- In the woods, Tim Rutili longs for form-fitting apparel.
If a wayward trucker plowed through the intersection where country meets the blues, half of the underground -- those goateed kids with their sticky fingers and Zep T-shirts -- would be taken out in a split second.
But you won't find Tim Rutili within the wreckage, because he's just way too adventurous for the middle of the road.
In the '90s, Rutili captained Red Red Meat, an avant-blues act from Chicago that slowly morphed from skuzzy blues to a clanging form of industrial roots music. The band described its final album -- 1997's There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight, released on Sub Pop -- as a synthesis of field recordings and Can, which simply meant the overlaying of old-timey sounds with mechanical overtones.
The experimentation of Califone, Rutili's post-Red Red Meat quintet, travels a similar path. But unlike the band heard on "Just Like an Egg on Stilts," Manger's psychedelic blues-skronk opus, Rutili's current outfit is far more understated. The spotlight shines on his drawl -- a weary tenor yoked to an acoustic strum that digs the archaic folk and the Appalachian earth from which it sprang.
The spin is in Califone's sonic backdrops. Conjuring the sweeping feel of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti-western scores, they're like watching an old black-and-white movie while feeling the THX-rumble from the neighboring theater. Textures consist of static skittering like tumbleweeds, suddenly coursing whirs, and the soft thud of sampled percussion that has its roots in the same ancient stuff that Rutili's oblique lyrical entreaties call home.
But while Califone draws from similar experimental and roots-oriented inspirations as Rutili's old rock band, the group developed out of an entirely different ethos. For the first two albums -- 1998's debut and 2001's Roomsound -- it was just Rutili, creating loops with a four-track or computer. With a desire to shake things, he was listening to electronic/glitch musicians such as OVAL and noise artists like Christian Fennesz. In fact, he was "enjoying that as much as I would Mississippi John Hurt," says Rutili from a tour stop in Minneapolis.
Rutili professes a certain joy in the fact that Califone's tour in support of Roots & Crowns, released last fall, is finally winding down. He welcomes the break -- and besides, the road has taken a toll on his instruments. "Right now, the main guitar that I'm playing has a piece of cardboard wedged under the pickup to hold it out more, and the jack is caved in. We're a little bit ghetto that way," admits Rutili. "We're all attracted to nonstandard, broken pieces of equipment. In the studio there are a lot of keyboard sounds that are a Casio with a battery running out. We scrape together what we can find and work with it."
Indeed, Califone's thrifty, almost junkyard mentality is reflected in Roots & Crowns' ramshackle sound. "It's a collage aesthetic, with putting the records and songs together," says Rutili. "A lot of it is taking elements that shouldn't necessarily fit together and putting them next to each other so that they create something different."
It's a method influenced in part by author and fellow Chicagoan John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy. Cobbling together pasted newspaper headlines and impressionistic autobiography, Dos Passos created a collage chronicling America's changing attitudes before and after World War I. "The way that book is arranged -- when we were in the final weeks of putting the record together -- it clicked that that was how we were doing it," explains Rutili. "We approached sequencing the record that way -- using the noises, using some of the layers as collage elements and just thinking about it as little islands of characters or songs within this big collage."
But this approach was also a product of the manner in which they worked on the album. Needing a long break after Heron King Blues -- and with the band's four members living in four different cities -- Califone could only come together every couple months to exchange ideas. For eight months, they worked like this -- largely on their own, with intermittent collaboration. It resulted in hours of raw material, which Rutili and old Red Red Meat bandmate and producer Brian Deck culled for over two months, shaping it into an album.
The ease of the collaboration with Deck, whom he worked with for the first time in five years ("It was like we never stopped"), has prompted Rutili to consider a Red Red Meat reunion. "I really like working with all those people still," says Rutili. "To approach things like a rock band would be fun. None of us have done anything like that in years."
Meanwhile, he continues to search out new sounds in out-of-the-way places. "I don't really go to many shows, because when I go on tour, that's enough time in bars," he says. "But I still get excited about discovering old music that I haven't heard. Finding out about African music or finding out about Ethiopian music is still as exciting to me as finding out about the Minutemen in the '80s."
In other words, Rutili will never stop looking for new roots to pursue.