producer and ex- True Believer, etc.]. I had heard about him through Craig so I was really interested in meeting him. They liked what we were doing. We enjoy playing with other people because you really get to focus in and listen to that person and back them up.
What was JD's role in terms of your playing?
He was great. I really liked the way he was inside of Richard Buckner's songs. He knew everything about the songs. He did his homework. Also, he really made us feel that he liked us as people and that he liked our playing. There was no such thing as a mistake. JD was like a conductor when we were doing takes.
Again, it was all done live?
Did JD encourage all that sparsness and space or was that Richard?
I think a lot of that record has to do with Richard and JD getting in the car. Driving to Texas, driving to Tucson. Being in New York. Those guys have a great rapport. We're only on a few of those tracks. Which is so beautiful. When you hear the band come in it sounds so great. Then, just like leaving a town out here in the desert, you drive away and you're in the middle of nothing. Like an instrumental that's like maybe 30 seconds long just fits in so perfectly between two songs. Bridging songs together by way of transitional snippets or sketches.
Yeah you guys do that on the Spoke record.
Yeah, an ice cream truck in the barrio.
I asked John this too, what is your perspective on indie vs. major, no budget vs. budget?
I think indie is more realistic. At the same time it's nice when records get out there. But in the major label process of putting records out there it seems like the people that end up working on your album have no clue as far as who you are and what you do. That to me is a big sign. It's like "Ok, there's someone selling my record that doesn't know jack shit about where we come from or what we like musically or what we like aesthetically." Whereas Quarterstick/Touch and Go is the best label I've ever worked with. They've got their shit down. They're the most friendly people and most honest and sincere people. And they're putting out great music.
Are you happy with what happened with the new Giant Sand record?
I still haven't heard the final mixes. V2 has a certain criteria that they want to see met with the Giant Sand record. They want to get it out there as much as possible. So they need something they feel they can work with. That was where I had to step back from that whole process because it just feels very strange.
And the new OP8?
I just talked with Lisa Germano yesterday to say hello. Talk about studio save. That girl, she knows what's going on. I learned so much from her approach. I mean she kind of took the bull by the horns. Like getting in there at 11:00 every day. We were all like "Let's get there at noon... alright lets go get some lunch." She really helped us with the discipline. You know "Move on, next thing... great take John let's go. Howe, I want you to do this... ok that sounds great." There was this woman in the studio that has got everyone wrapped around her finger. She's learned a lot from the recording process. When we worked with her it showed. This was when the machine ran at both 30 and 15 ips. She would do things like on "It's a Rainbow." She got this old accordion down from the wall and played the bass notes... sitting down on the ground... recorded it at 30 ips and then put it back down to 15 ips. It was like a bellowing organ. She's a master of getting vocal sounds. Craig would get things set up and she would come in and do her own vocals. Seems like that works better.
Well there's some touring to do as Calexico, the new OP8, the new Giant Sand is coming out so we'll see if there are any tour dates with that. There's Bundy K. Brown of Isotope 217, Pullman and that whole Thrill Jockey circle of friends. He did a mix of some of our stuff. He got Doug McCombs of Tortoise and Rob of Isotope to play on it. It's really ambient. It goes off on that tangent. So we're working on a B side to that.