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Red Red Meat Morphs into Califone.

By Dave Chamberlain

JUNE 1, 1998:  It would be easy for the members of Califone-Tim Rutili, Tim Hurley and Ben Masarala-to ride the reputation of a hard-driving indie rock band. After all, the musicians in Califone established their street cred playing in such bands as Red Red Meat, Joe's Kitchen, Friends of Betty and Loftus. Instead, Califone's self-titled debut, released earlier this month on Flydaddy Records, sheds the constraints of reputation and history and instead moves into the experimental realm. And don't stop reading this because of the word experimental. Were Califone playing heavy metal, that would be experimental for the members. "Califone kind of happened accidentally," says Rutili speaking in his West Side apartment situated in a neighborhood riddled with as many bands as bullets. "It started out as a group of songs that Tim [Hurley] and I were working on, then it became a group of songs me and Tim and Ben were working on."

The music on "Califone" is rock only in the loosest sense of the word. There are no guitar hooks, no expertly planned tom-tom hits designed to jack the adrenaline. From the first moments of the first song, "On the Steeple with the Shakes (Xmas Tigers)," quiet order comes from a light snare drum machine and a distorted bass drum, opening a door to momentary guitar chords, a grooving cacophony of subdued clinks and clanks helping to keep rhythm with Rutili's electronically mutated vocals. It's at once tribal and hallucinogenic, strong-willed but serene.

If there is once constant on the record, it's no more than a tag-along sensation of undisturbed meditation, always calm but able to take itself up and down at an even keel. The next song, "Silvermine Pictures," begins with the solitary elements of acoustic guitar and Rutili's vocals, but in time rougher guitar chords, feedback and almost secretive piano build to help carry along the tune.

Every note, every silence is meticulously planned. Says Rutili, "Califone is a lot more about patience [than Red Red Meat]. Space and different instrumentation. With Red Red Meat, once we hit the stage, we're a rock band."

While the next song, "Pastry Sharp," with long, whole piano notes and a dark mood, moves Califone to a morbid low, the fourth song, "To Hush a Sick Transmission" takes Califone to a subtly sonic high. With a rhythmic randomness provided by sounds from the entire spectrum of metallic and wood thumps, it's a short and terse vivisection of scattershot rhythm.

By diverging from the pure rock of Red Red Meat, Califone become different artists both on stage and in the studio. "In Red Red Meat," notes Rutili, "Tim [Hurley] plays the bass like he hates it, which is a really great thing. But in Califone, he's doing samples and other things. It's just different."

The songs are the result of both planning and studio improvisation. After the three main players in the band worked on Califone long enough, the music flowed for the members. "That's where we kind of ended up in Red Red Meat," says Hurley. "We were just letting stuff happen."

But with so much precision audio coming from the studio, is the music reproducible on stage? "We aren't even trying to reproduce it," notes Masarala. "We're just trying to get the general vibe. And actually, it's not even that. The live show is a different thing, a different vibe. We still incorporate the same things, but not at the same beats and not in the same fashion.

The addition of bass player Phil Spirito has helped mold Califone's live show. Drummer Dani Iosello (who does not appear on the record) notes that with Spirito the rhythm section has become more relaxed and looser. "It's a grounding effect," Rutili notes. "The shows that we've done before Phil [joined the band] had more weird noises, drums, skewed rhythms. Everything was all over the place."

Though Rutili has entertained thoughts of another Red Red Meat record come September, he hopes to use the summer to tour with Califone. "We're different now than with Red Red Meat, and I'm happy with the music that we're doing right now. That's all you can do."


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