“There’ll be these weird mutations that shoot out and maybe they die in a year or maybe somebody takes just one thing from it. But it is, more than any other place, I think, somewhere that new forms are showing up.”
We’re backstage at the Maison d’Arts in the Parisian suburb of Creteil and Dan Bitney, percussionist, keyboardist, sample-triggerer and occasional saxophonist for Tortoise since their second ever gig, two decades ago, is expounding his theory of why London might just be the only place in the world right now producing original music.
It’s at this point that guitarist Jeff Parker interrupts in the meekest, most humble of tones, “You don’t think that Juke and stuff is original?”
“Yeah,” Bitney grudgingly concedes.
“Baltimore Club? Like all of that?” Parker prods.
“But what I think is unique about England,” offers John Herndon, drummer, sequencer, vibes player, “is that it gets broadcast onto radio and people get to hear it. And that’s why it makes a broad splash rather than, like, a niche thing where people have to go and seek it out. Urban dance music is definitely mutating in pockets around the world but not all of them have a system of pirate radio that will broadcast it into your home, or into your car. There’s a razor’s edge about UK pirate radio that is different from other shit.”
It is a curious thing to find oneself deep in the Parisian banlieues talking about the UK hardcore continuum with three members of one of Chicago’s most eminent and influential post-rock bands. It almost didn’t happen. Only the previous day did I get confirmation from Thrill Jockey that John Herndon would be willing to talk to me. When I arrive it soon became clear that Herndon was not going to be at his most chatty. He seems fluey, tired – jetlagged maybe? – his voice nasal, and answers punctuated with the sniffs and snuffles of a full-on head cold. At one point he confesses, “I have a super block in my head.”
Fortunately, his bandmates Bitney and Parker, who just happened to be sitting around, waiting for dinner to be served in that no-man’s land between soundcheck and show, were on hand to throw their two cents in and laugh at Herndon’s tongue-tied responses.
The group are in the Île-de-France for the annual Sons d’Hiver festival, organised by the Val-de-Marne département with the intention of bringing together musicians from America and France, mostly from the worlds of jazz and musique actuelle. So their performance consists of a set of all new material, only performed twice before (in Chicago and Minneapolis) and written specially for what Herndon calls “an augmented group” with the addition of flute, sax, trumpet, piano, an extra guitarist and a second drummer – half of whom local musicians, playing with the group for the first time. Strange kinds of mutations from jazz have been part of the group’s sound for some time and Bitney, in particular, nods to the significant influence discovering the Chicago jazz scene had on the band’s sound (“coming from indie rock, it was like: holy shit!” he says). But this may be one of the closest things the group have ever done to traditional jazz, with half the musicians reading from a printed score and space provided for solos from each of the extra players.
Of course, whether it’s backing up Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy on his covers album, The Brave and the Bold, or recording with The Ex (who Herndon assures me are “hilarious. Kind of goofballs”) for an In The Fishtank session – not to mention each member’s numerous side projects – collaborations of one sort or another have always been a crucial part of what Tortoise do. The very earliest incarnation of what would become Tortoise was a plan on the part of Herndon and bassist Doug McCombs to form a free-floating “rhythm section for hire” (though Herndon scoffs at my mention of Sly & Robbie, cribbed from Wikipedia). But when asked which of their many alliances was the most fruitful, the answer is unanimous: Tom Zé.
The Brazillian Tropicalia legend took the group on tour as his backing band in the U.S. and South America in 1999, riding up and down the continent in what Herndon describes as “the worst bus ever.” He adds, ”he was a super trouper though. He would wake up at five in the morning and do t’ai chi on the bus and then go back to sleep. And he didn’t mind that we couldn’t play a samba to save our lives.” As Bitney puts it, “He’s more interested in breaking that stuff apart than trying to be a cultural ambassador for stereotypical samba or bossa nova.”
Nor, despite their long association with the tag, do Tortoise have any interest in being cultural ambassadors for ‘post-rock’. “What they said was post-rock, I always thought it was just what rock always was,” claims Parker, while averring, not entirely paradoxically, that “post-rock reduced rock to clichés, but rock music was always a broader thing.” If there’s an overarching narrative of the Tortoise story, it may be, as Bitney, suggests, a story of their becoming a rock band. “I mean, it’s not uncommon for there to be, like, drums, bass, synth, guitar,” he points out. “Especially, on the last record [2009’s Beacons of Ancestorship], it’s not like it’s vibraphone, marimba, synthesizer, drum machine. So in general terms, we did kind of become a rock band – I use it loosely because I think we’re weirdos for rock.”
The question left unanswered is whether this is more down to a change in the sound of Tortoise themselves, or whether the norms of rock itself have finally shifted and caught up with what they were doing long ago. It may no longer make sense to talk about post-rock, when practically all new ‘rock’ bands are using samples and unusual percussion instruments and taking influence from dub and jazz and the sixties avant-garde.
Rewind twenty-two years to the first gig by the band-that-would-be-Tortoise. Nirvana are just about to release ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and the only other records you could call rock to bother the charts all year are things like ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ by Bryan Adams and ‘More Than Words’ by Extreme. It’s the summer of 1991. The Lounge Ax, Chicago. It would prove to be the one and only gig by Mosquito, a quartet of two rhythm sections – two basses and two drumkits – consisting of the Herndon/McCombs duo “for hire” plus bassist Bundy K. Brown and drummer John McEntire of Bastro. The headline act (The Ex & Tom Cora) have been forced to cancel after getting stopped at the border from Canada so the promoter decides to throw the doors open for free. The house is packed, but “It was all our friends,” as Herndon recalls. With all the members coming from the indie rock and hardcore scenes (McCombs had played bass with Eleventh Dream Dau and Herndon with Precious Wax Drippings), the point of reducing everything to just bass and drums was, for Herndon, a question of “forcing ourselves to think outside of our comfort zone. We just wanted to do something different.”
Evidently it worked. “People were really into it,” Herndon claims. But it would be some time before they played a second show. Meanwhile, McEntire finished his percussion major at Oberlin College, and he and Bundy K. Brown would make one last record with David Grubbs from Bastro (though now under the name Gastr Del Sol, which Grubbs would continue to use for his subsequent collaboration with Jim O’Rourke). In 1993, the now-named Tortoise would record their first album at Idful Music in Chicago, an album made up of the group’s live repertoire. It would prove to be, as Herndon puts it, “the only record that we’ve made where the songs were played live before we recorded them.” For by the time they returned to Idful in 1995 to record their second album, McEntire had created enough of a studio of his own – if not to record the ‘live’ backing tracks – then at least to sufficiently derange them in post-production that they would become effectively entirely new compositions. From this point on, the studio would prove, for Tortoise, to be as important an instrument as any other.
My first introduction to Tortoise came with that second album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, released by Thrill Jockey in 1996. Last year, FACT included it in a list of the greatest albums of the 1990s. The moment that blew my tiny teenage mind comes about 14 minutes in on the 21 minute long opening track, ‘Djed’. A cascade of minimalist mallet instruments suddenly skips, chops, shudders and jerks. At the time, I recall being convinced that my CD player was broken, so alarming was this abrupt intervention upon the otherwise smooth surface of the track. So it came as some small surprise to me when Dan Bitney declared to me that this effect was created by entirely analogue means. “It was a tape edit that just got way out of hand,” he admits. “Really, he [John McEntire] was just trying to do a nice edit and kind of gave up and just decided to splice all these different tapes together.” A case of pure serendipity, “making a mistake and making something out of it.”
Only with the next record, TNT, would Tortoise go fully digital, and finally record the whole album at McEntire’s Soma Electronic Music Studios. The process took a year, and, according to Herndon, would ultimately, “scare Dave Pajo away…Dave got half way into the recording process and then was kind of like, dude, I’m out, man. I’m out.” For Dan Bitney, it was a time when the band were “evolving a lot”. It was also the first album to feature the band’s friend and flatmate, Jeff Parker, previously of AACM saxophonist Ernest Dawkins’s New Horizons Ensemble. “It took me a long time to find a way into the thing,” Parker confesses, looking back. “I didn’t want to get in the way too much.” But for Herndon, it never seemed like “Tortoise one day, and then Tortoise with Jeff Parker the next day. Because we were friends for some time before he actually joined the band officially. And we had done some shows in Chicago where we had asked if Jeff just wanted to sit in and play. It just seemed like a slow morph.”
Since then the group’s line-up has remained stable. They remain, as ever, in Chicago; the city the various members were once drawn to for being big but affordable, “super-easy to have a job that you could work three days a week and you could still drink every night and go out.” The city they now profes gratitude to for lacking the “laser eye on your development,” of the big coastal towns, thus giving bands “the time and the space to develop strangely.” And it will be in Chicago, through the doors of Soma Electronic Music Studios, that Tortoise will step once more when they start work on their next album, in April.
Are we likely to see a major departure from the form of the last few albums, I ask?
“It’s pretty much drum’n’bass,” jokes Herndon, “pretty much, like, ragga.” But finally he admits, “We don’t know. It’ll probably start shaping itself up, but at this point – ” At this point, basically, your guess is as good as theirs.