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Interview: Califone’s Tim Rutili on revisiting ‘Roomsound’

Zach Long
Written by
Zach Long

Though he’s not likely to admit it, Tim Rutili was a key figure in Chicago’s burgeoning independent music scene in the ’90s. After moving to the city to study film at Columbia College, Rutili fronted Red Red Meat, fusing a distorted grunge sound with elements of blues and folk music that landed the group on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins. When that band dissolved (they never formally broke up—according to Rutili, “We’re all still friends”) he turned his attention to Califone, a project that allowed him to explore the intersections of American folk music and pop, assisted by a cast of Chicago musicians.

Rutili has since moved to California where he works on film soundtracks, but he continues to record music as Califone. This week, he’ll return to Chicago to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Califone’s first full-length record, Roomsound, performing the album in sequence with a backing band that includes frequent collaborators Ben Massarella and Brian Deck. We spoke to Rutili about the beginnings of Califone and the ways in which Roomsound continues to inform to his creative process.

Before you put out Roomsound in 2001, you released two EPs as Califone. What was the impetus for the album?

It was just time for us to do a record. We had done those EPs and we had been touring a bit on those. It started out as a Red Red Meat record and that didn’t work out, so it became Roomsound.

Califone started as a solo project for you. By the time you recorded Roomsound, how had the project evolved into a group?

There were touring bands and then there was the studio. Back then we had a band that we were touring with and then when we went to record, it was Ben Massarela, Brian Deck and me. Then we would call in people—some of the people, like Eric Johnson who played in the Fruit Bats, were in the touring band at the time. He came in and we had other friends come in and fill in the blanks, but mostly it was just the three of us. It was really fun to do that way and whenever we were puzzled, we could alway call in someone who could do it much better than we could do it, and there were a bunch of those people around Chicago back then.

Chicago’s music scene was coming off of an alt-country and Americana boom in the late ’90s—did any of those artists have an influence on Roomsound?

Some of the more country songs on the album were informed by a Freakwater record that I loved called Feels Like the Third Time. I was trying to write at least as well as they could, but I don’t know if I ever could. I loved that record and those songs, and a song like “Fisherman’s Wife” is directly influenced by Freakwater. I’m not sure about other Chicago bands, but there were always Chicago labels like Drag City's Will Oldham projects—I was very influenced by that. It’s more influenced by the Staples Singers and Talk Talk, stuff which was not in our direct peer group.

Roomsound was one of the first albums to be recorded at Clava Studio in Bridgeport, right?

Before Roomsound, there was a Modest Mouse record [The Moon and Antarctica] made there—there was a bunch of good stuff done in there. We put this record out ourselves and we had this label called Perishable. We had a space in Bridgeport with a little label office, which was more of a space for tomfoolery, and then we had a studio [Clava] that Brian Deck designed and built. 

You’ve said in the past that the process of recording Roomsound was heavily aided by the use of a computer. How did technology influence the album?

There was a lot of experimenting and learning on that record. I think the reason that I wanted to do these shows, for me that was a time of discovery—working on that record, I was finding all kinds of new ways to do things and new sounds, especially new ways to really use space in music. We used a computer on the first couple of Califone records, but on Roomsound there’s a lot of computer editing and things that are loops that don’t sound like loops. It was learning how to use it without it obviously being a computer, a drum machine or a robot. It was finding the balance between these naturalistic, old-time sounds and what you can do with a computer. There was also an element of adding things into the mix that shouldn’t belong, and the computer made it really easy to do that.

How difficult does that make it to perform these songs live?

We’re just doing the best we can with the arms and fingers that we have. You can’t do the exact record unless you have 20 people, but we’ve got four solid people and we all have multiple instruments and we’re all multitasking. So it’s close, but it’s not exact and the way we approached live stuff in the past was “forget about the record, how will the song work now?” This time we’re focusing more on getting the vocal harmonies right and trying to do the things we never ever did—things that are on the record. It’s been a challenge but really interesting.

In some ways, Roomsound established the blueprint for CalifoneHow did you feel about the record after finishing it?

It felt like it opened up a lot of doors musically. Making that record gave me a hundred ideas to make more records—I still haven’t gotten through the list of things to do that started there. For me it is the most important Califone record because it does lay it out, it sets up the language. 

Aside from the 15th anniversary, why did it feel like the right time to revisit Roomsound?

It just seemed like a really good time to reassess what this is. I’m working on new stuff and this is just helpful to get back into it and figure out where the hell we started, where we came from, and also try to figure out what the fuck we did. A lot of the stuff [on Roomsound] I don’t even understand what the hell we were doing. I tend to not listen to records after they’re done and it's been really helpful working on new songs to listen to the old ones and learn them again.

Califone will perform Roomsound with support from the Luyas on September 22 and 23 at Schubas.

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