Tortoise by Jason LaFerrera

“Trying to describe it to somebody, like the concept, succinctly, is difficult… and always has been.”

Tortoise Bomb 1

A detail from one of several composite photographs featuring the faces of band members Dan Bitney, Doug McCombs, Jeff Parker, John Herndon, and John McEntire. Courtesy Thrill Jockey.

Tortoise, a powerhouse of multi-instrumentalists celebrating their twenty-fifth year as a band, have just released a new full-length studio album—their first in nearly seven years. The Catastrophist is a blend of all the styles they have toyed with over their career, collaborations, and side projects: there’s post-rock, jazz, electronica, dub, and minimalism. Here, their maturity really shows through; sonic wanderings are tightened into songs, and all while that same core of experimental rock permeates everything, even as the synths blurt and percussion overtakes melody, melting into a wall of texture and sound. This new sort of cohesion suits Tortoise well, and the comparative brevity of the songs on this album might broaden their appeal beyond any one experimental niche.

That said, as a whole it’s not a radical departure from what fans of Tortoise might expect—except for one key element: vocals. For the first time since their collaboration with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the listener is supplied with lyrics calling out from overtop the soundscaping Chicago quintet. In one instance, they employ the same approach as on their album of cover songs, The Brave and the Bold (2006)—conjuring up David Essex’s 1973 glam single “Rock On,” as sung by fellow Chicagoan and noise rocker Todd Rittman. Later, on “Yonder Blue”—a song of a very different timbre—Yo La Tango’s Georgia Hubley makes her appearance, lending not only her voice but original lyrics as well. She fits perfectly into this slow ballad, engaging the space in a way no instrument ever could.

The nonvocal tracks are, of course, not without their surprises as well. We begin with the album’s namesake, “The Catastrophist,” which starts with a flourish of synths right out of a 1980’s video game before relaxing into the more familiar, subdued Tortoise sound. “Gopher Island” clocks in just over a minute and feels most akin to Mark Motherbaugh’s score for The Life Aquatic. Then there’s the album’s first single, “Gesceap,” which features something like a very thick organ overture that gets piled with looping guitar and drums until bursting into some rather heavy arpeggios reminiscent of early Philip Glass.

I spoke briefly with John McEntire, the band’s drummer / percusionist / synth-player / producer / engineer, about creating The Catastrophist.

Jason LaFerrera This new album sounds great—and obviously, since Beacons of Ancestorshipcame out in 2009, it’s the first in a little while for Tortoise. I know you guys put out that soundtrack album along the way [Lovely Molly, 2012], but how long has this one been in the works?

John McEntire We started doing stuff about two years ago and it was very piecemeal, as it tends to be with us.

JL But just what is that process like? Are you going to a rehearsal space and trying parts out? Are you passing snippets of riffs back and forth?

JM Yeah, when we get together everybody brings whatever—their little demo ideas. Then we create a big stew out of all these small pieces to see what’s working and what’s not, and to see what excites people. That’s just the start of this long process of trying ideas out on top of each other and editing. It’s a three-steps-forward, two-steps-back kind of thing, so it does take a while.

JL Yeah, that’s paradox of choice, right?

JM Exactly.

JL But has this process changed over the years—you know, now that everyone’s got a laptop 24/7, and carrying around their smart phones, and all the other cool toys? Are you guys still doing a lot of composition in studio, or is it just…

JM Oh, for sure. That’s really where we do almost everything. When people come up with these demo ideas there’s already a knowledge that we’re going to at least sit in a room together to discuss them, but also play some additional material.

JL So The Catastrophist has two songs with vocals, which is a big notch up from previous, mostly instrumental albums. Like, how did you decide—of all things—to cover David Essex’s “Rock On”?

JM (laughter) I don’t know. It just happened one day. There’s really no explanation… I think Doug [McCombs] and I were, independently of each other, kind of interested in it, saying: “You know that really weird ’70s tune that comes on the radio every once in a while? We should do something with that.”

JL And that’s Todd Rittmann [Dead Rider] singing on it. Strangely enough, I think I was actually working at Sound of Music Studios when he was recording Acre Thrills with US Maple. But how did you guys land on Rittmann for this?

JM I guess we kind of went through a long list of potential candidates, then ruled them all out for one reason or another. But suddenly, we were like, “Oh, why didn’t we think of him earlier.” It seemed totally natural.

JL He totally nails it… Doing a cover like “Rock On,” where lyrics and vocals already exist, is a certain type of thing, a certain type of challenge; there’s a specific space for that. But then we have this other sort of collaboration, “Yonder Blue”—with Georgia Hubley [Yo Lo Tengo]. How was this written with vocals in mind?

JM Actually, it wasn’t written with vocals in mind at all, but we got it to a certain point and felt it needed another element. This seemed like the perfect option.

JL It definitely feels like it was meant to have her vocals all along—that they were baked into it. They fit so nicely… But let’s talk about this album’s cover art for just a minute. It’s very funny to me. How did you guys come to this decision?

Tortoise Bomb 2

The barrell vaults at Arcosanti, an experimental township in Yavapai County, Arizona.

JM Well, there were these photographers… and it’s actually something we did for a magazine photoshoot some time ago. They didn’t even tell us about what they were going to do; they just went ahead and did it—taking our portraits and making these composites of our faces. We loved them. But this was a while ago now, maybe five years ago. So these images have been waiting to be unleashed.

JL There’s almost a “Tim & Eric” quality to them—like their old comic sketches, when they did these celebrity mating Paparazzi photos, something like that. At any rate, I laughed aloud when I saw that jpeg on my screen.

JM (laughter) Yeah.

JL You guys have been a band for what, twenty-five years now? Can that be right?

JM It’s pretty close.

JL I was doing some research from way back, maybe from back when Tortoise was called Mosquito, but I read that at some point you guys had billed the group as a “rhythm section for hire.” If you could sum yourselves up so succinctly now, what little catch phrase would you use?

JM (laughter) I figure most people by this point—if they are even vaguely interested in what we do—have a fairly good idea of what they are going to get. But trying to describe it to somebody, like the concept, succinctly, is difficult… and always has been. That’s just the way it is, I guess.

JM What changes have taken place over those past twenty-five years? Even since the last album, there’s so much new technology available. And you guys seem to always employ some sequencing and sampling in your music, but this time around it seems more natural, with less of that sort of thing.

JM We go through phases.

JL And how have you stayed together for twenty-five years? I feel like every other weekend there’s some sort of ’90s reunion show that I’m going to. I’ve watched bands reform in some way or another and play whole albums from the late ’90s that I love so much, but you guys just never stopped turning out new stuff together. Sporadic output—is that the key?

JM That’s part of it, having those really long breaks. It helps everybody’s sanity and makes us excited to get together again. But having said that, I just feel that the mix of personalities in the band is really good. There’s never been any kind of issue with egos or anything like that. We are all super down-to-earth, and that certainly helps. We’d probably still be doing some variation on what we are doing now, even if we had never been remotely successful, so I feel it comes from a place of sincerity. Everybody is really motivated in that sense.

JL That totally comes through… You guys have a bunch of touring coming up, correct? Europe and some of the States. Are you guys ready for that?

JM (laughter) No!

JL But actually playing this material live seems like a fun challenge. Has any stuff from the new album proved to be especially more difficult that you thought?

JM I suppose we figured all of it was going to be a bit challenging, though the first two tracks are a little hard to get our heads around for some reason—just to make the arrangements work for a live setting. But what else has been weird? We only started rehearsing like five days ago, so things are just coming into focus. We do two shows on the same night in Chicago, on January 23rd.

JL It’s still a little ways off, so you got some time… But what about the logistics of touring? Tortoise doesn’t head out so often, so is that an exciting time for you all—out with the dudes, playing some shows? And are there particular places, venues, or festivals you’re especially looking forward to?

JM Definitely, touring is great. We’re doing a couple of things here in the states that are going to be interesting… Are you familiar with Marfa, Texas?

JL I am indeed.

JM Well, they have a film festival called Cinemarfa, and we’re going to do something for that. Then there’s Arcosanti. It’s this kind of architectural experiment that an Italian architect devised, probably in the 1960s, built in the middle of Arizona. They have a festival there, which should be really interesting. Otherwise, so far, it looks like the usual suspects on the itinerary, but all really good stuff.

JL Any future projects, like more soundtracks or anything like that?

JM We’re super focused on preparing for the tour, but once that gets rolling we’ll start talking about other things—nothing is firm yet, but there are some ideas.

Jason LaFerrera is a recording engineer turned software developer. He currently develops for PHHHOTO and HYPERHYPER.

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