Clip: Califone's music takes a supersonic spin
Califone's music takes a supersonic spin
By Joshua Klein
Special to the Tribune
Published October 20, 2006
One listen to Califone's latest and strongest album "Roots & Crowns"
(Thrill Jockey) and you're lost in a mysterious swirl of sound, an
amorphous place where the antiquated modes of the 20th Century (folk
and blues) collide with the tools of the 21st (high-tech computer and
A few more listens and the mystery deepens, and even the meticulous
liner notes don't provide much help. Prepared metaliphone? Zuni
rattles? Bronze fork? Bowed balalaika? Is this a rock record or a
"That was something on the wall of [percussionist] Benny
[Massarella's] parent's rec room for, like, 40 years," singer Tim
Rutlili says of the balalaika, prior to a sound check in Tucson. "We
thought it would be fun."
"Fun" is not necessarily the first word that pops to mind when you
hear Califone's menacing Americana, where an undercurrent of dread
courses beneath even the most hopeful and upbeat of melodies. But rest
assured, Califone's having a good time. If they weren't, the album
might never have happened.
Recording sessions for 2004's "Heron King Blues" were reportedly
strained, and while touring behind it the band's instruments were
stolen. Not long afterward the group decided a break was in order, so
Rutili moved to Los Angeles and put Califone on the back burner.
"The thing that affected [the album] most was taking some time off,"
says Rutili. "We realized we didn't really have to do this, you know?
And once you realize you don't have to do something, and you realize
you're doing it because you want to do it, it becomes a lot more fun."
Though refreshed and re-inspired (Rutili credits hearing the Psychic
TV song "The Orchids," which is covered on "Roots & Crowns," as a
vital catalyst), he still bristles at being labeled a songwriter.
"I don't really think of myself as a songwriter, like John Prine or
something," explains Rutili. "I think more like I'm making a record,
building textures and trying to make everything fit together. We're
making sound pieces more than songs."
To that end, Rutili and his bandmates entered the studio last spring
full of fresh ideas.
"I ended up making a list of all the things we wanted to do and hadn't
yet done, and that's kind of how this started," says Rutili. "We
started going down the list, but sometimes you start one thing and it
turns into something else." The song "Black Metal Valentine," for
example, began life notated as "James Brown Song." Aside from a few
funky drum parts and guitar riffs, the deconstructed track bears
little resemblance to its original namesake.
Enter producer Brian Deck (who played with Rutili in Red Red Meat),
notorious for his studio savvy and his way with strange otherworldly
"It's very easy to lose the forest and the trees both in an attempt to
align the dew drops on one leaf," stresses Deck. "We've all learned to
listen and evaluate what a given piece of music needs rather than
throw as much stuff into the mix as possible and then carve a song out
of the muck at mix time. `Roots & Crowns' for me is about how Califone
is able to evoke an impossible physical world that feels familiar and
believable and detailed, and how they do it through musicianship."
It also explains why Rutili felt compelled to list all those
aforementioned obscure instruments. "I think it's interesting for
people to look at that stuff," he says. "Some people might listen to
the record and think it's all coming out of a laptop. Which in a way
it kind of is. But all these sounds started out as organic, acoustic
sounds that were completely ripped apart in post-production, processed
after the fact."
For a lot of bands, a record is the end product of a lot of work and
experimentation, but for the listener keen on catching the act live,
the record is often just a starting point.
"That's when you start thinking of yourself like John Prine," laughs
Rutili. "You go, `OK, these are songs. We can perform them anyway we
want. We have these tools, in this room, in this situation--how will
we approach these chord changes and this melody?' That's a whole new
set of questions, and it's fun to figure out. We're on the road now,
figuring it out as we go."
And how have things been going?
"There were a couple of songs we didn't even think we should try,"
Rutili admits, "but we played them the last two shows. This record, I
think, as far as the songs and melodies go, is the best one we've
done. Approaching it just as songs, it's been pretty easy to get these
things going on stage. People hook onto that."
Califone with Angela Desveaux and Bitter Tears
When: 10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave.
Price: $10-$12; 773-276-3600