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Califone: Fun With Friction

Chicago band finds harmony in dissonance, local acts explore same


Recently, during Califone's virgin tour of Japan, lead singer and songwriter Tim Rutili was awestruck by the contrasts in local culture the band encountered traveling from show to show."It's a strange place," Rutili says by phone from the band's Perishable Records label office, "there's tons of people all over the streets, especially in Tokyo, and yet there's a stillness and silence about it. You walk past these super modern buildings and there's a little dent in the street and there'll be a temple that's thousands of years old, right there."

For the uninitiated, Rutili's brief travelogue could do double duty as a metaphor for Califone's evocative music: hushed, old school acoustics and gently plucked banjos fused with dissonant electric guitar riffs, futuristic electronics and intricate but primitive percussion. It's the sound of eras coagulating, a Harry Smith Anthology-style blues/folk/country collage cross-fertilized with Can-like tape loops, effects pedals and synthesizers. And from the discord between the two comes invention.

"I think most art -- most creativity -- is based on some friction," says Rutili, whose band plays The Room on Saturday. "You need that, you need these opposing elements to create something new."

"Something new" helps explain the critical buzz around Califone. The riveting Quicksand/Cradlesnakes was a fixture on critics' best-of year-end lists in '03, and their most recent release, Heron King Blues (Jan., '04), seems destined for many more this year.

And it's not just the scribes. Califone helped shake the starch from roots rock's overalls, bringing back a welcome "why stop there?" wrinkle other musicians admire. Jeff Tweedy chose them to open for his band Wilco on their pivotal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot fall tour of '02, and Calexico's Joey Burns has called them "a great band." Califone have proven that imagination and vision are the path to the authenticity so many "trad" bands vainly lust after through mere repetition of time-worn sounds. This is the future, right now.

Fortunately for Charlotte, the same aesthetic informs the music of locals Joey Stephens and Ben Best of Pyramid. They'll be performing as Steady Baker on Saturday, along with Califone and the Houston Brothers, another local band quite willing to experiment. Together, this three-headed monster makes this gig one of the more intriguing bills so far this year (it's also being filmed, along with the rest of Califone's East Coast tour, for a documentary on the band, tentatively titled, Made a Machine by Describing a Landscape).

Pyramid and Califone played together last October at the Visulite (with Clem Snide), and the similarities in approach made for a comfortable fit. While their sounds may differ (Pyramid's mix owing a little more to jazz), Stephens' group is another band with an appetite for contrasting acoustic sounds with electronic elements.

"Everyone has their own styles, but we all like kind of weird music," Stephens says of the eight-member Pyramid collective. "When acoustics and electronics blend together, it's definitely collaborative -- everyone's involved in turning it into something different from the everyday acoustic or everyday electronic song. We always like noises that just happen and that are sometimes hard to define, but fit in the right way for some reason."

For this show, Stephens says he and Best plan on creating a "big soundscape-type thing" by running guitars and keyboards through a host of pedals and amplifiers, with wild card tape loops upping the ante. "Califone's a lot like that. They do a lot of really off-beat stuff, and we thought it'd be a cool matchup."

Live, Califone -- Rutili (guitar, keys), drummer Joe Adamik, multi-instrumentalist Jim Becker and multi-percussionist Ben Massarella -- translate their studio experimentation into a mesmerizing set, but do so employing a fraction of the electronic gadgets they do in studio. There are plenty of blips and beeps, but they're all organic on stage. It's a formula that makes the songs sparkle like diamonds.

"A lot of it is just stuff that comes out when you're experimenting," Rutili says.

The Houston Brothers, the meat in this three-act sandwich, take a similar approach, albeit in their own inimitable fashion.

"We try to replicate loops, something that sounds like a loop to the listener, but it's really not," says Justin Faircloth, whose band is working on a new record. "We're definitely continuing to add synthesizers and samplers to what we do, and I think this new record is going to include a lot more atmospheric sounds, natural sounds, that we're bringing in to try and put it in a different context."

Some may blanch at the mere mention of "electronic elements," but it's important to stress that all three of these acts still bring the rock -- this is no dusty Smithsonian exhibit or mind-numbingly repetitive dance routine. Stephens echoes Rutili in suggesting that this mix-and-match pastiche is just a natural extension of rock & roll experimentation. While Stephens grew up listening to traditional "alternative" rock before seeking inspiration elsewhere, Rutili's previous band, Red Red Meat, morphed from sludge-thick blues rock into an adventurous pre-Califone.

"It's just another sound, another tool," Rutili says of his fondness for electronic music. "The tools that we have now to make pop music, we distort and toy with them in more subversive ways...we have computers, we have synthesizers, and we have this aesthetic that is attracted to these strange sounds. So we just use what we have.

"We're not trying to be cool or smart or anything, we're just trying to entertain ourselves and see what happens. It started out as ironic, as kind of funny, to use a completely inappropriate sound, but then the friction between these two sounds just made this into something we never expected, and it's kind of built in to what we do now."

Califone, The Houston Brothers and Steady Baker play The Room on Saturday, May 15, beginning at 10pm. Tickets are $8.

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