More than a rehash


June 1, 2001



If ever there was an artist in desperate need of one of Pete Frame's Rock Family Trees, it's Chicago's Tim Rutili.

Though some stalwarts of the local underground rock scene no doubt remember him from his first band in the late '80s, Friends of Betty, Rutili is probably best known for his work through the '90s with Red Red Meat.

Perpetual also-rans in the city's alternative sweepstakes--they eventually jumped from Seattle's Sub Pop Records to A & M, though they never actually released anything on that label--Rutili and his bandmates produced three albums that stand on a short list of the most poignant music ever made in this city: 1994's "Jimmywine Majestic," '95's "Bunny Gets Paid" and '97's "There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight."

Taken together, this incredible body of work forms a link between the rawest blues and dark-night-of-the-soul rock such as "Exile on Main Street," "Tonight's the Night" and "Big Star Third." Or, as Sub Pop majordomo Jonathan Poneman told me back in the day: "I hear Highway 61 intersecting the Rust Belt. I hear this weird migrated electric Delta blues. But I also hear this timeless Chicago power-pop sensibility."

Red Red Meat began to unravel in the wake of the A & M debacle and bassist Tim Hurley's departure (a key member of the group, he married and moved to Germany, where he now leads the band Sin Ropas). But if anything, Rutili has been busier than ever, reinvigorating his own label, Perishable, and working with a number of recording projects and live bands, including the on-again, off-again Meat, Califone and Loftus.

"When we started to play music, we never thought we'd get anywhere with it," he says. "Then, all of the sudden, you start getting attention. When a lot of that business stuff comes into it and there's more at stake, you have to realistically look at what you're doing and why. And we've always just been doing this because we love to do it."

Though other players come and go, Rutili's primary support team remains solid. Percussionist Ben Massarella is the man who brings order to the chaos, adding the perfect colorings to Rutili's otherworldly soundscapes and helping with the business end of Perishable. Brian Deck drums and captures it all on tape, as well as running Clava Studio, which shares space with Perishable's offices in a former garage a few hundred yards from Comiskey Park.

Following a series of three EPs, this core trio recently released "Roomsound," its first full-length album as Califone. (The group takes its name from a children's record player, and all three members are young fathers.) Since this same troika was also involved in Red Red Meat, you're forgiven for wondering how the new band is different.

"It's really nebulous, I know, and it's confusing to me, too," Rutili says. "I guess Red Red Meat is Califone, except that Tim is missing, and when we play shows, Brian's not there--he's the studio member. But Red Red Meat was always a collaboration. Califone is the thing that's been less of a collaboration than anything else. It's my project."

Where Red Red Meat songs once blossomed over languid, never-ending jams, Califone tunes are much more focused, originating with voice and guitar on Rutili's home four-track before being fleshed out in the studio with anything from banjo, violin and upright bass to computer loops, samples and synthesizers.

"I think I have the ability to write really good pop songs, but it's more important to me to write things that I really want to hear," Rutili says. As for the old jam method, "We just don't have time for that anymore." (In addition to his musical endeavors, Rutili is still active directing videos, and he's working on his first film.)

Lush, hypnotic but also entrancingly melodic, "Roomsound" finds Rutili's familiar twisted blues-rock and stream-of-consciousness lyrics evolving toward something deeper, more uplifting and more spiritual. It's akin to Brian Wilson's awakening circa "Pet Sounds"--or maybe Captain Beefheart's mutation on "Trout Mask Replica."

"I feel pretty good," says Rutili, now in his mid-30s. "I feel energetic, but I also don't feel like a chaotic kid anymore. We're getting more peaceful as people, so that's helping. But then again, I've got about 30 insane rock songs that I don't know what to do with yet, so there may be another band popping up. Or maybe that's going to be a Red Red Meat record without Hurley."

Uh-oh. Factor in that there's a different version of Califone for live performances (onstage, the band consists of Rutili, Massarella, bassist Matt Fields, drummer Joe Adamik and guitarist Eric Johnson), and the need for Pete Frame seems greater than ever.

"We're actually trying to figure out how to do one of those family trees for the Web site," Rutili says, laughing. "But I'm not so sure people care. The ones who like us just listen to everything. We've got people who are fans of the label now who will buy anything that we do. They kind of realize that it's all coming from the same place--our own little Island of Misfit Toys."