Off Camera

For Califone's Tim Rutili, there's no difference between a picture and a thousand words

Almost everyone can name some scene in some movie that left such a profound impression on the mind's eye that it caused him or her instantly to become aware of the overwhelming power of moviemaking techniques, even if it wasn't realized as such at the time. It's especially the case for postwar Americans, who encounter moving visual imagery on a daily basis. For baby boomers' parents it may have been Alfred Hitchock's startling shower scene in Psycho. For the boomers themselves, it could be the slo-mo machine-gunning of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde or the flash-editing that Dennis Hopper borrowed from Bruce Conner to give Easy Rider its trippy boil.

For the generation next--curious minds who grew up glued to television screens, video game and computer monitors and movies of all sorts--it could be anything from the water-level camera placement in Jaws to the first-person, behind-a-mask knifing that opens Halloween or the menacing dissolve from a severed ear to a close-up shot of black ants in Blue Velvet. For young people today, film terms such as pan, dolly shot, zoom, fade, wipe and match cut have become part and parcel of interpreting everyday life.

Whether it's different for everyone or just confusing, that's the way Califone likes it.
Stanley B. Hamilton
Whether it's different for everyone or just confusing, that's the way Califone likes it.

When he's not making music, Chicagoan Tim Rutili--the former Red Red Meat member and current leader of his new project, Califone--dabbles in filmmaking himself. "Just friends' projects, primarily," Rutili says. "I work with Jeff Economy, who's directed a bunch of music videos. We're working on a film right now."

What this film is about, however, has yet to be determined concretely. "There's no acting," Rutili says of the current project. "I did a piece for it. I don't even know if it'll be in it. We'll see what happens when we're editing."

That approach, making an organic whole out of individual parts, seeps into his music-making as well. It's not quite as drastic as the whiplash glitches found in electronic collage, but more as a narrative technique of a novelist creating mood, tone and textures out of lyrical phrases.

"Some things start out with a chord progression or a melody, and then you add words and flesh out the material," Rutili says. "That's what happened this time [for Califone's latest release, Roomsound, on the Perishable Records imprint]. I would come in with a guitar or a piano part, and then we'd see what would happen in the studio. Other things start with a sound or a loop, and you build a song around something that you might not even end up using in the end. But a lot of it is you start with something really skeletal, and you add and you add and you add and you add whatever you can, and then you see what you have when you're mixing the tracks. It's kind of like the film where we're going to be talking to close to a hundred people for it, and by the end of it we're going to have just one story. But a lot of people are going to end up on the cutting-room floor, just like a lot of guitar sounds and a lot of keyboard and a lot of melodies that you find in a progression."

In Roomsound, Rutili's writing-in-the-studio method has yielded a haunting, almost seamless album. Joined by former Red Red Meat band mates Ben Massarella and Brian Deck and a few Chicago veterans--such as Eleventh Dream Day guitarist Rick Rizzo, Tortoise and Brokeback bassist Doug McCombs and Waco Brothers violinist John Rice--Rutili has crafted an album of moody country, modern-day folk and naked rock. The barely there percussion pulse that underscores "Fisherman's Wife" provides the pegboard on which Rutili hangs sparely picked guitar accents and his yearning tale. A starburst of guitar and percussion timbres gives "Slow Rt Hand" a Grifters-on-Robitussin syrupy thickness. And the deliberate, twangy guitar pauses that pepper the down-tempo dirge "New Black Tooth" create a feeling of an impending emotional release that the song never permits, heightening the emotional impact of Rutili's lyrics.

Califone--which Rutili named after a manufacturer that made turntables and tape recorders for schools--has delivered a more startling statement with Roomsound than its first releases. Califone's early outings--1998's self-titled Flydaddy EP and last year's self-titled Road Cone EP--were built more around loops and layers than sparser, carefully considered moments. It was a sound that brought to mind Red Red Meat's last outing, the somewhat dub-inflected There is a Star Above a Manger Tonight, only with a more somber, country backbeat.

"That's just how that came out," Rutili says. "The new record is more playing and less computer. A lot of the earlier things, I started them all at home, so almost all those things started out with a four-track piece or a computer piece. Roomsound was made in the studio."

The surface similarities between Califone and Red Red Meat shouldn't surprise any longtime fan of Rutili's unique songwriting sense. Red Red Meat never so much broke up as much as it just took an extended hiatus. "We were taking a break from Red Red Meat," Rutili says. "We did a bunch of Red Red Meat shows in between now and then, but nothing ever really stuck. Everybody was really busy with other things. I stared working on a solo record for Flydaddy. And I started it by myself, and I ended up one-by-one inviting all the guys from Red Red Meat to come in and play on it and some other people. We tried it with a bunch of different people, and it just kind of evolved from there. And that became Califone.

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