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Published: 2009/03/11
by Mike Greenhaus

Calexico Moves from Dylan To R.E.M.

Michael Dorf has worn many hats in the music industry over the years, from Knitting Factory founder to European festival promoter to Jewish Music activist to City Winery visionary. In addition, for the past few years Dorf has organized multi-band tributes to music luminaries like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen on no less auspicious New York stages than Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. His latest tribute show will take place at New York’s Carnegie Hall on March 11, featuring the music of R.E.M. and benefiting music education programs for underprivileged children. As in years past, the event is expected to feature an eclectic mix of musicians, ranging from Patti Smith to The Apples in Stereo to Vic Chesnutt & Elf Power to Rachel Yamagata to Guster to Kimya Dawson to Ingrid Michaelson to Bob Mould and Hootie & the Blowfish’s Darius Rucker.

Holding the entire evening together will be Tucson, Arizona-based indie rockers Calexico. Since recording their debut album in 1996, Calexico principles Joey Burns and John Convertino have attracted hipsters and hippie-leaning festival goers alike with their unique brand of southwestern rock music. Yet, at this week’s Carnegie Hall benefit the group will focus on R.E.M.’s storied canon, the event’s rock-steady house band and collaborating with a number of the evening’s special guests. Below Burns discusses his own love of R.E.M’s music, Calexico’s jazz philosophy and how Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam helped him craft the evening’s setlist.

Let’s start with the basics: How did you get involved with this R.E.M. tribute?

I'm not exactly sure. It might have something to do with the Bob Dylan concert that we did in association with the Todd Haynes film about Dylan I’m Not There. Michael Dorf helped put on that show, so he saw us as being kind of a house band for that event. I was actually thinking about it today, like “Hey how did we get this gig?” I really don’t know, but I’m very happy because I sure like a lot of the people playing. I listened to R.E.M. growing up quite a bit, and R.E.M. helped introduce me to one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Vic Chesnutt.

In terms of R.E.M.’s music, do you have a favorite album or stylistic period? The band’s music has changed so much over the years.

Well, I gotta say, from working on this tribute concert, I've been going through a lot of the different material, and I'm noticing more of a kind of consistency than I expected in a lot of the songs especially, musically. Mostly it has to do with all the chord changes, so that was kind of an interesting discovery I thought. I kept on searching for songs that were in the minor mode and there's not a whole lot except for maybe a few because we do like to do a lot of songs in a minor key. But I found that there was this kind of beautiful consistency throughout their records in regard to a kind of persona.

R.E.M. has definitely taken on different shapes and dimensions and paths, which I kind of appreciate them doing. They have also been involved in films and explored some other avenues. Their new record, Accelerate, was really nicekind of minimalist and stripped down. Peter Buck also takes off a little bit more, and I always thought he was one of my favorite guitarists because he was such a pillar in the sound of their songs.

R.E.M. also has a lot of room for Mike Mills to do some really beautiful melodic bass work which I'm not sure is mentioned enough. And of course it leaves plenty of room for Michael Stipe’s lyrics and Mike Mills’ beautiful background harmonies. Marshall Crenshaw is going to do one of the songs off the new album, so we've been listening to that a bunch. Calexico is kind of becoming a rhythm sectionor the stripped down version of Calexico that is going out to New York.

Can you tell us a bit about how this event will work? Did you chose the songs you will be playing or did the artists you are collaborating with sculpt the setlist?

I believe the artists have chosen all the songs. I think they just wanted to get them well in advance so that there are no songs being repeated. When you look at their span of songs, there are tons to choose from. So I've been going and trying to find the more obscure songs, whether it was like a song off the new record like “Until the Day is Done.” That’s a beautiful song off the new album that has a couple quotes here in the beginning of the lyrics from William E. Burroughs and Sinclair Lewis about the kind of state of where things have been going here at home in the U.S. in a socio-political consciousness. They've always tapped into that sub-consciousness, and I know they've done a lot of work reaching out for different social causes and political rallies and I applaud them for doing that consistently and with a lot of honesty and integrity the whole way through, even if it was more of covered like kudzu in some of their earlier work. I always felt like there were these connections to this deeper partthis deeper kind of consciousness that was not just about themselves or just about simple topics, but tapped into something deeper something like a universal heart or something.

What was the next step in your collaborative process? Did you connect with the musicians at home before the show?

That's right, we've just been connecting online. Some people like Bob Mould, as you might imagine, are playing very straight-forward covers. So online you get some informationall I ask for is the key and the tempo and any ideas on arrangement and that's all really. We're very quick and adept at just kind of changing up and just going with what the singer wants to do. I think a lot of it is going to come down to that one day of rehearsal the day before the concert at Carnegie Hall.

I think that's what the kind of beauty of these things is it's all just kind of in the moment. And it's all about what is happening now, and even though it's a tribute for songs that have been written in the past, it's more about this kind of modern take. This is the part where you really see some of these artists shine when they're able to take something and just ad-lib or improvise on the spot, at Carnegie Hall. And hopefully they'll know the songs, or bring lyrics so that they can read them. But I kind of am looking forward to those moments that allow for the musicians and the artists and the singers to kind of breathe, and kind of find their own way and make their own stamp on some of this materialwhat it means to them or has meant to them in the past, I think it's going to be exciting as to where these things go and we're all about allowing for any kind of departure from original form.

Were you able to choose a song for Calexico to play?

Yeah, oddly enough, we've been asked to do our own songs, which is great. I think we'll choose one from Fables of the Reconstruction. I sent a text message to my friend Sam from Iron & Wine, and asked him “Hey what song do you think we should do?” and he answered with two words: “Wendell Gee.” I remember fondly sitting backstage in Vienna at a venue, and we were just sitting there for several hours and it was a warm summery day and we just played a bunch of old R.E.M. songs and it was great.

I’ve always been a big fan of R.E.M.’s more jangle-pop 1980s work. You don’t see a lot of bands replicating that type of music these days.

Yeah, it's interesting, I remember talking to some older friends of mine that were all huffy about the fact that R.E.M. was borrowing so blatantly from some of the bands like especially The Byrds, but I feel like there was something completely different especially with the combination of these unusual characters, especially Peter Buck and Michael Stipe. They just seem such an odd pairing and a wonderful one at that. I really appreciate the eclecticism they represent because they all seem unique in their own righteven Bill Berry. I always felt like he was such a great drummer and the fact that he went on to become a soybean farmer is great. They've had a lot of different kind of paths that they've represented and musically there is that birth connection with the jangle and Peter Buck. I loved the fact that he re-introduced and clung to that 12-string.

Their later albums encompass similar themes. For instance, sometimes Mike Mills play an accordion on some songs and Peter Buck played the mandolin. That always connected them with not only this contemporary modern rock band but also to this rootsy traditional side of things. Most definitely, Michael Stipe’s voice has this kind of deep kind of southern drawl and croon, and it kind of taps into something that goes deeper into the core of where a lot of this kind of tradition of music comes from. It's mysterious and it's hard to put your finger on it and his voice and obscurity of his lyrics was appealing to a lot of people, especially my friends and I growing up listening to music.

R.E.M was originally pegged as a college-rock or alt-rock band, but in many ways they were a folk-rock band too.

There's definitely a sense of like the 80s melancholy, and there's tons of reverb on the backing vocals so it gives this spooky vibe to some of the songs. I gotta say too, just arrangement-wise, with the songs, the chords, the progressions are really beautiful. They're beautiful songs that to me kind of tap into this connection to the basic structures of folk music as well as rock, they're able to blend those worlds of folk and rock together really well. The use of piano on Murmur is so fantastic, there might be a little bit more of that on maybe the second record, but I was listening back to some of these songs last night that we’re going to be doing with people like Bob Mould, and I’m still blown away by how unique that sound and production was on that record. I think it really stood out. Adding that piano really helped give a sophistication and a recognition to what we had heard before in the past, but yet they were kind of taking all these tools and pieces and reassembling them in a way that I thought was really unique and creative.

It will be interesting to see and to talk to people and see what their experiences were rehearsing for this show. I am also interested to see how this all effects R.E.M. if they are there. I think you can really see this kind of connection in the sense of community, with musicians like Patti Smith who influenced a lot of the bands on the bill. HDo;s’s Bob Mould is playing and it will be very interesting for me, especially because I worked at S&P Records for a couple of years. And I remember hearing one of my favorite bands, The Minutemen, playing on tour with HDlater with R.E.M. At the time all of these bands were really getting more recognition and it was an exciting time, so it will be interesting to see especially with some of the kind of younger artists therejust to see the connection of where the music has spread and influenced.

You mentioned Vic Chesnutt earlier. Do you know if you will be able to perform with him at Carnegie Hall?

I think he's bringing Elf Power and they're going to do their own thing. They've been on tour for a while, but I'll definitely be celebrating with him. Somebody sent a message like “Hey Calexico should try to get Jim James out to do a song.” But it's not my gig, so I can't really be inviting people, but I'd like to. With somebody like Jim James you can hear a connection in his style of the vocals to Michael Stipe and the music of R.E.M. I guess Louisville and Athens aren't that far apart from each other, and I'm not sure if it's really safe to say these geographical distances as any kind of reference, but there tends to be this kind of thread through a lot of the bands music from the states to some degree I guess.

The night before the benefit Calexico is playing its own show at Michael Dorf’s new venue, City Winery. Is that going to be a straightforward Calexico gig or a mini-R.E.M. tribute?

Yeah, we haven't even rehearsed for that! I kind of like the fact that we're not going to rehearse for that and just kind of see what happens, and I think we're going to invite whoever wants to come from the event and see who can fit in and rehearse their song. I just got an email from Chris Stamey, saying “Hey are there going to be extra guitars around, I'd love to sit in with you guys.” So now I'm going to check out a couple dB songs, and see if they want to work some covers or something like that. It's really fun to listen to some of these songs. Marshall Crenshaw wants to do one of the big songs from the new record called “Supernatural Superserious” and immediately I hear that song. I love Peter Buck's guitar playing, and I instantly kind of fall into interweaving my own lines with his playing. So I'm kind of looking forward to playing with Marshall and seeing what I can come up with. I feel a real kindred spirit to Peter Buck's playing but am trying not to do the same thing. I will try to encourage people when I meet them to do their own thing, find their own key, find their own tempo, anything they wanna throw in there that could connect them more to the song than just being a karaoke band.

When we agreed to do the City Winery show we said we better list it as John and Joey otherwise people are going to be expecting trumpet players and pedal steel and upright bass and all that. And I'd love to do that in Carnegie HallI'd love to have that facility, but again, this is not about us, this is more about supporting the company which we really love doing. And I think in some ways it's kind of like a fine art, taking a different approach on your own thing. It's all about listening you know and really finding out where that singer or performer is going, and why they chose that song and what it means to them. And that's why Marshall is great, he kind of sent a short email that said something about how he wants to do it in the same key and the same structure as them, but play it with a little more nuanced approach, quieter etc. He was saying that the lyrics talk about personal vulnerability and so he kind of wants to shed light on the lyrics as opposed to the rocking. I think that's what is going to happen here at this event, there's going to be more focus on the lyrics and the core of what makes a band like R.E.M. so wonderful.

It is really exciting to see such an eclectic mix of bands on the same stage.

I think that's one of the things that has really excited me about certain festivals that I've seen over the last five or six yearsthey seem to be following more of this European model that is just more eclectic. A lot of the festivals we've played in Europe and Canada may call themselves a jazz festival or a rock festival, but there's music from around the world: different styles, different instrumentation and I think that has definitely spilled over to festivals like Bonnaroo here in the states. That is one of my favorite festivals and it has spread word of mouth. That is something I loved about punk and indie music in the 70s and 80s. REM was definitely one of those bands that was about DIY and followed the whole “act local, think global” thing.

It's interesting how we're just going back to being more self-sufficientdo it yourself. Grow your own herbs, grow your own garden in vestibules, support the locally grown or organically grown produce. I think that's kind of a theme where we all have to deal with it at some point, and certainly doing an event like this is great. For me especially re-connecting with something that I really felt was kind of true and honest and doing these songs of a band that represented that turning point in my life. I'm quite excited, I feel really comfortable and really relaxed about it even though my friends are like, “Oh my god you're playing New York, Carnegie R.E.M.'s probably going to be there!” Yeah, but I'm cool with that. Maybe it's just me because I've been doing this for a while. I love these kind of opportunities, especially these kind of venues, when you hear quotes from great classical musicians like “The stage sings itself, you don't have to do much.” So what I liked about the email from Marshall Crenshaw is that he said, “I'm gonna do this new song which is kind of this arena-rocking, barebones kind of rock song.” He wants to kind of take the quieter side and take the advice from people that say that it is best to kind of allow for the hall do its own thing rather than try to convert the hall into an arena.

After this benefit, your next New York gig is an opening spot for Andrew Bird at Radio City. Not a bad succession of New York plays.

Yeah, I guess we'll be going to the Garden after thatmaybe New Year's Eve 2009! [laugh]. Yeah, it's pretty phenomenal, I gotta say, we've been pretty fortunate to play some wonderful places both overseas and at home. Lincoln Center was a dream, my God, we played a show there a couple years ago and that was really enjoyable. John played with brushes and he has that connectionwe all have that jazz approach to being players but also kind of arrangers and soloists but kind of try to breathe together as you would in a jazz ensemble or something of that nature. I been an accompanist with Victoria Williams and Giant Sand, so I have been able to play all sorts of rooms like Wetlands and CBGB’s. So playing in the kind of places we've been talking about, I think people will say, “Wow, this band sounds better here than they do at say CBGB's.”

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