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