Published Jan 01, 2006When the five members of avant-rock collective Tortoise arrive in Canada this month for the Eastern swing of Exclaim!'s 12th Anniversary Concert Series, don't be surprised if they have a little bounce in their step. It's not that they're swelled with pride at their accomplished new album, It's All Around You though they'd have every right. Nor is it that they're finally receiving widespread acknowledgment for their progressive blend of groove-laden rock with studio-based electronics.
No, it's just that finally, after more than a decade of leading the pack in underground innovation, they no longer carry the weight of an entire city on their shoulders.
When Tortoise started catching ears in the early 90s, few could define exactly what they were doing. Drawing from such disparate genres as jazz, rock, dub and electronic, Tortoise were praised for being smart, sophisticated and undeniably original. But if there's one constant in music journalism, it's the quest for a perfect sub-classification to define a new wave in music. And no matter how fresh or original a sound may be, it's only a matter of time before someone goes ahead and names it.
For Tortoise, their time came swiftly, when writer Simon Reynolds outed their genre in a May 1994 issue of The Wire, a popular British music mag especially guilty of succumbing to the hype game. From that day forward, any band that used "rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes" or "guitars as facilitators of timbres and textures rather than riffs and power chords" would forever be labelled with his newly coined "post-rock" tag. Though his article specifically targeted acts like Stereolab, Disco Inferno and Seefeel, Tortoise fit his description like a glove and the band eventually became unwilling figureheads for the new genre.
But while genre labels are a necessary evil in music journalism, the most ridiculous repercussion from Reynolds' new tag was the near-immediate crossover to what was dubbed "the Chicago sound." Patterned after similar, higher profile "scenes" like mid-80s post-punk (Washington, DC) and early 90s grunge (Seattle), Chicago was next on the hit list of sweeping generalisations.
"I've always hated talking about the so-called Chicago sound,' because I really don't think that there's an aesthetic we all adhere to," says Tortoise's uncrowned leader John McEntire, who has manned the soundboard as well as a drum kit throughout Tortoise's career. "Sure, there are a lot of bands here and a lot of us have similar influences, but I don't think there's a definable sound to this city. I kind of wish people would stop talking about it. I guess there's nothing fundamentally wrong with that, but I'd rather not think about it."
If Tortoise were crowned as the leaders of this new cool, it's not entirely unjustified. After all, many of the artists shaded by the "Chicago sound" umbrella had at least a passing association with the band. A map of their connections to Chicago players and labels would resemble the London subway system; Tortoise players have no more than two degrees of separation to acts including: Bastro, Eleventh Dream Day, Gastr Del Sol, Pullman, Brokeback, Isotope 217, Directions in Music, Slint, the For Carnation, Aluminum Group, the Sea and Cake, Rex, the Red Krayola and more. That's not even touching McEntire's production work (Stereolab, High Llamas), or a variety of Chicago labels interested in avant-rock and underground innovation (Touch & Go, Drag City, Kranky, Hefty), particularly Tortoise's home, Thrill Jockey Records.
From the outset, Tortoise has been rooted in rhythm. Specifically in a rhythm section. In 1992, bassist Douglas McCombs and drummer John Herndon sought an escape from the loud guitars and conventional structures they'd grown bored of playing in various punk and rock bands. Their taste for dub and a more dynamic, innovative style of rock-based music was central to the early incarnation of Tortoise originally they'd conceived the project as a kind of rhythm section-for-hire. As their grooves got more ambitious, they invited another drummer, McEntire, another bassist, Bundy K. Brown, and a percussionist, Dan Bitney, to help round out their vision.
The group quickly focused their ideas, building compositions around odd textures, syncopated rhythms and interesting grooves. Their early material was rife with rock abandon and dub mentality, delivered in a succinct and airtight package.
When it came time to release their first record, the group paired up with newly-minted New York-based label, Thrill Jockey Records. Thrill Jockey founder Bettina Richards and bassist Doug McCombs had bonded over their mutual distaste for major labels when McCombs' Eleventh Dream Day were signed to Richards' employer, Atlantic Records. Inspired by underground successes like Touch & Go and Dischord, Richards left Atlantic to start the label. She naturally offered McCombs the opportunity to release his future projects with her new imprint.
Thrill Jockey has since moved to Chicago to be closer to much of their roster and have gone on to release more than 100 records, comprised substantially of releases from Tortoise and their off-shoots, including the Sea & Cake, Isotope 217 and, after their major label contract had expired, Eleventh Dream Day.
"It's never really occurred to us to go anywhere else," McEntire explains. "We grew up together, so it seems like the most natural place to be. The label is really good at giving artists their space and letting us do what we have to do to keep playing and making records. We've been married for a long time now and, so far, we've never felt inclined to get a divorce."
The newfound couple, band and label, gave birth to their first born in 1994. Tortoise's self-titled debut was a perfectly articulated snapshot of the band's left-of-centre musical aspirations. Using the studio as a kind of sixth member, it introduced the electronic-jazz blur that has bloomed with each subsequent release. At a time when indie rockers were passing off lo-fi as campy and sloppy as honest, Tortoise's approach reinstated the importance of innovation and technical skill.
The attention shining on Tortoise and their offshoots soon began to wear on some of the band's members, and not long after tours and interviews began, Brown left the group in search of more stable endeavours. (Though he's continued to dabble in music, he's now employed as an ambulance driver.)
While their debut flirted with studio manipulation, their next two steps provided a blend of electronics and organics in ways that continue to define the band to this day. Once again, Tortoise subverted the typical they handed their debut album to engineer friends like Steve Albini and Jim O'Rourke, flipping the remix formula by recruiting decidedly non-electronic producers to remix their distinctly non-rock tunes. That collection, Rhythms, Resolutions and Clusters, was released later in 1994. Their ambiguous stance in the genre game left them working in a world all their own.
Then came a defining moment for the band, for post-rock, for the whole of 90s indie rock culture: they returned to the studio to work on their follow-up, Millions Now Living Will Never Die.
For the first time, Millions introduced guitar to the Tortoise world, in the hands of David Pajo (founder of Slint, another band tagged as "post-rock") but it was McEntire's studio manipulations that provided the album's centrepiece. "Djed," the album's 21-minute opener, shredded their trademark groove into a masterpiece of melodic distortion, linking musique concrete with the remix, and dub sensibilities with the dance floor. The album focused even more on both studio tinkering and instrumental colour in the form of vibes, marimbas, and xylophones dancing around slinky bass lines, digital blips and polyrhythmic beats, falling somewhere between Steve Reich-inspired experimentation, European electronics, progressive rock and highbrow jazz. Millions was nothing short of a masterpiece, now considered to be a definitive landmark in independent music.
"It was a surprise that so many people got into that record," says McEntire. "We had some success with the first one but, after Millions, we were getting a lot more attention. I remember thinking it was sort of cool to be recognised for what we were doing, but I'm not sure we were prepared for it. All of the sudden, people were talking to us differently. We're pretty regular guys so it was weird to be looked at as having some kind of status. It's kind of uncomfortable, actually."
As the accolades rolled in, Pajo followed Brown out the door, leaving the band in late 1996. (He's gone on to head up his own Papa M/Aerial M incarnation.) There were no immediate plans to fill his seat, until the perfect replacement moved in down the hall.
"I didn't really know them that well at first," says guitarist Jeff Parker. "A room was available at their house and I ended up moving in with a few of them. There was a practice space at the house, so we just started playing together casually. Before I knew it, they asked me to be in the band and I started touring with them. I guess I was a full-fledged member by the time we recorded TNT."
Parker came from a professionally trained background, having spent four years at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He dropped out just before completing his degree because he was tired of the rigid formula and stuffy jazz posturing of his peers and profs.
He was a perfect fit for a version of Tortoise that was slipping even further into their studio-as-instrument philosophy; 1998's TNT was their least formulaic, most studio-manipulated release yet. A digital collage of sliced sound waves and beats, TNT was written almost entirely in the studio, resulting in a blissful mishmash of noise and notes.
While still drumming full-time in at least two bands (Tortoise and the Sea and Cake), John McEntire spent his free time building Soma Electronic Music Studio. It evolved as Tortoise did, in an "embryonic fashion"; it's now a world-class room that draws bands from around the world, including Japan, Scotland and Norway.
"It's fucking hard work running a studio," McEntire says. "And it's not exactly the most stable form of employment you can find. You work a lot of hours and you're never really sure how many projects you'll have on the go at one time. But people like Steve Albini or myself are pretty lucky because a lot of bands want to work with us just because of other things we've been involved with. The actual studio isn't necessarily what draws people here, but I think people leave feeling good about their decision. I'd like to think so anyway."
Tortoise recorded each of their albums in various stages of Soma's development. Parker says that, while it might be a good experience to record in a totally new environment, they've always felt most comfortable in the driver's seat. "John really knows his way around his studio and we all get a little more hands-on when we're working in a place that's familiar to us."
"Since we have a studio of our own, it's always been easy for us to take the time we need to get things done," McEntire says, "We can do all the manipulating and studio work we want to because we're not under the gun of an hourly rate it's a lot less pressured. The problem with that is that we end up spending so long on little pieces of music because there's nobody ever telling us when to move on. Even within the band, you can't tell one of the other members they're done with a part when they aren't. It just doesn't work that way."
While TNT was their most studio-based album, an experiment of in-house construction and meticulous processing, the band re-evaluated that approach for their next effort. Standards, released in 2001, was a consistent, song-based album, focused on actual performance as opposed to digital doctoring. Using the digital additions as a means to decorate the songs instead of letting major studio tinkering carry the sound, the change came through an experiment that reversed the process of writing and touring.
"When we write a record, it's usually all done in the studio so we always have to relearn the songs when we plan on touring them," Parker explains. "The songs change when we play them live a lot, so we wondered what it'd be like to demo the songs, develop them on the road and then go back into the studio with the songs full-grown. By the time we went to [the studio] for Standards, we had already played the songs live a handful of times so they were a bit more solidified."
Three years removed and slightly to the left of Standards' performance-based arrangements, their new album, It's All Around You, blurs the electro-acoustic line more than ever before, pitting Afro-beat-inspired grooves against airy electronic beats, high-hat-driven dance stomps against precisely-controlled feedback and even gently-sliced vocal "oohs" and "aahs" against a compressed digital backdrop.
It's All Around You is less about bold experimentation for its own sake, and more fine-tuning the natural progression of their vision. "We definitely try to progress, but it's usually a response or reaction to where we've already been," Parker explains. "The only definite first for this record would be the way we did the vocals on The Lithium Stiffs.' That was just an experiment we wanted to try. We played with [Thrill Jockey label-mate] Nobukazu Takemura a bunch of times on the Standards tour and he was doing something similar with one of his songs, but with that computer voice you hear all the time. Doug was really interested in trying it with real voices, so it eventually ended up on the record."
"I think the writing is a lot stronger than most of our other records," McEntire says of It's All Around You. "We spent a really long time on it and really tried to get things exactly right. And I'm not just talking about all the studio enhancements, though those did take a long time. We just wanted to make a record that was pretty solid from start to finish and sometimes that takes a long time to create. But I'm really happy with the way it turned out, so all the time we spent on it is completely justified."
Performing with the most solidified group of players they've ever had, the band says it's getting easier to translate the songs for the stage. But when it comes time to hit the road to support It's All Around You, Tortoise will face a new challenge.
"It's getting harder to leave Chicago for long periods of time because we have families now," Parker says. "We can't go gallivanting around the world for months like we used to. That doesn't mean we're not going to play as much as we used to; it just means that we have to be better at scheduling lots of little tours as opposed to massive ones."
As long as that enthusiasm remains, it seems the band's rooted existence won't be enough to make them throw in their hats anytime soon. "It's pretty good now," McEntire reflects. "We've paid our dues and we're not in the same position as we were earlier on."
That position is an enviable one for Tortoise; no longer do they shoulder the mantle of a sound or scene. And with rock musicians and electronic producers increasingly blurring the lines between studio and stage, between sound board and jam space, Tortoise's back catalogue has formed a blueprint for the contemporary music in ways they never could have predicted. In fact, more than a decade after a couple of drummers and a couple of bassists laid down a groove, Tortoise is even more relevant today.
"We don't necessarily have to prove anything to anybody anymore," McEntire continues. "We can work the way we want to. We've been lucky to be able to make a living off of what we love and we all seem to be in it for the long haul. We're being more selective with what we devote our time to, but I think we all want to keep working on music. I really don't know any other way to live."