A Mess of His Own

For nearly a decade, chaos has been a prevailing force in Tim Rutili’s music. After breaking nationally with the opiated blues rock of their Sub Pop debut, Jimmywine Majestic, in 1994, his old band Red Red Meat pulled their own plug, rotating guitarists in and out of the lineup and eventually stretching their post-Stones bluster into enthusiastic but not particularly skillful improvisation.

“When we toured with the Smashing Pumpkins we played to huge audiences and we learned to make everyone bounce in unison,” Rutili said in an interview at the time. “If we played at a certain pace and kept things rolling along, we could just watch all the heads go up and down.” The kids were entertained, but the band members were bored, so they jumbled the formula, and whatever they may have gained in technical experience and intuition they lost in audience. Though they never officially broke up, by mid-1997 they’d pretty much faded away.

Rutili’s primary vehicle since then has been Califone, a loosely configured band whose fans are attracted by the same unpredictable meandering that drove away Red Red Meat’s audience. Appropriately, he’s taken things at a relaxed pace, releasing an eponymously titled EP on Flydaddy in 1998 and another on Road Cone in 2000. Califone’s first full-length, Roomsound (Perishable), comes out on Tuesday, and though it’s by no means chaos-free–the music shifts and creaks unexpectedly at every turn–Rutili finally seems to be the master of his own mess.

He says the change in his music corresponds somewhat to changes in his personal life. He and Califone’s most frequent contributors, former Red Red Meat members Ben Massarella and Brian Deck, are all parents, and they’ve tidied up their lifestyles accordingly. “It makes you appreciate your time,” says Rutili. “You’ve got to get up every morning at 6:30. Everything is scheduled now; I have this time to write, this time to play.” If he had more spare time, he admits, “I’d probably fuck shit up.”

Where Red Red Meat put a weird spin on electric blues, Califone taps into more rustic sources. Most of the ten songs on Roomsound are built upon simple acoustic guitar figures that sound like detritus from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music–bits of country blues and old-timey music, each carrying a little piece of some great ancient, aching sorrow. Each song unfolds like a long, slow pan across one of Joseph Cornell’s dioramas, with new and frequently incongruous details appearing out of the blue. The dynamics, for which engineer Deck deserves much of the credit, are brilliant: in addition to Rutili’s guitar, rudimentary piano playing, and attractively sleepy vocals, there are slippery layers of electric guitar, gurgling synthesizers, drums and hand percussion, banjo, violin, organ, and hushed backing vocals.

“I love records that you can put back on again and again, noticing something new every time,” says Rutili. “That’s the kind of record we want to make. A lot of the songs started with live basic tracks and then we’d build from there, adding everything we could think of, and then we’d subtract, getting rid of everything that wasn’t necessary.”

Deck, Rutili, and Massarella made the recording with contributions by guitarist Rick Rizzo, bassists Doug McCombs and Matt Fields, violinist John Rice, singer Gillian Lisee, and banjoist and guitarist Eric Johnson, but to bring the music to the stage Rutili will employ Massarella, Fields, Johnson, and drummer Joe Adamik. “It’s been good, better than it ever has been for me, playing music with these guys,” he says. But audiences shouldn’t expect re-creations of the album tracks. “We have end cues and start cues, and if it’s going good we can play it and ‘take it to Cambodia,’ which is what we’ve been calling exploring the song a little bit.”

Califone will be touring the U.S. for much of the spring, returning to Chicago on June 2 with a gig at the Empty Bottle.

Back in Service

Kenn Goodman, Rick Mosher, and John Smith started the New Duncan Imperials as a goof back in 1989, but it wasn’t long before the white-trash novelty act dwarfed their main gig–a sturdy pop-rock quartet called the Service, which put out four LPs between 1985 and 1990. A year later they chose the path of least resistance, discharging themselves from the Service to be henceforth known as Skipper Zwackinov, Pigtail Dick, and Goodtime Dammit. “NDI got too busy and we started making money at it,” says Goodman, “which is something that never happened with the Service.” After eight albums, all on Goodman’s Pravda label, the New Duncan Imperials are stuck with their shtick–any attempt at straightforward rock would have to compete for attention with Dr. Demento fodder like “Motel 666” and “Funny Daddy Sleeping on Mommy.” Goodman estimates that 90 percent of the band’s current fans have no idea the Service ever existed.

I recently dug up some old Service vinyl and found that records like 1988’s In Nonsense Is Strength, with their aggressive mix of garage psychedelia, midwestern twang, and college-rock hookiness, have held up remarkably well. The New Duncan Imperials, who’ve been reconsidering this work for the past few years, think so too, and this Saturday at the Beat Kitchen and next Friday, April 27, at the Hideout they’ll perform their first gigs as the Service in a dozen years. Service bassist Gary Schepers, who now plays tuba in Devil in a Woodpile, and original lead vocalist Dave Briggs–who left the band after recording George’s Duty-Free Goulash in 1987–will both be on hand. Ironically, Goodman sees the reunion as something of a novelty. “We’ve been doing NDI for 12 years and I think we wanted to play some different stuff,” he says.


When this column last reported on the fledgling comedy career of former Trenchmouth drummer Fred Armisen, in January 2000, he’d been hired by HBO to produce a series of short between-show sketches for the company’s “edgy” HBO Zone channel. Since then he’s appeared on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and NBC’s Late Friday stand-up showcase, and a few months ago he performed at the prestigious U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. Recently he signed a development deal with Comedy Central, and is working on concepts for a proper show of his own. This Saturday, April 21, he’ll make his first local appearance since leaving town, opening for the Mekons at the Double Door as the timbale-playing “Fericito.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.