Beacons of Longevity: An Interview with Tortoise
Tortoise co-founder Dan Bitney discusses the past, present, and future of the band that changed indie rock forever, and continues to thrill their power base on their first original record in five years, Beacons of Ancestorship.
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.