Beacons of Longevity: An Interview with Tortoise

Beacons of Ancestorship
Thrill Jockey

It’s hard to overstate the role that Tortoise played in shaping the culture of indie rock. In 1994, upon the release of their eponymous debut, the idea of five “serious” musicians from Chicago making a spacious, minimalist rock record hadn’t even been written on the wall yet. In 1996, Millions Now Living Will Never Die shattered the limitations of what the genre could be in one fell swoop, naturally incorporating dub, Krautrock, electronica, and other studio-centric styles into a guitar-based foundation. Two years later, TNT made jazz the unlikely star, and suddenly it seemed like every band this side of the Mississippi was saving up to buy their own vibraphone.

Along the way, Tortoise proved a number of things to the listening public: that open-mindedness is the key to standing out, that teamwork means the difference between everyone winning and everyone losing, that musicianship matters, and that rock doesn’t have to rock to pack a punch. As if that weren’t enough, they managed to satisfy several paradoxes as a band seemingly without even trying: messy and tidy, gossamer and angular, beyond nerdy and trendy as fuck (seriously: listen to “Monica”), frighteningly perfect and thrillingly imperfect. When I spoke with Tortoise member Dan Bitney (drums, percussion, keyboards, bass) in a telephone interview, I could hardly keep from gushing because I believed I was talking to a genius. And then, as if reading my mind, he said, “I think we’ve got this history of being these geniuses or whatever, when we’re really just pulling stuff and putting it together.” Well then, there you have it.

Tortoise was born in Chicago in 1990, and the lineup has stayed consistent, with only a couple of personnel changes, in almost twenty years. For about five seconds it was the duo of Doug McCombs (bass) and John Herndon (drums, keyboards, vibes) playing around on their equipment and sketching out rhythm-based ideas, and they quickly added Bitney, John McEntire (drums, vibes, studio production), and the elusive Bundy K. Brown (bass, guitar) to cement their lineup. Brown was replaced by ex-Slint guitarist Dave Pajo for Millions Now Living Will Never Die, and Pajo was replaced by guitarist Jeff Parker, who doubles as a jazz musician, for TNT. But that’s about it as far as shakeups go; the five Tortoise members since TNT are the five Tortoise members now, and they’ve remained in Chicago since their inception.

Bitney describes his city in idyllic terms, but also with some tentativeness, noting the difference between past and present Chicago. “It’s changed a lot since the economy bellied-up,” he says. “But it’s the most major city in the regional Midwest that I’m from, and it was also this super cheap place to live. You could be a bartender a couple nights a week and have your apartment paid for and have your week paid for, and with a couple of phone calls you could get a gig at a local dive bar in a week, throw together a group to play there. It seemed like the anti-New York for a while, where everybody I knew there was working a couple jobs just to pay for a shitty apartment and a studio to rehearse. I really think it’s changing now though — it’s becoming one of the more expensive cities to live in in America.”

Then he begins talking about the music, and his tone takes a turn for the emphatic. “But on the other hand, too,” he continues, “There’s a history with music there, with the AACM and all this really creative jazz. Another thing I never really took advantage of was the blues that happened there. To me, forever, the blues was kind of like a white dude with a beer belly and a ponytail murdering these songs.” This makes me suddenly crack up. “And then a couple years ago I started picking up all these Chess records used, for nothing, discovering all these great recordings that are just kind of raw. Such a history. But it was mostly economic, it was easy to live there. You kind of discover a history when you’re there, it doesn’t slap you in the face.”

“A funny little trivia fact,” he tells me, “Is that the first show I played with Tortoise was actually the second show, and I played saxophone on a couple songs. It was a weird beginning for me.” By that point the band had already laid out the sonic blueprint for what would become their 1994 full-length debut, Tortoise, and the idea of a saxophone on that record is a nice metaphor for Bitney’s initially feeling out of place. “I’ve never really dealt with a group that was doing that type of music, atmospheric or what I would describe as kind of minimal,” he continues. “I came out of indie rock in the ’80s when it was all guitar bands, so to me it was a real challenge to even figure out how I fit in the band.”

He says that on their earliest records, from Tortoise to TNT, “There were all these parameters about what kind of ideas I could bring. I used to think certain stuff wasn’t appropriate for Tortoise.” For example, if he had an idea that was more in line with hip-hop or dance music, he might have trucked it over to Isotope 217, a band he once moonlighted in with Parker, Herndon and a grab bag of experimental musicians. “Isotope had more of a hip-hop kind of thing, and we had a more immediate ensemble in the sense that it was easier to do stuff.” By comparison, early Tortoise must have seemed sort of trammeling.

But that was before Beacons of Ancestorship, Tortoise’s first original album since 2004’s It’s All Around You, and suddenly, Bitney says, “The barriers are down.” Standards (2001) was noticeably wilder than the preceding TNT, but Bitney describes Beacons of Ancestorship as if it’s the first time the band has been able to let loose. “I think it’s just the time it is now,” he points out, “and it feels natural to incorporate all these other styles. I think we always kind of did that, but so much has happened in music since we made our last record.”

Like hip-hop, for instance. “I was pretty much done with hip-hop until I heard [J Dilla’s] Donuts, and then on that record I was just like, ‘Oh my God,’ and that made me buy all these soul records…. I hesitate to say that [Beacons of Ancestorship] is hip-hop because obviously it’s pretty abstract too. And that’s one of the qualities of Tortoise, that nothing is genre-specific. But some of it does tap into that kind of a feeling, kind of like having a beat and a bassline. That’s a huge difference.” Indeed. “Monument Six One Thousand” has some of the fattest beats and bass since Dabrye’s One/Three, and “Northern Something”—one of the two songs Bitney brought into the studio left over from his three-drummer Bumps project with Herndon and McEntire (the other one was “Gigantes”) — is freaky, booty-wiggling samba, with multiple drum parts and this irresistible bulging thing that could be a bass or the gurgles of destroyed equipment.

The idea to make a new Tortoise record arose by consensus. “All of us were saying, ‘Man, it’s been too long, we should do this,'” he says. The members had recently been quite active, however, last year performing at “every European jazz festival there was.” Around the same time, Tortoise began doing the preliminary Beacons of Ancestorship recordings, to little avail. “It was more like experimenting,” he explains, “And we really didn’t get anything out of it. We were doing a lot of improv, just kind of set up a roomful of stuff. It wasn’t focused at all. We weren’t necessarily bringing in song ideas, we were just doing what I would describe as improv experiments. So we started out doing something like that and then we’d say, ‘Oh gee, what the hell are we doing? Is this going to work?'” (Some of these recordings appear on the 12-minute iTunes-only bonus track, “Ice Ice Gravy”, if you’re curious.)

But while those experiments yielded nothing, the finalized record grew out of the same mode of building upon loose sketches and trying anything that sounded good at the time. “A majority of our songwriting comes from people making tracks on their computer,” he explains. “You bring these things in, and then you start to swap out what would be just a drum machine with real drums. Then you work with the song structure, editing mics and adding instruments. And you just hope that somebody has some good idea to take it somewhere, because a lot of my stuff is super unrealized. Even if I could reproduce my demo with real people playing it, you always really need something else — you always hope someone’s going to just pop into the room and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to put a guitar part on here’, and it’ll be something you never thought of and will take the composition to a better place.”

That’s what ended up happening on “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In”, the eight-minute, three-movement opener that John Herndon originally created on computer software. “When [Herndon] brings in stuff it’s super abstract,” he says. “His stuff is always really disjointed. So really it was a couple different ideas, and pretty much right away we figured they could be parts. I don’t know if we even had to transpose anything or not, we just figured they would work really well together.” The song also contains, in Bitney’s words, “The weirdest drum part I’ve ever played in my life, where you’re not using the cymbals, you’re using the snare drum how you’d normally use the hi-hat.”

Still, he felt that the song needed a little something extra. “I had the idea that we were missing what we do live sometimes,” he continues, “Where if we have an open section that’s improvised in that you know where you’re going to start and where you’re going to end up but it’s kind of a more open section — we did that with “Swung from the Gutters” [from TNT] where the whole middle part is really open… and I remember thinking that in the live setting we do that really well, but that energy isn’t represented at all on the record. So I just brought it up and said, ‘At a certain point, when the song is over, what if I do this space rock thing, get some drums going on the synth, and then we can reintroduce these arpeggios at the end?’ It was super easy to do and it definitely made it like a three-movement song, just stuffed it up at the end I think.”

To this, he adds, “A lot of people, just from doing these interviews, think everything’s thought out, but that was kind of a suggestion I had one afternoon — I could have easily not been there that day or been there later and not had the energy to shoot that idea through. It’s not conceptual in the writing process as much as it is us just really scrounging for ideas. We didn’t go into the studio and say, ‘Well, this piece is going to have three movements and we really wanted to bring some space rock in.’ It’s using everything we’ve got to make a composition feel finished.” I suggest to him that interviewers might have been confusing the writing process with the recording process, and that while the compositions sound as if they’re borne of improvisations and spare ideas, it’s the execution of those ideas that is extremely tight. He agrees.

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

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