Exile on Slumberland Street

From Red Red Meat to fatherhood, Califone twist their experiences into fascinating forms.

Exile on Slumberland Street

PRECISELY LOOPED junkyard percussion, gorgeous colliding slide guitars that you’ll swear were recorded underwater, space boogie funk bass, a chorus of angels fed through a distortion pedal, one note held on an accordion, and street corner melodies sung atop it all by a 3-year-old boy and an old man simultaneously, their simple words missives from the place in between sleep and consciousness. All this from just one song (“St. Augustine”) by Califone, a promising group from Chicago. Tim Rutili, Tim Hurley, and Ben Massarella, who play on Califone’s two self-titled EPs, used to be in Red Red Meat. RRM were a weird-ass blues-rock quartet who released four of the last decade’s most unheralded albums (from the arty, downtempo grunge of their self-titled ’90 debut to the hearty, desiccated banjo-prog of ’97’s There’s a Star Above the Manger Tonight—a Christmas-themed album that was released in the unlikely month of February).


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Califone make recombinant rock and roll, pulling the old verse-chorus-verse heart of the rock song apart with childish glee to see what makes it tick, then carefully gluing it back together in odd ways with an artful collage sensibility that one might compare to visual artists like Bruce Conner—except that might sound pretentious, which is the last thing Califone is. This music is worn and weary yet new, beautiful even; it resists any genre cages. Califone’s newest EP, on Portland’s groovy Road Cone label, evokes Delta mud, Appalachian hills, Big Star country, the murky ether of computer time/space. Lyrically, the five songs are about singer/guitarist Tim Rutili’s Catholic upbringing, but not in any direct way (“Jesus drains electric fences to fill you again”). Most crucially, the record has the coolest Dock Boggs sample you’ll hear all year.

Seattle Weekly caught up with ringleader Rutili before the band left for their current US tour with Modest Mouse (whose Epic debut was recorded by Califone cohort and Red Red Meat member Brian Deck).

Seattle Weekly: How is Califone different from Red Red Meat?

Tim Rutili: If Red Red Meat was about the pros and cons of sloppy drunken sex, then Califone is about waking up from a perfect wet dream next to some one-legged lion tamer you saw at the circus when you were 7. Califone started out as a lot more machine/loop-based and more about exploring the smoother aspects of pop music than Red Red Meat. But as we progress, Califone and Red Red Meat are becoming the same thing.

Are you consciously interested in the breaking point of a song, in the tension between a structure and its dissolution?

I love surprises, and sometimes the only way to make magic happen is to fuck something up and put yourself in a really uncomfortable position and see if God comes to get you out of it. It started out as a way to deal with boredom and have some fun, and it became a habit. We try to leave space in every arrangement for choices and exploration; it forces us to communicate and surprise each other. When it works, it is beautiful, and when it doesn’t, it’s really,really painful.

Is your music at all influenced by electronic stuff from the last decade?

Yes, but for me it’s mostly really cheesy pop/R&B stuff and hip-hop more than something like Oval. I bought the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack because I loved that song by Aaliyah.

In your homage to Dock Boggs and his song “Pretty Baby,” you seem to have found a way to update folk music without sounding like some precious Greil Marcus-worshipping banjo-playing grad student. In what way does your music relate to traditional vernacular music?

A lot of that music is all about fear of God and figuring out a proper balance between sex and learning to pray—just like Prince. I love the sound and feel of a lot of old folk music, but we are not very reverent about it. We’re from the suburbs, and the only thing we have in common is we are poor people and we’re scared of thunder and lightning. I guess I stole a few tunings here and there, and I love to stare at hillbillies.

How does being a dad affect your music?

I have a 5-year-old son, Ben has two daughters, and Brian has a 5-year-old daughter. Having kids forced us to grow up a little bit and made us appreciate being able to still play music. We all have less time to do it, so we have to budget our time and energy a lot more. A few months ago, we played a kids’ show with Jon Langford and Jeff Tweedy at the Old Town School of Folk Music and had a great time. It was hard not to smoke and spit and cuss onstage. But it felt really natural playing kids’ song, and our kids all came up and played with us. For the last song Langford read from Where the Wild Things Are while we played “Wild Thing.” Watching the kids dance and flail their little bodies around was one of the most punk-rock experiences of my life.

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