Primal Satisfaction

Califone's latest album has roots in a recurring dream of its leader

Like a night spent in a damp forest, the music of the Chicago band Califone feels close and moist and primal. Haunting and satisfyingly rambling, it's a psychedelic and sometimes distorted country-blues-folk-rock amalgam that sounds altogether new and possibly a little familiar, too. Maybe we've actually heard it before in our dreams, coursing through the collective unconsciousness.

Tim Rutili, Califone's soft-spoken leader and singer-songwriter, can dig it.

"In almost any art or creative work, you dig down to find things that have always been there below the surface, that seem unique but maybe connect us all subconsciously," Rutili says over the phone from the Chicago office of the label, Perishable Records, that he owns. "It's not really creating or discovering new connections, but just finding things that were always there."

With a fresh, abstract perspective, Rutili's poetic art songs attract us in the same manner as the work of Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits and Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill.

The members of Califone--who include percussionist Ben Massarella, drummer Joe Adamik and guitarist Jim Becker--even used Beefheart's dark, dadaist masterpiece Mirror Man as a model for recording their new CD, Heron King Blues.

According to legend, Beefheart and his Magic Band recorded Mirror Man in one night-long session. Heron King Blues took a little longer than that, Rutili says, but it was recorded on the fly, drawing from music invented on the spot or written only moments before entering the studio.

Rutili grew up in Chicago, a fan of everything from classic rock to Can and Sonic Youth, from dub to Miles Davis, from American blues to West African music. A few years ago, Califone formed after the end of Rutili's previous band, the much-acclaimed garage-grunge group Red Red Meat. "After making records and touring constantly, we decided to take a break, and (the break) never ended."

Rutili began a solo project that, with the arrival of several pals and mutually satisfying improvisations, evolved into the nucleus of Califone, a band that borrows its name from a vintage electronics company.

When it came time to make Heron King Blues, Rutili started tapping into a recurring dream that he's experienced most of his life.

"For as long as I can remember, I've been having these dreams about a big bird. Usually, they would come when there was a lot of pressure on me to get something done. Then, when we were recording this album, we were trying to get it down really fast. And the dreams started coming back, so I thought, 'This is really what the album is all about.'

"Then it turns out that I was reading about a similar character in a book about when Rome was taking over Britain. The Heron King was a druid god, and the Romans sent an imitation of him into Britain to terrorize and intimidate the British. And this was pretty much described just as I have seen the Heron King of my dreams."

Rutili says that through the creation of the album, he wasn't trying to resolve his feelings about his recurring dream, but simply document it. The most blatant manifestation of this comes in the 15-minute title track, a spooky, dreamlike cut of mutated blues noise.

He chooses not to explain exactly what the Heron King represents.

"I know what it means to me, but sharing it with other people would ruin it. I'll let other people have fun with that riddle."

Actually, the same thing goes for the entire album, which is equally mysterious and alluring.

"We don't hit you over the head with that imagery or its symbolic significance. It's more like the CD just has the smell of it. It's not so blatant, like for instance 'Mr. Roboto' would be.

Rutili can say one thing definite about the Heron King.

"I haven't had any of those dreams since we've finished recording the album."