The Chicago band Califone and Tucson-based singer-songwriter Howe Gelb will be coming to Japan next month to do a club tour together. Both artists record for the same Chicago indie, Thrill Jockey, which has a licensing deal with the Japanese company Headz, and they both happen to have time to kill in February, so the pairing is mainly the result of good timing.
Nevertheless, one is tempted to describe it as inspired. Califone and Gelb have brought the emblematic American rock sound of the late ’60s and early ’70s — what a Japanese colleague of mine calls “heritage rock” — into the new century without resorting to the kind of pastiche that characterizes so-called alt country.
For 20 years, Gelb was the heart and soul of Giant Sand, a Tucson collective that channeled Neil Young through the whacked, cosmic sensibility of Sun Ra, and which in one incarnation or another included Lisa Germano and the members of Calexico. Gelb made amateur recklessness into an art form, and since “disbanding” Giant Sand a few years ago he has extrapolated on his basic garage country-rock by exposing it to all sorts of environmental stress. On his latest album, recorded under the nom de disque the Band of Blacky Ranchette, he brought his country-western songs to a variety of indie superstars (Neko Case, Cat Power, Jason Lytle) and had them perform them on the spot, in whatever way they wanted. He even recorded one song with Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner in a car in the parking lot of the Nashville Airport.
Califone’s approach is more formal, but no less radical. Rising from the ashes of the blues-based indie guitar band Red Red Meat, Califone is both quieter and more free-form. Leader Tim Rutili discovered computers in the mid-’90s and started using them to muddy up his more or less traditional folk-rock songs.
On their new album, “Heron King Blues,” Califone take this approach to its extreme. “On our last album [2003's "Quicksand/Cradlesnakes"], we went into the studio with songs that were already written, and while we were making the record those songs naturally changed because of the methodology,” says Rutili by phone from his home in Chicago. “This time we went in with nothing, with the intention of making a four- or five-song EP. We found we had a lot more material in us and ended up making a whole album.”
The compositions were improvised on the spot, including the ungrammatical lyrics which, sung in Rutili’s hoarse high tenor, sound like gutter incantations. The recordings were then broken up and put back together into final, completed songs that were more about mood than narrative. Reproducing such work may be difficult in concert, especially since it won’t be a full band — just percussionist Ben Massarella and Rutili.
“We’ve done shows like this before where we try to give the songs more space. There might be some tape loops but not for the rhythm tracks.” He pauses and then adds, “We’ve got a show coming up soon in Chicago so we’re essentially trying to learn how to play the record right now.”
Despite their use of gadgets, Califone’s methods are as much of a throwback as the sort of music that Rutili starts with. When confronted with the idea that “Heron King Blues” was recorded in much the same way as the legendary “Basement Tapes” by Bob Dylan and The Band, Rutili replies, “I’m absolutely crazy about the ‘Basement Tapes.’ As a matter of fact, the last time we did a show we covered ‘Tears of Rage’.”
Of course, Dylan and The Band didn’t have computers. All they had was a four-track tape machine, but like Califone, they also had a lot of diverse instruments that they experimented with, and like Dylan, Rutili’s lyrics are stream-of-consciousness poetry that tend to take on meaning when placed against a particular musical texture. In any case, as with Dylan and The Band, Califone just goofed around with what they already knew until something unexpected and new emerged. The result in both cases is music that feels simultaneously timeless and immediate.
“The music and ideas seemed to be there even before I knew what they were,” Rutili says. “Often when I’m writing, I’m writing with my body rather than my brain. You feel like you’re tapping into stuff that’s always been there.”
The title figure of the Heron King, which is depicted strikingly on the album cover, became the overall theme of the record because of an eerie coincidence that occurred during its creation. Rutili has had a recurring dream of a birdlike creature throughout most of his life, and had one “as we were making the record, and it just found its way into it. The idea was to write lyrics without thinking of them, and all these bird references from all these dreams I was having just spilled out.”
The music’s dark ambience was due to the fact that “the dreams were scary, but I got better at not being afraid of dreams, being more conscious of what’s in them. But in the last one, I walked up to this bird thing and as I got closer I realized it wasn’t a bird but a man.”
At the same time he accidentally ran across an account of the Roman siege of Britain that described how the Roman legions used the image of a Druid god — half-man, half-bird — to scare their enemies. The god was called the Heron King.
“The image in the book was even scarier than my dreams,” he says, pointing out the archetypal power of birds: “They can be messengers, parasites. It’s all in the album somewhere.”
Even if it’s not intentional. Rutili, and especially Masseralla, who once laid down an entire rhythm track using plastic straws in cups of ice, prefers to make noise first and figure out its place in the scheme of things later. Consequently, instruments that are pegged to a certain type of music often come off sounding like something else. The banjos on “Quicksand” sound like banjos because they are serving songs with country or folk trappings. Among the less identifiable patterns of “Heron King,” though, a banjo can sound like something else.
“It’s a banjo that’s played in as many different ways as it can be played,” Rutili elaborates, and then de-emphasizes his role in the creation of the music. “As with the bird dreams, the sounds turn into something else, they become whatever they want to become, even if it seems completely unnatural.”
Sometimes, he isn’t even too sure what the thing he’s playing is. When asked if the plucked instrument on the song “Trick Bird” is a shamisen, Rutili replies, “Is that what it’s called? We didn’t know what it was, so we called it a Turkish fiddle.” (A more detailed description makes it sound more like a mini-balalaika.) The swirling coda to “Sawtooth Sung a Cheater’s Song” sounds as if it were recorded in a Moroccan marketplace, which Rutili doesn’t reject but doesn’t hear, either. “Though it comes at the end of the song, that was the first idea we had for that track.”
Even the Japanese bonus track, Dr. John’s psychedelic masterpiece “I Walk on Gilded Splinters,” fits seamlessly into the mysterious, dark quality of the record. “We were on tour when we recorded that,” he says, “playing shows every day, so we were in that state of mind where everything sort of disappears. It almost does feel like voodoo, like you’re unconscious. You get very intensely into the moment.”
“Heron King” isn’t Califone’s first improvised album. They’ve released two CDs called “Deceleration” that were made as film scores. “The first one was for a show where a friend of ours had film loops and two projectors. He improvised with the loops and projectors and we just reacted to what we were seeing. The second album was for a puppet animation.”
In fact, Rutili’s resume contains work as a director of music videos for people like Veruca Salt and Mudhoney. “When I was in Red Red Meat I would get jobs between tours making videos. Sometimes it was for music I really liked, but most of the time it was for music I wasn’t particularly crazy about.” He says he wants to make a film this summer that can be shown during his concerts, but he isn’t interested in doing a music video for Califone. “I don’t really like music videos,” he says. “I would like to make a film with music in it, but I don’t see any point in making a commercial for a song.”