Guitarist Jeff Parker has worked with Tortoise for nine years now, playing an important part on three of the Chicago band’s five albums, helping meld elements of cool jazz, ambient music, dub and electronica into ingenious instrumental post-modern rock.
And while Tortoise’s music has been hailed as visionary for having shown others a new way to tear up the rule book, Parker said playing with the band also has liberated him from self-imposed boundaries.
“Before I was in Tortoise, I used to think, `I guess I have to be a jazz musician,’” Parker said from the Tortoise tour bus, en route to Minneapolis from Vancouver. “Even though I wasn’t necessarily happy with just being that, that’s what I was doing. That’s what I was good at. Then I met up with these guys and I was, like, I can make my own weird music and it will be OK.
“If Tortoise has contributed anything (to music), that’s it, that your music doesn’t have to be put in a box. You can dig a whole lot of different things and put them into what you do - jazz, punk - fuse a whole lot of different things together and it can work out.”
Since its inception in 1990, Tortoise has numbered as many as seven members. The Tortoise that is inching its way around the country is a quintet - Parker; drummer-producer John McEntire; drummer, keyboardist and vibraphonist John Herndon (formerly of indie-rockers Poster Children); bassist Doug McCombs (formerly of neo-psychedelic rockers Eleventh Dream Day), and percussionist Dan Bitney (formerly of hardcore outfit Tar Babies).
The band is in the process of recording its sixth album (Parker expects it may be done by year’s end). But Tortoise will not be previewing anything brand new, Parker said. “We may do one song, which has the working title `Omnichord,’ that we’ve been playing for a couple of years. We wrote the song on that instrument, which is a push-button chord organ.”
Parker said Tortoise will play material from its entire catalog. But don’t expect anyone to announce song titles. “We’re pretty much microphone shy,” Parker said. “We don’t talk much to the audience when we play. It’s not out of disrespect. It’s just that talking is pretty uncomfortable for anybody in the band.”
Tortoise averages about one album every three years. “Collectively, we present all of our interests in our music,” Parker said, “and we’re always trying to push ourselves in a new direction. It’s kinda why it’s so difficult for us to complete a new album. But it keeps (each member) involved in the band. If we were stagnating, we wouldn’t want to do it any more.”
It took some convincing to get Parker to join Tortoise. He said he was first asked some time after the release of 1994’s self-titled disc and before 1996’s reputation-making “Millions Now Living Will Never Die.” But Parker declined.
“I was busy with a lot of other stuff,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to join. They would go on tours for a month and not make any money. I was making a living as a musician, playing mostly jazz in cafes and at weddings. Back then, I was pretty straight ahead, Coltrane, Monk, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman. ...”
Despite the turn-down, Tortoise often asked Parker to sit in when the band had a Chicago gig, and convinced the guitarist to play a six-week European tour. Afterward, Parker was again asked to commit. This time he said yes.
“The band was working a lot more by then, but it wasn’t really a financial thing,” said Parker. “The more I played with them, the more I dug it. That fact, and the feeling that I was doing something different, that I really started to learn new things and grow as a musician, convinced me.”
Asked to summarize, album to album, what he learned and how he grew, Parker began with 1998’s “TNT”:
“We had a lot of songs that we had been performing but hadn’t recorded, so that (CD) was about presenting those songs in a really specific way.
“It was the first time we experimented with hard-disc recordings. When we started making that record in 1996, that technology was really, really new. ... It allows you to move around the digital information and do a lot of editing, a cut-and-paste type of thing.
“The song `In Sarah, Mencken, Christ, and Beethoven There Were Women and Men’ came from four chords I came up with. We extracted notes from the chords for a bass line, and from there we layered things on top of it. It started out as a jumbled mess. Then we moved things around to make an arrangement. It kind of came from nothing. It couldn’t have been made without that process.”
Next, he spoke about 2001’s “Standards”:
“We wanted the songs to be shorter, less epic. We wanted a tougher-sounding record, more like rock, something that hit a little harder.
“We went in the studio and demoed some stuff. Then we booked a tour under the name Wood Cult. It was nine or 10 shows, playing only the stuff we were working on in the studio. Then we went back and recorded the stuff. ...
“For me, that album was restrained. I limited myself to playing guitar and bass. In the studio we’ve got tons of instruments - keyboards, percussion instruments, glockenspiel. Anybody can pick up anything they want. It could get a little overbearing, so those were the limits I placed on myself.”
Finally, 2004’s “It’s All Around You”:
“We didn’t have any material (ready) for that record. Everything we did except `Salt the Skies’ we came up with in the studio, building stuff from the ground up.”
Parker noted that while everyone contributes more or less equally to the songs, and everyone has a say in what is included on an album, his favorite, “On the Chin,” almost didn’t make it on to “It’s All Around You.”
“I had a gig when they were doing the sequencing for the record,” Parker said. “They gave me CD-R, and I said, `Where’s the song?’ They said, `We can do a better version later.’ I said, `No. That has to be on the record.’ So they had to do the sequencing all over again.
“There are so many drummers in Tortoise,” he added. “If you see us live, the (two) drum sets are up front. The emphasis is on rhythm and beat. I wanted us to do something that was slow and moodier. I thought it was a nice different thing for us, and a really nice song.”