Califone traffics in surprisesMembers of the band Califone walked to their studio on the south side of Chicago last summer with no ideas for their new record. But that was the idea.
Instead of working from written songs and detailed plans as they had in the past, the band hung around the studio for a few days with instruments scattered around, playing whatever. Later, they edited down the improvised pieces, shaping them into songs. Tim Rutili then wrote lyrics and added vocals based on recurring bird dreams he was having at the time.
The result, Heron King Blues, is a many-layered album that beautifully blends low-fi roots rock with electronica and world-beat influences. Think Trent Reznor teaming up with Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan to remake the soundtrack to Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid — all under the supervision of Salvador Dali.
If it sounds surreal, it is.
And Califone’s automatic approach — a surrealist trademark — was the only way to accomplish something as free and instinctual as this album. “We had lot more surprises this time. The last piece, the ‘Heron King Blues,’ is something that we needed to get out of our own way to do,” Rutili said in a recent phone interview. “The looseness of it, the feel of it, is something we could only do when we were playing to play — without really trying to achieve anything. There was no way to write something like that.”
“Heron King Blues” is an expansive 15-minute instrumental track with a hint of haunting vocals hiding in the rave-up swamp of percussion and guitar noises. Even at that length, it’s a song that gets in your head and begs to be heard — much like the Velvet Underground’s insane ramblings in White Light/White Heat.
Although it would be difficult to determine this just by listening to the album, the songs on Heron King Blues are the soundtrack to Rutili’s nightmares about a giant bird. With each dream — which he’s had, off and on, his whole life –– the long-legged Heron King would inch closer to killing him. Eventually, Rutili realized the monster was only a little man dressed in a fake beak and feathers, walking on stilts. “It was like ‘oh, man’ these are all from these dreams,” Rutili said of the improvised tracks the band was recording. “They were all happening at the same time.”
After the days of jamming in the studio had ended, Rutili simply took his notebook into the studio. “I was writing whenever I woke up. And then, when it was time to put vocals on stuff, it was just a matter of looking at the page where I wrote first thing in the morning and just trying to sing,” he said. All of this made Rutili’s detailed dreams — likely linked to a lifelong fear of birds — into a creative reality. “I think you use music or whatever art creative activity you do to figure out the images that just seem to come,” he said. “The images pop up no matter what. You use what you do to figure yourself out a little bit, to get to know what’s bubbling to the top.”
And, in that moment of creativity, the dreams, the images, are frozen in time. Then, you can look at them closely and inspect. “It catches it. You use it as it comes up. You let it be what it wants to be,” Rutili said. “You let it attack you. You let it overtake you. You wait to see what it’s about and you just accept it.”
By relaying those images in words and music, Califone’s songs have a textured thickness to them, a physical presence beyond the aesthetic. “For what we do, everything is visual. Everything is physical,” Rutili said. “It’s not just about sound and idea.”
Taking this approach, his lyrics are fittingly bizarre. From “Trick Bird”: walk into my mouth and tongue marsh’s mine enemy my enemy / my enemy my trick bird shoulder wing one leg fine gentle dead / water laps upon the edge temptation open what shut trick bird … Or, from “2 Sisters Drunk on Each Other”: red foot cold floor you’re the root you’re the hanging you’re /easter in the phillippines.
So how does all of this translate to playing in front of an audience? “The live performance seems to be more about the way we explore what we have recorded in a different way and the way we interact with each other and the other,” said Rutili, who has been touring behind the album since September and comes to the Patio May 25.
After recording the album and shooting the cover photo featuring his version of the scary Heron King in his dreams, Rutili has no more bird nightmares. It could be that the approach of taking what comes has successfully translated beyond music to his life. “It’s about trying to accept yourself, trying to enjoy yourself, trying to be OK with yourself,” he said. “And, in doing that, you can better understand and love the world around you.”