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Hold the 'Fone

Melding the synthetic with the traditional, Califone dials in the sound of the past. Will you accept the charges?

These days, Tim Rutili is as busy as a one-armed monkey at a flea festival. He's not only juggling parenthood and the planning of Califone's three-week tour to the West coast and back, but also overseeing the operations of Perishable Records, a small, Chicago-based indie label that he co-owns with his drummer, Ben Massarella. Compounding matters right now, as he waits for his seven-year-old son, Ellis, to emerge from school (it's a Friday afternoon with rush hour looming), he's promised to answer a few pesky questions about his band and his creative process, an often redundant task in the life of any artist who'd rather keep to himself.

"I'm not a big talker," Rutili says via cell phone with distinct irritation. "I'm not a big talker at all. I don't like interviews, and I've had a bunch to do this week."

Despite all of the distractions, the 35-year-old frontman eventually opens up a little bit (against the background sounds of traffic and his restless charge) and offers a glimpse into his own linguistic rituals.

The machines in the garden: Califone decelerates on a new album.
The machines in the garden: Califone decelerates on a new album.

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With the Mighty Flashlight and DJ Zimmerman
9 p.m. Sunday, March 24
$8, 303-572-0822
15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street

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"I write a little every day," he says. "I write whatever pops into my head. Whatever comes out. I try not to think about it. I just write. And when it comes time to put a song together, I go through all my writing, and whatever the song wants, it gets. There's not a lot of thought that goes into what we do."

In light of Califone's electronic brand of gut-driven, roots-based music, Rutili's blanket statement sounds too simplistic at first. After all, crafting quiet hymnals about disaster, grace, dumb luck, dead folksingers and fear of machinery should require some amount of human brainwork, especially from a guy who studied film at Chicago's Columbia College. But Rutili seems more concerned with the physical properties of words -- their weight, texture, color and syllabic nuance -- than in assigning precise meanings to them. It's a philosophy reflected in the curious song titles that Califone songs often receive: "Porno Starlet Vs Rodeo Clown" and "Rattlesnakes Smell Like Split Cucumber" are just two examples. Consider a passage from "Fisherman's Wife," one of the cuts found on last year's exceptional full-length debut, Roomsound: "When you fall you fall like fists of snow soaked in turpentine Paul and Silas soaked in the sound/You're a razor in the silk aching to be found." Increasing the music's overall sense of mystery is Rutili's somber vocal delivery, like that of a mumbling sleepwalker. Set against buzzing tape loops, hollow pianos and raw, backwoods acoustica, the lyrics embrace all the logic of a dream.

"Whatever you hear in it, it's up to you," Rutili insists. "I like to leave enough room in there for the listeners to pick up whatever they want to pick up. Starting out with a meaning or an end limits the possibilities of what the music can be. Meaning emerges later, and it's usually more true and more pliable than if what you were making started out with some specific thing you wanted to say. It's more about listening and making decisions based on feel."

Califone's instinctive approach to folk first surfaced in Red Red Meat, an abrasive and bluesy rock offering that combined Massarella's percussive alchemy with the low-end rumbling of bassist/co-founder Glyniss Johnson, Rutili's longtime girlfriend who died of complications from AIDS in 1992. The band's first self-produced single, "Hot Nickety Trunk Monkey/X-Diamond Cutter Blues and Molly's on the Rag," was the first offering from Perishable Records. More important, the release caught the ear of Sub Pop Records, which signed Meat to a three-record deal at the height of the grunge movement. Reconfigured to include bassist Tim Hurley and slide-guitarist Glenn Girard, Meat issued Jimmywine Majestic in 1994, an album that recalls the noisy experiments of Sonic Youth and the narcotic blister of Neil Young's darker mid-'70s period. Following Girard's departure a year later, Bunny Gets Paid ushered Brian Deck's Moog synthesizers into the mix, blending electronic elements into an already dense racket of violas, broken instruments, new tunings and old microphones.

"We wanted to be loud," Rutili says. "We would play for hours, super loud, in a practice space, and that's how a lot of those songs came out. Usually it turns out better when you get out of the way and let the music build itself."

Released in 1997, There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight continued the quartet's half-conscious, tribal-tinged approach to music while it introduced lap-steel guitar, berimbau and a homemade instrument called a qwerty. With packaging that included eleven mock Mexican Lotería cards, one for each song, the album hinted at the meditative rustic dub that was soon to follow.

"Califone feels like a continuation of Red Red Meat," Rutili says. "We are just getting better at what we always did. Now things are built in a studio, where it's easier to use acoustic instruments and things don't have to be so loud. And we're older now, too."

Taking its name from a dated brand of industrial record player used in classrooms, Califone explores gently shifting rhythms that oscillate from lo-fi spirituals to slow Delta blues. Awash in guitar haze, computerized drones and junkyard percussion, the band's self-titled 1998 debut EP on Flydaddy replicates the feel of a Depression-era release while incorporating the smoother aspects of trip-hop or snail-paced trance. Capturing the understated beauty of Sparklehorse (and the psychic pain of Front Range folk outfits Danghead and the Lords of Howling), Califone draws inspiration from life's modern banalities while paying homage to its wicked past. "Dock Boggs," for example, celebrates the life of an Appalachian banjo player with enough mild dissonance and delay effects to keep the hellhounds at bay, if not permanently confused.

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