In the fall of 2002, ultra-hot art-rockers Wilco were scheduled
to play at Ann Arbor’s State Theatre. The show was easily the
biggest event of the season for Ann Arbor’s underground music
circles, highly anticipated by anyone with an interest in the
current music climate. Of course, there’s nearly nothing more
frustrating on the night of a huge concert than waiting out the
opening band. Slogging through an inferior opening act can be a
buzz kill for even the most devoted fans.

Music Reviews
Why is there a clarinet mouthpiece floating above my head? (Courtesy of Thrill Jockey)

It was inevitable, then, that supporting act Califone took the
stage that night to a restless crowd. Frontman Tim Rutili, a quiet,
nervy presence with a bluesy guitar hand and neurotic voice, sat
center stage, his thin frame dwarfed by the massive percussion kit
behind him. Califone wound their way through a jammy set that
spliced Americana-style songwriting and avant-garde noise. The
audience was perplexed — to some, the mix was a nearly
intolerable prelude to an exciting night. To others, it was an
intriguing mix of essential sounds both old and new. The band kicks
off a two-month headlining tour of North America on Tuesday in
Detroit.

Califone has existed in one form or another since 1998. The
remnants of mid-’90s roots-rock progenitors, Tim
Rutili’s Chicago collective have been mixing classic America
music forms — Appalachian folk, delta blues, Southern gospel
— with buzzing electronic noise since their inception. The
combination came naturally to Rutili.

“It came from loving rock music. It came from Led Zeppelin
and growing up in the suburbs. I worked in a record store, and we
could just keep digging and dig deeper to find where this music
comes from,” he explained. “But I love Gun Club and the
Cramps, too. And listening to that stuff and finding where it comes
from is just as important.” He speaks fondly of hours spent
in the record store listening to “old folk music from the
’20s and seeing how that fit in with noise music.”

Much of the whirring noise on the State Theatre’s stage
ended up on Califone’s 2003 release,
Quicksand/Cradlesnakes. On the album, Rutili refined the
haunting noise of the band’s early singles and incorporated
it into cryptic, understated pop songs. “It takes more effort
to do something more structured. It’s not as natural. You try
to make things feel fresh,” said Rutili.

The band’s creativity extends beyond Califone’s
records. Rutili and percussionist Ben Massarella maintain
Perishable Records, a label that has earned renown for its
elaborate, homemade packaging; this is something that Rutili admits
is becoming increasingly difficult to do, given his band’s
growing popularity and the recording and touring schedules that the
band now faces.

“It’s really fun to do. That’s what we want to
do — more records like we used to … hand-drawn,
hand-made,” explained Rutili. “[Califone’s first
record] Roomsound is on its fifth pressing, and we’re
going to have to get people in here to stuff them, which is a pain
in the ass, or we’re going to have to find a new way to
package it. But we all love the way that looks.”

Things are only getting more hectic for Rutili and company. This
spring, they confounded expectations again by following the melodic
turns of Quicksand with Heron King Blues, a record
full of percussion-driven jams and skittering electronics. The band
also kicks off a two-month North American tour on Tuesday in
Detroit. High expectations and pressure, however, seem to concern
Rutili little. “We’re just trying to make records that
we like. And I think if we thought about trying to please people,
we’d make shitty music and hate ourselves. So I don’t
want to worry about it.”

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