[MUSIC: Interview] Tortoise
It must be tough being Tortoise. Things can’t possibly be simple for a band that has, over 22 years, repeatedly rewritten the rulebook on how to create forward-looking instrumental music. Most groups would earmark an album like Millions Now Living Will Never Die as a career highlight, but the Chicago group have issued a slew of records arguably as good or even better than that since 1996. The only difference is that the rate of release has slowed, which makes you wonder whether the band’s working process is struggling to keep up with their extraordinarily inventive track record.
“It’s democratic, sometimes to a fault,” says drummer John Herndon from his home in Chicago, through what sounds like a nasty head cold. “It seems like it takes so long for anything to happen, because everybody’s giving everybody so much space and shit that it seems like, sometimes, nothing ever gets done. But eventually it does get done – it takes its time to figure itself out. But generally everybody’s pretty happy with the end results.”
The group’s most recent missive, Beacons Of Ancestorship, was the longest between drinks, following a five-year gap. Given that this silence had only been broken by the monumental compilation, A Lazarus Taxon – a 33-track slab with tombstone grey artwork – some were beginning to worry that the band had wound down for good. The truth is they were just busy, and becoming more accustomed to working slowly. “[Beacons] was a crazy one, because we made the record and then most of the band was like, ‘I think we’re done. I think we’re done, yeah,’ and some of the band was like, ‘I don’t think we’re done.’ But the I-think-we’re-dones won the argument,” says Herndon. “So they made a sequence of the album with the mixes and everything, and we went home with it and gave it to our record label – and then they and all of our friends were like, ‘I don’t think you’re done’. So we went back in and recorded a bunch of new material, remixed almost all of the material on the record, threw some stuff out, added some stuff. Then, after that happened, everybody in the band, including everybody else, was like, ‘Okay. Now we’re really fucking doing it.’”
What’s extraordinary about Beacons is how fresh it sounded. Tortoise have always been a relatively experimental outfit, but much of their back catalogue feels bound by a peculiarly militant discipline; no guitar twang or vibraphone note ever felt out of place. Beacons, on the other hand, sounds like the work of a band reassessing their very purpose. Sweeping instrumental passages drop into abstruse fusion jams. Dulcimers replace vibes. There’s a cerebral punk tune composed on a children’s instrument. Most importantly, it was good – not just by the band’s (and their friends’) standards, but by those of critics and fans too.
“I think what we’re more concerned with is just keeping things fresh and new for ourselves, and if we can do that, then at least there’s that – and if people like it, then that’s great,” says Herndon. “We’ve been lucky so far that sort of pleasing ourselves and making things interesting and challenging for ourselves has found an audience of people who are hanging there with us. So the challenge, for the most part, is a personal and musical one, and I think that’s what we pour our energy and attention into.”
Beacons came out in 2009, and Herndon confirms the suspicion that there is no pending follow-up on the horizon. He’s quick to point out that none of them have exactly been bored – apart from innumerable side projects, Tortoise’s members converged last year to compose the soundtrack for Lovely Molly, a horror film about demonic possession. “It was directed by Eduardo Sánchez, who was the director of The Blair Witch Project. It’s really fucking creepy and good. You should watch it,” says Herndon. “The stuff that I’ve found doesn’t mention that we did the soundtrack. I don’t think they put that in their press release. We did all of the music for the whole film, and it’s really good and super creepy.”
This should come as a surprise to anyone even passingly familiar with Tortoise – their music has always seemed to opt for ‘cerebral’ or ‘lush’ over ‘spartan and horrifying’. “We definitely had to change it up producing the music for that, and get into full ‘creep’ mode,” he laughs. “It’s a lot of drones, actually. There’s not a lot of Tortoise songs, but there’s a lot of droning and creepy, suspenseful, spooky ‘ghost’ sounds or whatever.”
It turns out Herndon, though predictably a big post-punk and jazz fan, is also quite into the more confronting end of the avant-garde spectrum. When probed for recommendations, he singles out fellow Chicagoan Kevin Drumm, whose 2002 landmark Sheer Hellish Miasma basically does the aural equivalent of what the title says. “The sound he gets is just fucked,” says Herndon. “We toured with him, so seeing him perform every night was amazing. He’ll just have like an oscillator and a mixing board or something, maybe something to process, and then he just gets these feedback loops going through the board. I don’t even know what the hell he’s doing, but he just gets this massive sound, and it’s just complex and interesting… And he’s a hilarious dude to hang out with. Super hilarious, and he knows like every punk rock and hardcore and black metal group in the world. And he just has great taste in music, and has a really dry and off sense of humour, and he likes to get drunk.” Apt company for a band of resilient experimentalists, then.
With: The Laurels, Sleepmakeswaves
Where: The Hi-Fi
When: Thursday October 11