Chosen One: Califone
Interview with Tim Rutili, Califone.
“This album feels like stitches. Like a healing to me. Like accepting scar tissue. Like a quilt.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
A soft strum of acoustic guitar and delicate slide guitar serve the opening notes to Califone’s latest sprawling opus, ‘Stitches’ before Tim Rutili sings “A ghost of you comes clear as day” on the glorious prologue ‘Movie Music Kills A Kiss’. As ever, Rutili’s poetic words are implanted gracefully on a canvas of subtle details as a beguiling atmosphere is masterfully created. ‘Stitches’ marks Califone’s finest work to date, having somehow surpassed its 2009 predecessor ‘All My Friends Are Funeral Singers’ (also released on the ever-formidable Dead Oceans label). Several moments later on ‘Movie Music Kills A Kiss’, gentle piano notes and organ interludes ascend into the gorgeous terrain of vast sound. Before you know it, Rutili and co. have reeled you in, and the journey of ‘Stitches’ has — in a fleeting moment — lurked you in deep and far.
The album’s title-track epitomises the bold, creative spirit that permeates each and every pore of ‘Stitches’s beating heart. The cinematic gem is built on a brooding organ melody, performed beneath a divine ebb and flow of warm percussion, drums, electronics and bowed bass. The backing vocals by Jessie Stein further heightens the ambient dimension of ‘Stitches’, possessing a healing quality where a spiritual element prevails throughout. The lyrics of Rutili are words of redemption that feels like stitches, vital as the air you breathe: “Trying to get born all over again / without a wish without a lie / without dying all over again”.
As with previous Califone records, the immaculate production and layers of hidden detail — only to be unearthed many visits later — lies at the heart of ‘Stitches’ glorious, abstract canvas, serving the ideal backdrop to Rutili’s poetic prose. The distinctive baritone of Rutili is one of those sacred voices in music today whose songcraft forges an everlasting imprint on one’s heart and mind. For example, ‘We Are A Payphone’ — the album’s penultimate track — showcases how far Califone have come from the band’s debut ‘Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People’ from some thirteen years ago. Rutili had expressed his desire to strive towards “a clearer, more honest voice” on ‘Stitches’ and it’s markedly apparent to witness here. The first verse contains a sombre mood as Rutili asks “Is it too late to turn this around?” An honesty resides deep within the gospel-tinged gem, complete with a mesmerising horn section (performed by Keith B. Kelly) and violins (performed by Laraine Kaizer – Viazovtsev). Musically, ‘We Are A Payphone’ fits somewhere between Lambchop’s ‘Nixon’ and Hiss Golden Messenger’s latest ‘Haw’ L.P. such is the song’s sprawling brilliance. The combined visual and poetic elements creates an otherworldly sojourn into “earth and ashes” of despair and anguish yet an undying ray of hope lingers along the “treeline of the city”.
Episodes from the Bible find its way into several songs contained on ‘Stitches’. Says Rutili: “I’m fascinated with why some stories and characters resonate and last for thousands of years, and are so easily transposed onto all our lives and rites of passage, no matter how absurd or surreal they are.” The piano-led ballad, ‘Magdalene’ — with beautiful shades of John Lennon — is one such song; a spiritual lament or eternal prayer. Rutili’s vocals are exquisite, as an achingly beautiful pedal steel floats beneath the piano chords and Christian Keifer’s vocals and horns by Adam Busch form a symphony in full-bloom. As Rutili sings “Don’t let it take you down the rabbit hole / don’t let it take you in your black sleep days” on the opening verse, one feels the record’s meaning come to light where feelings and textures are stitched together. The impact is profound.
‘Moses’ begins with a stunningly beautiful string section accompanied with a soft ripple of piano notes before a sparse acoustic guitar enters the forefront of the mix. The intricate arrangements and production wizardry is clear to witness. Rutili’s poetic words evoke beautifully visceral imagery as a heartfelt longing seeps into the song’s headspace: “If I let myself need you how long before we die.” The added instrumentation of Robin Vining’s marimba and harmonium adds new shades and textures to the scintillating collage of sound unleashed by Rutili’s gifted cast of musicians. Next, ‘A Thin Skin Of Bullfight Dust’ changes the dynamic as soaring electric guitar tones and a myriad of percussion and electronics conjures up the sound of a blissed-out, Krautrock-infused rock anthem. Similarly, ‘Frosted Tips’ sees Califone turn up the dial with ‘Pinback’-esque rhythms as the fuzz bass of Tim Hurley creates an irresistible groove. The lyric: “In the old / Watching the new world die” resonates powerfully. Perhaps, those very words de-constructs the bare soul of ‘Stitches’ down to its aching core.
‘Stitches’ is out now on Dead Oceans.
Interview with Tim Rutili, Califone.
Congratulations, Tim, on the incredible new record ‘Stitches’. I’ve been a big fan of your music for some time, and ‘Roots And Crowns’, in particular, has been one of my most cherished records from my record collection. ‘Stitches’ as ever has the hallmarks of greatness, and Califone’s trademark qualities of immaculate production, song-writing prowess, abstract details, cross-border genres, and beautiful melodies. Please discuss for me this new album, and in particular the title and themes? For me ‘Stitches’ is a wonderful metaphor for the whole idea of keep on keeping on, and the power of redemption.
This album feels like stitches. Like a healing to me. Like accepting scar tissue. Like a quilt. You’re right about the survival aspects and the redemption. It’s all in there. Hopefully anyone listening deep enough will find their own way with these songs and sounds.
In terms of recording the album, I was very interested to read that this record was the first one made in your life where none of the work was done in Chicago. Please discuss the benefits this had for your songwriting and the recording? It must have been very inspiring to record across different cities — and indeed states — from Arizona, Texas and California. The effect of the landscape and sense of place must have filtered into the new songs?
TR: Chicago always feels like home to me no matter where I live. Finishing ‘Roots & Crowns’ and ‘Funeral Singers’ at Clava Studio in Chicago felt like going home. Really familiar and comfortable. We made most of the Califone records, from ‘Roomsound’ to ‘Funeral Singers’ in that studio, that space and the gear in it was a crucial element to everything we did.
Making ‘Stitches’ felt like being alone in the wilderness. Working with new people in new places affected everything and forced some necessary changes in the textures, sounds and even in the shape of the songs and the words. Bare skies, long drives, the desert and the ocean all made it into the songs. Putting very personal ideas against the backdrop of an enormous landscape definitely found it’s way onto this record. Is agoraphobia fear of wide open spaces? These songs were recorded in homes as much as studios. This one feels like starting all over again.
I love the piano-led ballad ‘Magdalene’. It reminds me of The Beatles, and particularly John Lennon. The layers of instrumentation is such a joy to witness. Can you talk me through this song please, and indeed your memories of writing this gorgeous song?
TR: I think I wrote part of this while working on music for Braden King’s film ‘Here’…I knew quickly that it wouldn’t work for the film but that’s the first little recording of the piano part that I can find. I put the idea away for a while and revisited it when ‘Stitches’ recording started. I went into New Monkey, a studio in North Hollywood, with Griffin Rodriguez on bass and producing, Nick Luca engineering, I played piano and sang and Joe Westerlund played drums. We put the basic track onto tape live there.
We ended up finishing it at Griffin’s home studio with Eric Haywood on pedal steel and Tim Hurley and I adding guitars and synth and all kinds of noises. Stella from a band called Warpaint finished up the drums and Adam Busch played the horns. We tried to keep as much of it on tape and off the computer as possible. Griffin did an amazing job with that one. ‘Magdalene’ is anyone that’s ever been written out of anyone else’s story and lived through it. Jesus confuses me. There’s a lot of holes in that book. I’m still digesting.
In the interim, between releasing the last Califone record in 2009, you wrote scripts, painted and collaborated on music for several films. I would love to gain an insight into these artistic ventures please? I am very interested to read about the painting aspect. I remember hearing Kurt Wagner say his love and interest in painting has helped him write songs, in particular Lambchop’s ‘Mr M’ record. I would love to learn about your creative process and how it is linked between these disparate projects you’re involved in?
TR: It’s all meditational stuff. Anytime I spend not thinking and making intuitive or instinctual creative decisions is time well spent and usually will feed into the songwriting process.
Working on music for films feels totally impersonal to me. I love that. There’s a game and a logic to it but there is also a part of it that is adding another layer to an already existing story. I don’t like to work on that stuff alone. I don’t really like recording alone. It’s good to have people around and collaborate on that stuff. I’ll usually hear and see things differently and make better and faster decisions if there are people around.
Painting, writing and songwriting are more abstract, solitary, very messy and very personal. Sometimes it’s about making a mess — spilling without thinking — being as receptive as possible and then shaping it into whatever it wants to be.
As a songwriter, you must have many sources of inspiration. I love the storytelling aspect to the songs of Califone, and how your distinct baritone delivers these poetic lyrics. Can you shed some light please on the various records, songwriters and literature – be it poetry, novels, or otherwise – and any specific records you come back to, again and again?
TR: There’s a lot. I always go back to The Rolling Stones, Talk Talk, Bob Dylan, The Faces, Leonard Cohen, E.E. Cummings, Richard Brautigan, Robertson Davies, John Dos Passos, Einstürzende Neubauten, Robert Altman, The Velvet Underground, Tarkovsky, The Kinks, Pavement, Can, Ann Carson, Walt Whitman…on and on…
I have many favourites on ‘Stitches’ but, for now, it must be ‘We Are A Payphone’. I love the feel to the song; the harmonies, the guitars, and gorgeous brass section. The feel is reminiscent of Buffalo Springfield and Lambchop’s ‘Nixon’. As the album’s penultimate track, it’s a fitting song to bring the journey of ‘Stitches’ to a cinematic close. Can you talk me through this song for me please, Tim? I feel the lyric of “we are a payphone waiting” resonates so powerfully. “Is it too late to turn this around” is perhaps my favourite lyric.
TR: Michael Krassner recorded the basic track for this live at his guest house in Phoenix. I played guitar and sang and Wil Hendricks played bass. It came quickly and we put it away for a while. A few months later we went to New Monkey in North Hollywood and Ben Massarella and Joe Westerlund added drums and percussion. We put them in a big room and had them play together along with the tracks that Wil and I had done then we put it away for a few months. Eventually we went back to Phoenix and started messing with it again. Michael’s friend Keith Kelly came in and did the horn work. Michael and I added some electric guitars. That song might be a celebration of the obsolete.
I feel the honesty and openness to the lyrics is what makes ‘Stitches’ such a formidable album, and a true Americana masterwork, like previous Califone records. I was interested to read your concern was not to hide in the music. Is there a technique you have for writing lyrics? Is it a case of keeping a diary and writing notes or is it a case of ensuring a solitary process and just being focused and dedicated to writing?
TR: I think I just try to stay receptive and try to be as honest as possible within the abstractions of the songs. I’m pretty confused most of the time and try to write a little something every day without worrying about what it means.
Some of the songs on ‘Stitches’ started with blocks of words and some didn’t get lyrics until the last possible minute. It’s different every time. Some of this is just making yourself available for when it decides to come.
What albums are you currently listening to?
TR: I’ve been listening to The Who and The Bee Gees (especially disco era) quite a bit lately.
‘Stitches’ is available now on Dead Oceans.