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Musician Joey Burns Plays Not My Job

Calexico singer Joey Burns performs on the main stage during the 18th Rock Oz'Arenes festival in Avenches, Switzerland, in 2009. i i
Sandro Compardo/AP
Calexico singer Joey Burns performs on the main stage during the 18th Rock Oz'Arenes festival in Avenches, Switzerland, in 2009.
Sandro Compardo/AP

Guitarist-vocalist Joey Burns and his band, Calexico, are known for mixing genres. Some people call Calexico an Americana band, some call them Tex-Mex — some just settle on calling them awesome.

Since Burns lives in Tucson, the southern desert, we've invited him to answer three questions about music from places where it's really, really cold.

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And now, the game where we invite on interesting people and try to hold their interest. Some people call Calexico an Americana band. Some call them Tex-Mex. We call them awesome. Guitarist and vocalist Joey Burns of the band joins us now. Joey Burns, welcome to WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!

JOEY BURNS: Hello, Peter.

SAGAL: Great to have you.


BURNS: Thank you for having me. It's an honor. I love the show.

SAGAL: Well, we love your music. So you, if I'm not mistaken, grew up on the hard streets of southern California.

BURNS: I sure did.

SAGAL: Scrabbling for everything you could get.

BURNS: You know it.

SAGAL: It's tough. It's tough. And you came here to Tucson when?

BURNS: In 1993.

SAGAL: Right. And what brought you here?

BURNS: Music.

SAGAL: Music. You heard the music.

BURNS: Heard the music.

SAGAL: Coming over the hills.

BURNS: Was playing music with musicians that were coming this way.

SAGAL: Right. And you came here.

BURNS: And we settled.

SAGAL: And why I guess is my question?

BURNS: It's very comfortable here for musicians and artists alike. You know, it's low rent. There's lots of inspiration.


SAGAL: Right. Well tell me or tell the audience about Tucson, because I've been to Phoenix and I've been to Tucson and Tucson is different. Tucson is pointedly not Phoenix.


BURNS: Tucson is just that much closer to the - it is in the Senora Desert.

SAGAL: Right.

BURNS: And I think that is a big factor here, right?


BURNS: It's beautiful. The culture here and the history here is really remarkable, and it influences us in many ways, especially musicians.

SAGAL: Right. And for six months of the year, it's too hot to do anything but lie around like you're on a rock, so you can sun yourself.


BURNS: Under the rock.

SAGAL: Under the rock, just hide from the heat.

ROY BLOUNT: Do you sound better in dry air than in the wet?

BURNS: You know that's a really good question.

BLOUNT: Oh really? Gee.

BURNS: Yeah, that's a good question.


FAITH SALIE: Good job, Roy.

BURNS: That's a really good question. I haven't found out yet.


CHARLIE PIERCE: He just doesn't have a really good answer.

SAGAL: We listen to the music and we've heard so many descriptions of it, we don't know what's right. We've heard it called Americana, roots rock, Tex-Mex, meaning you have a lot of cheese melted over you.


SAGAL: We've heard desert noir. Have you heard that?

BURNS: Of course.

SAGAL: What is desert noir?

BURNS: That was penned by Fred Mills, who's living in North Carolina. And he's a writer that lived here for a while. And he came up with this term. You know, I think the edginess of some of our music, the, you know kind of the Cormac McCarthy influence in some of the lyrics. And he came up with this desert noir.

SAGAL: Right. Cormac McCarthy?

BURNS: Yeah, yeah.


SAGAL: Is that why you have so many songs about killing Mexican drug dealers?

BURNS: Yeah.


BURNS: Or winding up, you know, killed by one.

SAGAL: Yeah, that's more likely I guess. Calexico is the name of a border town in California.

BURNS: It is, yes.

SAGAL: But you're in Tucson, so why didn't you call yourself Tucson?

BURNS: That's a good question.


BURNS: You know, coming from California and having an influence, having lived here in Tucson for a number of years and driving from Tucson to the west coast, we'd always pass the town of Calexico and it just kind of stood out. And of course, on the other side of the border is the town Mexicali. I mean, in some ways it's kind of a humorous name to have these two border towns with...

SAGAL: Calexico, Mexicali.

BURNS: Yeah, exactly.

SAGAL: I just got that.

BURNS: You just got that.



SAGAL: I'm like, oh, I see. So it's like you take the first half of one name and - oh.

BURNS: Yeah.

SAGAL: My whole life just snapped into focus now that I finally figured out what that means.


SAGAL: I mean we've described all these descriptions of you. I don't know if any of them are adequate because your band mixes all these genres of music. You're throwing in folk music and indigenous music and pop music. Are there any genres that you couldn't mix? Could you write like a good county smooth jazz song, for example?


SAGAL: Like something that Kenny G would sing if his wife left him.

BURNS: Oh wow.


BURNS: That would be really tough.

SAGAL: Yeah.

BURNS: That would be really tough, but it would be fun to try.

SAGAL: Right. We read an interview where you cited an influence for your "Carry to Dust" album. You cited the magazine the Economist.

BURNS: Uh-huh. Exciting isn't it?

SAGAL: Yeah.


SAGAL: I think that's great because it's little known but Justin Bieber's record is influenced by Foreign Affairs magazine.


PIERCE: They were just trying to get the gig at South By G8.

SAGAL: How does the magazine The Economist influence your music?

BURNS: Oh, you know, just the news that you don't usually hear on the daily newspapers or you read in the daily newspapers.

SAGAL: Right. So that...

BURNS: So those long transatlantic flights.

SAGAL: Right. And that leads to your great love song, "Oh, Baby, I Want to give you a Micro-loan."

BURNS: Yeah.


BURNS: Exactly.


SAGAL: You song was in "Collateral," the Michael Mann movie and you actually were in it. You played yourselves playing your own music.


BURNS: Yeah, that was fun.

SAGAL: It's a good movie. Isn't there a scene where Tom Cruise eventually goes into this club and kills a bunch of guys?

BURNS: No, he sends Jamie Foxx in to impersonate him.

SAGAL: Oh right, to impersonate. I remember that scene.

BURNS: Yeah, yeah.

SAGAL: Jamie Foxx who's playing a cab driver has to pretend to be the heartless assassin.


SAGAL: And you guys are in the background?

BURNS: We are, amongst several other musicians and artists songs that they're possibly going to use for the same scene. So we just kind of shifted.

SAGAL: Oh really?

BURNS: Yeah.

SAGAL: So like they were shooting the scene and like we don't know what song we're going to use. So now we're going to shoot the scene with you guys standing in the background.

BURNS: Right.

SAGAL: And then they got rid of you and...

BURNS: We just went to the back.

SAGAL: And they brought in another band to stand in front and pretend to play their song.

BURNS: Yes. And the hardest part was being on stage and pretending like you're playing and moving along to the music but not making a single sound.

SAGAL: Really? Because you can't...

BURNS: Yeah, and all the dancers too.

SAGAL: So the dancers have to - so you're pretending to play music but not making any sound.

BURNS: Right.

SAGAL: And the dancers are dancing, they're actually dancing but there's no music playing?

BURNS: You have to be really quiet.



BURNS: Because they're filming.

BLOUNT: We ought to do this show like that sometime.


SAGAL: All right, Joey Burns, we have invited you here to play a game that this time we are calling?

CARL KASELL: Brrr, baby, brrr.


SAGAL: So here we are in Tucson, the southern desert. This is where you make your music. We assume mostly you write songs about how it's a dry heat.


SAGAL: We thought we'd ask you questions about music from places where it's really, really cold. Answer two questions about cold music correctly, you'll win our prize, Carl's voice on the voicemail for one of our listeners. Carl, who is Joey Burns playing for?

KASELL: Well he's playing for Kiera and Mike Salkowski of Tucson, Arizona.


BURNS: All right, Kiera.

SAGAL: Kiera and Mike, a fine couple, I'm sure. Here in Tucson. So you ready to do this?

BURNS: I am.

SAGAL: First question: up in Greenland, the indigenous people there play their music on some unique instruments, including which of these? A: walrus tusk xylophones? B: polar bear bladder drums? Or C: halibut trumpets?


BURNS: Wow. Trumpets?

SAGAL: Yeah.

PIERCE: The brass section of Greenland High School marching bands must be something.

SAGAL: Yeah.


SAGAL: No, no, you hollow the halibut out, you blow on its lips, you move the tail to bend the note.


SAGAL: It makes sense.

BURNS: I've always what the sound of Greenland is while flying over there. I'm going to go with B.

SAGAL: You're going to go with B, the polar bear bladder drums?

BURNS: It sounds like a good...


SAGAL: All the native Greenlanders are going "Yes, that's right." You are right, it's polar bear bladder drums.




SALIE: Good job.

SAGAL: They also made a drum that was a polar bear bladder stretched over a drum frame. You beat on the drum frame with a stick. No idea how they convinced the polar bear to part with its bladder.


SAGAL: Ask nicely. Next question: over in Finland, the native people there play a kind of music called Joik, Joik music, but it's performed in various styles, including which of these? A: the mumbling style? B: the dance beat style? C: the monotonous style?


BURNS: Well I like the idea of the monotonous style, I mean it just sounds good, doesn't it, monotonous? Because then, you know that's a way of saying that it's just kind of droning, right? And I love drone music.

BLOUNT: Drone music doesn't even have to anybody playing it.

SAGAL: Piloting it.


BURNS: Monotonous, C.

SAGAL: No, it's actually mumbling.

BURNS: It is mumbling.

SAGAL: The mumbling style.


SAGAL: It's used in shamanic chants and basically sounds like REM.


BURNS: One of my favorite mumblers.

SAGAL: Absolutely. Last question: the Yukon Gold Rush led to some great music up there on the Alaskan frontier, including which of these songs? A: There are so many moose here, but none of them are you?


SAGAL: B: We'll be happy when the ice worms nest again? Or C: So hungry I ate the bear that was eating me?


BURNS: Wow. Man.

SAGAL: One of those was a real song sung on the Yukon Frontier during the gold rush.

BURNS: I'm going to go with B.

SAGAL: You're going to go with B: We'll be happy when the ice worms nest again?

BURNS: Uh-huh.

SAGAL: You're right.



SAGAL: How did you know?


SAGAL: Here is a sample of that classic ditty.



PIERCE: All together now.


SAGAL: There you go.


SAGAL: Music of the Yukon.


SAGAL: Carl, how did Joey do on our quiz?

KASELL: Well, Joey had two correct answers, and that's good enough to win for Kiera and Mike Salkowski.

SAGAL: Well done.


SAGAL: Well done. Calexico's box set "Road Atlas" is out now. Joey Burns, thank you so much for joining us here at WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!

BURNS: Thank you so much.


SAGAL: Joey Burns.

SALIE: Thanks, Joey.


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