Calexico’s Desert Brushes


“I kind of hate to say that this is classic Calexico, but that’s what it is.” So says John Convertino, whose recalcitrance isn’t easy to understand. In fact, that’s one reason why his band’s new release, The Thread That Keeps Us, satisfies so well. After nine albums and more than 20 years together, this group has established an identity, which Convertino boils down to “just regular guys hanging out with people from Spain or with Mexican roots.”

That identity possesses an almost visual quality that’s absent from much of today’s new music. Much of it comes from Convertino’s priorities. Throughout The Thread That Keeps Us his drums have a dimensional presence, which he enhances through brush and cymbal work on a number of tracks.

His original influences didn’t forecast the priorities he would eventually embrace. “When I was a kid I told my dad I wanted to be a drummer,” Convertino recalls. “So he bought me two albums, the original drum battle between Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa [The Drum Battle] and Art Blakey’s Mosaic. He also had a record in his collection by Count Basie, called Basie Jam. I really loved that record and especially Louis Bellson’s drumming.”

Later, his attention turned toward the rock icons that budding drummers emulated, from John Bonham to, more esoterically, Aynsley Dunbar’s performance on the original cast recording of Jesus Christ Superstar. He was in fourth grade at the time and just beginning to explore his first drum kit.

More serious study ensued when his family moved from Long Island to Tulsa, Oklahoma. As his father, a jazz pianist, began building clientele as a piano tuner, Convertino took private lessons with local drummer Mike Bones. “When I was in fifth or sixth grade, Mike gave me basic rock beats from Carmine Appice’s Realistic Rock book. Then he asked me to pick out a song I wanted to learn. I chose ‘Roundabout,’ with Bill Bruford. He totally laughed but then he wrote it out for me.”

Convertino studied and eventually nailed Bill Bruford’s performance. This gives an indication of the young drummer’s budding style. “Most of all, I loved his snare sound.

It was so natural and open, with this ring to it.

Later on, when I started recording, I was like, ‘Hey, how come my snare doesn’t sound like Bill Bruford’s?’ Of course, my snare had all kinds of gates and filters and stuff on it. So I began fighting for a more natural drum sound.”

By this time, he had started playing with his family’s band, Stand Clear, backing the vocals of his mother, three sisters, and brother. “Our first real gig was at this convention before about 8,000 people. I’d only had two drum lessons. I remember putting the rack tom on the bass drum and it rolled over. I barely knew where the downbeat was. I think I pulled it together for an Andraé Crouch song, the only one we did where I used sticks instead of brushes.”

This also offers a clue as to where Convertino’s interests would take him. Brushes dovetail with his emphasis on a tactile, natural drum sound. Shortly after Stand Clear broke up, Convertino moved to L.A. and joined Howe Gelb’s band, Giant Sand.

“Howe is a very eccentric songwriter,” Convertino says. “He would start a song with an acoustic country feel. Then he would throw his acoustic guitar through a distortion pedal and make it loud. I’d drop the brushes and pick up the sticks. Then he’d stomp on the distortion box and we’d go back to acoustic. I’d drop the sticks and pick up the brushes.”

There had to be a better way to combine his love for brushes with the demands of this gig. He tried using Regal Tip Blastix but realized immediately that he preferred traditional metal brushes with wooden handles. Then one day while in Nashville, he accepted an invitation from Don Heffington to get together at the Grand Ole Opry, where the veteran L.A. session drummer was booked to back country singer Patty Loveless.

“Don showed me his brushes,” Convertino says. “They had rubber bands wrapped around the base of the brushes, so you could play softly and then move the rubber bands up for a rimshot or a backbeat. So I started developing that technique for myself.”

This approach to recording and performing, with its focus on texture and ambience, has been essential to Calexico since the band’s beginnings in Tucson. “We recorded The Black Light [1998] in a big warehouse. The drum sound was amazing. You hear trains and the wind and traffic noise, all kinds of stuff. And I love that!”

On The Thread That Keeps Us, Convertino draws consciously from lessons learned over the years. The 6/8 phrasing on “Voices In The Field” stems from drumming he’d heard on a Bob Dylan track whose name he forgets but whose structure he remembers. Similarly, the 6/8 groove on “Thrown To The Wild” is a slowed-down interpolation from an Elvin Jones recording.

A more pronounced cymbal presence furthers Convertino’s evocation of space throughout the new album. “I’d laid off cymbals for a long time,” he says. “That was part of the reason I loved the brushes so much; I could stay intimate with the snare. For years I didn’t use the hi-hat at all. It just seemed so loud in the mix. But I play hi-hat quite a bit on the new record.

“Growing up in the ’80s, I had to endure a lot of electronics and drum machines,” he sums up. “I’m not saying that’s bad. I’m just saying that those tones from vintage Ludwig or Gretsch drums inspire me. I don’t want to have to clobber my snare. I want to be able to touch it lightly and get a tone from it. I want people to hear what I hear when I’m behind my kit.”


Transcription by Andy Ziker

“End Of The World With You”

If you’re not familiar with the quirky, undefinable sound of Tuscon band Calexico, get on it right away. They are a national treasure and John Convertino’s nuance-filled drumming is a major reason why. On “End Of The World With You,” he spices up a repetitive kick-snare pattern with randomly generated off-beat open and closed hi-hat, a quick crescendo during the fill in measure four, and a syncopated snare lick in measure twelve.


BAND: Calexico

ALBUM: The Thread That Keeps Us


AGE: 54

BIRTHPLACE: Long Island, New York

INFLUENCES: Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, Louis Bellson, John Bonham, Jeff Buttrey,

Vernel Fournier, Jack DeJohnette, Paul Motian


DRUMS: C&C, vintage Gretsch & Ludwig

CYMBALS: Zildjian

STICKS: Vic Firth


HARDWARE: DW, vintage Ludwig