One of the best things about working at Soundcheck is, well, the sound check.
When artists like Calexico arrive at our studio, they spend an hour and a half preparing to perform two songs — about eight minutes — live on the air. And behind the control-room glass, a lowly radio producer can observe these rock animals in their natural habitat.
Some musicians are nervous about the live broadcast, while others have done it many times before. Most of them use the time to diligently rehearse the songs they've selected. And then there's Calexico.
To call Calexico "laid-back" might be an understatement. Bandleader Joey Burns chatted with the show staff about the concrete floors in our brand-new studio (such floors are popular in his native Arizona), Red Wing-brand boots (worn by a producer) and a new Brooklyn restaurant (also called Calexico). When Burns and his bandmates settled in for the sound check, they were just as easygoing. To warm up, they improvised a song built around the name of our engineer, Irene Trudel.
Later, the band printed out lyrics to a Pavement song and riffed on a cover for 15 spooky minutes. When guitarist Jairo Zavala's echo pedal squealed like a humpback whale, Joey Burns calmly noted his approval: "That's bad-ass."
A Well-Rounded Band
Here's why Calexico can afford to kick back during sound check: Burns and his longtime musical partner, drummer John Convertino, have assembled a versatile crew of multi-instrumentalists and vocalists from their hometown of Tucson, as well as Madrid and Berlin. In concert, the full band can roar like Sonic Youth, whisper like Elliott Smith and work the crowd like Lil Wayne. And when the band appeared on Soundcheck after our celebration of Leonard Bernstein's 90th birthday, Burns talked at length (off-mic) about the great American composer and conductor.
Minutes before our broadcast — as its members waited in the hallway to our studio — Calexico nailed down the particulars for "Two Silver Trees." The arrangement for two guitars, piano and trumpet heard on Soundcheck is significantly different from the album version on Carried to Dust. We were also surprised to hear one piece of percussion: an old fire-alarm bell. Unbeknownst to us, trumpet player Martin Wenk incorporated this goofy prop (we ring it to kick off our weekly "Soundcheck Smackdown" debate) into his studio setup.
We also didn't expect Joey Burns to tell the story of his late friend Bill Wilson, who inspired the song "The News About William." You'll just have to hear it for yourself — it makes Calexico's performance of an emotional song even more moving.
Originally recorded Sept. 24, 2008.
Listen to the previous Favorite Session, or see our full archive.