Tim Rutili on Califone’s Cinematic Village

On villagers, the eighth album from Tim Rutili’s steadfast Califone project, the singer bemoans “a Roxy Music cassette dying in the dashboard sun.” That image serves as a fitting description of the sound here: open pop melodies and soulful singing at the mercy of time, nature, and memory. Along with a cast of familiar collaborators and brand new ones, Rutili assembled and pieced together the album over the course of years. The varied sessions adhere together in a collage-like fashion, where discontinuity creates its own kind of dream logic.

Rutili joins us to discuss his creative process, the 20th anniversary of his Ugly Casanova project with Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, and how reality television influenced the album as much as, or more than, his lofty cinematic obsessions. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: There are always spooky and cryptic lyrics on a Califone record, but I’d like to start by focusing on the sonic character of villagers. It’s often a very lush and sweet sounding record, especially on a song like “Comedy,” which almost slips into a Burt Bacharach kind of space. What kind of feeling does listening to ’70s AM radio pop inspire for you? Are there any particular songs or artists from that genre that speak to you? 

Tim Rutili: There are blurry childhood memories all over the record. I remember my mom singing along with the Carpenters on the radio while doing the laundry, and falling asleep to Lou Rawls coming through Cadillac speakers in my dad’s car. The world feels a bit crackly and frantic. Adding some elements of old radio music from childhood to these songs felt good. When I was writing, I listened to a lot of Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick, Curtis Mayfield. I also got into some Muppet songs and old Paul Williams songs too. The construction of some of that stuff is crazy and inspiring. I tried to learn Neil Sedaka’s “Laughter in the Rain.” The chord change into the chorus on that one blew my brain open. I still haven’t found a good way to steal it, but I hope to someday. There’s something very sweet in that old cheese that always gets me but looking a little deeper into how those songs were built helped me find some new old tricks. 

AD: You recorded this one in four different cities, at a number of studios in each, and also at home. What kind of organizational tactics do you use to keep ideas, sessions, overdubs, and all of that straight? Are you someone with a lot of notebooks? Post-It notes? Apps on your phone? 

Tim Rutili: I had to keep an eye on the hard drives and clearly label everything. I make a lot of lists and write or draw a little something every day, so I always have a few different notebooks going. The notes app and voice recorder on the phone are always in use too. If I don’t stay on that stuff I lose everything. Though sometimes a good idea or a melody will stick in my head for years until it becomes a finished song. I kept a hard drive with all the demos and might want to mix and release some of them at some point. Luckily, I know where they are. At least for now.  

AD: You’ve been working with your co-producers on this record, Brian Deck and Michael Krassner, for decades. What are the qualities that continue to draw you back to them? What kind of conversations do you have with them before starting a project, if any? 

Tim Rutili: Early on, I shared demos and talked with Michael Krassner throughout the weirdness of writing. I trust his ears. He was honest and encouraging and saw what the album could be before I did. With Brian there isn’t much talking but when we get together everything flows. Definitely more action-based and less conversational communication. We’ve worked together so long that the instincts carry us through. With Brian, we make sure we are in the same room when any work or mixing happens. That helps. I’m sure if we were working remotely there would be more chatting and theorizing. When we mixed the record Michael, Brian and I were all together. Ben Massarella was there too and his ears and vibe were a huge help. I like being in the presence of my friends when we’re making something. 

AD: “Eyelash” is another incredible song. You sing, “We are the hangmen and the undertaker.” If it’s not spoiling too much, could you tell me a little bit about what images you were contemplating as those lyrics came together? 

Tim Rutuli: That one is a true story. Almost literal. Hopefully this doesn’t wreck the song for anyone. I went to Chicago for a funeral. There was an afterparty (after funeral?) at a carpet-y old banquet hall with an open bar. There were cousins and old school friends that I hadn’t seen in decades. I’m not that good at small talk and my mind was wandering during conversations with some of these old ghosty people. We were all a bit drunk by noon. Other than a few nice words here and there, no one was talking much about the woman that had passed away but it felt like she was in that room watching and laughing at us. 

Some people were hinting around to see if it was safe to talk politics and pulled the conversation into a dumb fascistic, Fox News kind of direction. I did not say much at all. Just drank bloody marys and struggled to stay present. At points, I left my body while people chatted at me. There are some people and absurd view points that were hilarious/amusing in the past. Now, the same ideas and people feel heavy and frightening. We are all atomic particles of a systematic fragility. I love many of these people. We come from the exact same place. None of them are wealthy. Everyone is just getting by and getting older. I wrote down the words for that song later that day.  

AD: “The habsburg jaw” imagines a conversation with an inbred royal. Do you do “research” for songs? Or do things you’re reading just find their way in? Or both?  

Tim Rutili: Mostly things just find their way in. On that one, I had listened to a podcast about European history and did some internet searching and found all these paintings of inbred royal people. That song kind of wrote itself while I was staring at the fucked up faces in the paintings. 

AD: I’m a huge fan of Max Knouse, who plays guitar on this record. When did you first hear him and what draws you to his playing? 

Tim Rutili: Michael Krassner sent me some of Max’s music some years ago and I loved it. Michael suggested I should try to play with him. I think it took a few years for that to happen. I love Max’s playing. He is highly skilled. It’s rare to find someone that can play that well and also has a beautiful strange imagination. Max did some incredible work on villagers. The band for the initial basic tracks when we started the record was Rachel Blumberg on drums, Wally Boudway on bass, Stephen Hodges played some percussion, Max, Krassner and I all played guitars. Somehow, even with three guitars there was a ton of space in the music and the feel of all of us playing together was a great foundation to build on.

Max played some beautiful stuff and threw down some unexpected textural stuff too. We had him back later in the process for some overdubs and he’s been playing in the live band lately. He is an incredible songwriter and I think that helps him to stay open and receptive, and have a better understanding of where the song is coming from and what it needs as well as what kind of fuckery it can withstand. I can’t wait to hear what he does next. He has a few records in the works. I’ve heard a tiny bit of it and bet the next stuff he releases will be stunning. 

AD: “Halloween” is a really cool song too—that first line sticks with me: “Painting of a photograph/of a painting/of a digital file.” Can you tell me more about what role painting and or collage making plays in your own life? 

Tim Rutili: I love to paint. It is the best meditation and is always an exercise in patience and non-self judgement. I need that. My brain works in a more visual than verbal way. Painting and making things that are abstract always feels like a natural way to express things that there are no words for. I’d like to get to a point in my life where I can do that all the time.  

AD: What’s the longest you’ve ever left holiday decorations up? I once didn’t take the Christmas lights down until February, but I knew I was pushing it. 

Tim Rutili: My last apartment in Chicago some years ago, I had a fake Christmas tree with slow pulsing LED lights built into it that I left up for over a year. The tree also rotated. It was nice to turn off all the lights in the apartment and just let the fake X-mas tree turn and light the place.  

AD: Last year marked the 20th anniversary of Ugly Casanova’s Sharpen Your Teeth. What memories does thinking about that album inspire and what is your relationship to those songs these days? 

Tim Rutili: That feels like a million years ago. I remember some good moments working on the songs and some not so good moments waiting to work on those songs. Brian Deck and Isaac are both great cooks—we ate well while we were all camped out together in Cottage Grove. 

John Orth is all over that record. I remember being in awe of his beautiful singing and writing. Isaac did some amazing vocals right off the top of his head without writing anything down. That was unbelievable to witness. I saw him do a similar thing during the making of The Moon and Antarctica. it’s like psychic channeling. 

Deck was super focused and it’s always a joy to work with him. I haven’t listened to that record in some years. Might give it a spin again. If Isaac ever wants to make another one and wants me to be a part of it, I would love to make some music with him again before we croak.  

AD: There are a lot of cinematic references scattered throughout villagers, including nods to silent films and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. What are some of your comfort movies, films you return to over and over again? 

Tim Rutili: Oh man. There’s a whole lot. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is up there as well as other Altman’s: California Split and The Long Goodbye. I always think about Young Frankenstein. I’ve seen it too many times and it still will make me laugh every time. Old Chaplin movies like City Lights and The Kid always get me too.  Another thing…this started in pandemic lockdown and continues to this day: my wife and I get hooked on the very worst reality TV and watch it more than we watch good movies. 

The first few seasons of Love Island UK from around 2016-ish might be better than the Sopranos. Naked and Afraid is incredible. A Korean dating show called Single’s Inferno kind of stayed with me and I still think about it sometimes even though I do not want to. And there are about a million episodes of Catfish that can drone on and on and on in a way that is fascinating and brainless all at the same time. I think, more than good, beautiful cinema, horrible reality TV had a bit of influence on villagers.  

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