Tim Rutili stitches together the indie-rock tapestry to make old new again. Califone, incidentally, is currently on tour, and it includes a stop in BLURT’s hometown (Raleigh, NC) for the annual Hopscotch Music Festival.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
In the parched and ancient hinterlands of the Arizona desert, midway between Los Angeles and Phoenix at the dusty junction of I-10 and US 95, Califone songs appear to Tim Rutili like desert mirages.
Rutili moved from his longtime home in Chicago to L.A. several years ago, and routinely makes the drive to Phoenix and back to visit his son. And with freakish regularity, the desolate mining town of Quartzite — population 3,400; average July high temperature 108 degrees; motto: “The rock capital of the world” — is where inspiration shows up.
“I always get an idea when I pass through, either a major chunk of a song or an image or something,” says Rutili, dissecting some of the inspiration behind Califone’s ninth full-length, Stitches (Dead Oceans). “So usually I’m talking or singing into the phone recorder. I don’t know why it happens there — my friend does the drive a lot, too, and he’s like ‘yup, that’s where I get them, too.’”
He says his friend believes that because of the crystallization process intrinsic to quartzite, the area is an “energy center.” Rutili’s not much of a believer in crystal power and such, but the 10 songs on Stitches certainly do feel more a part of his new compass points. Stitches is the first Califone record — the first record of the Red Red Meat alum’s, period — that wasn’t made at or finished in Chicago and the band’s long-time studio space, the now sold-and-shuttered Clava Studios.
“Not having Chicago in the mix was aesthetically different and it did affect the music quite a bit,” he concedes. “Those dry landscapes and beaches and hills and shopping malls all made it into the music.”
There are signposts for that, such as cameos or production work by, respectively, pedal steel wizard Eric Heywood and long-time Calexico engineer Nic Luca, as well as recording sessions in Austin, Phoenix and Tempe. But Stitches is primarily a home-studio product with what Rutili calls a “pick-up, open-door” team of musicians contributing as needed —among them Red Red Meat cohort Tim Hurley, Califone percussionist Ben Massarella, Megafaun drummer Joe Westerlund, the Lofty Pillars’ Michael Krassner, and fellow Chicago émigré and L.A. transplant Griffin Rodriguez.
“This was very similar to the way Califone started,” he says, “doing a lot of stuff by myself and then when I had things prepared and ready, bringing in other people.”
Notably absent from the recording and touring lineup are multi-instrumentalist Jim Becker and drummer Joe Adamnik, regular Califone members over the last decade. Rutili felt unready to even discuss what happened with Adamnik, who’s drumming for the new Chicago band Bevel after a stint with Becker in Iron & Wine. Rutili talked to Becker recently about appearing on the next Califone record — one that the bandleader says is already in the works — but that for now the multi-instrumentalist wasn’t interested in touring.
But themes of change and rebirth flow throughout Stitches. “Trying to get born all over again,” Rutili’s cigarette-croak intones on the plaintive title track while pump organ, e-bow guitar and bowed bass drape the melody in billowy layers. When Califone’s trademark electronic glitches, blips and fizzles enter and mirror Rutili’s intention to “cut the connection, just to stitch it together again, again, again,” music and lyrics achieve ideal symmetry; the music heals wounds to make scars.
Mining the sonic tension between old and new has always been the draw — some would argue genius — of Califone songs. From the band’s first two EPs, now gathered together and recently reissued on vinyl as Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People, through 2009’s LP All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, what emerges in Califone songs feels totally organic; familiar and fresh in equal measure.
That’s balance built on the band’s well-tested knack for doling out just the right amount of tape loops, field recordings and electronics on a given track. Here, amidst the thrumming tempo of “A Thin Skin of Bullfight Dust,” Rutili dials up the feedback squiggles and echo whispers into some new sonic spectrum without sacrificing lyricism; on the sparse, acoustic-slide ebb and flow of “Movie Music Kills a Kiss,” judicious dollops of noise accent the melody like the last few cicadas of summer.
That alchemy where the old and new intersect extends to the lyric themes on Stitches, too. Within these songs mall rats and Moses rub shoulders, and Mary Magdalene and the Louvin Brothers’ Knoxville Girl share the same castaway’s fate. Rutili’s narratives show a craftsman’s eye for allusions and metaphors just this side of inscrutable, yet accessible enough for listeners to apply their own interpretations.
Of the many biblical allusions on this record, Rutili points to his fascination with archetypes. He’s especially intrigued by how ancient stories stay with us over millennia no matter how apocryphal, bizarre and surreal.
“Usually there’s something in the story where people can transpose this character’s journey onto their own lives and onto their own trip,” he says. “Why does that happen? I still don’t know, but taking that and bringing that into songs was pretty amazing and it really fed into them.”
Rutili extends that notion of contrasting eras to our tech-obsessed time in the languid blues-groove (and Roomsound-like) “We Are a Payphone.” While an acoustic plucks out a riff over feedback bursts, the singer wonders if it’s “too late to turn this around” or whether what used to define our humanity belongs to the past, as quaint a relic as public phones. If he’s accessed his inner Luddite, Rutili makes no apologies — those are some of the scars that come with age.
“That old guy crabbiness comes through on the record because I allowed myself to be more vulnerable than I ever have as a songwriter,” he says. “It may seem still seem abstract, but to me it’s very personal — a lot of the stuff was scary to let people hear.”
But then Califone has always really been a reflection of Rutili’s singular vision about how to transmute the past into the present. In the process, he’s been breathing life into genres —blues and folk, primarily — that too often get treated as sacrosanct museum pieces rather than living entities.
[Tour dates can be found at the official Califone website.]