Both on stage and on record, Califone are a band that has bravely and defiantly eschewed pageantry. Their albums are frequently cluttered with creaks and sonic blips, but are just as often notable for the silences and glacial pacing. Live, the band is frequently seated, hunched over their instruments, determined to wring the maximum effect out of every delicately planned note or beat. Califone don’t try to bowl every audience member over. Perhaps accidentally, Califone weed the inattentive out, whereas those who care about the craftsmanship of such finely wrought music are left dumbstruck in the face of such consistent, dexterous success.
That same virtuosity is brought to full bear on their newly released album and movie, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers. The plot of the movie centers on a psychic (Angela Bettis) who lives in a house populated by ghosts which, as Califone fans might imagine, offers the band many opportunities to demonstrate their well-honed textural prowess. Though the album and movie are meant to stand on their own, Califone are currently touring with the film, adding a live score.
Tim Rutili, former front man for esteemed blues-rock luminaries Red Red Meat, lead singer/songwriter of Califone, and the writer/director and co-star of All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, took time out to answer a few questions about the new film, the accompanying album, and why his band rarely moves around on stage.
SSv: So how are people responding to the whole live soundtrack/tour thing?
Tim Rutili: Really well. We just played our first shows at the MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Chicago, Saturday and Sunday, and people seemed to really love it. It was really good.
If I had to get up and dance around, I’m not going to be able to play because I’ll just make a bunch of mistakes…and feel like a dick
SSv: How long ago did you write the movie?
Tim: I started writing it last September. It came together kind of quick.
SSv: It seems as the band leader of Califone, you offer your band mates a lot of improvisational leeway. I can’t imagine you could be so lenient on a movie set. Did you find you had to be a little stricter as a filmmaker?
Tim: Yeah, there’s a lot more decisions to make. You can’t just say, “I don’t know. What do you think?” You have to be very, very decisive and keep an eye on everything when you’re doing a film. But with some of the actors, you have to leave room for people to be creative anyway.
You just have to make sure that they’re doing it in a way that’s right for the story, what’s right for the film, just like you have to make sure that the musicians are doing it in a way that’s right for the song. Some of the actors were improvisers. So I gave them the story, we talked, we worked through some things, and when the cameras were rolling, we kind of let a lot of people just go.
SSv: Do you prefer one method over the other?
Tim: I like both. I mean, I like guiding a project, but I also like working with people that I trust creatively and leaving the door open for new surprises.
SSv: Given your past with the Deceleration series, where Califone recorded live improvised soundtracks for film loops, I was sort of expecting the new album to turn out a little looser and more fragmented. What influenced the decision to make it more traditionally song-oriented?
Tim: Well, we wanted to make a record and a film that would stand up separately, on their own, so I just wanted to make sure these were great songs. This was more about songwriting than any other record that we’ve made. A lot of the songs were written at the same time as the script, so they’re linked together in a lot more verbal way rather than a sound or textural way. When we’re doing the film, we do get noisy and more textural. We just didn’t want to make the record like that. We wanted everything to be clear.
SSv: Your lyrics have been described as “cryptic” and “dreamlike” in the past. Since you knew you were attaching these songs to a movie, did you have to lessen your impulse to be cryptic or perhaps even amplify it for some reason?
Tim: No, I tried not to restrict what I wanted to do with the songs. I just tried to let the songs leak into the script and the script leak into the songs organically without being obvious or literal about it. That’s something I don’t like doing.
SSv: Well, I can’t wait to see it. I’ve always enjoyed your live shows mainly because it’s so dissimilar to what most musicians feel they have to do, you know? You guys don’t do much physically, but you’re very careful, and the audience gets to watch the band concentrate and focus, particularly Ben (Massarella) picking just the right percussion at the right time. Were you guys aware of how interesting that would be to watch? Was that a cognizant decision made as showmen?
Tim: I guess it’s more like watching people work and create as opposed to having someone perform for you. We think it’s a kind of punk rock approach to do it the way we do it. It never felt natural to go “HEY! HOW YOU ALL DOIN?! WE’RE GONNA ROCK YA!” and jump up and down and stuff. We’re all kind of music nerds and it feels better to just play. If I had to get up and dance around, I’m not going to be able to play because I’ll just make a bunch of mistakes…and feel like a dick. Lots of people are great at it. We’re just kind of nerdy.
SSv: Yeah, you guys have sort of become one of my favorite live bands by, I guess, subverting showmanship or just having your own definition of it.
Tim: The film shows are a completely different experience. It’s supposed to be entertaining. You know, there’s a story and there’s some sensory overload. We’ll be sitting in chairs, scoring this film, and you’ll be able to see this film, so it should affect an audience on a lot of different levels. It should be more entertaining if you’re not a music fan.
SSv: Yeah, I’ve seen you guys play in a variety of places and in a variety of ways, including in a bowling alley in Chicago maybe eight years ago. Is there a type of venue that you’ve felt you’ve had the best experience with or perhaps that you are best suited for?
Tim: I don’t know. There’s a couple of places…there’s a place we played in Germany with a basement bar. The sound system’s really crappy and usually there’s way too many people packed in there and all drunk. I really like playing there because you kind of have to slam people over the head for ten minutes, and then you can get real quiet. I like a drunken bar show every once in a while, but on this tour, its museums and theaters and places like that. People need to be seated to get the whole experience. So we’re pretty adaptable to where we play. We can play to just about any room, so that’s a good thing.
SSv: To return the album real quickly: you guys had Brian Deck produce this one again. Obviously, you have a good rapport and he knows how to record you guys but, as you said, your music is pretty adaptable. Did you ever think about getting a more conventional or clean producer, maybe someone who seems like an odd fit just to see what would happen?
Tim: Yeah, we’re always talking about it, but usually when we’re making a record, we get together, we’re in a room full of junk, and we kind of hunker down and do it. It’s a weird process and it’d be strange to bring in a stranger at this point to try and make sense out of that. We have our own language. So, I’d like to try it, but it would have to be someone really special, and we’d probably know pretty quickly if it’d work or not. If someone tried to change us into something we’re not, I don’t think any of us would stand for that.
SSv: Lastly, I really dug the reissue of Bunny Gets Paid. Any more Red Red Meat reissues on the way? Are there at least plans for reissuing the other albums?
Tim: I’m not sure. We’re kind of in Califone-land right now, but there’s all sorts of talk about more stuff to do. We had a great time playing some shows last summer. We had a really good time with it.