Music has long been known to conjure up visions, its psychic power dating back to ancient religious traditions. Rock music itself has been known at times to evoke strong imagery—it lends itself well as a soundtrack for films. Even its makers are often of colorful enough to serve as riveting subject matter for documentary filmmakers. The film All My Friends Are Funeral Singers written and directed by Califone singer/ guitarist Tim Rutili, though, is a decidedly singular visual and musical creation.
“We wanted to make an album that would stand alone,” Rutili explains. “We don’t consider it a soundtrack album.” Still, the relationship of the film to the album is intriguing. Previous Califone albums have traversed similar cinematic terrain, including the Deceleration series (of which only two of a planned four are completed), recorded while the band played live soundtracks for films made several years earlier.
The band had long enjoyed playing music along to silent films, so in a sense the film project was an extension of that. Their favorite to accompany is “He Who Gets Slapped” featuring Lon Chaney as a man who becomes a clown. But their process is also an analogue of the experience of listening to music. “Sometimes when you’re playing music to a visual image, it’ll give you ideas triggered by the picture—ideas that wouldn’t have come up.” It’s an odd kind of synaesthesia loop between the visual and auditory mediums.
The movie, starring cult actress Angela Bettis, tells the story of Zel, a fortune teller living in a house inhabited by ghosts. Rutili finds the fortune teller an archetypal character. “A lot of that is everybody‘s; anyone can relate.” The late-1800s period feel of the film lends it the air of fable, of a drama that takes place outside of time. “It’s a simple story, about loss and letting go, finding freedom and joy in that, not just sorrow.”
All My Friends Are Funeral Singers is the culmination of Rutili’s cinematic vision which includes Key to the Highway, a film and video installation commissioned by Chris Doyle for the 50,000 Beds exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.
As a rock musician, the former singer of critically lauded '90s-era indie band Red Red Meat has always ensured that his songs had a personality of their own—that their music was its own art form. “Our priority was making sure the songs are good,” he maintains, “that they stand up on their own, like the story was the focus of the film.” Funeral Singers tells a story in a sense, like the sequencing of any album has its own internal logic, but then a song like “Polish Girls” has one of the most stick-in-your-head hooks ever recorded by the Chicago band known for sonic and melodic experimentation within the rock song format.
Califone finished the album in March 2009, and shot the movie in April in a rickety old house in rural Indiana. “We recorded a lot of the music in the house, and it affected the way we shot the movie.” Rutili recalls. “We used a lot of ambient sounds in the house.” When you see the band playing in the movie, they are actually recording. A good amount of the music is improvised, especially instrumental music serving as background atmospherics in the film, like the track “A Wish Made While Burning Onions Will Come True.”
To further blur, or perhaps heighten the distinction between the film and the album, Califone will be playing live along with the movie on its Jan. 26 screening at the festival. It’s one of the most eagerly awaited events at Sundance, especially among music lovers. “It’s very precise, we have to be aware of what we’re doing,” Rutili says of the performance. “We have to make sure we’re on with certain moments, but there’s still room to improvise.”
ALL MY FRIENDS ARE FUNERAL SINGERS
w/ live performance by Califone
New Frontier on Main, Park City
Tuesday, Jan. 26