Califone takes wing on Rutili's visionary writing


January 23, 2004


As the leader of the bands Friends of Betty, Red Red Meat and Califone, and the force behind the independent Perishable Records, Tim Rutili has been a mainstay of the Chicago underground rock scene since the late '80s.

Where many of his peers have either grown jaded or tired or run short on inspiration, Rutili continues to pursue his unique and ambitious visions with an optimistic (some would say almost naive) enthusiasm, and it generally yields rewarding results.

Califone's new album, "Heron King Blues," is the second to be released by Thrill Jockey (in the last two years, Perishable has backed away from releasing albums itself so that Rutili can concentrate on the band). The new disc is another brilliant, dark, mysterious, alternately soothing and disturbing mix of deep blues, Appalachian country and ancient folk music, filtered through a modern sensibility that's equal part punk and art-rock.

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Meanwhile, in his spare time, Rutili is working with his Perishable partner and Califone drummer, Ben Massarella, to produce several short animated films (an earlier effort was included on the enhanced portion of last year's "Quicksand/Cradlesnakes" CD), and they're trying to raise money for a full-length feature.

I talked with the usually reticent but always active guitarist, vocalist and songwriter as he geared up for Califone's record release show tonight at the Empty Bottle.

Q. Tell me about making this album.

A. It was a freak show! The others were like a cruise ship compared to this one. We were touring and we were like, "We've got two weeks; let's make an EP." And then things just kind of took over and it became a full album.

We went in with no songs -- absolutely nothing written -- and we just started playing and making noise, and I think we had all the basic tracks done in, like, three days. We had hours and hours of stuff within a very short period of time, so then we went through it all and picked the stuff we wanted to build on and work on and came out with this. While someone was doing a guitar overdub or a banjo overdub, I would go and try to write words. It was just like very little sleep, and when there was sleep, I was flipping my lid.

Q. Your music sounds so organic that people don't think that it takes that much angst to make it.

A. Angst is the word. Does angst mean fear? This was more just like facing it, like you have to look at it, anything you're afraid of, because it will just get right in your face.

Q. Where does this fear come from? Does the legacy of what you've recorded before weigh on you in the studio?

A. No. I just want it to be really good and something that I love. That's how we all look at it. We try not to imitate ourselves.

Q. The danger in doing improvised music is that you're never sure if you're done.

A. Yeah, and that's why we play shows -- because you never are done.

Q. Though you'd probably never use this term, Califone is really a jam band. But your style of jamming is much more raw and roots-based, and you rarely lose the basic pulses of the music.

A. Yeah, and it doesn't seem solo-based. It's about listening, and instead of losing the bottom, letting the bottom shift -- letting the drummer throw it around. Anybody can introduce a percussive element; anybody can introduce a melodic element. There are certainly not a lot of rules, and anything goes with anything.

Q. How has the group evolved over the last few albums and tours?

A. Well, [guitarist] Jim Becker and [drummer and keyboardist] Joe Adamik have become essential to the way we do things now. The way we were playing and stretching out live had a lot to do with "The Heron King" record. There was one song, "2 Sisters Drunk On Each Other," that came out of playing at the end of a song from "Quicksand/Cradlesnakes" where we'd just go off and wind up in this weird kind of Ethiopia. We were like, "We should play around with this idea," so we went and played the end of the song in the studio the way we were playing it at shows, and we got this other thing out of it. Those guys are in the studio now whenever we record; it's not just me and Ben and an engineer.

Q. Where does the title come from?

A. I've got this weird bird thing that I've had since I was a kid. These bird dreams were coming all through these tours; even before I'd fall asleep, I'd just shut my eyes and get the birds. I've killed a lot of birds in my time, accidentally, and for as long as I remember, I would get a physical repulsion from these things. I've started to write about that. It sounds like nonsense, but it really permeated the music. I was having these dreams where there was a humongous bird screaming at me, and I would get closer and closer and go, "If you want to kill me, kill." I get closer and I say this and I realize that it's a guy, a man.

I was reading this book called Claudius the God, and the same images were in the book. It's about Rome and one of the emperors, and when they were conquering Britain, that's how they won the war: They would use these Druid gods to scare the British, and at one battle, the Lord of the Marsh was the heron king. They sent a guy out on stilts and put a beak on him and scared the crap out of the enemy. So these images were just coming -- book and dream and everywhere.

Q. Have you figured out what this means in a psychotherapy sense?

A. [Laughs] It seems to mean, "Don't be afraid of your nature. Don't be afraid of yourself." That's what it seems like to me. In the archetypal way, birds can be messengers, and this seemed liked a trick to prove that everything you're afraid of is nonsense.

Q. Your lyrics can be so impressionistic; do the other guys in the band ever stop to ask, "What the heck are you talking about, Tim?"

A. No. I think they like pictures, too, and they're not all into obvious meaning. Everybody in the band likes to read books and likes poetry. Everybody likes riddles, and they know that these lyrics are a way that I figure out myself. I've gotten better at tapping into that weird, dark place, and now I don't have to get drunk to do it. It comes much better now from listening to the quiet.

Q. You've been doing this for a very long time now, but it still hasn't gotten old, has it?

A. I feel really inspired, and I feel like I'm getting better at this. I don't know why. I think that if it felt stale or I really had to struggle to do it, I wouldn't do it. It would be much easier to do something else.

Q. Do you think Califone has surpassed what you did with Red Red Meat?

A. I'm not that nostalgic. It feels like we're making better records, but it just seems like the same thing to me. It feels like the same band, from Friends of Betty to Red Red Meat to Califone. It's not like, "Now we're going to cut our hair and change our names and we will be completely transformed!" It's just been a steady growth in a way to access your creativity and become what you're supposed to be.