Engineer/producer Tucker Martine says that mixing Calexico’s new album, El Mirador, reminded him of some of his all-time favorite tracks by the Latin Playboys. “Also,” he says, “I couldn’t help but think about walking through the streets of Mexico, where there would be music blaring, and it’s way louder than the sound system can handle, and everything is distorted but really exciting.” Calexico frontman/guitarist Joey Burns says that the songwriting process for El Mirador was actually very groove-oriented.
Taken together, these observations reveal much about the band’s latest sounds. On this record, you’ll hear 1990s post-punk rhythms, mariachi, bilingual lyrics, guitar-noir undercurrents, and the palpable joy this band felt reuniting after lockdown.
Burns and longtime bandmates Sergio Mendoza (keys, bass) and John Convertino (drums), along with recording engineer Chris Schultz, got the album started last summer in Mendoza’s then brand-new personal studio, which he built in his backyard in Tucson, Ariz., mostly out of metal shipping containers.
“It’s two containers with space separating them, and he built out that space in the middle and raised the roof to form one continuous room,” Schultz explains. “So the main tracking room is essentially the size of three shipping containers. He built a separate control room out of metal and wood, and then there’s another small shipping container attached to the control room that’s used as an Iso booth.
“When we started working on this record, it was a brand-new, totally untested space,” Schultz continues. “There was minimal wall treatment, but there is a big rug in the middle of the room, some couches and chairs, and a lot of instruments. That’s mostly what the acoustic treatment was, actually: Sergio’s keyboards and all the other instruments that he owns.”
“Around the time they were building the studio, my aunt asked my family, ‘I’m downsizing and I have this beautiful old 1960s Kawai 7-foot grand piano. Does anybody want it?’ So we moved that to the studio,” says Burns. “I love that so many different pieces found their home.”
WRITING, TRACKING AS A BAND
Calexico’s creative process is unique in that not only does the band write and arrange all of its songs together, but also the gang-writing flows directly into tracking, and Schultz is on hand for all of it—capturing ideas as they transform into finished tracks. On this project, they all worked in three two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off bursts. Burns bunked with Mendoza during band-tracking sessions, then traveled back to his family in Idaho, then did it all again. A fourth tracking session captured overdubs, including Burns’ keeper vocals.
“We’d just kind of throw things at the dartboard and see what landed,” Burns recalls. “Then after that time away to listen and reflect, we’d come back and build arrangements and write lyrics. This is something we’ve done a lot in previous Calexico albums, but this time, especially, it really felt like a celebration. It was the first time we were able to get together in person in a long time, and it felt so good. “We were making a homemade record and cooking our meals, for the most part,” he adds.
“We made lots of coffee with John’s vintage 1960s Italian espresso machine that he drove in with from El Paso. I flew down from Boise, where I’d just moved in 2020, and so it was a reunion and a celebration of our friendship, our band and the town we love so much and where the music really emanated from.”