Califone may be new to the Billboard charts, but the group is hardly new to the game.
Formed from the ashes of Chicago cult rockers Red Red Meat, the quartet of players — Ben Massarella, Tim Rutili, Brian Deck and Tim Hurley — reconvened and erected Califone when it became clear their former band (formed in 1991) was ready to self-destruct. Rutili began writing what he assumed would be solo material but ultimately became the group’s first, self-titled release in 1998.
Today, Califone is enjoying the success of “Roots & Crowns” (Thrill Jockey), its seventh full-length and the first set to score chart ink. Minus Hurley and plus multi-instrumentalists Joe Adamik and Jim Becker, the release entered at No. 22 on the Top Heatseekers chart and No. 30 on Top Independent Albums last week.
“It’s weird because I don’t really think we did anything different with this release,” Rutili tells Billboard.com. “This record is the same vein as everything else we’ve ever done. I guess we’ve just been doing it for a long time and word is getting out.”
Not only have Califone’s members been making music for almost two decades, but the professional grade of its personnel only adds to the band’s acclaim.
Besides producing his own bands, Deck had his hand in releases by artists like Modest Mouse, Iron & Wine, Chin Up Chin Up and Josh Ritter; he also runs Idful Music studio in Chicago with Brad Wood (Liz Phair, Sunny Day Real Estate). Rutili and Massarella established the Perishable Records imprint around the time of Califone’s inception and has since released the band’s own records (with licensing through Thrill Jockey), as well as sets from from HiM, Joan Of Arc and Fruit Bats.
“We’re not really doing much with [the label] now, though. A few years ago we just decided we needed to focus and make the band the priority,” Rutili says. “Everybody has a lot of things going on and we ought to be doing what we do best. It’s just better to put the label in second place.”
Focus is a word that helps describe the band’s quirky, charming melodic music. Packed with synthesizers, distortion, an array of guitars and muddy rhythms, it’d be easy for the noise to overtake the music on “Roots & Crowns,” an indiscernible mix of rock, pop and folk. But by controlling their impulses (which Red Red Meat so rarely did), each members’ contribution comes off as intentional and detailed. Rutili’s intelligent and reflective lyrics tie the ribbon on each song, with few words and notes ever wasted.
“We recorded this in all sorts of different places — in L.A., [contributor] Michael Krassner’s place, Jim’s, in Chicago,” Rutili says. “We didn’t want the differences to overshadow [the album’s] solid foundation, which is just good songs.”
“Roots & Crowns” is the band’s first studio effort since January 2004’s “Heron King Blues” and its in-progress tour is its first in nearly three years. Considering Califone’s members are all in their 30s and 40s now, with spouses and children at home, spending extended amounts of time on the road often proves difficult. Still, Rutili, Becker, Adamik and Massarella will be on tour through Thanksgiving with Peter & the Wolf and are planning a “proper” European tour for January/February.