Exclusive Q&A: Tim Rutili of Califone

Califone isn’t the type of band to knock you out with a hook and drag you along for the ride. Their music wraps itself around you slowly, or sinks in to coat your bones. Earthy, organic-feeling instrumentation (ranging from guitar and mandolin to marimba) mingle with electronic loops, clattering sounds, and textured effects. Over ten years, Califone have honed their distinctive sound and released a substantial catalog; but while they continue to explore every inch of this sonic terrain, they’re not content to float along on the familiar. The band switched labels in July to Dead Oceans, and alongside today’s release of their ninth album they’re unveiling their first feature film. Both titled All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, the film and album are companion pieces that fill out the story of a psychic living in a house full of ghosts. As the band kicks off a national tour this month, they’ll be playing live with the film at most of the stops.

Hear what band leader (and filmmaker) Tim Rutili has to say about pairing visuals to songs, working with cult film star Angela Bettis, and more, after the jump…

Flavorpill: Film has clearly been something you’ve thought about for a while. Califone has played improvised scores to other artists’ silent films, resulting in the two Deceleration records, and you’ve made your own short films and music videos. But this is your first feature. What led you to make it?

TR: I started late summer last year by collecting superstitions and writings songs using some of that imagery. I was also just interviewing people with a video camera about their superstitions or their obsessive-compulsive beliefs. So it started from there, and I thought we could probably do something to go along with it, a film incorporating these superstitions. After that this story just came out and ended up being about this fortune teller who lives in the woods. It’s almost like a kids’ story: very simple and very weird.

As we started looking into options about how to do this project things just fell together. We thought we were going to shoot a film using our cellphones, because that’s the budget that we had, but we ended up being able to raise some money. Everything happened as it was supposed to.

FP: It’s a great record on its own, and even if there wasn’t a film it would be a strong addition to the Califone catalog.

TR: That’s the one thing that we tried to make sure of: that the film stands on its own as a film whether we’re there doing a live soundtrack with it or not. I don’t see it as a soundtrack album, I see it as a record that stands on its own as a record. They’re companion pieces that aren’t dependent on each other.

FP: They have a similar mood that also seems to be an outgrowth or continuation of the larger Califone production.

TR: There’s always a visual element to what we do, ever since the start of it. To me it was always visual music, and the lyrics were less about feeling and more about images. So it seemed a very logical thing to do. We just showed another layer of what we were doing. On all our records, if you take the event out of the song and you just leave the smell and the atmosphere of it, that’s what the music is. For [Funeral Singers], there’s another element to the whole project, where there is the story and there is the event.

FP: Are there certain filmmakers who have influenced you, or certain films that set the path for Funeral Singers? There’s a song on the album about Luis Buñuel, so he’s one that comes to mind.

TR: Well, I guess for this film a lot of it is magical realism. Buñuel is in there for sure, but there’s a film called The Spirit of the Beehive, another Spanish film from the early ’70s, and that’s in there a lot. A film called After Life, which is a Japanese film from about 1995; that was a huge influence. Then there’s almost a campy element, like Fellini, in there too.

We’re probably more movie geeks than music geeks in my band. When I was a kid, even up to my 30s, I was totally a record geek. That was how I entertained myself: you go to the record store and get a bunch of records and you sit in front of the turntable. And I just don’t do that anymore. I love music, but I’ve been that way about movies for the past few years. So it seems like the logical place to go is to learn how to do this.

On set. Photo credit: Brian Bankston
On set. Photo credit: Brian Bankston

FP: Califone also appears in the film. Some of the ghosts the psychic encounters are the members of a band, a bunch of musicians in white suits.

TR: We’re mostly in the background, in a room playing music. We’re ghosts in the house. (Most of the film takes place in the house, because these people are trapped.) So, if there’s a scene happening downstairs and you hear score music, usually the camera within the scene will cut to upstairs where you see the source of the music and that will be coming from us. So in the live show, we’ll be playing music on the stage that works with the music in the film.

FP: And do you feel like the process of making the film alongside the album influenced the shape or the structure of the album itself — or the sound?

TR: It affected the writing more than the sound. There were visual things that we had in mind for certain songs on the record, but many of the songs are inner dialogues for these characters. So a lot of it is about weird strung-together thoughts of someone who can’t let go of life, or who can’t make a change — what’s going through their head, memories that are fading, or stuff that feels like music to me. Stuff that’s more abstract.

FP: The record also has these instrumental interludes, which range from 30 seconds to about minute or so. What role do you feel those are playing?

TR: Those are for superstitions. In the film they are represented to kind of break up scenes. Those pieces are almost representative of chapter breaks. And we used extended versions of a lot of that stuff as score music as well.

FP: You filmed the movie in an old house in Indiana, right? Did you feel at all tentative about visually pegging your music to a certain place, or a certain cultural milieu? Your music is so richly textured, atmospheric, that I’ve always felt I could envision so many different places out of it.

TR: I never liked saying something like “this is music about the desert.” I always preferred to let people fill in the blanks. I know what it is for me but in a million years I’d never be able to explain it, because it’s mine, it’s personal. But it was interesting this time to go, okay, this image will be married to this song. It was really fun to do — and it was kind of scary, since you had to really commit to adding another layer to the music, a visual layer that was going to live.

FP: Is there a particular example that you’re most pleased with? A visual layer that you like the most, personally?

TR: Yeah, the funeral singer song. Where that comes in in the film is pretty committed for me. I don’t want to give too much away, since I want people to see it and take their own thing from it, but that really ended up working.

FP: And that’s where we get the title. Did you have the title in mind before that point, or was it something that came up as the project developed?

TR: That was actually the last song that was written for the record, and the title came out of that. At the last minute, maybe 3 weeks or a month before we shot the film. So before that the script just said “Untitled Califone Movie.” We had the music recorded and I had to do lyrics and I ended up hunkering down at a friend’s house in Chicago and coming up with that and it fit for the whole project.

On set. Photo credit: Brian Bankston
On set. Photo credit: Brian Bankston

FP: A lot of people have really noted the fact that Angela Bettis is involved. How did you end up picking her for the lead role in the film?

TR: Well, we got really, really lucky to get her for this. I had worked before with another filmmaker, Chris Severtson. When I sent him the script, he asked about casting and said it was going to be really important — who do you want get for this character of Zell? I was like, I don’t even know where to start. He suggested Angela and I figured there was just no way that she would do it. I’d seen her in May and a few other things and she’s incredible. He convinced me to get over myself and give her a call.

We ended up working together a lot, and she taught me things that I never even realized I was capable of knowing about. How actors work and how films are made. She’s a director as well, so she was in on every aspect of this. And then her husband, Kevin Ford, he acted in it too and he was our editor. So they were a godsend.

FP: You’re about to start off a national tour where you’ll be screening the film and playing live with it in around 2/3 of the stops. It kicks off here in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art. What other kinds of venues will be performing at?

TR: We’re trying not to screen the film in places where it might be inappropriate, like clubs or bars. We want spaces where people can get the full experience, so a lot of these shows are in museums or performances spaces or film centers. At the other venues we’ll just be doing a club show, a rock set, which will be really fun to do after these film shows. I think it’ll be a good balance.

FP: I saw a mention that you’re planning on submitting the film to film festivals in 2010. I’m imagining you’ll be adding a recorded soundtrack to the film in that case?

TR: Yeah, we’re going to have a stand-alone version of the film, which is a little bit different edit than the one we’ll be performing with and it will have a soundtrack that’s married to the movie.

FP: Though I do love the very idea that the band might play live at a film festival. It takes us back to the early days of cinema when live music was the norm.

TR: This thing was definitely designed to be seen with a bunch of people, with the energy of a live band. I never really saw it as a DVD, I always saw it as a show.

FP: Can we look forward to another film after this? What’s next?

TR: I don’t know. I’d like to try another film, but we’ll see what happens. I have some stuff written and some ideas but the ideas are getting bigger and bigger and bigger. We’ll see what we can do, and if it’s able to happen.

Though next time we don’t have the innocence on our side. Sometimes when you don’t realize that something’s impossible, it’s not. I know that we’ll make more records and we’re going to keep doing this until we suck. Maybe by then we’ll have the presence of mind to stop.

FP: So far so good. I haven’t seen any signs yet that there’s a chance of that.

TR: Well, God bless you.

All My Friends Are Funeral Singers Trailer from Califone on Vimeo.

Tour Dates:
10/10 – Chicago, IL @ Museum of Contemporary Art*
10/11 – Chicago, IL @ Museum of Contemporary Art*
10/13 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Andy Warhol Museum*
10/14 – Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom*
10/15 – Buffalo, NY @ Mohawk Place
10/16 – Ithaca, NY @ Cornell Cinema*
10/17 – Montreal, Quebec @Ukrainian Federation*
10/18 – Winooski, VT @ The Monkey House
10/20 – Northampton, MA @ Iron Horse Music Hall*
10/21 – Portland, ME @ Space*
10/22 – Cambridge, MA @ Brattle Theater*
10/23 – New York, NY @ 92Y Tribeca*
10/24 – Philadelphia, PA @ World Cafe Live
10/25 – Washington, DC @ Rock and Roll Hotel
10/26 – Charlottesville, VA @ The Southern*
10/27 – Atlanta, GA @ The Earl
10/28 – Birmingham, AL @ WorkPlay Theatre*
10/29 – Nashville, TN @ The Basement
10/30 – Bloomington, IN @ Bear’s Place*

* Film performance w/ live soundtrack

Main image credit: John Adams