In the past 12 months Califone has played only one show in Chicago–a January benefit at the Hideout for soundman Gary Schepers. In fact in the past year they’ve played just three shows total, notwithstanding the Thrill Jockey reissue of their debut album, Roomsound, in February; the other two were in March at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The next 12 months will be different, though: the band has completed what will be its first studio disc in nearly three years, Roots & Crowns, due on Thrill Jockey in early October, and will begin touring heavily come autumn. On top of that they’re preparing at least one new disc in their “Deceleration” series of silent-film sound tracks, as well as Everybody’s Mother Volume 2, a follow-up to a limited-edition odds-and-sods collection that front man Tim Rutili sold while on tour with Calexico and Iron & Wine late last year.

“That’s typically how it goes with us,” says Rutili. “We’ll have a couple years where we make a bunch of records and do a bunch of tours, and then we’ll lay low for a while. That seems to be the rhythm of Califone.”

Califone’s present fallow period began in late 2004, after seven months of on-and-off touring in support of Heron King Blues–their best-received and best-selling record so far. While his own band was on the back burner, Rutili produced the Freakwater album Thinking of You; all four members of Califone guested, and percussionist Joe Adamik even went on the road as Freakwater’s drummer. Multi-instrumentalist Jim Becker toured with the Dirty Three, and drummer Ben Massarella worked on a forthcoming disc from Phil Spirito’s group Orso. In June 2005 Rutili moved to LA, where he’s picked up some sound-track work for film and TV and has a shorter trip to visit his son, who lives with his mother in Tempe, Arizona.

He also began writing songs for a new Califone disc, and in October the group reconvened in Chicago to start work on what would become Roots & Crowns. “We would do three or four basic tracks and then build on them. Then I would leave and come back,” says Rutili. “We’d basically work anytime we could all get together.” Mostly they recorded at Bridgeport’s Four Deuces studio (the former Clava) with longtime engineer Brian Deck, but during the seven months of intermittent labor that produced the album they tracked at a few other far-flung locations, including the Phoenix home studio of Chicago expat Michael Krassner (of the Boxhead Ensemble and the Lofty Pillars) and a rented warehouse in Long Beach (around the time of the Getty museum shows).

There are a handful of guests on the album–including bassist Will Hendricks, also of the Lofty Pillars and a frequent Simon Joyner sideman, and the horn section from the Bitter Tears–but Deck, Califone’s honorary fifth member, is by far the biggest influence on its sound. “The songs are really heavily manipulated by Brian during mixing,” says Rutili. “It’s a combination between subtracting and enhancing and manipulating these sounds to bring the song to a different place–that’s a big thing on this record. There are not a lot of things that were left in their natural state.” Despite all the chopping up and reconfiguring the tracks underwent, though, the disc’s gauzy, murky sound is surprisingly naturalistic overall–there are only a handful of spots where the digital trickery is exposed.

Rutili is generally quite reserved, but ask him how he feels about Roots & Crowns and he practically beams. “I think it’s a huge step for us. It’s the best thing we’ve ever done,” he says. “I don’t know what other people are gonna think necessarily, but I know I’ve never written better songs in my life.” Tunes like “A Chinese Actor,” “If You Would,” and “Burned by the Christians” are full realizations of the aesthetic that Heron King Blues was moving toward: layered and prismatic, they merge delicate folk motifs and acoustic fingerpicking with free-floating synth phrases and programmed drum loops, but the electronics sound broken-down and almost rustic, creating clutter and atmosphere instead of a streamlined pulse. The album combines wide-screen grandeur and back-porch intimacy, with Rutili’s airy, melancholy vocals floating atop Indian hand percussion, swampy guitar, and haunted, melodic organ and piano.

His lyrics are mostly nonlinear, abstract vignettes, but one theme that comes through again and again is transformation. (“I fall in love with the light / It is so clear I realize and here / At last I have my eyes,” he sings on “The Orchids.”) The album’s title, inspired by Canadian author Robertson Davies’s 1981 novel The Rebel Angels, reflects the same idea. “There’s a character in the story that was raised as a Gypsy and then ends up being an academic, and she’s kind of embarrassed about her past,” says Rutili. “But by the end of the book, she accepts where she comes from and she accepts what she strives to be. The idea is you’re a Gypsy at your root, but you’re an academic at your crown. And it seems like that’s what all these songs are about: coming to terms with where you come from, where you are, and where you’re going.”

Though the band finished 15 songs, 13 of which made the album’s final cut, those tunes hardly represent everything they recorded. “There’s hours of stuff that we started that we need to finish–we probably have another four records’ worth of material,” says Rutili. “We had to stop ourselves at one point and choose what we wanted to complete.” The wait for the next Califone studio album will be much shorter than for Roots & Crowns: “We’ll probably follow up with another record in the next year,” he says.

That timetable doesn’t even take into account the less formal releases Califone has on the way. Like its predecessor, Everybody’s Mother Volume 2 will be a collection of unreleased studio material, radio performances, and live tracks, and Rutili says both volumes will likely be properly released on the band’s own Perishable label after Roots & Crowns comes out. The “Deceleration” material will come from recordings Califone made in November 2004 during a weekly residency at Rodan, where they played live instrumental sound tracks to films like the 1924 Lon Chaney vehicle He Who Gets Slapped and Charlie Chaplin’s A Night Out. (The first two entries in the series came out on Perishable in 2002 and 2003.) “We’re gonna finish up the Rodan stuff this summer,” says Rutili. “We need to get in there and start mixing and editing to see, but it will either end up being one record, or it could be as many as two or three.”

Likewise in the works is a Califone tour documentary, Made a Machine by Describing the Landscape, by first-time filmmakers Joshua Marie Wilkinson and Solan Jensen. They’re currently editing down 250 hours of footage shot during U.S. and European tours in 2004, and expect the film to receive theatrical and DVD releases sometime in 2007. Also in 2007, Thrill Jockey will reissue an expanded version of the self-titled 1992 debut disc from Red Red Meat, Rutili’s old band with Deck and Massarella.

Califone plans to hit the road in support of Roots & Crowns by September and continue touring in the U.S. and Europe till the spring at least. It won’t be an easy album to translate to the stage: “Yeah, we’re gonna need like a ten-piece band. We’re gonna get uniforms too, Burger King-style outfits,” Rutili says, laughing. “We’re gonna have to sit down and figure out how to really present these songs live. We’re looking forward to it, though.”

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