Interview: Califone’s Tim Rutili

Photo credit: Dusdin Condren

Photo credit: Dusdin Condren

MP3: Califone – “Stitches”

Califone, one of the great underappreciated acts to come out of Chicago in the late 90s, is set to release Stiches, its seventh studio album, next month.

The band — more of a collective, really — began as a solo project of Tim Rutili after the dissolution of his previous band, Red Red Meat. Over the last fifteen years or so, Califone has gained and lost members, and today, things have essentially come full circle for the band: Califone is more of a solo project with the help of a bunch of good friends. But no matter what the incarnation, the project has always adhered to its core principles of folk-rock experimentalism.

Stiches, which comes out September 2, is a truly remarkable work. Rutili has always had a way of reinventing himself and his sound, but with Stitches, he really outdoes himself. The songs sound like Califone deconstructed and reinvented, and that’s exactly what they are.

With the new album, Rutili penned more personal lyrics and decided to put them first, something he’d never done before. With the exception of longtime collaborator and friend Ben Massarella, Rutili also recorded many of the songs with new musicians. (On a sad note, Griffin Rodriguez, a longtime Rutili collaborator and brilliant multi-instrumentalist, recently suffered brain and neck injuries in a serious accident. Please donate to his medical costs here.)

The result of Rutili’s work is something that’s inherently listenable and refreshing, yet also compelling and thoughtful. It’s personal and complicated, both lyrically and musically. It’s Califone but it’s not Califone. It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard. You can (should) pre-order the album here.

Rutili and Califone are gearing up for a living room tour that kicks off on August 21 in San Diego. The San Diego show is sold out, but there are many more on the itinerary.

Rutili also released a crazy interactive music video via Tumblr that’s gotten press in USA Today, Mashable, and elsewhere. Go give it a look-see (note: some may consider it NSFW).

In anticipation of the album’s release and upcoming tour, we interviewed Rutili. In the wide-ranging interview, we discussed writing and recording, influences, Stitches collaborators, L.A. vs. Chicago, and more. Check it out below.

Tim Rutili at the Casbah

Tim Rutili at the Casbah

Owl and Bear: Can you tell me a little about how Stitches started? What was the process of writing for the album?

Tim Rutili: I just started writing. Mostly words and little pieces of melodies. I wrote a lot more than we ended up using on the album.

I drove in the car quite a bit and recorded into the phone. There was a period of collecting, and I wrote and recorded a bunch of stuff at home.

Owl and Bear: There are a lot of religious overtones on the album. Moses gets a mention, Esau and Jacob…

Tim Rutili: I read the Old Testament and a book about Moses. Thought about dying quite a bit and our absurd and surreal ideas of God and religion. Most of the stories in The Bible are brutal and weird and not comforting at all. I guess the world can be a bit mean and random too. Maybe that’s why old testament God was written as so cruel and confusing.

Owl and Bear: Do you believe in God?

Tim Rutili: Most of the time I don’t believe in God, but sometimes it creeps up on me and I pray and I don’t know who or what I’m praying to. I thought a lot about why the images from these stories have lasted all these years, and the strange ways we project or transpose our own lives onto the characters/archetypes in these fucked up bible stories.

I think all that stuff leaked into the songs and some of it ended up getting really personal and still feels pretty raw to sing. I’m still digesting the process I think.

When there was enough good stuff and it felt like some of the ideas were taking shape I started recording with Griffin Rogriguez in L.A. and Michael Krassner in Phoenix. I went to Austin and recorded “Bells Break Arms” and “Movie Music Kills a Kiss” with Craig Ross. So it goes.

[Former Red Red Meat bandmate] Tim Hurley came here and we worked together on a bunch of the songs. We hadn’t recorded together for about 10 years, so that knocked some screws loose and really helped shape the direction and sound of some of this stuff. I think it helped both of us to spend that time working together.

Owl and Bear: You moved from Chicago to L.A. a while ago now. How has this influenced your Califone work, if at all?

Tim Rutili: California and Arizona feels like wider space, softer, brighter colors, much more solitary and easier to get caught up in the hallucinations and blinded by sunlight and cloudless skies.

The songs and sounds on Stitches are soaked in that isolation: standing with your feet in the ocean feeling like a tiny bug on this planet, dealing with loneliness, self doubt, and trying to find some hope and faith against the weird, surreal, fake looking, beautiful background of this place. I feel like where I live now is the exact opposite of where I grew up.

I’m not sure I ever deliberately set out to write songs about anything in particular but once I get to a truthful spot in the process of making this music, the environment — whether it’s Chicago or the Southwest or winter or summer — always finds it’s way into the feel of the songs.

You can’t really help it even of you try to avoid it. Recording Stitches outside of Chicago forced some really necessary changes into the way I approach music and specifically these songs. Though, I’m pretty sure I’ll go back to Chicago to work on some of the next Califone recordings.

Owl and Bear: What do you like about living in L.A.? What do you miss about Chicago?

Tim Rutili: I love L.A.’s weather, the food, the beach, and the mountains. I have some good friends in L.A. too. It’s definitely a strange place. Sometimes it feels great to get out of here for a while, but I really do like it. Los Angeles is so huge that I’m always finding something new. It’s rarely boring and time feels like it passes a little differently here.

I do miss Chicago, but I get back there quite a bit. My family is there and I still have some good friends there. Chicago will always feel like home to me.

Owl and Bear: You did a living room tour earlier this year, and now you’re planning to do another one. What do you like about this touring model compared to the traditional route?

Tim Rutili: I love playing living room shows. Usually everyone attending really wants to be there and experience the music with you. You’re right with the audience and something very tangible is happening in that room. There is no barrier between the music and the audience.

Also, when the songs are stripped down like that, it becomes more about the singing and the words. I still love playing loud, but the living room shows are very special. We’re still figuring out how to do it and I’m not sure if we will do more after this fall, but for now, I really love to present the music this way.

Owl and Bear: I understand that this lineup of Califone is pretty different from the past few albums. Who were the primary contributors to Stitches?

Tim Rutili: Ben Massarella, Tim Hurley, Wil Hendricks, Eric Heywood, Jessie Stein, Joe Westerlund, Stella Mozgowa, Laraine Kaizer-Viazovtsev, Keith B. Kelly, Rob Doran, Tim Young, Robin Vining, Christian Keifer, Adam Busch, Griffin Rodriguez, Michael Krassner and Craig Ross all played various instruments, recorded and mixed.

Owl and Bear: Califone albums have been known for their layered arrangements and attention to sound, but your recent shows have taken more of a stripped-down approach. Stitches seems like a careful balance of both. Some of the songs, like the opener, “Movie Music Kills a Kiss,” have a very acoustic, personal feel. Other songs have electronics, horns, and even ghostly voices layered into them.

Tim Rutili: Some of the new songs were asking for a lot of space within the music, and on some we went for it and really sculpted the sounds.

There was an openness and vulnerability to these songs that seemed to ask for more intimate treatment and clearer vocals. There are still all kinds of textures and some outdoor recordings and random sound collage elements involved, but Stitches is just about the most personal record I’ve ever made so it seemed best to approach the production in a way that would bring out the songs and not obscure them.

On some of our older albums, there were times when it felt like we were constructing a beast out of scraps on the skeleton of these sometimes delicate songs. Recording Stitches sometimes felt like creating and trusting a moment and capturing a photograph.

Owl and Bear: Your music sometimes gives me a feeling of deja vu, where I sense something familiar, but I can’t tell what it is, or if I’ve heard anything like it before. Sometimes Stitches doesn’t even sound like Califone. I know that you have a very diverse musical taste. What were you listening to when you recorded it?

Tim Rutili: When I’m working on a record, I usually like to listen to music when I’m alone in the car or when the house is empty. Usually sounds from other records influence the recording process quite a bit.

I was listening to a lot of Tony Bennett albums. A lot of Neil Young too. Especially On the Beach and After the Gold Rush. I think that stuff leaked in to Stitches.

Owl and Bear: I love the occasional pedal steel and harmonica.

Tim Rutili: Eric Heywood played the pedal steel on “Moonbath” and “Magdalene.” Having him come in and play that way was definitely from revisiting those Neil Young records.

I listened to a lot of the Robert Wyatt record Shleep, too. And any Caetano Veloso and Leonard Cohen and Fennesz’s Endless Summer.

Also, The Luyas. I was listening to their last album quite a bit. Really great band from Montreal. Jessie Stein is in that band, and we were lucky to get her into the studio. She added some great vocal parts and some great noise touches and piano.

When I’m actually writing, I usually put a movie on in the background and write with that going on. I can’t listen to music too closely when I’m trying to put songs together. Sometimes hearing random things from someone else’s radio or the background music in a restaurant affects the songwriting more than if I put a record on and studied it.

Owl and Bear: You are the kind of guy who never stops working on projects. After the new album and tour, what’s next?

Tim Rutili: There’s another Califone album in the works and we’re prepping two film projects that I’d like to do in the next few years. Plus lots of painting and artwork making at home.

I’m looking forward to all of it. There is never a shortage of ideas but I never can predict the ones that will see the light of day until they’re rolling and it’s too late to stop.

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3 Responses to “Interview: Califone’s Tim Rutili”

  1. Tolan Shaw says:

    awesome interview. its always cool to see a little into the mind of songwriters/creators. thanks for the share!

  2. Bandy Lou says:

    Thank you for an insightful interview. I’ts apparent that something is different about this album, songwriting-wise, compared to past Califone albums. Very nice to get a look under the hood and see why.

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