Califone Feel Like a Lanternfish
A shy, wide-angled phantasm lives in the house of Califone. Her veil is ripped and exquisite. You never see her face, but you know she's beautiful. Ramshackle anthems fill the rooms—experiments in psychedelic blues and folk music. Acoustic guitars, banjo, optigan, horns, and scratched-at electronics have chipped away along with the paint in a sound that's older and wiser than its years. Singer Tim Rutili sits in the light of a lantern, writing with guitar and piano. His voice is a solemn refrain, pensive and muted, containing a quiet, downtrodden distance. He stops to take in the sound of crickets in the trees outside and scribbles lyrics with an unsharpened pencil: "By the time I filter down to you, a finger for an invitation/Too sane to find the feel, cotton blood in a jewelry box." Califone's six song-based albums are dusky gems. The Chicago-based band has the ability to let songs write and play themselves. Earlier this month, Jealous Butcher Records rereleased Califone's Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People on vinyl. The double LP is complete with outtakes and unreleased material from Red Red Meat sessions. Rutili spoke from the foyer of the house. The floor was marble and cracked. He didn't say where the house was.
You wrote a film and an album called All My Friends Are Funeral Singers. It deals with a psychic. Do you know psychics?
I know some psychics and talked to a few during the writing of the songs and film. Hard to say when they're getting information from some magical ether realm and when visions bubble up from a collective unconscious mind. I think energy follows thought, and maybe we're all a little bit psychic. I wanted to make a film about change and the process of letting go of old ideas. A story of a psychic trying to free the ghosts that have surrounded her since childhood seemed like a good fabric for a story about making a real change and progressing.
How does doing music for a film differ from doing music for an album?
Making an album is about creating music that triggers pictures in the listener. Making music for a film is about enhancing the visuals and serving the story and tone of the film. I love doing both.
How long did it take to write the Funeral Singers script? How involved were you with the directing/filming? What sticks out about it?
It took less than a year to put together. We filmed it in 11 days at our friend's abandoned house in Indiana; there were real ghosts in there. That was a challenge. It was the first time I ever tried to tell a story or work with narrative. Making a film that looks like our music sounds was an amazing experience—it made me want to make more films and learn how to put together and take apart a good story. It changed the way I think about everything.
The first 300 copies of the Good Weather rerelease are translucent blue. Why translucent blue?
We're breaking it all down to elements these days. Clear blue just felt right. Those early Califone recordings were sky. Translucent blue is a nice kind of sky.
Explain how vinyl is pressed. Do you know where yours was pressed?
It happens at a factory. Canadians are probably part of the process. The first step involves the Canadians yelling into the large end of an enormous funnel, and the sound of their voices pushes a tiny knife in the right direction across a shallow pool of molten lava. It also involves melting things and letting them dry into the shape of a music that is represented on the plastic-like object—in my experience, it dries into the shape of a flat circle. I got sent an acetate to listen to on my record player. It had a smell that I did not mind.
You're writing songs right now. How do you write songs?
I eavesdrop quite a bit and write everything down. I try not to be too concerned with logic. I play piano as often as possible and sing in the car. Always be ready. I try to finish things that stick and not be afraid to throw some stuff away. Songs come sometimes, and sometimes they don't. I try to have faith that it'll come if I stay open and keep listening, and always be ready to catch it when it shows up. I try to stay receptive and keep my ears and eyes open and antennae up.
If you were an animal, what would you be? How would your animal life end?
Not that I'd have a choice, but I'd probably be one of those bioluminescent or clear-skinned fish miles beneath the ocean with a light on my head—like an anglerfish or a lanternfish. Because I feel like a space alien, and those fish look like space aliens. Sometimes I feel totally invisible, and sometimes I feel like I glow in the dark whether I want to or not. I imagine an anglerfish feels exactly the same as I do—sometimes we're happy with our weird little light and sometimes we wish we were a whale. How would life end? The light dims to black in extreme old fish age [laughs].
An optigan shows up on your albums. Tell me of your optigan love.
I absolutely love the optigan. We used it on Roots and Crowns, and "1928" and "Ape-Like" from Funeral Singers. The one we used belongs to Jim McGranahan. He got it at a yard sale in Indiana somewhere, and it had a few floppy records of classical and country that you could insert into its mouth to get it to play. It was a fucked-up, broken thing that had some serious tuning and speed issues. I remember inserting the country records into it upside down so it played the sounds backward. The optigan doesn't bend its will to what you want; it only does what it wants, when it wants—we all loved that thing, but it only worked when it worked. One day, Jim took it home because his wife liked it, and I never saw it again. Hopefully it's in the living room and not the garage.
If an optigan was an animal, what would an optigan be? How would its animal life end?
It'd be a giant owl. It would die when a plastic bone in its side cracked and pierced a lung. It would twist its owl head 360 degrees until it fell off. It would make a noise and burst into flames in an elderly couple's parlor on a Sunday after church.
You do live improvised soundtracks to silent films. Do you have a favorite film to improvise music for?
Water and Power by Pat O'Neill. That film makes any music or any noise make perfect sense.
What do you remember about recording the song "Pastry Sharp"?
There are two versions of it on this reissue, and all I remember is that it took years to make that song. We did a version of it for Red Red Meat's Bunny Gets Paid. I tried hard to finish it—the piano line was stuck in my head, but the words were terrible and just didn't feel right, so we threw it away [laughs]. Three years later, we recorded another version, which was a little better, but it still went in the trash can. A few years after that, Tim Hurley made a drum loop—that's him playing drums—and there was some noise of a car driving by outside stuck to the loop. Hurley gave me a tape of the loops, long repetitive pieces that he was working on at home, and I remember falling asleep to that tape. That loop felt really, really good—so slow, and the sound of the car was really nice once we forgot it was a car. The words came together and the piano line solidified after the drum loop appeared. I think the recording of it went from Hurley's computer to my cassette four-track to Warren Defever's home studio in Michigan to a really nice two-inch, 16-track tape machine in Chicago. That song ate at me for years.
Any plans to do more films?
I just finished writing a script about a soundman for a Japanese noise band on a tour of the States. I'm not sure when I'm going to make that one just yet. When I'm in Seattle next week, I'll be looking at some locations for another film that I'm making with some awesome folks. We're prepping it now and will shoot it next year. That's the next film project—we'll shoot most of it in Seattle.
You've said that when you wrote the first two Califone EPs, the door was open wide to accidental music and automatic writing. Define accidental music and automatic writing.
On those first two EPs, I tried to write words without letting my brain get in the way. To flow without worrying about what I was trying to say—to spill and make something out of the spillage. Accidental music works in the same way. We used toys and silverware and sleep deprivation, spilled out hours of sounds, and cobbled them together into songs. Probably the best example of this on Good Weather is "To Hush a Sick Transmission." I remember microphones plugged into guitar pedals and recording a large room; Brian Deck, Tim Hurley, me, and Ben [Massarella] dragging cinder blocks across the floor, hitting an old metal radiator, strumming the guts of a piano. Mostly just milling around the room and making sounds, leaving a lot of silence, listening and responding to each other for hours. Some of it was abrasive, and some was totally beautiful. I started hearing melodies in the overtones of this stuff and sang on top of it. It felt like we were doing things in the same way that William Burroughs wrote books or Jackson Pollock and Jean-Michel Basquiat made paintings. Maybe not as good as them, but the inspiration was coming from the same place. It was more about crafting a thing out of a moment and letting the thing be what it wanted to be without inflicting too much of our desire onto it. Sometimes the end result was pleasing to listen to. Sometimes it wasn't. It all felt very accidental and magic.
How did the Good Weather reissue come about?
Rob Jones at Jealous Butcher contacted us about rereleasing some of the old Califone records on vinyl. We though that was a good idea, and he is a very fine gentleman. Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People is a compilation of the first two Califone EPs—we put them together for a CD in 2002. The first EP came out in a small vinyl pressing but is long out of print and hard to find. We added unreleased songs from the last Red Red Meat recording session, which seemed appropriate because most of those songs were tossed aside and later, bits and pieces of them were strip-mined and found their way into Califone songs. We thought it was a nice way to let people into our weird, slow-process ooze, and it completes a document of a very fertile and exciting time for us in our music-making life.
We released Roomsound back in 2001 on Perishable, which was a label that Ben Massarella and I used to operate. We didn't have the funds to press up vinyl at the time. Eventually, Thrill Jockey took over the distribution of Roomsound, but it was only available as a CD and digitally. Thrill Jockey wanted to release it for the first time on vinyl as part of their 20th anniversary, and we were all for it. Roomsound is a special record for me—I feel like I opened up and found my voice as a songwriter for the first time on that one. Ben, Brian Deck, and I found a way to balance our obsessions with sound and noise with some history and melody. Having Roomsound out on vinyl feels like it's available for the first time the way it was meant to be. Having these records come out now is helping me get some good perspective on where we come from and how to get the next phase of Califone to stay creatively vital and survive in this weird world.
What's next for Califone?
I'm about halfway through recording a new Califone album, and I am happy to discover that I still totally love making records after all these years. I am thankful. Please pray for us. That's all I can say right now.