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Hold the 'Fone

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

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.

"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.

"I think being from a lower-middle-class white suburb of Chicago, being either overprotected or ignored as children, watching too much TV and coming out of that situation still wanting to learn things and live has influenced what we do as much as the music we listen to," Rutili says. "It's more about accepting tradition and where you're from, and breaking free from it without losing the familiarity and beauty that can be found in the aesthetic of it."

With the recent release of Deceleration One, Califone set its sights on a new kind of artfulness -- namely, its first improvised "soundtrack." Given Rutili's experience making videos with longtime associate Jeff Economy (the pair's credits include projects with Veruca Salt, the Breeders' Kelly Deal, Mudhoney and Wheat, among others), Califone's venture into combining sound and image in a live setting makes sense. The disc was recorded by a beefed-up eight-piece version of the band during a screening of Ladislaw Starewicz's 1934 puppet-animation masterpiece, The Mascot, at Northwestern University. (Otherwise silent, The Mascot stars a handmade, stuffed-dog puppet named Duffy who comes alive when his creator sews a teardrop into his chest; after a sick girl pleads for an orange on her deathbed, Duffy is willing to go through Hell to get it for her, battling other puppets, a garlic-headed clown and Satan himself along the way.) Rutili liked the results of the improvisation so much that he decided to package them as a full-length recording. Recalling the languid sound of Pink Floyd one moment and the chaos of Can the next, Deceleration One provides an instrumental alternative to the bizarre and religiously themed imagery that so often surfaces in Rutili's music.

"Some of my songs seem to play with the idea of the spirituality that I'm finding as I grow older, conflicting with the images and Catholic iconography that I grew up with," Rutili says. "Some of the pictures that pop into my brain are pretty bloody, with half-remembered stories of saints, miracles and bad answers from lazy priests and nuns." (For what it's worth, Rutili's abused namesake, Saint Timothy, was not only personally circumcised by Mr. Brimstone himself, Saint Paul, but was beaten to death with sticks by pagan mirthmakers for objecting to their lewd street dancing.)

"I think a lot of that stuff is really absurd and funny, but also frightening," Rutili says. "I love the imagery of it. The scary pictures in my head get tangled up with the feeling of love and an almost godless spirituality that I'm starting to feel in my heart: Sex versus love and brain versus body, and how they work together and against each other. Music is one of the things that stops the thoughts and noises in my head. It feels better, and it's much easier to live in the moment -- or sleep or fuck -- when that noise stops."

Asked if he believes in an afterlife, Rutili straddles the fence.

"I kinda hope that you just die, that you dissipate and become part of everything," he says. "I like being alive now, but it'll sure be nice to be gone someday. Heaven would be nice, too."

Rutili has had time to ponder mortality at a few of his non-musical gigs, namely putting pets to sleep at the Chicago Anticruelty Society. Along with stints as a janitor at a Greyhound station, a flower-delivery man and the manager of an off-track betting house (when he wasn't shoveling shit at the racetrack), he's gathered plenty of stories for a film that he's been writing. "If I wasn't making music, maybe I could work in a hat shop," Rutili says. "Like, 'Does that fit? How 'bout that one?' Yeah, I could do that."

Rutili and company make ends meet from their offices opposite Comiskey Park on the south side of town. From there, they run the band as well as a recording facility called Clava Studios, a 1,300-square-foot, full ProTools editing environment; Clava clients have ranged from Modest Mouse to National Public Radio. And to date, Perishable Records (www.perishablerecords.com) has issued roughly twenty releases, most of them from bands based in the Windy City. Perishable's roster includes Loftus, Him, Sin Ropas, Orso, Drumhead, Frontier, Fruit Bats, Out in Worship, Sinister Luck and the Fireshow.

 

Califone's current tour is keeping the band busy as well. Alongside Rutili's guitar, keyboard and vocal duties, Massarella will once again treat bedpans like a gamelan in his assorted battery of bangables when Califone hits the road. This go-round, Rutili and Massarella have decided to leave the samplers behind and head out with a fully human ensemble that includes bassist Matt Fields, banjo/fiddle player Jim Becker and second percussionist Joe Adamik.

"Everything is open-ended enough that we can do anything that we want at any time," Rutili says. "That's kind of why we don't play with machines anymore. We just play shows loose. It leaves more room when there's just people there. It leaves more room to actually explore the material when you improvise.

"I have no idea where we fit in," he adds. "I don't think I want to fit in. We are making our own little world and inventing our own language. I like it better that way."


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