By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
THE COVER ILLUSTRATION of Califone's new self-titled EP (on the Road Cone label) features an indeterminately sexed child, clad in some sort of ceremonial garb, smiling beatifically, the word Chicago scripted in faded letters beneath the kid's sandaled feet. Inside the CD jacket is a photograph of a similarly dressed child posing next to a priest whose face is blocked 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's hand, but it's really only my dad's."
Read what you will into that occurrence, but this visual introduction does set the mood for a collection that mixes allusions to Christ, lost love, and redemption with sarcastic fatalism. Rutili claims that the religious theme wasn't intentional. "It's leaking into everything I do now, that whole, scary coming to terms with being Catholic, and no longer being Catholic" experience, he explains. It leaks into our conversation too: Rutili admits to a serious nun fetish spawned in Catholic school.
Though religious introspection often inspires melodrama and self-indulgence, Rutili's work is full of dreamlike subtleties and painful revelations. In "St. Martha Let it Fold," Rutili confesses to being "in lust with...silver ghosts and dirty pictures" with such resignation that it's obvious there's just no saving this boy. "Don't Let Me Die Nervous" weaves lines like "The blinder you get/The more you can taste" into descriptions of children eating candy skulls and babies teething on rusty knives. Musically, the EP ranges from backwoods bluegrass with steel guitar to painful shoe-gazer pop punctuated by quavering piano lines.
These quiet arrangements are a bit of a departure from those of Rutili's previous band, postpunk noisemakers Red Red Meat. "We were younger and more into rock then," says Rutili. "We used to drink Robitussin DM for fun." When Red Red Meat disbanded in 1997, Rutili redirected his creative energy into shooting and releasing videos under the name Perishable Records, the long-dormant label that he and bandmate Ben Massarella had originally formed in 1993. Occasionally, other musicians dropped by the studio, and they'd end up playing the music that would eventually become Califone's songs.
Still, nothing concrete materialized from these sessions until an outside force acted upon Rutili's inertia. "Flydaddy Records called up and asked me if I wanted to make a record, and so I put together the first Califone EP," he recalls. "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."
Seeking a name for the new musical project, Rutili had to look no further than the ancient Califone record player whose speakers he had been feeding his vocals through. "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."
On the subject of recreational pharmaceuticals, Rutili recently played Rod Stewart in the independent film Life in Bed. "I got to make out with models and do a bunch of fake coke for a couple of days," says Rutili. "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."