ALL MY FRIENDS ARE IN THE MOVIES Califone

Some
bands make music that’s merely cinematic in feel. And then others

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

A few years back I caught The Art of the American Snapshot exhibit in Washington D.C.,
a collection of anonymous photos taken from 1888-1978 that documented personal
lives through that simplest of photographic mediums. These were the sort of
shots you’d find in dusty attic boxes or amid estate sales: unknown people
mugging for the camera or caught in candid repose; families on vacations and
road trips; the young and old at birthday parties, graduations, backyard BBQs,
and funerals. What emerged was a portrait of America, but the anonymity of those
frozen moments encouraged the viewer to sketch their own narratives.

 

I had the iPod with me, and myriad choices for musical
accompaniment; Califone made the most sense. The Chicago-based quartet has been
crafting intensely visual music since forming from the ashes of Red Red Meat in
1998. But besides the visceral textures in the band’s collage of folk-blues
traditions, pop forms and digital alchemy, primary songwriter Tim Rutili’s
narratives read like stills where mood prevails and context is the listener’s
province. They were the right fit.

 

As Rutili put it during a recent phone interview discussing Califone’s
latest record, All My Friends Are Funeral
Singers
(Dead Oceans; reviewed here), “That’s what music is to me: You take
the feel of something and you strip away the something – you just have the feel
of it, you have the atmosphere, and it leaves it open so that the song can be
different things to you at different times.”

 

The open-to-interpretation nature and visual component of
Califone’s music follows. Rutili was a student at Columbia College Chicago’s
film school before band life intervened and he wound up “on tour for 15 years.”
But he’s always kept one foot in the visual arts world. In the ‘90s, he co-directed
videos with filmmaker Jeff Economy for Mudhoney, Freakwater, and Veruca Salt,
among others. The Deceleration One and
Deceleration Two discs collect
Califone’s live scores for silent films, and they’ve also contributed music to
Brent Green’s animated films. Rutili’s produced his own surreal short
documentaries, experimental films, and Califone videos, and in recent years –
after moving to Los Angeles
to be closer to his son – he’s added soundtracks for film and television to his
resume.

 

But even long-time followers registered surprise when Califone
announced that All My Friends Are Funeral
Singers
, the band’s sixth studio record and first since 2006’s Roots & Crowns, would be released
simultaneously with a Rutili-written and directed full-length feature film of
the same name. Both projects took just over a year from stem to stern, and though
they work as companion pieces they’re meant to stand on their own.

 

That’s not how things began, however. In August of 2008, Rutili
started collecting people’s superstitions – from one-line charms to paragraphs-long
incantations — for the next Califone record. Out of these superstitions, he
says, emerged a story that “sent everything in a new direction.” By
September he was writing songs and a
script that often incorporated the same characters and images.

 

The story, which Rutili jokingly insists we call “magic
realism,” is about an eccentric young woman who does séances and psychic
readings – “stuff that a roadside fortuneteller in a rural area would do,” he
says — and lives in a house full of ghosts who pass for family. That includes
a quartet of spectral noise-makers who live upstairs and are familiar to us as Califone:
Rutili, drummer Joe Adamik, multi-instrumentalist Jim Becker, and percussionist
Ben Massarella.

 

Rutili filmed on location about 90 minutes outside of Chicago in Chesterton, Indiana, inspired in part by the legend of a reclusive woman
who died under suspicious circumstances in the 1920s and is said to haunt Dunes State Park
on Lake Michigan (chronicled in the song
“Alice Marble Gray”). Using an experienced film crew and a Chicago-based cast that
included cult actress Angela Bettis (Girl,
Interrupted
) in the title role, they shot the film in 11 days at a cost of
$30,000.

 

“When this project started we thought we were going to make
the thing using cell-phone cameras,” says Rutili, “but as it went on it just
got more and more pricey.”

 

Rutili likened directing to “taking an army into battle — you
have to keep your eyes on every aspect of it.” Compared to making an album,
being on a film budget meant less exploration or time for things to “bake and
take different directions.” But that didn’t preclude on-set improvisation. For
example, the script called for a character named Buñuel to
wander the set carrying a Super 8. Rather than just use the camera as a prop,
Rutili filled it with film on a whim and wound up incorporating footage that Buñuel shot.   

 

“You still have to be open to surprises and receptive to new
ideas,” he says.

 

Those have always been defining traits in Califone’s music,
where chance and experimentation play fundamental roles in the studio, and live
sets always include open spaces for improvisation. Rutili’s songwriting, too, seems
open to inspiration from any fertile source; some of these tracks were written
while he immersed himself in Frank Capra and Luis Buñuel DVD marathons.
The superstitions that first fired his imagination also made it onto the record
in the form of instrumental interludes like “Snake’s Tooth = Protection against
Fever and Luck in Gambling” and “A Wish Made While Burning Onions Will Come
True.”  These augment what Rutili calls
the “the strongest batch of songs we’ve ever done.”

 

There’s plenty of evidence to back that up among the 14
tracks on All My Friends Are Funeral
Singers
. Long-time producer Brian Deck dials back his most aggressive sonic
experiments, and Rutili opts for a cleaner (though by no means antiseptic) and
more melodic song-oriented approach throughout – more “Vampiring Again” (from
2003’s Quicksand/Cradlesnakes) or
“Orchids” (the Psychic TV cover from Roots
& Crowns
) than, say, the drone-flavored experiments of 2004’s Heron King Blues. Once the record and
film were inexorably linked, Rutili wanted to subvert the notion that the music
would have to be more atmospheric and soundtrack-y.

 

“There were things that we got meticulous on like we did
last time around, but a lot of this was just emptying out and leaving these
songs as bare as possible,” he says. “There’s still some textural experiments
and still some crazy noises and little touches on there like we usually do, but
for the most part it was, ‘let’s make a song record.’ We didn’t try to fuck
with anything that didn’t need to be fucked with.”

 

The songs that emerged still blend the band’s familiar
traditional styles and instrumentation – guitars, drums, piano, fiddle, banjo –
with less typical fare like optigan, prepared piano, stylophone, baritone
ukulele, steel drum, bass clarinet, and ring modulators, among other
instrumental exotica. Deck’s singular effects still color enough of the
proceedings to make his warm production touch instantly recognizable. But the
pop perfection of “Polish Girls,” the urgent hook that drives “Funeral
Singers,” the Beggars Banquet-like
guitars of “Buñuel,” the
counter-harmonies on the elegant processional “Krill,” and the dreamy
soundscapes of “Evidence” all manage to expand the band’s template while delivering
Califone’s most accessible set of songs yet.

 

Their music has often been described as cinematic, but never
before have the music and film elements been this ambitiously integrated. The
film isn’t scheduled for official release until Fall of 2010, but Califone have
been screening it at select shows and performing a live, interactive soundtrack
for the movie. If the prospect of his first film, a new record, and new-fangled
live shows seems daunting, Rutili is nonplussed. This feels like home to him.

 

“I feel like I’m getting back to where I started,” he says.
“This is what I wanted to do when I was younger, and I just put it away. Now
I’m getting back into it, and it’s a good thing.”

 

[Photo Credit: John Adams]

 

CALIFONE
LIVE DATES:

 

October 26      The Southern   Charlottesville,
VA*

October 27      The
Earl           Atlanta, GA

October 28      WorkPlay
Theatre       Birmingham, AL*

October 29      The
Basement Nashville, TN

October 30      Bear’s
Place    Bloomington, IN*

Dec 3               Husky Union/Univ.
of Washington  Seattle, WA

Dec 4               Rickshaw
Theatre       Vancouver, British Columbia

Dec 5               The
Mission Theater    Portland, OR

Dec 7               Great American
Music Hall  San Francisco, CA

Dec 9               Hammer Museum
       Los Angeles, CA

* – denotes a film performance

 

 

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