Beacons of Longevity

An Interview with Tortoise

by Mike Newmark

9 August 2009

Photo: Whitney Bradshaw 

The Story Behind "Penumbra"...

Photo: Jim Newberry

I resist the urge to ask him about every song on the record—all are quite unique individual propositions—but the quirky, minute-long electro sliver “Penumbra” stuck with me, so I ask him if he could briefly tell me the story behind that. He does. “That’s a demo that John Herndon brought in where I don’t even think anyone’s really playing on it. I think it’s a Brothers Johnson sample or something that he chopped up. That’s another J Dilla thing, where it’s really raw and the timing is all weird.” He says he gave “Penumbra” to a friend whose judgment he trusts on anything about music, and the friend had told Bitney that Tortoise must have ADD because some of the songs are far too short.

His other critique was that on this track, and indeed on about half the record, the whole band isn’t playing. “But it’s a weird band like that,” Bitney says. “It’s not like a quartet where everybody’s playing on every song. It takes a lot to say that I could have some half-assed idea that I insist on putting on there but that I have the guts to say that I don’t really have any ideas and that I don’t need to be on this. Talking about the early days and incorporating myself into Tortoise, that was a huge part of it: that some of its beauty lies in the fact that it’s this sparse landscape, this area where not everybody’s yelling. I used to say it was kind of like a basketball team, where it’s like, yeah, you’re going to go sit on the bench for a second—let somebody else come in that’s a better point guard, and then you’ll come in and you’ll play for a while.”

The song that intrigued him the most was “Yinxianghechengqi”, which he called “the Chinese one,” because you try pronouncing that title. It was a demo from the previous year that the band had originally written on an autoharp called a QChord. He details it for me: “It’s got a strum plate, and you have your chord buttons that you actually press and it sounds sort of Japanese. Basically, that song was written on that device and you can just step through the intervals of the chord just on that device. And then we turned it into, I don’t know, a punk rock song.”

At first, Bitney didn’t even want it on the record. “I think my problem was that we had a really different edit that was kind of long,” he explains, “And we shortened it in the last days in the studio, taking out about half of it. I thought, ‘Oh shit, this is going to close the doors on all the jazz festivals if we do this.’ But it’s funny how people are really into it. That goes back to the parameters about what we think is appropriate or not. But it definitely was a newer edit and then I was like, ‘Alright, that’s super burning.’” He then offers up another bit of trivia: If you listen closely at the 10-second mark, you can hear the “Wilhelm Scream”, a scream first used in the 1951 western Distant Drums and subsequently copped by movie directors as a kind of Hollywood in-joke (it’s used multiple times in Raiders of the Lost Ark). The band included it in “Yinxianghechengqi” because it contains a false start.

In a kind of spin on the research that moderate levels of stress produce optimal outcomes, Bitney says that he and the band never felt much pressure to compete with themselves until now. “We really felt that [Beacons of Ancestorship] had to be different than the last two records. In those records we kind of started operating in stereotypical rock instrumentation, it started to become more of a rock band. And with this record it was really like, man, there has to be something that takes this to another place.” He is primarily referring to It’s All Around You, a kind of equivalent to Stereolab’s Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, where Tortoise was essentially playing ‘Tortoise for Dummies’, going through what they had already mastered and not getting terribly adventurous. In many respects, Beacons of Ancestorship is what It’s All Around You was not.

Still, they don’t pressure themselves into continuing to be the leaders of the post-rock brigade. Nor do they rest on their laurels with the fact that they are. “On the radio today [in an interview with KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic”], the guy was like, ‘You’re legends!’ and none of us feel like that. I was aware that there is a legacy of other music, but we just grabbed stuff from different genres and kind of brought it to the rock club. I never felt like we were these figureheads or torchbearers.”

Photo: Whitney Bradshaw

When I suggest that this is part of what has helped them to survive over such a long stretch of time, he replies, “Yeah, definitely. It’s really indicative of the people involved in this group, too. There’s not a leader, it goes back to that, and it’s not one person’s vision. And there’s not a singer, too, I mean how many singers just look like the visionary because they’re the person vocalizing? So in that respect, being in an instrumental band, as much as it’s held us back from certain situations, it’s kind of the recipe for us surviving as well. Also, it’s just a bunch of people who are good friends, and it gets really challenging at times, but it’s still really fun to do this.”

In my mind, the words ‘it gets really challenging’ signal a shift in the tone of the interview, which becomes slightly more melancholy toward the end. I appreciate Bitney’s honesty here. “It does get dangerous when it does become your livelihood,” he says, “Because then it becomes a pressure situation. You have to sustain your life with it, and at that point stuff really changes. It can get dangerous when you’re like, ‘Well, this record has to do good because I can’t afford this health insurance and I can’t afford my mortgage.’ We’re insanely lucky that at one point we got royalty checks. I think it’s going to be challenging in the future to see what happens with the industry. On the one hand I can kind of see the punk rock ‘80s model of D.I.Y. almost coming back, but it makes me worried about what people are going to get as far as creative music.”

Asked about the future of Tortoise, Bitney tells me, “Other members would argue but I would say it’s a really fragile situation. On this tour we’re going to be gone for two weeks and we’re each going to make a little bit of money. It’s like, we can’t even afford to do this. And then all you have to do is lose one guitar and then nobody will get paid.” He continues, seemingly on a roll despite the difficult subject matter: “If you look at our statistics, stuff is waning. We’d [previously] come to L.A. and play the Henry Fonda Theater. Saying you sold out the Troubador is way better than saying you half sold out the Henry Fonda, even if it’s the same amount of people there. And as far as sales go, now with downloading our sales are less and our room sizes are less.” It’s tough to hear this, because you want a band like Tortoise to stay drama-free. Their music has stood alone for years, unsullied by human elements, and when you hear the band continuing to be creative without breaking a sweat after 19 years as a going concern, you believe they could go on forever.

The possibility that they may not—for reasons that are purely financial and out of their control—comes as a shock, and momentarily compels me to fight on the side of the industry just to keep institutions like them alive. But Bitney assures me that the band is lucky that they can still play what he considers to be some pretty weird music and get away with it. And he manages to find the silver lining at the close of the interview: “It’s much better to play a room that’s smaller than what you can do. Playing these big shows is not fun. I would so much rather play a room where there’s 500 people and they’re just right at the front of the stage, as opposed to being in a theater with 1,500 people, where the front row of people are behind a barricade that’s like 20 feet away. The quality of the show you’re going to get, the difference there, is insane even with us.” Well, I did see Tortoise’s show at the smallish Troubador at the start of their tour in July. And you know what? People loved it.

Photo: Jim Newberry

Photo: Jim Newberry

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