An Incredibly Long Conversation With Tim Rutili Of Califone

CALIFONE SHOW, CHICAGO, 2010If you don’t like reading interviews about musical performers taking mushrooms, washing meat out of semi trucks, and about biblical figure Moses creaming his robe, Billy Corgan’s friends, Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock’s jaw, or first girlfriends dying way, way too soon, then just don’t click on this, or touch it or however you were planning on interacting with this, just stop.

If you like Califone, you know that their new record Stitches is very good, and you love how the music they make is an amalgamation of organic, folksy-type string instrumentation combined with technology (and by technology, I mean broken, misused/abused technology or often just the sound of electronic switches being turned on and off), and so do continue on.

Califone plays Littlefield in Brooklyn with Richard Buckner this Sunday, September 15th. Their tour takes them on to Boston and points west, and then on to Europe and the UK.

Their latest, “Stitches,” is available here or wherever music is still sold. Also they have a weird Tumblr thing.

Califone was recently called “experimental roots-rock”; “experimental” often seems like a synonym for “do not actually know what they are doing” or “violently unlistenable,” and “roots rock” makes me imagine men who wear maroon and hiking boots and are often the last to know that their middle-reliever goatees are appealing to no one. But, if roots rock means damaged, distinctly American sounds, akin, perhaps, to Sparklehorse, but not Trampled By Turtles, maybe, then, okay, it’s roots rock.

On “Stitches,” Tim Rutili sounds like Fred Astaire at times, if Fred Astaire was put into a washing machine (against instructions) and laundered with motor oil and salt. His voice and lyrics are intimate in a way they have not been in the past. Rutili came of age in Chicago in the late 1980s and 90s, and his band Red Red Meat made some amazing records that critics like to describe sometimes as distorted or deconstructed blues. This is not a helpful description, though, either, because millionaire (billionaire?) New York Knicks owner James Dolan claims he plays the blues, too. His is the kind of blues you can eat brunch to, as you toggle through an AutoTrader app on your smartphone. Red Red Meat isn’t a band anymore, but its members never really disappear, they often appear on Califone records.

Rutili has lived in Los Angeles for the past handful of years, often making treks to Phoenix to be with his son. Anyone who has driven that interstate knows the drive is basically the universe taunting you. Rutili says that while driving, he often imagined pulling over, walking and eventually being eaten by birds and being “okay” with that. I guess that is maybe the best description of what Califone is all about.


“Frosted Tips” off of Stitches is a great title for a song.

It was triggered by seeing old faces with young hair. You see a lot of that in Los Angeles.

One face I see like that, and it’s framed by not even particularly new or young hair is Richard Branson’s. People claim that he’s so innovative, but he looks like a British Allman Brother at this point. He needs like eight kinds of makeovers. Anyway, my first serious question, I guess is how does somebody know if they’re in Califone?

I don’t know. I don’t know.

Over the years there’s been a lot of variations on the line-up.

I’m trying to figure it out. This is a sore spot for me, something I’m struggling with right now. It felt like a band for a while and then it didn’t. It felt like a band when we had Benny (Massarella, who also played in Red Red Meat with Tim) and Joe (Adamik) and Jim (Becker). We worked together for ten years as Califone.

Things started to shift a little when Joe and Jim were busy playing in Iron and Wine. I didn’t want to cancel Califone shows, so I played without them. We talked about it beforehand. They were pissed off, which is understandable. They didn’t want me to do Califone without them, but they didn’t seem to want to make the time to work with me. I decided to go on, play shows and make this record without them.

When I started Califone, it wasn’t supposed a band. It was supposed to just be my project . I started this on my own with a revolving cast of musicians and now it continues just the way it began. I’m trying not to feel so emotional about it and keep the train rolling.

I know Benny doesn’t want to tour on this one, but he played on the record, as did Tim Hurley (also formerly of Red Red Meat) and I always ask him to come along whenever he can. Jim and I started talking again a few months ago and I hope he’ll be involved again at some point. Both he and Joe are great, I’d like to play with them again.

Right now, I’m kind of having a good time playing this way. And I don’t think I would have made the record I made had things not switched up a bit. Stitches was a good for me and I don’t think it would have been turned out this way I gone back to Chicago and done it the same way I’d been recording.

What’s Benny up to now?

He lives in Valparaiso, Indiana, which is a few hours outside of Chicago. He likes it. It’s good for his kids. He’s been a musician and a stay-at-home dad for the past ten years.

You’ve been on tour in the U.S. for the last couple weeks. Who’s in the touring band?

It’s me and Wil Hendricks. Then in Nashville Joe Westerlund who played on the record is joining us and he’ll play some house shows with us, and then we play clubs and a museum on the East Coast and that will be me Will, Joe and Rachel Blumberg .

Speaking of Ben, there’s that lyric off of an early song, “Electric Fence,” where a power washer screams like a panther. You guys worked at a truck wash in Chicago, no?

The truck stop? (laughs) It was in Bridgeport, at the corner of Pershing and Morgan on the south side of Chicago, in the stockyards. I worked there for probably four years in the late ‘90s. Benny’s parents owned the whole corner and the truck stop. His dad was a famous jazz DJ in Chicago and actually used to do a radio show out of that place. His radio name was Count BJ, which sounds unfortunate, but he wore it well.

Anyway, both of Ben’s parents died in the 1980s, within two years of each other and they left the whole place to Ben. He started working there when he was sixteen, then went off to college for four years and came back and worked there again. So, basically it was his whole life for a long, long time. I think he was really happy to unload that place about ten years ago.

Part of the job was we weighed semi trucks, and we also used to wash out meat trucks. Trucks would dump off the meat, then we’d clean all the blood out of the trucks. It was grounding. A good thing to do. At one point, I worked there, Ben worked there, and Tim Hurley worked there. We ended up taking over the room that Ben’s dad used to do the radio show and we made a little recording studio in there. We used a lot of his old radio mics. So we’d work on music and when the bell rang, we would go out and clean a truck. It went like that for years. We made a lot of stuff there: the Loftus record that just got reissued. We made [Red Red Meat’s final album] There’s a Star Above the Manger, and we made the first Califone records there.

Were there people who hung around the lot whom you just can’t forget?

Yes. Many. One guy named Chicken Scratch, who was homeless and possibly a crackhead. He would wear a bright orange vest and he carried a flashlight that didn’t work. If a truck was pulling in, he would use the flashlight and wave them into the parking lot, then try to charge them money for coming into where they were already going. There were a lot of hillbilly truck drivers coming in from the south who were gullible enough to pay him. Other guys on that lot sold jewelry. There were a lot of whores, too.

Did you try to police things?

You really couldn’t keep track of it, because there were semi trucks all around. Ben is the nicest guy in the whole world, but when he got pissed, it was frightening. When his dad was still around, a truck driver once left without paying and Ben and his dad grabbed a sawed off shotgun, chased the guy, jumped up on the guy’s truck as he drove away, and stuck the gun in his face to get the money.

Once I was working and saw a guy who was selling jewelry climb up onto a truck and shove his jewelry and his head in the open window. The truck driver looked like he was 19 years old. Frightened. I watched the jewelry seller go more and more into the window until only his legs were sticking out. I went out and tugged on his pants and asked him to leave. He got really upset and started screaming at me. We had a dog named Rocky who was pretty great about protecting us and he freaked out on the guy and he ran away and never came back.

At one point, then, I had a little kid and I needed a job, and a friend got me a job working at an early Internet company. The people that started it were getting rich, and there were only five of us working there. I was making pretty good money, feeling good, getting out of debt. And I did it for maybe five months and one day I ended up quitting and going back to the truck stop because I missed it. It was really, really stupid, but I missed it.

Was Clava, your studio, born out of the truck stop? It seems like, geographically at least, they were very close.

At the truck stop, Tim Hurley had Frankenstein-ed together a computer rig for recording. Brian Deck (also of Red Red Meat, and a record producer) had brought in recording stuff and I had all my stuff and a 4-track recorder in there. In a way, Clava grew from that. Clava was about 6 blocks away from the truck stop. Brian and Benny got a little more elaborate and professional with the gear once we moved into Clava.

We did many Califone records there: Roomsound, Quicksand/Cradlesnakes, Heron King Blues Brian left shortly after Roomsound and went to another studio. About a year ago, Clava shut down.

One of my favorite records of all-time, Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica was made there with Brian Deck. Were you around when Isaac Brock got his jaw broken?

I didn’t witness it, but I went to the hospital the next day and hung with him and got him out of there. From what I remember, we told him not to go into that park after 10 p.m. because there were kids who hung out there who were just dicks. And they went to the Empty Bottle one night, and when they came back, two of the guys went into the studio and Isaac went to the corner to talk to the kids. I think they said, “You’re not from around here.” And as Isaac answered, some kid just teed off on his face and shattered his jaw.

That slowed down the recording process for a while?

The band were around Chicago for a long time. And they had gotten a lot of the record done, but from what I remember, that incident was right before he was supposed to start recording vocals. And his jaw was wired shut. So things slowed down. I believe there were a lot more instrumental overdubs and other work done, while he healed up.

Maybe in a roundabout way that helped make it a better record?

I believe it helped the record immensely! I think Isaac worked a lot more on his lyrics, too… to me, it’s the best Modest Mouse record.

I agree. It really feels like a weird cousin to what you do.

Brian did a really great job with those guys. They’re making a new record now in Portland, and I know Benny went up there and recorded a bunch with them, and Brian has been there for months on this one and I think they’re almost done. I stopped there and listened to some stuff last spring and it sounded great.

Well before Clava or Chicken Scratch, or Isaac Brock’s jaw, there was your first band, Friends of Betty:

…which turned into Red Red Meat, which of course, eventually morphed into Califone. I guess if I am going to ask all of these questions about your whole life, I can’t not ask about your first serious girlfriend Glynis Johnson, who also played music with you early on.

I met her when I was 18 or 19. I was in college, and she was six years older, a grown up to me. We started playing music together and then we moved in together. We had a band for years, and then…she got H.I.V. and died.

We’d been together for five or six years, in Chicago, and she started hanging out at this bar a lot. There were people at the bar—this is so weird to talk about—who were doing drugs. I remember walking in there to pick her up one night and she was holding hands with this guy who I knew was a drug addict. And I saw that and everything kinda became clear to me—what was going on, and why things maybe felt so strange at home. I’d thought we were maybe just going through one of those times when as a couple you’re maybe a little bit more… separate? I went into the bathroom at the bar and washed my face. Then I left the bar and moved out of the apartment.

We still played music together for a little while, but the tension of trying to be in a band and break-up (romantically) was too much. So we stopped playing music together and within a year of that, she died. I don’t know exactly what happened. First they said she had pneumonia. Then they said it was AIDS. Then they said had an infection that spread into her lungs because she had no immune system. I don’t know if she got it from using needles. Or if she got it from this guy. He died as well. A bunch of people who were hanging out at this bar died, and Glynis was the first to go.

Beyond being devastated, were you worried about your own health?

I went to the doctor and got tested. I was fine.

This is a dumb question: Did you ever go back to the bar?

I didn’t like it. It was place where a bunch of assholes hung out. People who I didn’t really like who put drugs in their arms. It seemed like they were posing. And then the pose got out of control. And then people started dying and sucking dick on the street to make money. That’s what I saw and I was like, “I don’t want any part of this.” It wasn’t romantic to me. As much as I love Keith Richards, he was a rich guy, you know? The reality of being a heroin addict-hipster-asshole is different than being a rich guy-heroin addict-hipster-asshole who takes planes to his gigs and has people going to get his drugs for him.

What are your memories of Glynis now?

She was an amazing, funny, smart, beautiful person. And I loved her. I can’t even tell you how much I loved her. And I still really miss her. Even last night, we played in Athens and I was talking to a girl and she did this gesture that reminded me of Glynis and it sort of killed me for a second. I do miss her. And I do love her, and she was my best friend. It was a tough thing. But at the time I was going back to school and trying to get my shit together and I was starting to learn to really play music and I just tried to keep moving, and tried not to die with her. It was really, really difficult.

It’s tough when the first person you fall in love with dies. When the person who teaches you how to fall in love dies. I know that’s set into everything I’ve ever done. I had this thing where I wished I could have something to stop it. Now I know that I couldn’t do anything to stop it, but for years I thought there was something I could have done to make her choose between me and death. I remember at the time, having arguments, and I was yelling, “You’re choosing death.” Everybody thought I was being too dramatic. Too possessive or jealous. To me, it was okay if she didn’t want to be with me, but, okay, go do something better.

When bad stuff happens you don’t have any choice but to deal. I know I got self destructive. For a while, I felt ripped off that I didn’t die, too. After she died, within two years I was married and had a kid. All of it happened really fast.

I have no idea how you juggled being in your twenties, being in a band and being the dad of a newborn. Did you have any idea what you were doing?

No. I didn’t. But it worked out pretty good.

Tim’s son makes a cameo here:

In the early/mid ‘90s when Red Red Meat was hitting its stride, there were Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, Veruca Salt, all of these Chicago bands and places like the Lounge Axe that were getting national recognition. Did it feel like the epicenter of something?

It felt strange, but growing up there was Big Black and Naked Raygun.

I wasn’t a part of it then, but I was a fan of it. So it just seemed normal that there would be cool stuff going on in Chicago. And even after Red Red Meat had established itself, there was a lot of creative stuff going on with Tortoise, and bands like Shrimp Boat who became the Sea and Cake. I loved them. In the ‘90s, Chicago felt very fertile but, again, we were all in our twenties. Anyone in their twenties thinks they’re in a fertile place where things are happening.

Did Smashing Pumpkins or Urge Overkill feel like real people or cartoon characters?


Did you interact with those people?

Oh, God, yeah. I did. Urge Overkill = cartoon characters. But I liked their band at one point a lot. I didn’t really know them very well. I just noticed that they would wear their costumes to the bar, and I thought that was weird. I tried to talk to them, and I couldn’t get on the same wavelength with them very much. They were too cool for me.

Smashing Pumpkins, we knew. I was friends with James [Iha] and D’Arcy [Wreztky] before they were a big band. With Billy [Corgan], we both worked at record stores, so he would come to my record store and give me shit, and I would go to his record store and give him shit. I worked at a record store called Empire. They had a store in Chicago on Cicero and Montrose and they had a store in Wilmette. For some reason, the Cicero and Montrose store carried a lot of Metal records. Billy would come into that store on a Sunday afternoon with a crew of weirdos when no one was around and give me shit.

The people he was with were Cheech and Chong types, possibly drug damaged, possibly mentally handicapped. All much older than we were, but clearly all taking orders from Billy. One guy was cross-eyed and never said words, he just laughed. One guy was really short and wore a black turtleneck and a large wooden cross on a chain even on hot summer days. One of the guys was pretty nice, but the others picked on him and he didn’t talk much. A few of those guys worked for the Pumpkins after they started touring. I thought it was cool that Billy hired them.

When they came in, they’d all give me shit about whatever record I was playing, unless I was playing Black Sabbath. They all really liked Sabbath. Billy would give me shit about how terrible my band was and tell me about how amazing his band was going to be. When my first record came out they came into the store just to tell me how much they hated it. Billy had some helpful criticisms, but still ripped it apart. I kind of liked that they didn’t like it.

It was pretty amazing to me that everything Billy would boast about, and everything he said was going to happen to his band happened. He was saying that shit years before it ever happened and I would say, “You’re out of your fucking mind.” But he had a clear vision. The people he played with were my friends. And I love those people. They’re good people. So I was happy when they became successful. As weird as Billy Corgan is, he was really supportive of Red Red Meat. They took us on tour with them and we played in front of a ton of people and I will always appreciate that.

Liz Phair?

We used to play Red Red Meat shows at a place in Bucktown called The Gallery a few times a month. After a while people started to come and we’d have these great, packed shows in this little place. At the time, Liz was hanging out with Leroy Bach, and he got us to put her on the bill a few times. She’d get so nervous her hands would shake. I think those were her first shows. Within a year, we were opening shows for her in big clubs filled with girls singing along to every word of her songs.

I got introduced to you by a friend in Minneapolis took me to see Califone very early on. I’d heard Red Red Meat, but never saw you play. On the way to the show, he said something like, “…of course the last time Red Red Meat played the 7th Street Entry they were tripping their balls off.” That scared me. I was under the impression that indie rock was safer! Who would pack up your instruments when you were done? Who would drive?!? I had a lot of concerns. I’d seen promo photo and you looked like hardened Chicago badasses. Was the use of hallucinogens a common occurrence for you?

Oh, there was a lot of that, but I was pretty much done by the time Red Red Meat did Bunny Gets Paid. I had many amazing times and terrible times with that stuff. Part of it was just because we could do it, and part of it was just a search for a transcendent moment. Sometimes you don’t get magical moments unless you fuck something up. It’s the stuff you don’t plan on that is amazing and really feels like real life. It wasn’t necessarily the smartest move, but we had some amazing things happen.

Sometimes, if we were tripping, we would clear rooms. There were also times where I didn’t realize that other people [bandmates] were on acid or mushrooms until I looked at them onstage and they were laughing for no reason, or they were playing a different song, you know? The last time I took mushrooms and did a show was with Red Red Meat in 1994, or ‘95. We were playing in New York, at the Plaza Hotel in the ballroom. It’s a real place! We were playing the party for this Pedro Almodovar movie called Kika. They brought us out to play because this Spanish guy liked our name and because our label, Sub Pop, had given them some money to make the film.

Somebody had given Benny some mushrooms before the show, and I asked him, “Do you want to do this?” And he was like, “Yup.” So we both took the mushrooms, and the show started out pretty great. That night, there were also Flamenco people playing, like actual Spanish people on the bill. One of them was a guy who played a big wooden box with a hole in it. He just sort of hit it, with flourishes. And he had long hair, and maybe an open shirt? With a big hairy chest? Right when he came up onstage, I got hit hard with the mushrooms. I started laughing, but then I sort of locked in with him, and we went off! We started playing a song, but then we began playing this big, throbbing improvised thing with this guy just beating the crap out of this box. It just became this beautiful thing. And when it finally ended, I was so high that I couldn’t really play any more.

The guy stood up and hugged us. He blew kisses to the audience and walked offstage. So I put down my guitar and walked directly out of the hotel and left. I ended up just walking around New York all night, running into people. I ran into Rebecca Gates, who was in town and we ended up going to a Polish restaurant and drank beer.

That night the set list might have been about two songs, plus “The Box Jam,” and then I walked out the door. And the next day no one said anything. Everyone had a good time.

Going back way further, I remember you talking once about family card games with Italian uncles…

Oh yeah, the way our family got our first dog was through gambling. The holidays would always start out nice and then it would turn into all of the adults drinking and playing poker.

I had this cousin who was a hippie, and my family didn’t really like hippies. He showed up one Thanksgiving when I was about seven- or eight-years-old. He brought his girlfriend, his dog, and his own wine—that he made—and he would not share it with anybody. My dad got pissed about that and started giving him shit. And of course, they began playing cards. And us kids spent the whole afternoon playing with this cute little white poodle-mutt puppy. As the card game went on, my dad took all of my cousin’s money, and then made him play for the dog, which he won.

My cousin left with his girlfriend and a very sad face. I smiled at him and said, “You can come to visit your dog!” The dog that he lost to us was named Cream, after the band. He was a big fan, I guess. Maybe he was more of a Jack Bruce fan, actually. Anyway, he got another dog and he named that one Cream, too. A big Alaskan Husky. The next time I saw him, he introduced that dog as Cream, and I said, “No, no, no, we have Cream.”

What did your family think of you playing music? Did they like it? They didn’t like hippies.

No. They’re really nice now. But at the time they never liked it. When I was really young I played piano and violin. Then I gave up on those things, and when I was fifteen I picked up a bass. I played that and a borrowed guitar and I learned to write songs on that. But the way I grew up and where I grew up, it wasn’t really okay to be a musician. It can’t be too different from how you grew up in Wisconsin. Music was sort of a fruity thing to do. Anything that’s not sports is gay. I think they just thought I was a gay child.

Do you have a lot of siblings?

I have two younger brothers and a younger sister.

So the vibe was that the oldest child was turning out gay?

Yeah, pretty much.

Did you meet people in high school you could play music with?

I met some people. I used to go into the city and play open mics at a bar, when I was 16 and starting to write songs. But I played bass in some terrible high school bands. Then I went to Columbia College in Chicago, and I had a roommate with a great record collection that opened my my brain to a lot of other stuff. And it turned out that Benny played music with a guy who I went to high school with. We started playing music together when I was like 19.

When I first listened to Stitches and loved it, and I told you and you wrote back saying something like, “I guess having lousy taste in women really does pay off.”

There’s a lot of heartbreak-y sad stuff on this record about ladies, I think.

Now that you live there, do you find California women troublesome in particular?

(laughs) Not necessarily. They’re similar everywhere in my experience. I think maybe I’m crazy.

Jeez, people in your band aren’t getting along with you. Girlfriends don’t get along with you. I didn’t think you were that abrasive.

I think I’m great for like an hour to three hours, maybe even two days at a time… I’m awesome. Longer than that, I’m a little bit neurotic. I’m either very happy and feel awesome, or sometimes I get on a plane and wish the whole thing would go down. Sometimes if something feels boring, I destroy it with things that I’ll say or do. Nothing spiteful. Just things that are weird or that are funny to me and to nobody else.

A lot of this record was me getting down on myself. I don’t blame other people. I was wondering what the fuck I was doing. Sometimes that kind of searching leads to creative, poetic stuff. I could be happy and paint pictures all day long. I could be happy and cook food. I’ve been really happy and working on a film, or doing a commercial or film music job for someone else. But I’ve never written good songs if I’m happy and feel balanced. (laughs). If I get to a point where I feel amazing much of the time, I don’t know if I would be able to write songs.

“Magdalene” opens with the lyric: “Don’t let her take you down the rabbit hole.” The rabbit hole is just pure anxiety, or obsession, no?

Yeah. Spiraling thoughts. If you fixate on one thing, and usually it’s a shitty thing, it can start affecting your entire body. Friends and I would refer to that feeling for a while, as being in “the well.” There was a book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami where a guy gets stuck in a well, and there’s only fifteen minutes of sunlight a day where the sun passes over the well, and he’s just down there for a really long time. I guess that is what depression would be like.

Has living in Los Angeles changed you?

It’s been really great discovering this weird, big place. It can also get really lonely and isolating out here, too. Which is again, great for writing songs. When I’ve been out here writing for a film job I’ve been really happy. The weather’s nice. There’s a sense of purpose. There’s a deadline. You have someone you have to make happy. But when work stops and there’s nothing to do? I can sort of freak out.

You made an incredible mixtape for the kiln-like drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix.

27 Desert Drive On The 10 Mix by TIM RUTILI (Califone) by Theliminal on Mixcloud

How frequently would you drive there?

At least twice a month. My son was living out there with his mom. I would go there for his soccer games on the weekend. And then just to hang out with him. Michael Krassner was also in Phoenix, and we worked on some films for the past couple of years and this new record as well.

Over the last decade, you’ve worked more and more with film. Playing the Deceleration music in front of film loops, making your own film All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, and you did music for the documentary about Wayne White, Beauty is Embarrassing

Yeah. Neil [Berkeley], the director, called me. The temporary music he’d used while putting together the film was all Califone stuff and he ended up licensing one Califone song. They didn’t have the budget to license more of our songs, so we recorded a bunch of new stuff for the film. I met Wayne a few times. He doesn’t stop! He’s always doing something. I have a really shitty banjo that is great for Califone songs, but for the film, we needed a good banjo, so he lent me his. It was nice of him.

Do you ever think about not being in a band and just doing that sort of stuff all the time?

I think I have a few more records I wanna make and then I don’t know if I want to do this anymore, because I just don’t want to do things that are bad. Or that I think are bad… I know people think that what I do is bad, or some people do, and I just don’t wanna think what I do is bad. And it seems like making music and writing songs is about articulating things that you can’t articulate. It’s about trying to find ways to communicate things that you don’t understand.

In raising your son, do you ever have moments where you say, maybe you should listen to my music, I’m more articulate there…

Never. I never say that. We talk regularly and we’re pretty good. He’s always been a really easy, conscious kid. We got lucky because his mom and I are both very difficult people. But he seems to be cool and he doesn’t panic. He can move between worlds. He can have conversations with adults, and he wants to do well. When I was his age, I wanted to destroy myself and everything and I think I’m still fighting that urge just to see what will fucking happen.

Can we blame this on something? Catholic school?

Sure. I got some weird ideas about God that I still have to unlearn. It’s all so surreal. I remember people, when I was a kid, telling me, if I spilled something, “God’s gonna punish ya!” Hearing that, you’re looking over your shoulder all the time, thinking that this guy, who you only know from seeing a picture of him nailed to a cross, is going to come down and punish you. Some people can just let that roll off of their back, but I never could let it go that easily. It always turned into some bizarre fantasy in my head that scared the shit out of me.

By high school, I imagine it was a pretty easy thing to rebel against…

It was easy because it was so stupid. And it was so much bullshit. I remember early on, thinking “I can’t believe anything that these people tell me.” Like I can’t believe anything that any adult tells me. Everybody’s a liar.

You can find some sort of ecstatic freedom in losing faith in that stuff. I have one more drug story (laughs). Three years ago, when All My Friends are Funeral Singers got chosen for Sundance, we were on tour. So I had to go and finish the movie in Chicago, so we could show it without the band playing to it—there were large chunks of music that we were playing along with the movie. So I had to change the edit, add music, add sounds, mix it and get it ready to screen. We had a deadline that we had to meet.

I was with the girl who I was dating at the time. She was helping me edit the film. I had an apartment in Chicago that I shared with another musician who was always on tour. So one night, we were editing the film, and I see her eating some chocolate and she’s got one piece left, and I was thinking, “I can’t take her last piece.” Then I remembered that my roommate had some chocolate, so I picked up this big lump of like homemade chocolate wrapped in wax paper. It smelled really good, so I ate the entire thing, and it was about the size of a fist.

Then we went back to work…and I felt it. And I was like, “Oh shit. I have food poisoning and I am going to die.” I started sweating. I went to the bathroom, just dying: “I might throw up! But I can’t throw up!” Then I slowly realized, I know this feeling. And it was fucking insane. I was higher than I have ever been in my life. So I called my roommate on the phone and he was in California with his family, and I was like, “Man, that chocolate that was in there…What the hell is going on with that?” And he said, “Someone gave that to me at a show. She said to split it with three people. It’s just mushroom candy that she made.” So it was for three people and I ate all of it. So I accepted it. I was like, “Okay. I am doing this now.” It was snowing outside. I was so high, I had to turn off all of the lights. I couldn’t listen to music with English lyrics. I had to listen to things that were sung in a different language or was instrumental music. I had to take off all of my clothes. I couldn’t wear clothes.

Then I wrapped myself in a blanket, put shoes on and just went outside. And the girl was being cool. She was just being nice to me. She was laughing a bit, but she was cool. Very understanding. Outside, every molecule of moisture in the air was talking to me. And I had to choose what to listen to and what to and what not to. It was just like a whole thing. Everything was talking to me. The pipes in the bathroom were talking to me. Every sound was trying to tell me something. I had to choose what was important and what was not.

Then I kept having this thought that there is absolutely no God. Every molecule of everything is alive and filled with this life force, but there is no God. And all of these molecules! It’s impersonal! No God, just impersonal energy. It doesn’t matter. We’re on our own! We’re totally free! And I felt… (laughs) I had a fucking great time! I didn’t put clothes back on. I enjoyed the rest of my trip, which lasted probably a day and a half. Watched the sun come up, had a wonderful time. Then, when I came down, the same thought of: “There is no God, just this impersonal energy that’s driving everything forward and that everything does die, and when it dies it is dead,” — that same thought that made me so happy when I was high, made me really depressed for like three weeks. That was my last real drug experience.

In “Moses” you sing, “I knew how to love so much better when I was 5,” obviously, this was before the nuns got a hold of you.

I just kept thinking of Moses as a person, and the normal human things that would go through his head. Just standing on top of that cliff, when he’s about to die and he’s watching all of those people cross into the promised land and he can’t go in. And he’s just thinking just, like personal thoughts, you know? About a girl. Being a teenager and coming in his pants when he was making out with a girl. And he’s thinking about all of the stuff that he’s fucked up. And how weird it must have been. Or how normal it must have been.

Like you think he was a real dude? Or this is the inner life of this character we know?

I don’t think he was real at all. I think that that’s all false. The Egyptians kept pretty meticulous records of their history. There’s no historical record of that stuff at all.

So those tales…it’s all like a weird Christian Cartoon Network, basically.

Yeah, I think that’s what it is. Stories. I think with a lot of these songs, it’s about exploring those archetypes and things we carry. We can transpose our own life or journey onto these characters. That’s why they last. Even Harry Potter. The orphan archetype. That’s Moses, too. Someone who is orphaned, then realizes through this weird mystical trip—their birthright. Moses realizing that he’s a Jew and that he has to take his people out of slavery.

That’s a big chore.

Massive chore.

You said earlier that there are people who hate what you do. Do you really think there are people who are actively anti what you’re doing?

No. I just think that there are people who don’t give a fuck. There are a few people who do, and many, many, many people who just don’t. I’m not supposed to say that, but that’s the truth that I see. I don’t really know what it is like to be successful. I’ve never really done anything that everybody likes. I always make records, then stop for a few years. Then do it and stop for a few years. And I don’t know, I still really, really enjoy it. In terms of Stitches I really like it. I think it could enrich people’s lives. (laughs)

I think that’s the end of my questions.

Are you sure?

Jeff Johnson doesn’t do brief. Top photo, Califone show, Chicago, by Fuzzy Gerdes. Photo of Tim Rutili by Mark Sadowski.