Tortoise Get Vocal with 'The Catastrophist'

Photo: Andrew Paynter

BY Vish KhannaPublished Feb 1, 2016

The latest album by influential American instrumental band Tortoise is called The Catastrophist, which might trigger thoughts about U.S. presidential hopeful/arch villain Donald Trump.

"I don't believe the album is named after Donald Trump, no," multi-instrumentalist Doug McCombs chuckles during a conference call with his bandmate, John McEntire at the latter's Chicago recording facility, Soma. "I think The Catastrophist is a general state of being. It's all of us and everyone combined — the state of the world."

McEntire adds, "We're living in a state of constant fear. Every single thing that seems to be a problem gets blown out of proportion into something totally unthinkable."

There's actually a rich tradition in which Tortoise (which includes Dan Bitney, John Herndon and Jeff Parker) create thought-provoking imagery and artwork for albums with vivid titles like Millions Now Living Will Never Die, TNT, Standards, It's All Around You, Beacons of Ancestorship, and now The Catastrophist.

"Being an instrumental band, we have a challenge to engage people on a level that's somewhat unusual," McEntire explains. "In that sense we're forced to find ways to do that and not repeat ourselves, and this involves a lot of work, actually. So that's part of it, for sure."

Over the past 20 years, Tortoise have invented a much-emulated rhythmic sensibility and explored the far reaches of synthesized tones and distorted noise, fuelled by an abiding interest in abstract concepts like jazz, dub, Krautrock, hip-hop, electronica and instrumental rock. In a sense, whatever the aesthetic conflation really is when Tortoise begin to play together is always present, but there's also always a certain mystery to it.

For fans of the band, every new Tortoise record feels like some exciting departure. But there are things, both obvious and subtle, about seventh album The Catastrophist that will genuinely startle listeners who appreciate the storied quintet's daring. The most obvious example: vocals.

Aside from one-off collaborations or live appearances with musicians like Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Tom Zé, Daniel Lanois and Buck 65, Tortoise have not released a record of their own that featured a singer until now. The Catastrophist features a cover of David Essex's weird '70s hit, "Rock On," sung by U.S. Maple's Todd Ritmann, and a melancholy original called "Yonder Blue," with fresh lyrics and vocals by Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley.

"We're super conscious about the fact that we don't have that one element in pop music that immediately engages with the listener, and that's the vocals," McCombs says. "So we try to make our albums have an ebb and flow to them to maintain interest in the music.

"It's a strange coincidence that we have an album with two songs with vocals on them and they happened for very different reasons. Going back to [our work with] Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, when you're working with a vocalist, it became apparent to us that we're leaping over giant hurdles by being an instrumental band because having a vocalist makes everything a lot easier."

McEntire interjects, "Oh my God, it makes everything so easy. You don't have to do anything!"

McCombs continues, "We've never been against vocals. It's just that the five of us have something that works in a really unusual way and it's probably best to work with those tools. But having vocals has opened us up to new things, yeah."

The Catastrophist is out now on Thrill Jockey, and as previously reported, Tortoise have a lengthy tour schedule ahead of them in support of the record. You can see their dates here.

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