When your eyes fall on the new box set from Tortoise, A Lazarus Taxon, you behold a gorgeous accident. A car has swerved through an underground tunnel and ricocheted off one wall, into another, then spun around and wound up cock-eyed against the first wall. It’s shocking, but what gets you is not any kind of carnage but a cleanness and beauty—the empty tunnel, the algebraic order of the skid marks, the Cartesian symmetry of the tunnel converging on a turn up ahead.
Inside the box will be more of the same: more black-and-white photographs of apparently bloodless collisions, and more complexly serene symmetry and algebra—the music of one of the crucial rock bands of the last 15 years.
A Lazarus Taxon is not a career-summarizing “best of”, but something more intriguing and telling. A madly diverse collection of B-sides, remixes, and previously obscure material (as well as a DVD of the band live), it catches Tortoise from another angle. By refracting the group’s brand of inimitable “post-rock” through the lens of various remixers and partners, the elemental nature of Tortoise’s writing and aesthetic comes clear. A Lazarus Taxon reveals a band that lives almost wholly in the gap between rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and classical traditions. The band—in the person of members Dan Bitney and Jeff Parker—agreed to talk to PopMatters about its music, its methods, and its place in the musical canon.
Tortoise as a Commercially Viable “Rock Band”
If you don’t know Tortoise already, allow me to alienate you: Tortoise is a strictly instrumental rock band that does not feature “guitar solos” in any Carlos Santana/Allman Brothers kind of way. The music is deliberate and often monochromatic—the farthest thing from the kind of jam-band arena rock that typically thrives on extended instrumental sections. Nor is the band a jazzy fusion outfit that burns with improvisational virtuosity. Tortoise music develops more like Mahler than like The Rolling Stones. How have they survived as a continuing unit worthy of a four-disc box set over more than a decade?
“I have no idea how it became commercially viable”, bassist and multi-instrumentalist Bitney admits. “These guys had played two shows in Chicago before I became incorporated. They were all hipsters for lack of a better word. I remember when we went to New York for the first time, and I thought there would be maybe only 40 people there.”
Instead, the Chicago-based band met considerable success, albeit success of the insider sort. The Cool Kids consistently grant Tortoise a place among the top bands of the ‘90s, the decade when the group helped to define what the “indie” in indie-rock really meant. Bitney believes that the band succeeded by defying the commercial expectations of its moment.
“I think it had to do with when we started—the fact that we weren’t like too much stuff that was happening then. Grunge was huge then, and we had already played in those types of bands in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I had already started bands that didn’t have guitars in them. The artist gets a feel of something before anybody else catches on. It’s not a marketing thing—Hey, if we use vibes instead of guitars, we’re going to sell a lot of records! You can get burned out on the ‘power trio’, so Tortoise seemed like a fresh idea.” Guitarist Parker notes that the band’s famous use of vibraphones and marimbas in a rock context derived from chance and economy. “We started using vibes because someone got a used set cheap—it was just a happenstance. I didn’t realize until later that the vibes have been used all the time in rock and soul music to create a sense of orchestral space and sound.”
Bitney sees Tortoise’s unique sound as a key to the band’s success as well as a limit on larger commercial appeal. “Being an instrumental band has kept it off late night TV—they all have rules about instrumental bands. But in the other sense, because it’s instrumental, you don’t have a specific context like you will with vocals. You can date yourself by singing about Ronald Reagan, for example.”
A Mass of Remixes
A Lazarus Taxon, on the other hand, makes decade-old music sound largely up-to-date. For fans, the set may be most notable for its third disc consisting of Tortoise’s long-out-of-print EP for remixes from 1994, Rhythms, Resolutions, and Clusters. Featuring post-production turns from the likes of Steve Albini, BKB, and Jim O’Rourke, RRC makes the case for Tortoise as critical darlings and relatively early adopters within the rock community of a hip-hop/DJ cultural shift toward texture and groove.
“At the time, there was a backlash against grunge,” explains Bitney. “There was a huge growth in DJ culture in England, where we played a lot. So it was conscious of us to have our music remixed, and we just knew these guys, like Marcus Pop, so we pretty much knew what it would sound like.”
It’s fair to say, however, that the bass ‘n’ drum vibe around Tortoise was not imposed only by remixers. Parker notes: “Tortoise’s music is really based on the band being fans of certain kinds of music—bass and drum stuff, rock, European techno stuff, and so Tortoise music is set up to sound a certain way.” As a result, listening to A Lazarus Taxon is never an assault on the band’s past but more of a prism. Though not all of it pleases the band members. “Some of that stuff sounds really dated,” Bitney notes. “Because there was a backlash against that music too, where the culture flipped again and you got The Strokes. It did blow my mind back then to hear Spring Heel Jack take our song and put it in a drum ‘n’ bass context—but today that seems a little dated as it’s from a specific moment in musical aesthetics.”
The Musical Aesthetics of Tortoise
“Aesthetics” is the kind of $200 word you expect to hear from the mouths of the guys in Tortoise—rockers who have always looked suspiciously like Ph.D candidates in comparative lit. But it’s not an affectation. Tortoise has changed and evolved over the years, and they have dabbled in a variety of musical contexts. But in every time and in every context, there has been a conception of what is “Tortoise” and what probably is not.
For Bitney, Tortoise proceeds from certain influences but coalesces around the collective decision to pursue a new sound. “We’ve all been in bands for years. And copying others cats is an important part of being a young musician. I went through tons of that—getting lots of Fall records and listening to them every day.” But by 1994, the members of Tortoise knew that they were an instrumental group that was neither classical nor jazz—but somehow not like any other rock band either.
“It’s aesthetics,” Bitney explains. “There’s all this fusion stuff where the music is made up of really repulsive tones. Some guys might like stuff that gets dangerously close to that, but then I know there definitely is a filter: I wrote this song, but I don’t think it should be a Tortoise song. There is something about the aesthetics of being part of this group. Some of us listen to fusion and like it, but there is a filter to working with this group because of what it started as—that nobody’s sticking out.”
Part of the Tortoise aesthetic is plainly a “no soloist” mentality. According to Parker, “It’s very true that everyone in the band plays democratically, as if every player were a percussionist lacing together their line with everyone else’s line. John McIntyre was trained as a classical percussion, then got his music off in a different direction when he heard electronic music, drum ‘n’ bass, etcetera. But the whole band still functions in that way, though we don’t talk about it.”
“It’s not one person writing songs,” says Bitney. “It’s not one guy’s band. You can tell when one guy is writing all the songs. There is the same sound on every song, and it’s about featuring one guy—showing off. That guys have come in and out of the band has emphasized that this is a band where no one guy sticks out. It’s not something we have to call a meeting about—it’s part of the unconscious aesthetics of the band.”
One Aesthetic, But Many Indirect Influences
Even as Bitney notes that “jazzy stuff is kind of repulsive to us,” Tortoise has always been tagged as a kind of jazz group. Parker—known for his jazz playing outside of Tortoise with The Chicago Underground Quartet and others—talks about compartmentalizing his jazz sound when dealing with Tortoise. “The band makes a conscious effort not to sound like jazz or like a jamband. We try to avoid ‘wanking’ on our instruments—to sound indulgent or for one instrument to stick too far out. The idea is to move together.”
In that sense, however, Tortoise is simply following from a different and edgier portion of jazz’s history. “The whole band is very influenced by music like Sun Ra, Public Enemy, Miles Davis from the ‘70s,” explains Parker. Rather than playing like fusion cats or old-style bebop riffers, Tortoise improvises collectively, allowing compositions to develop in an organic process, with further compositional decisions made afterward as the tapes are cut and rearranged or individual tracks are added or pulled out. Parker notes that Miles Davis and his producer Teo Macero used exactly this technique in crafting the classic Davis album In a Silent Way in 1969.
It’s equally true that modern classical music is a key ingredient in the Tortoise aesthetic. “We’re a rock band that sounds classical rather than a rock band that wants to sound like Cannonball Adderley,” Bitney notes. “There are modern classical elements, especially in the early stuff. ‘Ten Day Interval’ uses phasing arpeggios, where I’m playing a vibe pattern in 5/4 and then there are triplets under it that cycle at a different length.” At the same time, Bitney can’t help going back to other styles—“There’s a jazz waltz section in the middle of ‘Rivers’ with the pedal steel of country. We don’t really have to worry about being pegged in one style because we’re drawing on all this stuff.”
The end-product is less a stitching-together than a new amalgamated whole. Parker calls it Tortoise Music. “I have brought tunes into Tortoise that are transformed by the band. I’ve recorded them with other people, but then when Tortoise gets them, they are rearranged and turned into Tortoise Music.”
Deliberate, Modern Composition (and Composition Through Improvisation)
Tortoise Music often sounds improvised and organic, but both Parker and Bitney emphasize its rigorous compositional forms. “The essence of the band is really the writing process,” explains Bitney. “The early stuff was more ‘played’, but once we started working with computers, the mixing and engineering became a lot of the composition.” Parker explains the process in more detail. “We mainly make our music in the studio. Someone will bring in a fragment: a sample from somewhere, a drum groove, a riff, a bassline. And we play with it. We might record it, then listen to it and lay down something else on top. Eventually we have a whole thing—which we then listen to and draw the good parts from.
“Most of the shifting and the ideas in our tunes are composition rather than improvisation. We recently played this show in London where we played all of our second record—songs we haven’t been able to play. This was mostly before the computer, so some of that is so open. So you’re waiting for somebody to feed in this specific sound, and that’s the next section. The development of the tunes was organic, but it wasn’t so much jamming to get those ideas. Now it happens a lot less—specifically with an album like Standards—those were super-figured-out compositions.
“We make a very conscious effort to stay inside a certain sound and to all move together as we play,” explains Parker. “Only a couple of us really consider ourselves to be improvisers—the other guys aren’t that comfortable improvising. But we play together to develop ideas collectively. Then those pieces get listened to and pulled apart to form compositions. We stitch the stuff we like back together like a collage to go for a whole composition. When we go out to play the stuff live, we have to learn it from the recordings.”
Live Versus the Studio
One of the true treats of A Lazarus Taxon is the inclusion of a DVD featuring live performances by the band. Watching Tortoise perform on stage is a piquant contrast to a box set featuring so many remixes of songs that, even in their original forms, were sliced and diced on the computer. In concert, the band is both clinical in appearance and impassioned in sound, with dynamics and climaxes playing a much larger role in the sweep of the music.
“On our albums,” Parker says, “our music can be sort of monochromatic—keeping to a single sound and developing dynamics in the way that hip-hop or DJ stuff does, through moving up a fader rather than the whole band getting louder. Live music is something else, explains Bitney: “On the live sets, there’s a lot that’s going to happen. You’re going to keep all the themes, but if you’re in front of 200 to 1,000 people who are psyched to hear that stuff, it gives you a lot more energy. The fact that we do use dynamics makes the dynamics stick out. There are really quiet parts, but when the energy does come back, it’s heightened.”
Preparing to play music live that was composed in the studio can be a challenge. “When we’re in the studio, there’s no regard for how we can pull it off live,” Bitney says. “You never forsake something just because you can’t play organ and vibes at the same time. In rehearsal for the road, you have to ask, ‘What are the most important elements?’ And we switch off instruments. Different people have to learn other people’s parts—who’s going to do this vibes melody that tells everyone to change to the next part?
“Once you’ve played stuff live, there might be more energy in certain pieces and in some songs it’s less specific as far as what you have to do—there are sections that open up that are improvised. If Jeff plays a ‘solo,’ it’s going to be different every night. There’s a place where I have a part in a song from TNT where it just opens up and I solo on keyboards. It’s just the energy. If it’s a stinker night and what I’m doing just sucks, I’ll stop and everyone will say, Here’s the cue to go back in. Another night I might be on and that’ll make the drummers want to try playing off each other. I think it’s obvious when you see us live what is ‘open’ and what isn’t.”
Seeing Tortoise All Over Again
Bitney explained that the band itself assembled A Lazarus Taxon—not a record company or publicist or agent. The box is, in a sense, the band looking back at itself. “It was done by the band, and it was really hard. Choosing the songs was hard because there were remixes that were very similar. Sequencing the song order and choosing what made it and what didn’t was hard. It’s not like just recording and picking the 70 minutes that are the best. It took weeks to figure out what music to include.”
“Both the box set and the album of covers we did with Bonnie Prince Billy early this year are about hearing the band in a new way,” says Bitney. “At first we were going to do just a single of ‘Thunder Road’ with Will Oldham, but it was super-fun, and it was a refreshing project. ‘Thunder Road’ was changed from major to minor, for example. You don’t have to write the material, but you do have to work on the song and take it somewhere else to even justify doing it. That was the challenge.”
And so the Tortoise story arguably comes full circle, with the band as rhythm section reinventing other people’s music rather than handing their own material over to remixers for a similar treatment. In both cases, Tortoise manages to keep moving forward—not in flashy jazz solos but in its own independent, deeply cooperative manner.
“It comes back to aesthetics. We can go to Germany and play a jazz festival and then fly back to play Bonnaroo. Because we cover all these styles, we can play all these different type of events.”
In the end, these heroes of ‘90s “post-rock” are less interested in running away from particular labels than in continuing to morph their own identity as artists. Tortoise have reached the stage where they are the remixers of their own legacy—by creating their own prism (in the form of A Lazarus Taxon) with which to bend their sound. And it seems that the transformations will continue.
“We all play outside the band,” says Bitney, “and it’s fun to bring stuff back to the band that you learn from outside. We’re very open to ideas to keep our music fun and fresh.”