Anatomy of a Song: Joey Burns of Calexico on “Bullets & Rocks”

Edge of the Sun out now via ANTI-

Apr 23, 2015 Web Exclusive By Joey Burns Bookmark and Share

A song is a chance overlapping of countless variables in an artist's life. Anatomy of a Song is a place where those variables can be dissected and examined. In this edition, Joey Burns of Calexico discusses the track "Bullets & Rocks" from their new album, Edge of the Sun, which was released last week on ANTI-. The Tucson-based band also features John Convertino. Collaborators on the album, which was recorded in Mexico City, include Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), Ben Bridwell (Band of Horses), Nick Urata (Devotchka), Carla Morrison, Gaby Moreno, Amparo Sanchez, multi-instrumentalists from the Greek band Takim, and Neko Case. (Also read yesterday's Anatomy of a Song post where Burns wrote about "Falling From the Sky.")

The song was written in April 2014 in a burst of spontaneity between John Convertino on drums and myself on electric guitar at WaveLab Studio in downtown Tucson. WaveLab has a lot of gear. There are instruments hanging on the walls, drums and amplifiers stored neatly stacked on shelves, and there is a mountain of keyboards in one corner. Everywhere you look there is inspiration.

This song was written on an old early 1960s Gibson ES 135 with flat wound strings and John playing his vintage 1960s gold sparkle Ludwig drum kit. There is a good rapport between the two. Good tone. Low end, grit and character. I am driving the signal of the guitar into a small Fender Princeton reverb amp, and it's leading the way to capturing a certain mood and drone like style that I am searching for. I find a guitar riff that makes me think of Tinariwen or some of the North African music from Mali and Ethiopia. I am not concerned about the details, only focusing on the vibe. I have no lyrics at the time of writing and recording the music. In some ways it's like walking into a dark room and relying on instinct and waiting for your eyes to adjust to find a glimmer. That stream of light can lead to a beam. The ear, like the eye, follows that line and the imagination takes over from there. It's best to not ask any questions, in fact it's best not to say anything and just let the feel guide you.

We settle on a performance and then add some electric bass provided by Ryan Alfred. It has a thick oily distorted sheen, which helps give the track an undeniable snake-like appeal. We send a rough mix to our guitarist Jairo Zavala living in Madrid, Spain. He's just returned from a trip to Mali and adds an incredible electric part that solos and weaves throughout the whole song. Our intuition is guiding the song pretty well. When Adrian Perez, harp player from El Paso, TX, visits Tucson to play some shows with a local Mariachi group, I ask him to come and record some harp on this song. I mention the Kora from Mali as a possible direction. Sergio Mendoza adds some percussion that helps add an earthy or dirge like feel. I start writing some lyrics both in the studio and at home. The trance like quality of the music and the droning element in the instruments influences where the words go and the images that arise from those words. I try not to get in the way of the subconscious and let the words flow. The first line starts with:

"The days are growing short, patience wearing thin, blackouts and broken trust leading to exodus, the future built on bullets and rocks."

As I look around the room at home my eye is drawn to the collection of books by local Arizona writer Charles BowdenBlue Desert, Blood Orchid, and Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields. His work inspires the direction and tone of the lyrics.

I return to the studio late spring to record a rough vocal part. And then we start performing the song on tour in July 2014 in Europe. We make some slight changes in the arrangement and key that the song is played in. It is in the end section of the song that we leave open to improvisation. Each night the song changes slightly and it's interesting to watch it evolve.

When I get home I hear the news of Charles Bowden's death and like a lot of people I am shocked that he died so young. He was only 69 years old. I reflect on his death and watch videos of him speaking. His voice, low and gruff, rumbles from the void and I recall the few times I got to meet him and talk. I am looking for a way to connect with the path that he was on and return to refining the lyrics of the song "Bullets & Rocks." I call my oldest brother John in Northern California and we exchange some ideas about what the song could be and where we could take the lyrics. John is suggesting we take the setting away from the Southwest with lines like "Narcos and Feds are all intertwined, you can leave your valuables here with me he smiled" and instead make it a more universal and global setting, but I decide to stay with the local themes. I do this to pay homage to Bowden and to all the writers of the Southwest.

When I begin recording vocals I am reminded of some of the Iron & Wine tracks we recorded for the In the Reins EP and I consider sending the song to Sam Beam to add harmony vocals. Sergio Mendoza encourages me to do it and see what he says. Sam sends back some amazing parts including an improvised refrain in the outro using the line "A future is promised to you" and we are all amazed in the studio upon listening back. The whole outro section is edited and made longer to give Sam's refrain, the trumpet parts played by Jacob Valenzuela, and trumpet solo performed by Martin Wenk more time to build and swell.

Looking back it's surprising to see how some of the songs on the new album have come about and what goes into the making of just one song. There is something special in the basic rhythm tracks that give space and lay foundation on which to add other parts on top. But really inside that initial performance there is a certain amount of magic that can only be found in the moment of recording. Perhaps it is part of the daily reminder of letting go of thoughts and letting the heart lead the way.


Calexico North American tour:

5/30 -- Chicago, IL -- Lincoln Hall (SOLD OUT)

5/31 -- Chicago, IL -- Lincoln Hall

6/2 -- Toronto, ON -- The Opera House

6/3 -- Montreal, QC -- Corona Theater

6/4 -- Boston, MA -- The Sinclair (SOLD OUT)

6/5 -- Washington, DC -- 9:30 Club

6/6 -- Philadelphia, PA -- Union Transfer

6/7 -- New York, NY -- Bowery Ballroom

6/8 -- New York, NY -- Bowery Ballroom

7/7 -- Los Angeles, CA -- The Regent Theatre

7/9 -- Napa, CA -- City Winery

7/8 -- San Francisco, CA -- The Fillmore

7/10 -- Troutdale, OR -- Edgefield Amphitheater (SOLD OUT)*

7/11 -- Troutdale, OR -- Edgefield Amphitheater*

7/12 -- Vancouver, BC -- Vogue Theatre

7/14 -- Jacksonville, OR -- Britt Pavilion*

7/15 -- Boise, ID -- Idaho Botanical Garden Outlaw*

7/16 -- Redmond, WA -- Marymoore Ampitheater*

7/24 -- Newport, RI -- Newport Folk Festival

*w/ The Decemberists


Submit your comment

Name Required

Email Required, will not be published


Remember my personal information
Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

write my term paper for money
September 8th 2015

Wow! Great article! This is so nice to read about different songs appearing. You are like diving into the circumstances and emotions that influenced musician and inspired him to write something amazing.

September 1st 2018

It was very well authored and easy to understand.Amal for Married Soon with our love