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Calexico’s ‘Edge of the Sun’

When people know your band particularly for mixing musical styles from myriad decades and cultures, and you’re about to start your ninth studio album in 18 years, you may need new sources of inspiration. That’s why Calexico—the stalwart indie band that fuses various Latin styles with Americana, spaghetti western, country, jazz and post-rock into a sound that’s been lovingly dubbed “desert noir”—took a sojourn to Mexico and called on a ton of guest collaborators for its latest record, Edge of the Sun.

After some initial demos in Calexico’s home base of Tucson, Ariz., founding members Joey Burns (producer, vocals, multiple stringed and keyed instruments) and John Convertino (co-producer, drums and percussion) took Sergio Mendoza’s (co-producer, vocals, multi-instrumentalist) suggestion to take up in Mexico City for 10 days of writing and recording.

“We were just trying to catch a vibe,” Burns says of the Mexico retreat. “We went for the purpose of demos, but some of those demos sounded so good and felt so great that we kept them.”

While in Mexico City, the guys used what Burns described as a laidback overdub-type home studio with a nice digital recording system. There was one isolated room where they recorded drums and a mixing control room where Burns and Mendoza recorded acoustic instruments. The accessible studio with a chill vibe allowed the band to record at will and capture the moment.

For example, Burns had been dwelling on some lyrics that songwriter Pieta Brown sent him. After catching a stomach bug in Mexico City and going out of commission for a little while, “I woke up from this feverish dream and went straight into the studio and started playing,” Burns said. “Then John of course picks up his brushes and starts playing along. He knows when it’s a good moment. I like that he understands the way these songs come about and how to record, how to play live.”

The band returned to Craig Schumacher’s WaveLab studios in Tucson, where they did the majority of the recording, as much as possible to 16-track, 2-inch tape at 15 ips before transferring to digital. Schumacher mixed Edge of the Sun on WaveLab’s Soundcraft console.

In the true Calexico spirit of bringing people together, the live band has seven members in five locations on two continents. However, in the studio it’s mainly Burns and Convertino. On this album, they did more live tracking than usual as a foursome, bringing in bassist Ryan Alfred and Mendoza on keyboards. Capturing the best possible drums is goal one during the live tracking. “A big part of the great drum sounds is because John is a great drummer and knows how to tune and work with his drums,” Burns said, “whether the vintage Ludwigs or Gretsches he’s used, or more recently his C&C drums.”

Finished Calexico drums may only have a kick mic and a room mic applied. “The most important thing for me is good room mics, a good room sound,” Burns says. That, and the right feel, which Burns establishes by, “not talking too much, trying to surprise John as often as possible,” he says. “We don’t want to over-rehearse or overthink things.”

That’s why some things, such as the drums from the single “Falling from the Sky,” carried over from the Mexico sessions. “When we came back to Tucson, the spirit was not there on the versions we worked on,” Burns says. “So we just used the original demo, even though there were only a couple of mics on the kit.”

Somehow, by luck or by design, Calexico also got the right feel out of the vocal tracks that were sent to them from contributors such as Ben Bridwell from Band of Horses (“Falling from the Sky”), rising Mexican star Carla Morrison (“Moon Never Rises”) and Sam Beam of Iron and Wine (“Bullets & Rocks”). Burns says Beam’s background vocal he sent in was a little gritty, but too beautiful not to use. “It’s not on the beat; it’s somewhere just in front of or just behind the beat,” Burns says. “That wound up being really a nice surprise. It became kind of the focus, and then we could see when the trumpet solo should take off and be louder in the mix.”

Trumpet solos and parts pepper Edge of the Sun throughout, combining often with accordion, banjo and vintage keys to give songs a classic dusty vibe that feels refreshingly anachronistic. “We are lucky at WaveLab to record a lot of horns,” says engineer Chris Schultz. “Using ribbon microphones really helps control the sound coming from most brass and woodwinds. For this record we just got a pair of the AEA N22 [ribbon mics], so almost all the trumpets were recorded with them. Jacob [Valenzuela] and Martin [Wenk] played together with the microphones about four feet in front of each of them. I believe I used the LaChapell 992 as the mic pre.”

Schultz says the keyboards were recorded about half through a Fender Bassman 10 amp (such as the Nord Electro) and half through a DI (such as the Korg Microkorg). He also has different strategies for acoustic and electric guitars. Acoustics he records with a Royer R-122 ribbon mic going into a Daking mic pre/EQ and then an Alan Smart C1 compressor. “I never use much compression on the way in,” he says. “Just enough to make things a little bigger.” For electrics, depending on the tone, he records the amp with either a True Systems PT2-500, Shure SM-57, Sennheiser e609 or AEA N22. 

For his vocals, Burns trusts his engineers, and Schultz uses the Pearl DT-40 into a D.W. Fearn VT-2 vacuum tube preamp with just a little compression from the Alan Smart C1 on the way in.

“For me what’s important is the aspect of community,” Burns says. “Whether it’s recording with other musicians at WaveLab or recording in our rehearsal studio with Ryan Alfred, I like getting together with people. Getting some coffee, getting some dialog and some music going.”