Photo: Andrew Paynter

The Tortoise Wins: An Interview with Dan Bitney

Tortoise's Dan Bitney talks about 25 years in post-rock, the band's latest collaboration with Chicago's free-jazz community and why it made sense to add vocals after all these years.
The Catastrophist
Thrill Jockey

“If you’re looking at the big picture, we started as a double rhythm section incorporating mallets — which in the time of Nirvana and whatnot, that just made us weirdos,” says Dan Bitney when asked about how the band’s latest album, The Catastrophist fits into Tortoise’s 25 year trajectory. “And then we started using rock band instrumentation: the stuff on Standards is somebody playing a guitar, somebody playing a bass, somebody playing the drums and somebody playing Farfisa. And now it’s more like jazz in a weird way, the layered arpeggios.”

That sense of restlessness, of experimentation, has been a big part of Tortoise’s evolution so far. “For the first three albums, we never worried about repeating ourselves,” he adds. “But after a while it was like ‘We have to go somewhere else.'” And that makes sense. In Aesop’s Tales, the Tortoise wins because it keeps moving.

As we talk, by phone, Bitney is looking after his four-year-old daughter and getting ready for a six-month-long tour. Bitney is remembering earlier tours where all he had to leave behind was a prime bartending gig; now he has a little girl who doesn’t really understand what that kind of separation means. Asked what he would tell his 25-years-ago self about life and music and Tortoise, Bitney laughs and says, “Don’t quit your day job.”

And yet, this five-person multi-instrumentalist collective — Bitney John Herndon, Doug McCombs, John McEntire and Jeff Parker — has persevered since about 1990, despite day jobs and other commitments and projects. They’ve made seven highly regarded albums, outlasting most of their post-rock peers. “We don’t really have a leader in the conventional sense. I think that’s why we lasted so long,” Bitney says. “It’s kind of also why it takes us a long time to get our music made.”

A Free Jazz Experiment That Grew

Tortoise’s latest album, the Catastrophist grew out of a commission by the City of Chicago to create music with the city’s large and active improv jazz community. Each of the band’s five members composed a piece for a five-movement suite. The music was performed in the summer of 2010 in a Millennium Park concert with guest artists including Ed Wilkerson on reeds, Greg Ward on saxophone, Nicole Mitchell on flute and piccolo, Jim Baker on piano and vintage ARP synthesizer 2600, and Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and electronics.

“It was a good performance,” Bitney recalls, “but it really wasn’t Tortoise. It was a great starting point. It gave us five compositions to start with but we really had to work it.”

Tortoise made some rough recordings of the five pieces shortly after the Chicago concert, then performed the material again in Minneapolis in 2012 and Paris in 2013, each time using local jazz musicians to augment their core line-up. “We had hoped it would be our entry into performing arts centers around the world,” says Bitney. “The idea was to perform it throughout the world and use local creative improvisers and musicians.”

Then, the five men of Tortoise returned to the studio and began the laborious process of turning these compositions into an album. So, for instance, the title track retained Doug McCombs original bass line, but added a synth composition worked out by John Herndon on his computer at the front and back ends. The drum beat was particularly problematic, says Bitney. “There are three drummers in the band, and we worked on that drum beat for over a week,” he recalls. “There’s the half-time feel and there’s what I call the Motown double-time feel. Each one of us would go in there and take about five tries. We were trying to be able to take both of those feels and be more fluid. It’s ridiculous that we have three really great drummers — or two really great drummers and myself — and it takes us that long to get a drum beat.”

Bitney’s own piece “At Odds with Logic” also got a workover. “Mine was this schizophrenic thing. I was trying to rip off this Morricone-ish, kind of be-bop tempo. Really frantic, and it sounded great with all the horns and stuff, saxophones and cellos and then somehow it turned into this funk thing when we started tracking it,” he says. “We just chopped the first part off.”

“Then it goes into a movement that sounds like Tortoise, with a good shuffle beat with both Jeff and Doug playing guitar melodies, and after that, there’s this heavy metal final section, which originally was saxophones. It was only when we tracked it that it turned into distorted guitar. And here was I was left with this incredibly schizophrenic piece with nothing consistent except for some of the note choices in the melody,” he adds. Bitney says that as the band worked on it for a week or more, he started to wonder if his piece was good enough to include. But then, when the first section was removed, the composition suddenly made sense again. “That’s what I hope for with this band, that someone is going to have an idea and say ‘Let’s do this.'”

Who Says We Can’t Have Singers?

The five Millennium Park cuts make up about half of the album, but the real surprise comes in two other cuts where Tortoise, for the first time in its quarter-century history, incorporates singing into the mix. Both cuts involve guest artists, the first, the classic rock chestnut “Rock On” featuring Todd Rittman of U.S. Maple and Dead Rider, and the second, “Yonder Blue”, with Georgia Hubley from Yo La Tengo.

Why singing? Why now? Bitney says that Tortoise avoided vocals for so long that it became almost a rule. But really, he adds, the band started fooling around with David Essex’s “Rock On” during a slow stretch in the recording process and mostly because Doug McCombs liked the bass line. “It’s kind of a bass players’ song,” he admits. “I think it was Doug’s idea to even want to do it. The bass player [Herbie Flowers] is the same guy from ‘Walk on the Wild Side’. He’s kind of a famous English session dude. But mainly, if you’re in the studio and things are slowing down, a cover song is a way to get some easy momentum going.”

No one in Tortoise actually sings, though, and the song didn’t really work without vocals. So the band thought about Todd Rittman, whom they’d been friends with since a mid-1990s tour with U.S. Maple. “Todd’s got this swagger. He’s got this personality. Somehow he seemed like someone that if we put him there it would work,” says Bitney.

The song was originally supposed to be a tour-only single, but as the tracks came together Bitney says it started to fit surprisingly well into the sequencing. Now it’s one of the album’s high points, though no one is really sure how it can be performed live without Rittman.

“Yonder Blue”, by contrast, was works pretty well without vocals, so Bitney says that Tortoise may perform it as an instrumental on tour, outside of, perhaps, one show in New York where Hubley may be available. But he bristles at the idea that the song, sung or otherwise, has a 1970s pop feel, however breezy and caressing the guitars may sound. “I keep hearing this, that the songs are pop, and I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ To me, personally, a lot of that music, I hate it,” says Bitney. He hears “Yonder Blue” more as old R&B or doo-wop, with its easy tempo and soulful chord progressions. “I understand with the production, why people think 1970s, but I was more channeling some of the stuff the Numero Group puts out.”

Bitney says he even offered to sing “Yonder Blue” on the road, earning him some funny looks from fellow band members. But what if Tortoise follows the template of its original run of jazz concerts, inviting local talent up on stage to sing “Rock On” and “Yonder Blue” in certain cities.

“I can imagine being in Brazil and if we could get Tom Ze to sing ‘Rock On’,” he speculates. “I could see that working.”