Q&A: Tortoise On The Catastrophist & The Process Of Making Music Without Limitations
For those of us who came of age in the early ’90s, Tortoise — Chicago’s iconic post-rock granddaddies — were a kind of gateway drug for what could be ostensibly deemed “experimental” music. The band’s landmark 1996 release, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, provided, for me at least, essential first contact with what was essentially genre-less instrumental music — a discovery that would eventually lead me to seeking out things like Can, Neu!, and Sonny Sharrock. And even though Tortoise have always been generally slotted under the vague banner of “post-rock” their back catalog — now seven albums deep — is pretty singular. Jazz-inflected and imbued with elements of rock, dub, and ambient electronica, their music has, for the better part of 25 years, remained wonderfully inscrutable. The same is true of the band’s forthcoming full-length, The Catastrophist, which might actually be their most weirdly adventurous to date. The LP includes funk-appropriate basslines, feather-light interplaying guitars, and a variety of otherworldly synthed-out instrumentals. Perhaps weirdest of all, the album includes a cover of David Essex’s 1973 pop hit “Rock On,” which the band manages to make sound oddly ominous. Elsewhere, Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley shows up to add vocals to “Yonder Blue,” which is perhaps one of the loveliest songs the band has ever recorded. In other hands, so many disparate elements and influences might sound like a crazy mess, but The Catastrophist has the same kind of measured, sanguine quality that has been the hallmark of almost every Tortoise album. None of this should make sense, but for some reason all of it does. I talked to Tortoise members John McEntire and Jeff Parker about The Catastrophist and how they got here. And before you get to that, you can listen to “Rock On.”
Wanted to let you know that our entire album will be streaming FOR FREE for you starting January 15 via The Guardian! That's a week before its official release on January 22. In thanks to our fans for all your support, we are sharing "Rock On," the cover of David Essex OBE's classic, featuring Todd Rittmann (U.S. Maple, Dead Rider) on vocals. We are hitting the road at the of the month (list of dates here: www.thrilljockey.com/tours), come down and say hi. Our vinyl catalog has been reissued on limited color editions, and there are also limited edition t-shirts for "The Catastrophist," available at www.thrilljockey.com. "The Catastrophist" will also be available on a special orange vinyl in indie shops, and is also available on 180 gram vinyl.
Posted by Tortoise on Tuesday, January 12, 2016
STEREOGUM: I didn’t realize it had been nearly seven years since Beacons Of Ancestorship was released. In my mind, it was just a couple of years ago. In my mind, everything is just a couple of years ago.
MCENTIRE: I think that’s how we feel too.
PARKER: Yeah, no doubt man. It goes by so fast now.
STEREOGUM: It’s my understanding that this record began as a piece of music you were commissioned to create for the city of Chicago, but how does it usually work with you guys? Is there just a sense that at some point someone’s like “Well, maybe we should start making some new songs”?
PARKER: It seems like we always try and keep some momentum going. I don’t know if John observes this as well, but a lot of times we’ll put out a record, tour a lot, be active around the release of an album, and then pretty shortly after that, stuff stops, and we’ll go in the studio and start to work … and then it usually kind of trickles off. Just considering our process and the way the band works, it’s going to take a long time. It’s a pretty experimental process. A lot of trial and error. Actually, the commission from Chicago came very shortly after we were done touring for Beacon.
MCENTIRE: That’s true. We probably weren’t even through the touring cycle at that point, because that was less than a year after the album came out.
STEREOGUM: So you were asked to compose some pieces of music that were specifically related to Chicago jazz and improvisational music? Is that how it began?
MCENTIRE: I think the concept was about having us collaborate specifically with other Chicago musicians who were linked with the jazz community. That’s not something that’s completely foreign to us, but it was a very excellent public way to present that aspect of some of the things we do.
STEREOGUM: And that stuff eventually turned into what the album became?
MCENTIRE: It took a long time. I feel like when we wrote that stuff, we specifically had it in mind as a kind of open form, with solo charts that other people could just riff off of. Then when we decided that we wanted to record some versions of it, it totally needed to be arranged and turned in to some kind of song form. That was a process, for sure.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned the way that the band works. Has your way of working changed radically over the years?
PARKER: I wouldn’t say so. No, it has not.
MCENTIRE: Yeah, I feel like it’s been pretty much the same.
PARKER: We have a lot of different ways that we work. We kind of function like any other rock band. People bring stuff in and we show it to one another and we try to make stuff out of it. Everybody figures out the parts that they want to play. That being said, what we all present to one another, it can be pretty broad. It can vary from a whole sketched-out composition of something that somebody’s demo-ed out at their house that has complete parts for everybody to play … or it can be just a sound. [laughs]
MCENTIRE: Or a melody, or a drum beat.
PARKER: Yeah, a melody, a loop, whatever. Sometimes we’ll play them all together in the same room at the same time, and sometimes we’ll just add stuff track by track. Sometimes it’s a combination of both. It’s always a possibility that what we work on might not work out in the end. It will change and get flipped upside down and backwards and go in and out of different meters and change keys.
MCENTIRE: More often than not, that’s the case.
STEREOGUM: The kind of music that you make really bridges a very broad stylistic gap that a lot of other bands don’t. I remember in the ’90s being in college and living with people who were all jazz musicians — two of whom were studying music theory and composition — and they usually hated the music I listened to, and I didn’t really understand the music they listened to. I remember buying Millions Now Living Will Never Die when it came out and it being one of the first things that everybody in my house liked. My serious music-student roommates would get very stoned and try to break down what was happening in the music and explain it to me. It’s funny to think about now, but that record really opened a door for me to start experiencing and exploring other kinds of music. Have people told you that before?
MCENTIRE: Yeah. I feel like at that time in particular, there were a lot of bands that — well maybe not a lot, but maybe a dozen or so — that were kind of getting into a little bit of what we were into, at least in terms of blending a lot of different influences and creating something pretty new and unique out of it. If that was something that gave people access to different types of music, then that’s fantastic.
PARKER: I hear from people a lot that our band would open them up to hearing other stuff — other styles, other genres of music. Honestly, being in Tortoise has done that for me. You know, I was like your old roommates. I kind of came out of jazz school and I was making my living as a jazz musician. I was openminded and interested in other things, but I didn’t know that much about a lot of rock stuff. The other guys — especially you, John — were into all this stuff that I thought was really interesting. I still learn about a lot of stuff just from hanging out with those guys. It’s been that way for me, so I would assume that people who are interested in our music, I would think it would be the same for them.
MCENTIRE: I think that’s mutual. Definitely for me — and I would assume for everybody else in the band — the one common characteristic is that we’re all voracious consumers of music and ideas. We tend to bounce things off each other and have a totally open worldview and will graciously accept any new, interesting idea that comes down the road.
STEREOGUM: When the possibilities of what you can do in the band are really limitless — when no sort of sound or instrumentation is off limits — I always wonder if it’s actually harder than just playing in, say, a garage-rock band. When you can do anything and you’re not really bound by a genre or even really a specific sonic palette, that kind of freedom can be really overwhelming. I’ve always loved that your records can really go in any direction.
PARKER: It can be overwhelming, for sure. That’s why it takes so long for us to make a record. Sometimes we’ll have to put parameters on ourselves. I personally will put parameters on how I specifically contribute to Tortoise. Like, I told myself I was only going to play guitar and bass. I was like, “I’m not going to play any other instruments, nothing crazy.” Otherwise you can just come up with more stuff, more layers, dragging other stuff into the studio to play, and it never ends.
MCENTIRE: I think when maybe we all felt the same way, when we did that record with Will Oldham [2006’s covers album, The Brave and the Bold], it was like, oh my God, this was so easy! Not only because the songs were written. That wasn’t the point. It was because we had a vocalist and all this attention was going to be directed there … and all we had to do is figure out some cool arrangements, and that’s not super hard. We made that whole record in like a week, basically. Limitations are good.
STEREOGUM: The “Rock On” cover is so strange and surprising. Where did that come from? It makes a weird kind of sense in the context of the record, but I would have never chosen that song as a likely Tortoise cover.
MCENTIRE: I’m not really sure. It was one of those cosmic moments where I think I was talking to Doug and was like, “You know that David Essex song?” And he was like, “Yeah, let’s do a cover of that, like, right now.” We had the exact same idea at the same time. Who knows, maybe we’d both just heard it on the classic-rock station or something. Maybe we’d just started recording and we were thinking about recording and it was like, oh yeah, this makes sense. I think the way that that song is produced has some resonance with what the band was like in the very early stages, 25 years ago when it was super minimalist — just bass and drums — with this kind of freaky, otherworldly production.
STEREOGUM: Also, people forget how weird the original version of that song is.
PARKER: It really is.
MCENTIRE: It’s super strange, especially for 1973.
STEREOGUM: “Yonder Blue,” the other song with vocals on the record, courtesy of Georgia Hubley, is insanely beautiful. Did you have her in mind when you wrote it?
PARKER: Not really, but it was a treat to have her sing on it. I mean, we didn’t really even do it together. We recorded the instrumental and then sent it to her and she put stuff over the top of it and sent it back. And of course her vocals sounded amazing.
STEREOGUM: Tortoise have been a band for nearly 25 years now. Are you surprised that the band continues to go on, and that people continue to be so psyched about it? Did you ever expect that this project would have that kind of longevity?
MCENTIRE: Not at all. Basically, in the beginning, we just decided to play short lounge acts. That was the extent of our ambition. Then one thing follows after the other, and it was oh, okay, we have these singles. [Doug McCombs and John Herndon] had started recording the singles just as a duo, and then Bundy [K. Brown] and I got involved, and then Dan [Bitney] joined, and then a few more lineup changes and Jeff was in the band in ’97. By that time it was a full-time thing, but no, we never had any concept that it would continue. It was always just this idea of: Well, let’s see what we can do with this, and then hopefully people are going to stay engaged and it will be enjoyable for everybody, and if it’s not, we won’t do it any more. Thankfully, everybody still seems to like it.
Tortoise’s The Catastrophist will be out 1/22 via Thrill Jockey.