Lindsey Verrill (Little Mazarn) and Tim Rutili (Califone) Talk Their Oppositional Songwriting Processes, and More

Read their conversation and check out the new video for “Dew Years Nay.”

Lindsey Verrill is the songwriter and vocalist of the Austin-based duo Little Mazarn; Tim Rutili is the principal songwriter for the experimental rock band Califone, and has played in the bands Ugly Casanova and Red Red Meat. Little Mazarn’s album Texas River Song is coming out August 19 on Dear Life Records, and today they’re releasing the first single off of it — to celebrate, Lindsey and Tim hopped on a Zoom call to catch up about the record, the shows they’ll be playing together this summer, and more. Read their conversation and check out the video for Little Mazarn’s “Dew Years Nay” below.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Lindsey Verrill: I’m trying to remember the last time I saw you. I think it was when we did that show at Beerland [in Austin].

Tim Rutili: Oh, my god.

Lindsey: It was, like, 2018. 

Tim: Wow, yeah.That was a long time ago.

Lindsey: But we talked a couple of times — when I asked you about recording, you said some people stole a bunch of stuff from your studio.

Tim: Yeah, I got robbed. They they broke into a storage space. I have a little studio that I share with people, so I usually leave stuff in storage and then go to storage and use what I need to use at any given time. But yeah, they got a lot of stuff, like six guitars and an old keyboard and a bunch of recording stuff. Just terrible. Evil. 

Lindsey: Yeah. I received the junky grossest guitar recently — like it’s duct-taped and has a horrifying story of its sad, sad life. It’s an Epiphone or something, and it’s ugly AF. And it sounds so good. Anyway, [laughs]. If you need a guitar, it’s very you.

Tim: I like shitty guitars.

Lindsey: [Laughs.] Yeah, I know. I like shitty guitars, too.

Tim: I like animals that are missing limbs too. Like dogs without tails and legs and stuff, I like that.

Lindsey: Did you meet my three-legged dog?

Tim: I think I did a few times when I played at your house. He was really sweet.

Lindsey: He’s in the rainbow world now, but he was an ugly dog. When they took his leg away, he had a scar, like, 16 inches long down the side of his body where they cut it, and then it would get dreadlocks that would blow out of it icicles. A truly majestic creature.

Tim: He seemed sweet and happy, he didn’t seem pissed off about it.

Lindsey: He had a cool, positive attitude. I guess the leg that was removed was the leg that he would hold up when he peed or whatever, and he was still committed to that even after, so he would go up to a pole and he would climb up it with the one remaining leg so that his entire back end was off the ground. Which I just was like, you gotta be you, you know?

Tim: Totally!

Lindsey: So, thank you for your contribution to my album. 

Tim: Your album is beautiful. 

Lindsey: Thanks. You really put your your heart into it and made something special.

Tim: It was easy because it was a beautiful song.

Lindsey:  Well, it made me think of you. I don’t know why, but anyway, thanks for doing that.

Tim: You’re going to play with us in Portland and Seattle.

Lindsey: Yeah. It’s the intention. [Laughs.] Nothing is guaranteed in this world.

Tim: We don’t know what’s going to happen.

Lindsey: Yeah, but it’s our intention to travel thousands of miles and not get the dreaded virus.

Tim: Are you going to have shows going up there like on the way up?

Lindsey: I don’t think so, I think we’re just going to fly up there. We are playing at a festival called Nelsonville the following weekend, and it’s in Ohio. And we figured it out that driving across country actually requires quite a lot of of us. [Laughs.] 

Tim: You have to pack a lot of sandwiches.

Lindsey: Yeah, sandwiches, you have to have CDs. Do you listen to CDs in the car?

Tim: Sometimes I do, yeah. I still like CDs.

Lindsey: I like CDs too. I think they might be coming back. Are you part of the generation that had sold CDs in earnest?

Tim: Yeah. [Laughs.] 

Lindsey: Do you feel resentful?

Tim: What, about CDs and streaming?

Lindsey: Yeah. Or the turnover in the industry from the people buying albums model to, like, no longer that.

Tim: I guess I did at some point feel like, This is weird. It’s probably not so good and it feels like it devalues music. I don’t know if resentful is the right word, but yeah, it feels like it devalued what we do in a way, so that maybe even it affected how people listen to music — like they’re more like, “Next. No.” Instead of having to buy a thing, put it on and listen to it. 

I’m working on albums now, and I’m like, Are people going to listen to this? If I get deep into sequencing and do some really intentional sequencing on this group of songs, will it just be sort of blown off because people are on Spotify skipping through, or listening to just one song? It is weird. But you came up with this, this is what you’ve known since you’ve been playing music, right? 

Lindsey: Pretty much, yeah. I guess when I first started making albums, I was making CDs and I thought it was really cool that I could burn them at home. I was burning CDs at home and packaging them up each and selling them.

Tim: Yeah. That seems really cool.

Lindsey: It was pretty cool. And people that sold music online — that seemed very inaccessible to me, because I was just really DIY and I was not engaged with the music industry. Even with my band that I went pretty far with at the time, we were like, “I think you could put your music on the iTunes or whatever?” But we were still selling CDs — every CD that we sold, our personal hands handed it to people.

Tim: We did a little bit of that, too. I think it’s a lovely thing. And I guess you can still do that.

Lindsey: Yeah. I think it’s confusing. I feel like the numbers are the same. Like the numbers of people that really connect with your art are probably about the same, but the internet makes it feel like there’s a greater possibility out there or something. I mean, I don’t know. I’ve never signed to a major label or anything like that, so I don’t really know what that’s all about.

Tim: I don’t understand any of that stuff. I’m just trying to make sure I’m writing some good songs right now and not really worrying about that stuff yet. But yeah, it’s really strange. I want people to hear it. There’s something about letting people come to you — which sometimes they come and sometimes they don’t. [Laughs.] But being yourself and doing what you want to do and then hoping that people that want it, find it. I think that’s kind of great.

Lindsey: Yeah, that’s bold.

Tim: That’s the ideal. But then you gotta do certain things to let people know that it’s there. And that’s where I get flustered and don’t really know what to do.

Lindsey: Yeah. But in a way, maybe that’s the mark of a true artist, or someone who’s remaining true to the art. Because I think there’s a lot of, “Oh, we should be marketing our art.” And I try to just sort of flip that off. I don’t really want to be marketing my art all the time. I just want to make art and have it be pretty good.

Tim: But you play a bunch of shows and you put it out there. I don’t play a lot of shows anymore, but I see that you do a whole bunch of stuff all the time, right?

Lindsey: Yeah, it’s a little crazy.

Tim: Because you feel like you’re doing too much.

Lindsey: Sometimes I struggle to maintain balance in my life. I mean, the pandemic really highlighted that. A lot of it was really horrible and stuff, but there were moments where I was like, Wow, I’m truly content and I haven’t done shit for days. [Laughs.] 

Tim: That’s awesome.

Lindsey: I’m going to go to Mexico in June, to Mexico City.

Tim: I haven’t been there. It’s lovely.

Lindsey: I haven’t been there either, I’m just going to see what it’s like. So I’ve gotten really into listening to conjunto music and early Texas music — I don’t think that has anything to do with Mexico City, but I want to acquire some Mexican instruments, so I’m hoping I can find something like that there.

Tim: That’s going to be awesome. I can’t wait to see what you come back with.

Lindsey: Oh, yeah, I’ll show you. So you’re writing music right now, or recording right now?

Tim: I kind of didn’t write songs for a couple of years. And that was probably good, kind of just to step off it for a long time. Then I scored a movie last summer that was kind of a job-job, and then after that was done, I started writing songs. I wrote a lot of terrible things that I kind of threw in the garbage, and then things that I liked started coming, and now they’re coming so I’m just trying to catch them while they’re coming. So recording started in October and it’s just been on and off since then. Sometimes it’s just me, and sometimes it’s with people. I was in Chicago last week with Brian Deck, and we went through all the stuff and recorded some overdubs. So it’s kind of taking shape.

Lindsey: Cool.

Tim: We’re preparing things for streaming.

Lindsey: [Laughs.] Oh, god. What is that?

Tim: We’re going to do some preemptive Spotify gaming. We’re going to get that algorithm going.

Lindsey: Damn! You’re like, the curve is here, [marks a spot,] and this is you.

Tim: Right, I’m about three steps ahead of that curve.

Lindsey: You’re ten steps ahead.

Tim: But writing songs is a mind fuck and a puzzle and kind of fun. How do you write songs? Do you have a normal practice?

Lindsey: I’m trying to write songs again. I’ve done it different every time. And the same! Different and the same every time. I guess this is the third album that I’ve made, this one that’s about to come out. The songs that I had written previously, I would write them and then just play tons of shows and then record them. And by the time they were recorded, they were like, this—

Tim: You knew them.

Lindsey: Yeah. I think the album that I made before this most recent one, Io, we recorded it in like in a day and a half, because like I knew the songs so well. I just played through them all in one take. And then we did a day of overdubs and I was done.

Tim: God, that’s great.

Lindsey: I think it’s great, but also I did it out of necessity. I wanted to make another album and I had written all the songs for it, but in 2020 and 2021, there wasn’t any way to perform them. And it was torturing me, because I knew that the songs that I made were cool. So I just wanted to make a document of them. So I had to kind of trust that part of the process, of playing them over and over live and grinding all the edges off of them in front of audiences, and then recording them as these documents, or finished creations — I couldn’t do that, so all the songs on Texas River Song, I just wrote them. Some of them I even just had the lyrics written on a piece of paper and a rough idea of chords and just sort of played a few takes of them over and over in the studio until I could do it without stopping. And then that was the song. They were very raw, and when we went into the studio, I didn’t feel very confident. But listening to it now, I’m like, Oh no, that was great way to do that.

Tim: Yeah, it’s really good to do things in a different way.

Lindsey: Yeah. But it’s resonating with me when you say you’re writing a bunch of crap, and then the good things come after that because I think it’s always like, Oh, I don’t want to write anymore. And then I don’t write for a while, and then I start again, and I just try to push everything out of the toothpaste tube or whatever. Like, it doesn’t matter. All the gross stuff that’s at the top just is out and then some good things after that. 

Tim: Yeah, and then you just refine it and find the things that feel good and feel real and feel true. I guess sometimes you do have to force yourself. I don’t know, when I force myself, usually bad things happen. Bad songs come out. But I don’t know, one person’s bad song is another person’s like, Well, you just wrote “American Pie,” you know? Or like, you just wrote some big old hit, and it’s bad and terrible.

Lindsey: That’d be a crazy album to force yourself to write it. [Laughs.] 

Tim: I’ve made records with no songs and a band, and we just played through and sort of sculpted things in the studio and looped things and built songs out of nothing. But that was back in the old days in Chicago when we had a studio, and if nobody else was using the studio, we could kind of camp out and make some things. And that was fun, too. 

Lindsey: That’s a cool testament to a time like that, a time and a space where you can make art like that. 

Tim: Well, I guess I’m still doing a little bit like that, but just it’s by myself mostly. It’s like putting down ideas, recording ideas, and then a lot of the process is in the computer now with loops and parts, and then taking that and trying to play them. I would say the first six things that were recorded for this upcoming whatever it is, I kind of wrote and recorded everything by myself on the computer, and worked really hard on it, and then had friends come and learn the songs. I kind of forgot about what I originally recorded, and we just played them all together and recorded that. And that felt really good, because after the pandemic thing, it felt amazing to play with people and to let go of anything that I thought was… you know, less me was better and more us was good.

Lindsey: I have a couple of little recordings of some jams that I’ve had recently, and one of them I’ve kind of been combing through and pulling out some of the things that I did that were that were cool and inspired by the other person at The Jam and making some songs out of that. I don’t know if it’s good — it still feels a little bit like that icky feeling. But it’s an interesting approach.

Tim: It’s like making a collage in a way, you know?

It was probably a month ago, I was working with my friend Brad — we were just in his living room, he’s got a piano, he’s got some weird modular synths set up, and then I had guitars and pedals and stuff. And we just started playing and we recorded hours of stuff, and out of those hours, I took and edited together sections and loops, and out of that came two things that kind of sound like songs. But a lot of what we did was noise. It was like epic drone madness.

Lindsey: I wanna hear that.

Tim: Well, I still have the on the unedited version. But it was really cool to shape. It still has the wildness of it, you can still feel the abandon of the original thing in the collage. It seems like a weird song using changes and melodies that I never, ever, ever would have come up with by myself. It was just the two of us going bananas, you know? And it was raining — we recorded the rain, put a microphone outside and recorded the sound of us playing in the room from outside and used all that. 

A lot of my pandemic stuff was like, I don’t feel like working on music and I feel kind of useless. But to get out of that, I started painting and making collage things just for me. And a lot of this music feels like [that]. I guess with Califone, it’s always been making collages. But it does feel like you take all these things, you gather all these things, and then you sort of shuffle the deck and make something else out of them.

Lindsey: Man, that couldn’t be more opposite to my process. [Laughs.] 

Tim: I want to try doing what you’re doing. I haven’t done that in a long time.

Lindsey: I feel like I have such a direct intention, and I don’t have that using-the-studio-as-an-instrument skill at all. I don’t know that much about recording. Actually, the pandemic was the first time I ever — Thor [Harris] was like, “Lindsey, you have to get your home studio and you have to be able to record at home! You’re leaving money on the table!” I don’t have a computer, but he helped me get my iPad set up. I got this little square thing that goes in there with the shaped holes that the microphone has. So if someone’s like, “Hey, will you play on my record?” I can be like, “Yeah.” I got a 58 and I put it really close to the bass or whatever, so I can do that. But when I think about creating, I’m not like, Oh, I’m going to [just record sounds]. I mean, I love that. That’s inspiring.

Tim: That record that we made with Craig [Ross], he had some really amazing ideas that were already recorded. I was like, I’m just going to hang out with Craig and help him finish some of these things. And then I don’t know how much songwriting went on when we weren’t together. We just kind of recorded things and he did his magic, and I wrote down some words and played some stuff. But we made that whole record while we were recording it. It was written while it was being recorded. It’s a fun way to work. 

I would love to hear what you would do like that. The thing is that’s difficult is, what you’re great at is this beautiful spare — it’s empty and there’s all this beautiful space, and you can hear every drop of every sound that you’re making. When you start doing things the way like we were doing it on that Craig record, or the way I’ve been doing some of this stuff now is, you start shit-piling because you get all these ideas and and the possibilities are too much. You have endless tracks to overdub and you start hearing every possibility and putting it down. Like where I’m at with this stuff that I’m working on now is subtracting things. And after the subtraction happens, then it’ll be ready to mix.

What I think is, we should make a song together in the studio with Craig the next time I’m in Austin and we should start with nothing and see what we come up with. Start with an epic drone or jam and see if we can chop it into something that sounds like a weird pop song.

Lindsey: That sounds like a really fun day. [Laughs.]

Tim: Or a fun month!

Lindsey: And then at the end, we’ll do a show on the roof.

Tim: We would probably fall through a roof. Let’s do a show on the ground. That roof thing’s been done.

Lindsey: I’m really looking forward to hanging in August! It’s going to be really cool.

Tim: It’s going to be fun!

Little Mazarn’s Texas River Song is out August 20, and you catch them live with Califone in the Northwest that same month:

8/19: Seattle, WA at Sunset Tavern

8/20: Portland, OR at Mississippi Studios

(Photo Credit: left, Jake Dapper) 

Little Mazarn is Lindsey Verrill and Jeff Johnston, an electric banjo and singing saw duo from Austin, TX. Inspired by the 1960s primitive folk revival and early “high lonesome” Appalachian sound, as well as modern minimalism and ambient music, they combine imaginative songwriting with dreamy and innovative use of traditional instruments and textures. Since 2016 they’ve been performing live in rock clubs, folk listening rooms and unconventional spaces such as dry riverbeds, abandoned buildings, galleries, theaters, and churches in the United States and Canada.

Their first record, a collection of original songs and reinterpreted traditional ballads, was released in December 2017. In May 2019 they will be releasing their second album titled Io recorded in August at Ramble Creek Studios.

Verrill and Johnston are also known individually for their work with Bill Callahan, Dana Falconberry, Okkervil River, Thor and Friends, and many others.

(Photo Credit: Mike Manewitz)