Tortoise's Doug McCombs

BY Vish KhannaPublished Feb 2, 2010

Tortoise bassist and guitarist Doug McCombs is a multi-instrumentalist based in Chicago, Illinois. He's been a part of many notable projects over the years, such as Eleventh Dream Day, Brokeback and Pullman, Most recently, McCombs released an album called Sycamore, a duo effort with inventive guitarist/improvised noise artist, David Daniell. As Tortoise gear up for another Toronto show at the sentimentally significant Lee's Palace on February 18, we caught up with founding member Doug McCombs.

I was thinking today about Tortoise's rep as a band that takes a while to release new albums. Do you feel that perception at all Doug?
Actually, people that I'm not real close with but maybe acquainted with will say things like "Oh, are you guys still together?" which seems really strange to me because my perception is that we're working all the time. From my point of view, Tortoise is busy all the time, either recording or playing shows, and some times I don't notice when three years go by and we don't have an album out. And then when people spring this question on me, I'm taken aback. Like, "Yeah, we're still together, We work all the time; we're working on stuff constantly." It's different perceptions.

Well, this is my point. This perception seems funny because, unless I'm wrong, I think this is the third Tortoise show in Toronto in the last three years. Do you suppose the band prefers touring to writing and recording new material?
I wouldn't say we prefer either one really. They're both things we enjoy and are the most important aspects of being in a band. I just think that, for whatever reason, as time goes on, it takes us longer and longer to make albums each time because we're self-conscious about trying to not tread on the same musical ground every time. It takes us longer each time to get new ideas I guess.

So what about Toronto? You seem to enjoy playing in this city; is there anything particular that connects Tortoise to Toronto more than say, Cleveland, Ohio?
I dunno, I guess our perception of Toronto is that it's a pretty cosmopolitan type of place. Back when we first started as a band, it was one of the places where we almost immediately had successful shows and an audience. It seemed like a lot of people were coming out and it's always just been a good town for us, y'know? If you think about North America and the kinds of places where Tortoise does really well as a band and has done so consistently over the years, it's New York, Chicago, San Francisco ― that kinda thing. And Toronto is one of those places.

What about Canada in general; any fond memories of this country?

Well, I dunno about fond memories but I like playing up there, especially in Eastern Canada. I've been doing it for years. And Toronto's a good place to be. I dunno if you're familiar with the Tortoise box set ― you probably are...

Yeah, A Lazarus Taxon.
Yeah, A Lazarus Taxon, where there's a concert of ours from 1996 I believe...

Right, at Lee's Palace.
Yeah, and it's on a DVD on that box set. I remember that show specifically as being one of our early... just one of those shows that sticks in your mind as being a great, great show. It was kind of a coincidence that there was a guy there filming it.

That's the way it works out some times. So, when you think of Canada, is that what comes to mind? Is there anything else that you think of?
Well, I mean Lee's Palace is burned into my brain because we've played there so many times. I definitely think about that. I dunno, when I think about Canada, I probably think about other things like fishing. I go fishing in Saskatchewan every time that I can afford to. Things like that; it's not always about touring or being in a band.

Sure, sure. I didn't realize you were a big fisherman.
Yeah, I go fishing in northern Saskatchewan. This lake called Reindeer Lake.

Do you have family there or anything or is this just a place you discovered?
No, that's just a place I discovered where I go fishing.

Huh, I've not heard of it; that's quite interesting. Well, back to Tortoise: you put out a new record in 2009 called Beacons of Ancestorship, which in some ways, is quite a distorted, abrasive album for the band. Reflecting on it now, how does Beacons fit with the band's trajectory?
In a certain way, without ever talking about it, we were definitely trying to make something that would be a little more raw and direct than maybe the previous album was. There are definitely shorter songs that get to the point quicker and there's a certain rawer, more aggressive feeling on the record. I dunno if that's possibly a reflection of us trying to get something that was closer to our live performances. It's definitely not a live album by any means. I dunno, we were trying to get something that was more visceral and straighter to the point, like maybe our live shows have become.

It definitely took some tweaking and a lot of poring over it to try and get it to be like that. As usual, some times we're not exactly sure what to do with some of our songs and it takes a long time to tweak them into existence.

Well, are you working on new songs now?
No. We were supposed to start...we had a tentative plan to start in December working on some new material but John has a session that's been going on in his studio that keeps going over. He's working with a band.

Is it a band we might know? I know he was working on a Broken Social Scene record there for a while.
Yeah, he's working on a Broken Social Scene record. So, he's really overworked and so Tortoise hasn't been able to get in the studio and work on anything. Hopefully we will some time soon.

Are you saying that Tortoise has been foiled by a bunch of Canadians?
Yeah (chuckles), yeah.

I would like to apologize on behalf of our entire country Doug; that doesn't seem right.
Well, lemme tell you something: Broken Social Scene needs some people to apologize for them.

Is that right? I didn't realize that. They're bad guests I guess. I apologize, I really do. I know some of those people and I feel bad that they're taking up so much of your time.
They come down here, they eat all of our food and drink all of our booze, and won't leave us to our own.

I find it almost comical that Broken Social Scene is squatting at Soma Studios.

So I guess, you're waiting on that for Tortoise. What about you Doug; beyond this Tortoise tour, do you have any upcoming plans to share?
Eleventh Dream Day is working on new songs. Rick Rizzo has a bunch of new songs that he's been dying to work on for a while. I was a little bit too busy to sit down and work on stuff with him but we've been working together on some stuff and are pushing to make a new album at some point. Other than that, David [Daniell] and I are trying to tour as much as we can in March. I think we may be in Toronto in the second week of March even. And David and I are gonna try and squeeze in some mini-tours wherever we can. We haven't really played much outside of Chicago at all.

It'd be nice to get you back in Toronto again or maybe the Guelph Jazz Festival in September maybe.
Yeah, that would be awesome.

I will get to work on this my friend. I feel like I owe you because of this whole Broken Social Scene mess.
Yeah, I mean anything I can use to my advantage, y'know?

One last thing Doug: a band called Disappears is opening this Tortoise tour. Who is this band?
Disappears are friends of ours from Chicago. It was started by this guitar player, Brian Case, who played in 90 Day Men and the Ponys and is still currently playing in the Ponys. He's been working on this band for a couple of years and they were looking for a chance to get out of town and play some shows, so they're coming with us on this tour.

Chicago looks after its own, doesn't it?
Yup, always.

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