Tim Rutili Decodes the Surreal Lyrics of Califone’s “On the Steeple with the Shakes (X-Mas Tigers)”
To call Califone’s lyrics surreal would be an understatement. Hell, it wasn’t long ago that the band recorded an entire album (2004’s Heron King Blues) about a Druid bird god. Like that record, the very first song on their first self-titled EP, 1998’s “On the Steeple with the Shakes (X-mas Tigers),” swarms with trippy imagery and loops of shadowy noise. Though it resists interpretation, the title’s offhand mention of Christmas made us wonder if there might be a larger yuletide theme at work. We asked frontman Tim Rutili to share the origins of his song’s cryptic lyrics.
What exactly is "On the Steeple with the Shakes (X-mas Tigers)" about? Did you have a narrative in mind when you wrote the song, or just a series of surreal images?
TIM: That was a long time ago. I remember writing those words while I was sitting on the toilet after seeing a silverfish on the bathroom floor. It was around Christmastime. I wrote the words in one block and sang them in the order they were written.
So they don’t have any kind of significance beyond the visual element?
TIM: They’re just a series of pictures. The sounds and textures of the words worked well with the music. Seems to me to evoke frozen weather, fragility, erosion, and time. I remember reading a book called Thaïs by Anatole France. In that book, a monk climbs a high pillar and stays up there for a very long time trying to kill his crazy desire for a beautiful woman. I think that monk and his hallucinations are all over the words and sounds in this song.
Would you consider it to be a Christmas song?
TIM: I wouldn’t really consider it a Christmas song, but I like the idea of it playing next to Nat King Cole on a mixtape.
Christmas music tends to annoy a lot of people. What about you?
TIM: I really like some Christmas music, but I really hate The Chipmunks. They have made me feel terrible since I was a small child.
What are some of your favorite Christmas songs?
TIM: I love all the songs in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the animated TV movie—all that Burl Ives stuff. I still watch that every year. I also like the classics—Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis.
Are the tigers in “On the Steeple with the Shakes (X-mas Tigers)” actual living tigers or stuffed animals that one might get for Christmas?
TIM: An “X-mas” tiger is an imaginary one. A toy. Harmless.
You can find “On the Steeple with the Shakes (X-mas Tigers)” on Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People, a compilation of Califone’s first two EPs available through Jealous Butcher Records. The band’s most recent studio album, Stitches, was released this past September on Dead Oceans. Catch them on tour through early February.
Photo by Dusdin Condren.