With a career stretching over three decades now, Tim Rutili's music with Califone landed heavily on my best friend and I somewhere in and around 2004 or '05, as geeky sophomores in a Toronto highschool.
In the CD sleeve cases we held so dear, albums like 2003's 'Quicksand/Cradlesnakes' took on the life of modern classics, holding the same weight as other landmark records of the era like Wilco's 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' and Broken Social Scene's 'You Forgot It In People'.
Looking back, listening to Califone at that time, I imagine we must have felt some sense of aged wisdom taking root in our young lives, a band whose sound is at once folky but gritty, haunted yet familiar. Rutili's enigmatic lyrics often seem stitched together line by line, like a patchwork quilt, each song, each piece its own mysterious vignette. The pull of Califone was undeniable; an old soul, wise beyond its years. Like a pair of weathered, trusty leather boots. We donned them often.
With at least 8 albums to date, along with an assortment of EPs, compilations and related releases through the years, there's a lot to dig through. Not to mention Tim's more recent solo records and Red Red Meat, Califone's former incarnation. Despite the quantity and remarkably consistent quality of all the output, the band have always flown somewhat criminally under the radar.
Last year, I was surprised to hear an indie-pop version of their song "Funeral Singers" on a Spotify playlist — a cover by Sylvan Esso with a play count currently standing at just over a staggering 16 million plays, from a group with 2 million monthly listeners. For comparison, the original by Califone (about 17K monthly listeners) has less than 800,000 plays on Spotify. Shrug if you will but it feels like something of a generational overlap to my ears; a crossover hit no one expected.
Meanwhile, Califone's latest album, Echo Mine, was released in February and came after the longest stretch since a proper LP, about seven years. It's a tad shorter than most their former records and with less classic "songs" per se, roughly 50% of the record exploring the eclectic soundscapes that always made them so much more than just a folk-rock band.
Further still, the record is capped by two versions of the same song called "Snow Angel", one stripped down and acoustic, the other a true standout moment in their long career, guitars ripping gloriously through the mix, along with their trademark blend of vocals, drums, pianos, instrumentation, all coalescing to stunning effect. The music video as well is a must-watch; a contemporary dance piece shot marvelously, adapted from the performance that was made in collaboration with the record's creation.
Today, Tim has kindly shared with AM a moody mix that goes deep with vintage selections and some quintessentially American music; a healthy dose of classic sounds, soul, jazz, solo piano, as well as forays into foreign territory. The earliest recording included, from delta blues artist Willie Brown, dates back as far as 1930. One passage even wraps a pair of Bee Gees songs around two guitar-laden "Mountain Experiments" from Tim himself. It's a trip.
We hope you listen in and please enjoy a Q&A with Tim below.
Loaded question but I want to ask; how are you doing? How have you been keeping this year?
TR: That is a super loaded question... Hanging in there. Healthy and thankful for my home, my family and friends. Mostly trying to keep on trying.
Where is home for you nowadays? The song 'Night Gallery / Projector' from Califone's new album has the line "Somehow I lost you, Chicago / Somehow I never had you, L.A" which gives me the idea you're not quite settled between the two?
TR: I live in Los Angeles. It feels like home. Chicago feels like home too. I still spend quite a bit of time in both places and I have deep love and annoyance for both places. Sometimes I feel totally ungrounded. Sometimes I’m ok in my own skin wherever I am.
As someone who struggles with writing (clearly!), I was wondering if there's any insight you could give into your own songwriting process? You have quite a vivid, unique style which is why I ask... I imagine it as stories or images you collect and collage together to the feel of the music, or...?
TR: Not sure I have any insight. I write at least a few words every day. Visual images, thoughts, stories, dumb jokes or pieces of overheard conversations. Sometimes they work their way into songs — I try to trust my gut and not think about it too much until I can’t help it and can’t think of anything else.
Sometimes words come first and I build a song around a block of text. Most of the time I have some melody or a sound stuck in my head and a song gets constructed around that. I go long periods without finishing anything - periods of collecting fragments. Sometimes songs come easily. Sometimes an idea kicks around for years before I finish it. When I’m in songwriting mode, it feels immersive, I go to sleep with it and wake up with the puzzle of it and it is difficult to find brain space for anything else. It is usually a good way to spend time but it can be unpleasant too. I know the older I get, the slower I get. I am trying to be ok with that. Right now I am trying to write songs that can work on solo piano and guitar or with a noisy band. Songs that are durable and specific in their bones. It’s a constant fucking puzzle. Fuck it. Don't be clear. Be yourself.
Having you been reading much? Any books or authors that come to mind you might recommend?
TR: The last books I read were 'Communion' by Whitley Strieber, 'Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968' by Ryan H. Walsh, and 'Passport to Magonia: From Folklore to Flying Saucers' by Jacques Vallee. Right now I’m reading 'A Wild Sheep Chase' by Haruki Murakami.
Let's talk about the music. I love that Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou album. And not one, but two Bee Gee tracks! I also love their early Beatles-aping stuff. And the "Mountain Experiment" pieces here, I'm guessing that's you? Where were those recorded?
TR: Yeah. I love all that stuff. The Ethiopiques solo piano music is absolutely beautiful and always hits the spot.
I suspect the Bee Gees may be Human/Alien hybrids. There’s probably no way to prove it and they might not be aware of the alien DNA in their family and in their music. But I am pretty certain of it.
Mountain Experiments were part of a film scoring project that I worked on with Michael Krassner last summer. I’m playing guitar and Laraine Kaiser-Viazovtsev played and arranged the strings. I recorded the guitar at home in LA. Laraine recorded her string parts in Finland. The film is The Evening Hour. It is a dark and beautiful American story directed by our friend Braden King. Not sure when the film will be released. We recorded hours of music with some amazing musicians. I hope people get to see the film and hear more of this music someday.
The mountain experiment pieces were not used in the film but I really like them and they seemed to work well next to the Bee Gees.
How about Willie Nelson. I've never known enough of his material personally. Was he someone whose music you grew up with? How about other seminal records from your youth or high-school, college? Anything like that you can recall or point to?
TR: Willie Nelson is an eternal archetype unto himself — he was always around. Always on the radio and singing with the muppets... I always liked him but never dug too deep until my 20s or 30s. I still love listening to the Red Headed Stranger LP.
High school and college for me was... Grateful Dead live show tapes. Learning how to play Neil Young and John Prine songs on guitar, Black Flag, The Fall, The Replacements' 'Let It Be'. Talking Heads. Meat Puppets, Husker Du, Dinosaur Jr and other SST records. James Brown. Lots of stuff. My ears were always open to anything. A lot of my formative musical experiences happened in high school with my friend Tim Loftus. He turned me on to a ton of music that I still love. He still sends me music today. Though, sometimes it's just a reminder to revisit the old Genesis and Peter Gabriel records. Or that David Crosby solo record, 'If I Could Only Remember My Name'. I remember being in high school, smoking too much pot and hearing that for the first time. It definitely put a permanent dent in me.
Okay, silly question but I'll try anyway — a desert island disc for you?
TR: I can’t pick just one. Maybe the Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street? I probably wouldn’t listen to much music out there on the island.
How about new music — anything you've picked up on in the last year you've enjoyed? You could always plug your recent solo record with Craig Ross...
TR: Before the pandemic, I went to a house show in Malibu and saw my friend Lindsey Verrill's band Little Mazarn. A totally beautiful and inspiring experience. People should pick this up [on Bandcamp]... I love the space in it and the sounds and voices. Beautiful stuff. Reminds me — it'll be great to play shows with my band in houses filled with people that want to experience music again. I am looking forward to that day. Plus, the two albums I made with Craig Ross are some of the best music I have ever been a part of — 10 Seconds To Collapse and Guitars Tuned To Air Conditioners. Also, the most recent Califone record, Echo Mine, released right before the quarantine. There’s a lot going on on the world and we didn’t get to tour on these records. People might have missed them. I hope people find this music and dig in.
Last but not least, anything you want to go out on? Anything new you're working on that we can expect or that you're looking forward to?
TR: I am working on a vaccine.