Califone: Music and Film Grown From a Common Root

Califone: “Funeral Singers” (All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, Dead Oceans, 2009)
Califone: “Funeral Singers”

One morning, in early 2008, Califone front man Tim Rutili woke up to find a piece of paper on his bedside table with a story written in his own handwriting. It was a movie he had dreamt.

Months before, Rutili thought that a good place to start writing for the next Califone record would be to collect some superstitions — his own and others. He went to friends in Los Angeles and family members in Chicago and videotaped tellings of things, such as throwing salt at the backs of suspicious witch-like old women and restrictions on taking anything from a funeral home.

One night, Rutili fell asleep, and the images and words from the videos, the thoughts of his own tendency to knock on wood or touch the roof of his car while driving under bridges, and the melodies inspired by such obsessive compulsions had all mixed together and manifested into a dream. He woke up at three in the morning and wrote it down.

“This is going to sound lame, but I had this dream, and it was this story about a fortune teller, but I kind of dreamt it as a kids’ movie,” Rutili says. “It was like watching a bad kids’ film. It was ridiculous. I got up and wrote it down. I woke up the next day and thought [that] it was a good place to start for writing a movie.”

A year later, Califone is set to release All My Friends Are Funeral Singers on Dead Oceans, a follow-up to the critically acclaimed Roots & Crowns. Rutili also wrote and directed his first feature film under the same name.

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

Shot in 11 days in Charleston, Indiana, the film All My Friends Are Funeral Singers stars Angela Bettis (Girl, Interrupted and May) as a medium/fortune teller whose only friends, ghosts living in her house, realize they are trapped and try to escape. In the fall of 2009, Califone toured in support of the new record by playing a live, partially improvised soundtrack along with the film.

“I like giving the audience something to see, actually; I love what visuals trigger in us musically,” Rutili says. “But I see it as three different parts of the same project that each stand on their own. The album is definitely not a soundtrack. The film eventually is going to stand on its own without us. The album works as a album, and the show is going to work as a show.”

The members of Califone have a rich history of performing live along with video accompaniment — a style of performance they unanimously enjoy. The first time was in 2001 when the band played along to a film by experimental director Harry Smith, which Rutili says he remembers being immediately artistically satisfying. Later, Rutili and fellow bandmate Jim Becker toured with a film with the band Box Set Ensemble.

“It’s a completely different thing — the feel of what we do when we play to a film,” drummer Ben Massarella says. “It’s similar — it sounds like it us; it feels like us — but when we are playing alone, we are just going for it and playing for the moment, us being the stimulus. With the film, you are able to be improvisational about it but also have real specific things like timing — things need to start right here or end right here. Sometimes it’s songs, [and] sometimes it’s a little more open, and that could be different every night.”

As the album All My Friends Are Funeral Singers is on its own a soulful, cinematic, story-driven follow- up to the much-praised Roots & Crowns, it’s easy to imagine a visual accompaniment. At its core, the record is a collection of emotionally driven, catchy folk-rock tunes, helmed by Rutili’s low, slight twang and given depth by a soundscape strongly infused by electronica, world music, and psychedelic rock.

The opening track, “Giving Away the Bride,” is one of the more unique intersections of styles you’ll hear in 2009. Rutili playfully snakes out a soft and dark melody as a dirty, fuzzed-out bass drives along to an array of percussive instrumentation. Songs like “Buñnel” and “Funeral Singers” are on the one hand more conventional, acoustic-guitar-driven folk rock, but also a testament to Rutili’s ability to convey a sad story through catchy melodies.

Recorded at Clava, the band’s South Side Chicago recording studio, the band agreed that the recording of this record flowed easier than ones in the past. Produced by Brian Deck (Iron and Wine, Modest Mouse), this record features the band’s signature use of multi-instrumentation and found arrangements.

Though Rutili expressed great pleasure in the process, filming All My Friends Are Funeral Singers was a far more challenging process. After Bettis signed on, he pulled as many checks and favors as he could find to get the movie made. Rutili and friends moved out to Chesterfield, Indiana, where a friend said they could film in a house he owned but no longer lived in.

With bags of knickknacks and trucks full of grandparents’ furniture, production designer Joe Bristol led a transformation of the old house into the weird lair of a medium/fortune teller trying to keep her ghosts from fleeing. From there, Rutili shot the film in 11 consecutive 14-hour days.

“It was probably the hardest thing any of us had ever done, but I loved it,” he says. “I like telling stories and exploring characters. I really like working with actors, which was the part I was most afraid of. I was worried that I wouldn’t know how to explain what I wanted, that I would confuse people or explain too much or explain too little. But working with good actors is amazing.”

After the tour is over, Rutili will submit his film to film festivals and hopes to have more experiences in filmmaking in the future. But, for now, the focus is on the show, creating an experience where album and film collide through musical and thematic interaction.

“There is some thematic overlapping, but a lot of it is some of these peripheral characters’ inner dialogue,” Rutili says. “A lot of it is imagery or memories someone who is no longer living would have — little strands of life that they are holding onto that would prevent them from leaving this planet. I see all this sounds kind of crazy.”

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