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Interview w/ Tim Rutili, Frontman for Califone
By Holly Day
(more articles from this author)
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The cover of the new Califone EP sports an illustration of a child of indeterminate sex clad in some sort of ceremonial garb, a beatific smile on its face, with the word "Chicago" written in faded letters beneath its sandled feet. Inside the CD jacket is a photograph of a similarly-dressed child posing next to a priest—the priests' face is blocked out by a large circle of light.

"That's my first holy communion," explains Tim Rutili, permanent frontman for the ever-evolving cast of musicians that make up Califone. "My dad's finger was over the lens when he took the picture, so the priest's face got blocked out. It looks like God' hand, but it's really only my dad's."

Read what you want into the symbolism. This initial, visual introduction to the 5-song EP sets the pace for the listening part of the experience: a collection of songs that mix images of Christ with lost love and redemption with sarcastic fatalism. "It's just a bunch of songs I pulled out of a ‘done' pile that seemed to fit together, and they turned out to all have this religious theme," says Rutili. "It's leaking into everything I do now, that whole, scary, coming to terms with being Catholic, and no longer being Catholic." It leaks into the conversation we have as well, with Rutili admitting to having a serious nun fetish at one point, traceable to his having attended Catholic school as a child.

Far from being the melodramatic, self-indulgent stock that much of the music inspired by religious introspection tends to be, Rutili's work is subtle and beautiful, full of complex, dream-like imagery and painful revelations. In "St. Martha Let It Fold," Rutili confesses to being "in lust with…silver ghosts and dirty pictures," delivering the lines with such resignation it's obvious that there's just no saving this boy, while in "Don't Let Me Die Nervous" he weaves lines like "the blinder you get/the more you can taste" into allusions made to children eating candy skulls and babies teething on rusty knives. Musically, the songs range from borderline backwoods bluegrass, complete with acoustic steel guitar, to painful shoegazer pop punctuated by quavery, aching piano lines.

The quiet arrangements that have been Califone's trademark are a bit of a departure from that of Rutili's previous band, the noisy, laid-back post-punk project Red Red Meat. "We were younger and more into rock then," says Rutili. "We used to drink Robitussin DM for fun." He laughs. "Califone is more about ballads and machines, and Red Red Meat was definitely more about rock." When Red Red Meat disbanded after their third album, 1997's "There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight," Rutili turned most of his creative energy into shooting and releasing videos under the name Perishable Records, the label he and bandmate Ben Massarella had originally started up in '93 in order to release the first Red Red Meat record (which ended up being picked up by Sub Pop instead). Occasionally, other musicians would drop the studio, and they'd end up sitting around and playing music. Some of these songs eventually ended up being Califone songs.

"After the last Red Red Meat record, I just kept working on music, even though I didn't really have a band," says Rutili. "Then Flydaddy Records called up and asked me if I wanted to make a record, and so I put together the first Califone EP. I'd been trying to make a record for a while anyway, but usually, for me to actually be able to really do anything, someone has to give me a due date—Flydaddy gave me the due date, and I found I was able to finish up a bunch of songs I'd been working on and put the album together." Wanting to name the new musical project after something than just himself, he settled on calling it "Califone," after the ancient, closed-play Califone record player he had been feeding the vocals through while recording the debut. "I didn't know Califone was even still in existence when we picked the name," confesses Rutili. "However, the company said it was okay for us to use the name so long as we don't get arrested for drugs, so we're using it until that day comes."

As well as recording their own material, Rutili and Massarella have started releasing other musicians on Perishable Records, including new albums by H.I.M. and Frontier, a percussion project featuring Califone/Red Red Meat drummer Brian Deck. Rutili also recently starred in an independent film called Life in Bed, where he played Rod Stewart. "I got to make out with models and do a bunch of fake coke for a couple of days," says Rutili. "I don't know what was in the fake coke, but it was nasty. It looked like coke, but it was made out of vitamins and powdered sugar I had to do it, like, ten times. By the end of the shoot, I was pretty buzzed."

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