Tortoise by Andrew Paynter
Photo: Andrew Paynter / Courtesy of Thrill Jockey

Tortoise’s Doug McCombs Untangles His Band’s Cobwebbed Past

Chicago-based post-rock icons Tortoise get nostalgic with a remix re-release, with Doug McCombs telling tales of missing tapes and giving us new updates.

Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters
Tortoise
Thrill Jockey
22 April 2022

It’s 1994 in Chicago. The instrumental rock band Tortoise had only been around for four years but was about to record their first full-length album. Douglas McCombs, John Herndon, Dan Bitney, John McEntire, and Bunky K. Brown put their full trust in the process, creating the music as they moved along.

“We were two bass players and two drummers, and one of our drummers had just acquired a vibraphone, and one of our drummers had an interest in analog synthesizers,” McCombs explained to PopMatters over the phone one day. “When we made the first Tortoise record, anything beyond the bass and drums was us spitballing in the studio.”

McCombs has played bass for a variety of bands in and around the Chicago area, including Brokeback, Pullman, and Eleventh Dream Day. He’s even been known to lend a hand to McEntire’s other band, the Sea and Cake when they needed a bass player. But through it all, the post-rock statesmen Tortoise is probably his most high-profile project.

In celebration of Thrill Jockey‘s 30th anniversary, label owner Bettina Richards has selected numerous out-of-print releases to reissue for 2022, including the 1995 Tortoise remix EP Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters. “Thrill Jockey goes back and looks for things that haven’t been on vinyl for a while and makes a decision to repress a bunch of stuff all the time,” McCombs assured us. “They’re constantly doing it.”

Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters is the result of Tortoise and various friends twisting the tracks of their eponymous debut in a wide variety of ways. What prompted such a then-outlandish idea?

“The first Tortoise album, when we were making it, we weren’t recording it as rehearsed songs,” says McCombs. “So the idea of what our group was going to be was still pretty nebulous. We just had this idea that we’d play music together without a super-defined idea of what the music would be. So that first record was compiled from some really skeletal, embryonic ideas. We would put the kernel of the idea on tape and start overdubbing and trying to figure out what would make it. We would try to figure out ways to make it interesting. So when we ended up [with] what resulted in the first LP, we were aware that any of that material could have gone other directions.

“So we were taking that [remix idea] from dance music, even though we were aware we weren’t really making dance music. We were taking the idea of the remix and applying it to what we were doing, which wasn’t really common at that time. We just thought it would be interesting to see how someone else would interpret the stuff we had done. Everyone on that album, the remix version, all of those participants are pretty close friends. We kind of made a little list. We sat down and made a little list of, Who amongst our friends would we ask to do this thing? And that’s what it ended up being.”

Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters is just as difficult to define as Tortoise’s debut album – maybe even more so. McEntire’s “Alcohall” has the old-school ramshackle quality of early ’80s dub, while Rick Brown of 75 Dollar Bill drags “Your New Rod” along in the land of low rumbles. The amount of variety that boomeranged back to the band suited McCombs just fine.

“The [Chicago producer] Brad Wood remix, he did a song of ours called ‘Tin Cans & Twine’, and the surprising thing about that was that he didn’t really change the form or the content of the song very much at all. He did put ‘The Trolley Song’ [from Meet Me in St. Louis] in there; he sang a little ditty in it as he would be known to do occasionally. I think the thing about that one, in particular, was that it resonated with me better than the original. It had a nicer sonic quality; it was more dubby. He made the bass quite a bit deeper, and he did some typical dub-type stuff to it. To me, it had a better sonic quality than the original version, even though I love the original version too.”

Steve Albini’s “The Match Incident” is one track that is guaranteed to confuse or intrigue listeners. The Big Black/Shellac guitarist took the Tortoise invitation to indulge his interest in the Foley arts; exiting a car, entering a house/apartment, turning on the TV, pouring a beverage, and eventually fading the music into the track. “I think that says a lot about what I know about his personality,” McCombs says of Chicago’s famously reluctant producer. “The stuff that interests him, historically, from a recordist’s perspective. So that was cool too. I think, to him, it was a collection of sounds that created the vignette. He probably doesn’t know or care what they were.”

Tortoise circa 1994 by James Warden
Photo: James Warden / Courtesy of Thrill Jockey

Jim O’Rourke’s take on “Initial Gesture Protraction” is pure concept bordering on performance art. “The concept of ‘Initial Gesture Protraction’ is one note that is exponentially drawn out. It’s all right there in the title. That’s exactly what it is. It’s one note that keeps expanding exponentially forward. It’s a conceptual piece. I doubt he was using any digital technology like an ebow. I actually don’t have any idea how he executed it.”

Of his bandmate’s dissection of “Alcohall”, McCombs says, “I love the ‘Alcohall’ remix a lot. It kind of abstracts the original quite a bit and makes it into a new thing. Some of them are quite collaged, and there isn’t any one particular song that is a basis for them. In the case of ‘Alcohall’ – God, I can’t remember what the basic drum track would have been for that one. I’d have to listen to it again.”

Sharp-eyed Tortoise fans will notice that the original pressing of Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters had only seven songs, whereas its re-release on the 2006 box set A Lazarus Taxon included eight songs. From where did this extra song emerge? According to Wikipedia, Mike Watt’s remix of “Cornpone Brunch” “was not included in the original release due to timing and technical reasons.” What were those technical reasons?

“By the time we had to go to press to manufacture Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters, Mike Watt’s remix had not reached us yet,” explains McCombs. “And when we did get it, the DAT tape that he had sent his mix on had been smashed in the mail. None of us heard it until over a decade later when we were putting together a box set of rare Tortoise stuff, A Lazarus Taxon. Bundy Ken Brown, who was an original member of Tortoise, had saved that broken DAT tape. He was able to respool the tape onto a new DAT frame and at least make it secure enough to play once so that he could transfer it. So that was the first time we ever heard it. Everyone in Tortoise except for me is a fairly accomplished recording engineer!”

Tortoise fans will also notice that it has been going on six years since the release of their last album, The Catastrophist. True to their name, the band has been known to take their time between releases, letting the music arrange itself at its own rate. Geography and a global pandemic have changed things, though. McCombs was ready to share some good news but not too many details on this topic.

“We have been [working on new music],” he confirms. “We’ve had two fairly promising recording sessions. We don’t all live in Chicago anymore. [Guitarist] Jeff Parker and John Herndon live in Los Angeles, John McEntire lives in Portland, and Dan and I live [in Chicago], and so far, we’ve gone out to Portland a couple of times to work on some music, and it’s been pretty promising. Right now, things are proceeding faster than our last three albums have proceeded, but things can change at any moment. Tortoise songs age and mutate about ten times before we get to a final version of anything. This is the first album we’ve recorded since John moved to the west coast, and he doesn’t have his own recording studio anymore. It’s forcing us to work in a different way to be more concise and expeditious about how we are executing things. It’s been interesting.”

As far as taking to the stage again, the band is ready to take some baby steps by playing four shows in the early October of 2022. “We’re probably not going to be touring for real until we have some new music to release,” McCombs clarified. “So we thought this would be a good opportunity to play a few shows and get our careers back on track. When it gets closer to the time, we’ll take the temperature of what’s happening in the world at the time and decide if we need to be [COVID] testing every day. I guess we’ll decide if we need to encourage the audience to mask and things like that when the time comes. Right now, it’s a little early to evaluate that. Things change so quickly.”

Things can change quickly in a world ravaged by a pandemic. Tortoise, fortunately, is currently in the frame of mind to pick things up a bit. What that eventually brings down the pipeline is anyone’s guess, but Thrill Jockey’s repressing of Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters helps keep Tortoise’s ever-expanding weird side in the limelight.

Tortoise by Andrew Paynter
Photo: Andrew Paynter / Courtesy of Thrill Jockey
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