Progress Report

Progress Report: Tortoise

NAME: Tortoise
PROGRESS REPORT: Recording their sixth studio LP at Soma Electronic Music Studios, Chicago, Illinois. Out 4/21 on Thrill Jockey.

A strange part of every All Tomorrow’s Parties festival is its “Don’t Look Back” night, where bands play their most beloved album from beginning to end. For some of the bands at New York’s ATP festival, like the Meat Puppets, it was a welcome return. But for bands that are still totally active, like Built To Spill and Tortoise, it feels a bit weird. Did we come to praise them or to bury them? The oddness of that show back in August wasn’t lost on Tortoise’s Doug McCombs either. “I think the types of people who are attracted to Tortoise, or who want to listen to Tortoise appreciate the fact that we’re trying to evolve the music and push it in different directions,” McCombs says. “So I think that, personally, for us, it’s not really that satisfying to play an album that we made 15 years ago from beginning to end, just because we have covered so much ground between then and now.”

Tortoise hope to cover still more ground on their sixth LP. But McCombs says the new record does look back to the band’s earlier albums. “Maybe the word minimalist is a little too extreme, but I think we’re going for smaller arrangements this time than on our last couple records,” McCombs explains. “For me, it’s shaping up to be a little bit sort of in the vein of Standards, our album from 2001. Sonically it’s a little bit like that, but I think the song forms are probably pretty different from that album.” Tortoise attempted one of the record’s new tracks at ATP, but “actually kinda butchered it,” he says. But even butchering a new song is a good thing for them. “Playing songs live usually helps us decide what’s working and what’s not working,” McCombs says. “We’ve figured out that sections of them weren’t working and so we changed them around a little bit, rearranged them a little bit.” Most of the songs don’t have names, but are going by “inner band joke titles” like “The Zeppelin One” or “The ZZ Top One.” One title that might stick, he says, is “Prepare Your Coffin.” Another, track — which the band’s been calling “Korg” — is, as you can guess, a synth heavy track that’s become a new live favorite for McCombs.

“Korg” Live At Forecastle Festival, Louisville KY 7/26/08

Hearing live songs from Tortoise has become more and more difficult; members’ other obligations have meant infrequent performances for the group. John McEntire runs Soma Studios and has been increasingly busy with his other band, the Sea and Cake. Drummer John Herndon and guitarist Jeff Parker play in a jazz group with saxophonist Ken Vandermark, in addition to spending time with their young children. “That takes a certain amount of figuring out how you’re doing your band,” McCombs says. The band has to look at calendars four months in advance to schedule time together, and other commitments means their touring has been limited to one-off festivals and gigs like All Tomorrow’s Parties. In fact, Tortoise began working on the sixth album “in fits and starts” three years ago, and still have a couple of recording sessions left to add string arrangements, or even a vocalist. McCombs and the band are confident that the new record will be out by spring, and they could do a proper tour soon after. “Anything is possible. We just have to refigure how we want to do it,” McCombs says. “We have to take all that stuff into consideration and make it work, somehow.”

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