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

Off Camera

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.

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."


Califone with Canyon and Chris Mills

Gypsy Tea Room

May 14

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.

"Califone is mine, and Red Red Meat--I was the main songwriter--but it was ours," Rutili continues. "And Califone is not really a rock band at all. In Red Red Meat, no matter what we did, even if we did some weird country or some bizarre, extended experimentation or noise piece, we were still a rock band. Califone is not."

Yet both bands provide baroque environments for Rutili's stark, memorable lyrics. He has a way of folding stream-of-consciousness, blank verse into narrative forms that has always given both Red Red Meat and Califone an enigmatic verve, like Gregory Corso meeting Ralph Stanley in a working-class bar, that makes Rutili's songs ripe with elusive meanings. "I like to leave that up to the listener, what they're going to get out of any sort of lyrical imagery," Rutili says. "I know what it means for me, but it's going to be something different for everybody. And I kind of like that. Or it's just going to be confusing. And I like that, too."

On "Electric Fence," the ethereal opening track from the Road Cone EP, Rutili's coarse voice seethes "lit a blue tip match off the white of your eye, it's apples and cigarettes on a cold water drive," and then he proceeds to reel you effortlessly into his often surreal, personal world. It's an effect that recalls Tim Buckley, in which his lyrics make perfect sense in the context of the song but leave you bewildered on the page.

"Lyrics should be whatever you want them to be," Rutili says. "All I'm doing is throwing out little pictures that can mean anything. They really do mean something to me. But sometimes I don't know what they mean until years after. You know, you get pictures in your head, and you write them down. I write a little bit every day. And when it's time to put words to a song, I just kind of see what fits and what works, and out of that usually come themes and images."

Helping Rutili bring those pictures to life on this tour are Massarella (percussion), Joe Adamak (drums), Those Bastard Soul's member Eric Johnson (banjo, guitar and keyboards) and Matt Fields (bass). And it's a grouping that Rutili feels is perfect for what he's doing right now.

"I think we're going to keep this live lineup together for a while," Rutili says. "It's been working really, really well. We kind of mess around with structures a little bit. There's room to move around. It's pretty much different every time we play."

But Rutili is taking a healthy, relaxed approach to the future of Califone. "We're going to go do this tour and come back and probably do a little writing and recording and work on the film, and then we're probably going to tour some more. I don't know," Rutili says. "I'd like to keep going. I really enjoy playing in this band. We're just letting it make itself. That's kind of the attitude. It seems to work better that way. There's a little bit of pushing involved, but most of it is just letting it build itself naturally."


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