For a decade, Califone—the long-running experimental folk-blues band founded in Chicago—had a solid, static lineup: founder and principal songwriter Tim Rutili and multi-instrumentalists Joe Adamik, Jim Becker and Ben Massarella.
But in the past couple of years, with Adamik and Becker busy playing in Iron & Wine, Rutili had to make a choice: put Califone on hold or move on without them.
He chose the latter. When asked about the decision, he laughs uncomfortably.
"It was painful," he says by telephone from his home in Los Angeles. "But by the time I got into making Stitches, it was, like, 'OK, this is what we're doing. This is how we're doing it." And once we got started, it was kind of amazing to make the record."
Out of Rutili's pain came the latest chapter of Califone's unique, unnerving beauty. Stitches is the band's sixth full-length studio album, and like those before it, it's a disarmingly intimate collision of earthy aural aesthetic, creaky recording ethos and electro-organic embellishments.
Unlike those before it, however, Stitches offers a clarity to Rutili's voice and words that brightens Califone's odd little headphone world. That clarity, too, grew out of the shift in the lineup.
"It definitely forced some necessary changes into the music and the sound palette that was used, and the approach," Rutili says. "And it helped me to keep this one more solitary [and] to open up the lyrics and the vocals in ways that I really needed to."
Stitches, he adds, "is really personal for me. But I had to be honest about how I felt about things, and I never really looked at songwriting in that way before. It was always about [creating] things that would evoke pictures in a listener and in myself, and this time it became more about expressing feelings: dealing with disappointment and dealing with heartbreak and dealing with survival and trying to find ways to... find hope without lying to myself.
"I needed to sort of hunker down and really focus on telling the truth... and not hiding behind noise," Rutili says.
This new, more personal songwriting style coincided with a recording process that was very different from the collaborative works created over many years at Califone's now-shuttered Clava Studios in Chicago. For Stitches, Rutili worked alone at times, brought in musicians to contribute as needed and added his own field recordings to the sonic soup. He also wrote and recorded the album in California, Arizona and Texas—his first record with no Chicago connection.
The freedom of the process allowed Rutili to "treat each song as its own planet," and if you believe a bunch of Stitches reviews, those planets stretch across the American Southwest and bear all the distinctive cultural and geographic attributes of the region. The truth is, it sounds like a Califone record, as dusty and twangy and open-road-worthy as the others.
"It's like propaganda, isn't it?" Rutili asks mischievously, noting the "spaghetti Western deserts and Southwestern horizons" described in the official Stitches press materials. "I know how to make a record and make some songs, but I don't know how to use propaganda for my benefit just yet. But I know that if we write something on a one-sheet, people will regurgitate it."
Still, Rutili acknowledges that place does inform art.
"I think wherever you are seeps into the music... you're making. So there's a little bit of it in there," he says. "But I don't think it's like some turquoise-colored piece of jewelry that we made with Navajo stick figures on it."
If anything, Stitches is Rutili's L.A. record, an exploration of the sprawling city he's called home for the past seven years and the isolation—artistic and otherwise—he feels there.
"There's not a lot of people doing things that I like or people that I love to work with or people that I love the music that they're doing," he says. "I haven't found that, but, then again... when I was in Chicago, I was in my 20s and 30s and I was out all the time. And now I'm in my 40s and it's, like, 'Uh, I'm not going to that.'
"There are probably great things happening here," he continues, "but I haven't really... found any."
That, in a way, is fitting for an artist who, despite his role in Chicago's fertile '90s rock scene, has always seemed to exist on his own plane and make the music he wants to make in exactly the way he wants to make it.
He says he's "just pushing to try to keep doing things that feel vital. People say, 'It's just another Califone record.' And if they hear that, that's fine, but to me all these records are very, very different and [they] are progressions and evolutions, and there's not a lot of repetition.
"I still enjoy doing this and feel the need to do this," he says. "And when I don't have anything else to say, I will totally stop."
Califone will play Soda Bar on Sunday, Jan. 5, with Little White Teeth.
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