Red Red Meat's Tim Rutili

BY Brock ThiessenPublished Mar 30, 2009

In the mid-'90s, Red Red Meat stuck out like a sore thumb. Despite being signed to Sub Pop, they were hardly your typical grunge band, but they weren't straight-up rock, folk or blues either. In fact, to this day the Chicago act are still a difficult one to define, with the off-kilter group taking bits of all the above styles, putting them in a blender and coming out sounding like few bands then or now.

Forming in 1990, Red Red Meat released four albums before their break-up in 1997, and it's the third of those, 1995's Bunny Gets Paid, that arguably stands as the group's crowning achievement. With the band's early blues-inspired roots rock giving away to looser, more experimental structures, it was the sound of Red Red Meat finally coming into their own. It was also the album that would become the foundation of group's eventual offshoot, Califone, which has since become the steady musical outlet for Red Red Meat front-man Tim Rutili, as well as several of his old RRM cohorts, throughout the 2000s.

With this in mind, it's no surprise that Sub Pop has decided to give Bunny Gets Paid some much-deserved reissue treatment this year. Being out of print the last few years, the original 11-track album has now been remastered by Red Red Meat's own Brian Deck (who's gone on to produce records by the likes of Modest Mouse, Iron & Wine and Wheat) and sports a whole new second disc of bonus material, making Bunny all that much more essential.

Rutili took a break from recording the upcoming Califone record to tell Exclaim! about his memories of Bunny, the recent Red Red Meat reunion and how it feels to get told, "Get off the heroin and play some rock."

So in your mind, how does Bunny Gets Paid stand apart from the other Red Red Meat albums?
I think Bunny is the record where we stopped being a conventional rock band, and started being ourselves, so it's pretty important for me. It was the beginning of our experimentation with what we can do in the studio and what we can do as a band.

Do certain things stand out in your mind about recording that album?
I remember really, really enjoying the process. We were trying things that we had never done before. That was the first time we didn't rehearse songs before we went into the studio. I think we went in with half the record written and the other half we wrote in the studio, which was another first for us. And before that, we were pretty much a straight-ahead rock band, and on that record, we let go of a lot of the rock parts in what we did. Another thing about it was Tim Hurley stepped forward as more than a bass player on Bunny, and he sang a lot more and played a lot more guitar. He introduced us to a lot more eclectic elements too. And that's the first record Ben Massarella came back as a percussionist, so that was the first record we had two drummers on.

Do you feel this record had a big impact on your more experimental Califone work, then?
Yeah, that record feels like where it started.

How do you feel Bunny fit in back then in '95, with grunge and all that?
I remember at the time people not liking it very much. It was really strange because for us it was like, this was our first really good record. I remember being really into it and proud of it, and then when we first started playing shows with those songs, I remember someone walking up to the stage and putting a note at my feet and it said, "Get off the heroin and play some rock." So I don't think we were pleasing the masses, but we were really happy with what we were doing, so it kind of didn't matter.

I heard your shows were pretty crazy back then. I once read that Material Issue's Jim Ellison threw a cup of urine at you guys one time or something like that.
Yeah there was all kinds of urine and feces back then. I don't remember so much about that but I think that was sort of a drunken misunderstanding that went real bad. Jim is dead now, but I don't think that had anything to do with it.

How did you decide which bonus tracks you were going to add to the remastered Bunny?
We went through everything we had from that year, so there were singles and tracks we didn't use and we just picked the stuff that sort of stood up or worked the best or seemed interesting. We put things on there that were only on vinyl or never came out. We actually included a cover of a Low song ["Words" from 1994's I Could Live in Hope] we did.

So is it strange for you to think back about that record now that's it's so far in the distant past?
Yeah, we were a lot more innocent back then, and it just felt like a really good, hopeful time. I mean, we thought we were making a classic rock record.

Do you remember being disappointed then by the kind of negative reaction it got?
Well, we just all kind of plowed through it. I mean, the next record we made [1997's There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight], we all think that's the best record we've ever done, as far as Red Red Meat stuff goes. And that wasn't even as well-received as Bunny, and we sort of just broke up after that.

Yeah, but you never really "officially" broke up Red Red Meat.
Well, we just kind of just stopped doing Red Red Meat stuff and went on to Califone. I mean, I started doing Califone as a solo thing but it slowly sort of morphed into a band and now [producer/drummer] Brian Deck is around, Ben is around, and if Tim Hurley was still in town I'm sure he'd be here too. We are all still friends and we all still enjoy working together.

I saw play Red Red Meat at the Sub Pop anniversary festival last summer. What was that experience like for you guys?
It was really fun. We got together five days before the festival to get reacquainted with how to play that way - that old, more rock way - because none of us really play that way anymore. I think, at least live, we are better than we've ever been with that stuff. I remember during the two shows we played last summer thinking, "Wow, I wish we were this good back then."

So do you see yourself ever recording again as Red Red Meat?
I would like to, but we'll see what happens. I would love to approach things as a rock band again with those guys. It would be pretty fun. But now everyone's busy and lives in different parts of the country, so it's tough to make the time. But we'll see.

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