There's always been something cinematic about Califone, but not in the traditional Hollywood widescreen sense. Instead, Califone's music flickers dimly, as if thrown from a rickety old projector, with threads shaking at the edges of the screen, colors bleeding and saturated. Their songs tumble forward with a rusty momentum, accompanied by the threat that a reel is coming loose or the projector is about to strip a gear.
"I always write in front of a movie," says Tim Rutili, the band's singer and chief songwriter. "Sometimes I turn the sound off and just sit there with the guitar and zone out with an image and write. I know a lot of songwriters who do that, actually—it keeps you from thinking too much about what you're doing. And sometimes if you think too much about what you're doing, nothing happens. You think it to death."
Rutili studied film as an undergraduate, but he left school to tour with Friends of Betty, the band that eventually became the legendary Red Red Meat. Now, with Califone, Rutili has returned to his original field of study with All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, the new Califone album that serves as a de facto soundtrack to a full-length film of the same name, which Rutili wrote and directed.
"The whole idea, once we figured out what we were doing, was to make an album that stands alone as an album," Rutili explains. "So it's pretty much song based. Unlike a lot of the other film work we've done with Califone, it's not drone based or improvised so much. And we wanted to make a film that stood up on its own, too—it uses the music but it doesn't depend on the music."
All My Friends Are Funeral Singers—the film—stars Angela Bettis as a clairvoyant living in an old house populated by ghosts. Some of these ghosts include the members of Califone making their cinematic acting debuts. "They're all young Montgomery Clifts. All my bandmates are amazing actors—amazing actors," Rutili laughs.
The album, meanwhile, easily ranks with 2006's Roots and Crowns as the best work Califone has done. Their loose-limbed folk instrumentation is still present, with ragged acoustic guitars, pianos, and fiddles lining the edges of a more industrious sound; machines and drones whir alongside electric hums, and amplifier cabinets emit fragmented, processed lines. "Funeral Singers" is the obvious point of entry, with a banjo and harmony vocals boosting its careful, hymn-like melody. And "Buñuel" may be their finest hour yet, a shambolic jam that stops and starts in fits before fully igniting in a blunt, squealing instrumental climax.
"I was kind of obsessing over [Spanish director Luis] Buñuel films," says Rutili. "A lot of the songs were written as the script was being written. Some of it is about the process of making a film. It's very strange, I'm kind of realizing what a lot of this stuff is about now, a little after the fact."
Califone's current tour has them performing an abbreviated conventional set, but the rest of the performance is dedicated to a live soundtrack of All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, which screens over the band's heads. "It's really strange how different cities are reacting to this thing," says Rutili. "Some people laugh like crazy and some people don't. That's probably another thing that a normal filmmaker doesn't get to experience—touring with your film and feeling people push and pull it in their own direction as they see it. It's pretty interesting."