Califone: Rustic, Ramshackle, Avant-Americana

califone-28In his most recent press photos, Califone’s Tim Rutili appears alone. His former core of backing musicians have moved on, but Califone’s rustic and ramshackle sound remains very much unchanged.

doc080mockup30.11183Stitches is Califone’s seventh studio recording and one of the best releases of 2013, Released on Dead Oceans, the record brings Rutili back to a more solitary state of songwriting. Leaving the familiar confines of his Chicago studio for the first time, Califone’s founder wrote and recorded his new collection of songs on the road and fleshed them out with various friends and co-conspirators along the way in California, Arizona and Texas.

Gathering source material on his phone, Rutili turned to his field recordings to create a patchwork of sound collages and musical mosaics to help fill the void left by his veteran collaborators.

Even with Rutili’s new cast of musicians and recording locations, Califone retain their signature sound of avant-Americana. Gentle and haunting, their abstract balladry and genre deconstruction merge swampy blues with muddy country and dusty folk with the unmistakable pluck, slide and sustained hum of guitars join together with layers of obscure percussion and atmospheric electronics leading sparse arrangements to culminate in crescendos of controlled chaos while rusty, disjointed lyrics come to life as a cinematic montage.

We were lucky to catch up with Califone creator Tim Rutili late last year to talk about what has changed and what had remained the same in Califone’s unique sound and prolonged greatness.


NG: I noticed you appear alone in your promo photos for the new album. Is there a reason for that? Is the band still together?

TR: No, we haven’t played together in a long time. I made this record with other people. Benny still played on it, but he’s not going to be in the touring band anymore. Jim and Joe aren’t playing with us anymore. Jim might do some recording on the next record, but Joe and I aren’t together anymore.

Was it after the Funeral Singer shows? Did the extensive touring get to be too much?

Yeah, those guys joined Iron and Wine. They joined that band so they could start making some money. But it’s not that weird. I made my first records up until Roomsound by myself, so it’s nothing that crazy of a change.

But there are lots of other people on the record. Who are they? I read that this record was made more on the road than in your traditional studio. Is that true?

This wasn’t made on tour, but it was made in different places.

Did you get people in each place to play on the record?

Yeah, pretty much. There were a lot of people that I’ve played with before in some way or another and there were people that I wanted to play with in one way or another. So it was mostly playing with friends or people that were hanging out or near us anyway.

Who is in the touring band this time around?

The last tour was me and Will Hendricks and this next one… you’re in Boston… it will be me and Will and Rachel Blumberg and Joe Westerland.

BG-43Since you said the album was written while traveling, did the traveling aspect have an unmistakable effect on the music? Did the imagery come from these places, or did it just provide a new way of doing things.

I think it was just a new way of doing things, but the imagery of the places– what places look and feel like– you can’t help but have that leak into the music.

Can you talk about the theme of “stitches”? Is it even a theme?

I don’t know. I just knew this record was called Stitches right when it started. It just felt like making a big quilt to me. Every piece was very different to me and very different than the last. It felt like making a collage from different places and different times. It felt like “stitches”.

As far as stitching goes, you have been known to put sentences together that seem odd from an outsider’s perspective. Do you want to talk about your method of juxtaposing and word choice in songs?

Yeah, I think I know what you’re talking about. I think the same thing happens with the way sound is used as well. [Silence]

So you don’t want to talk about it?

Well what’s your question?

When you approach a song lyrically how do you go about choosing how to put these abstract images together? Does it mean something to you when you read through it?

Yeah, it means everything to me, but it means less on a page than it does coming out of my mouth. A lot of songwriting is about articulating things that maybe don’t make total logical sense. And treating lyrics that way and treating music that way can make an intangable feeling or a feeling that you can articulate, relatable. You know what I mean? So I guess that’s what I have always been shooting for with words. Also when I have tried to make too much sense or write a song that is specifically, specifically about something, I didn’t like it. I like it when things are open and there’s room to come in. And room to transpose yourself and your listener into it, and live in it for a little while.

Were these songs generally written around the same time?

Some of the bits and pieces were written earlier, but most of the things were put together pretty much a year ago, between last summer and March.

With the last record you had the accompanying movie. Do you traditionally think cinematically when you’re choosing your words and sounds, or was that just a separate entity that time.

No they’re all part of the same thing. With Funeral Singers, both the songs and the script for the movie were built around the same time and written around the same time. With this, I think all of it is visual. The way the words are, they are all pictures, you know?

BG-15Do you want to talk about your placement of religious imagery in your artwork and song lyrics? What is the significance in the way that you use it?

Well, I’m just sort of fascinated by those characters. I’m especially fascinated by how they are still part of our consciousness. We still read those books and they’re really fucking weird characters and really weird stories, you know. And people kill for those things. Trying to read about those things and trying to understand it for myself, I don’t really have religion. I don’t know if I really believe in God. I don’t know. I don’t know. But I think about it sometimes. I think about it and it comes through in the music. It was fun to think about these characters as timeless travelers with ordinary problems. I mean the story of Moses on the record… Moses going through 40 years of whatever it is, insanity, and then getting to where he’s taking these people and having God saying they can go in but you have to stay here and I’m going to kill you now. [Laughs] Everybody fucking thinks they are that. Everybody has this character where you go through this big fucking ordeal and you can’t enjoy it. You know, that is very relatable to me and it was interesting to explore the intentions of that within a song.

I know you make music videos for other people and your new video is very interesting and original. Were you part of the making of the video for your single?

Well I was talking to the director about it, but it was all him. We were throwing ideas around, but that’s the one that seemed the most powerful.

califone1Looking back was it too big of an undertaking doing the Funeral Singers shows with the live movie soundtrack? Did it get tedious with the repetition night after night? Did it wear on you?

I enjoyed it a lot. It was fun and I think it was a great way to present the music and to present the movie. It was a lot. You’re in Boston?

I saw one in Boston and one in Portland as well.

Those were two really great shows. I thought it was a cool thing to do and I’d like to do something like that again some day.

Was it really strange to play along to the movie night after night? Assumedly you were playing the same thing every night.

Yeah, it seemed to evolve over time. We had beginning cues and ending cues and there were sections that were open to improvisation which I think made it interesting. But I know those other guys were TOTALLY sick of it.

Are you in the process of doing anything else cinematically?


Anything you wanna talk about?

Nah. There are things I’m writing and preparing to do. There are music video things that I’m doing now. I just did a video for David Yao, the Jesus Lizard singer. That should be out there next week. I have a few feature film ideas that have to do with music that I wrote, and I’m just trying to find ways to do them.

It seems like every record you have some strange new instruments that you use. Was there anything especially peculiar this time around?

Not so much. There were strange sounds though. There were some sounds that we recorded outside. We used a hurdy gurdy, that was pretty strange. There’s one song with the sound of rain on a roof. There were collage elements, but I think not being in Chicago—we had our own studio for years—not having that place with all that stuff in it did effect the way this record sounds. I think it effected it for the better. We needed to take a different approach to some of these songs. We had our bag of tricks, but this time we had a new bag of tricks.

BG-38So was this source material gathered with you and a taperecorder?

Yeah, not even a tape recorder, but a phone. An iPhone. Doing vocals in the car while driving.

How does that work when you go into the studio and your putiting that onto tape. Is it hi-def enough to work its way in?

It’s not hi def at all, but it works. A lot of time it’s instinctual. Can you hear dogs barking?

I haven’t heard them yet, but I’ve been trying to go back with headphones and get the background sounds a little more.

There’s the sound of my neighbor’s dogs. There’s one part where I was walking around Chinatown and I just shot video with my phone. There was this weird Chinese opera practice. It’s instinctual. There are always things that catch our eye and our ear and our phone is always with us. When you’re making the thing in the studio it’s like lets see what this sounds like here. Or lets try this there. There is a lot of trial and error. Not a lot of logic or planning in respect to the songwriting, but when you go into the studio you use what you have.

When you go into a song do you think of what you’re going to use or is it something you just build layer by layer?

I just build it as it’s happening. Sometimes I just really wanna make sure a sound gets in there or I wrote it on this guitar and I need this song. This record was more about songwriting and singing and the right words. The way the record was approached was more about how to bring out the songs and how to bring out the words.