Tortoise - Biography
Drowning in the long wake of guitar driven post-punk bands soaked in the blood of the bloated corpse of 1970’s prog-rock, elements of Chicago’s music scene in the early 90’s began to coalesce around a rejection of the perceived coolness of post-punk rock. Fastidiously slaughtered by the revolutionary spirit of punk in the latter half of the 70’s, prog-rock had been deemed uncool and unworthy for over a decade. In the insular world of 80’s post-punk hipness, many other exploratory genres suffered the same fate. At the onset of the 90’s in both America and the UK, however, a cluster of bands with ears tuned outward were starting to incorporate a spectrum of influence that was much broader than The Byrds, The Velvet Underground and The Fall.
Critic Simon Reynolds infamously coined the (painfully premature) term “post-rock” to describe much of the non-traditional rock music being made at this time. Bands like Slint, Gastr del Sol, Seefeel, Labradford and Storm & Stress traversed a huge swath of aesthetic landscape, reeling in influences far beyond the spectrum of punk’s sloppy garage vibe. Many of these musicians rejected any notion of post-rock as an apt descriptor of anything at all. Although the term certainly could not account for the endless permutations of diverse creativity produced by the bands lumped under its banner, Reynolds was obviously trying to shine a light on the new sounds and structures these bands were grafting onto the spine of indie rock. In Chicago’s fertile scene it was Tortoise that seemed to first capture the moment. Long heralded as the poster band for post-rock, Tortoise took a daunting array of influence and crafted a unique sound that astonishingly avoids any sense of pastiche. All of Tortoise’s founding members come from punk and indie rock scenes, but by fusing together their love of 70’s German psych, electric jazz, minimal composition, dub, progressive rock, hip-hop, avant-garde electronics, film music and traditional American music, the band deftly crafts a sound that is hugely unique and instantly recognizable.
Bassist Doug McCombs and drummer Johnny Herndon played together in a few bands during the late 80’s. While none of these bands took off, the two decided to find a way to continue working together. They began working with John McEntire and Bundy K. Brown, the rhythm section fresh out of Bastro with David Grubbs. Drummer Dan Bitney soon followed. This lineup of primarily bassists and drummers recorded two singles in 1993, "Lonesome Sound" (Thrill Jockey) and "Mosquito" (Torsion Music). “Lonesome Sound,” a cover of a song by Louisville, KY’s country rock queens Freakwater, as well as “Reservoir” and “Sheets” on the B-side all feature vocals, an absolute rarity for Tortoise. The entire 7” is a dense, dripping mixture of twang and deep dubby drums, propelled by throbbing bass guitars and echoing effects. “Mosquito” and “Gooseneck” keep the jaunty bass vibe of the previous single, but lose the vocals and exhibit a higher level of compositional prowess. “Mosquito” shows off funky bass and a horn section over a loose angular beat while “Gooseneck” employs a bubbling bass pulse set to hand percussion, kalimba and swirling electronics. These early singles only hint at what Tortoise would come to produce on future outings.
Stepping forward from the groundwork laid by the early singles, the band’s debut full-length, Tortoise (1994 Thrill Jockey) is head and shoulders above that first group of songs. Taking structural cues from both prog-rock and jazz, as well as noting the angular output of math-rock bands like Slint, but adding a distinctly dubwise vibe with melodica and textural electronic flourishes, Tortoise is an excellent record. “Ry Cooder” with its bass led melody and heavy vibraphone arrangement, fuses cool jazz and dub to the basics of an indie rock track, while “Onions Wrapped In Rubber” tackles ambient techno with sublime drones, musique concrete details and an aquatic four-to-the-floor kick drum. The record sounds like German psych rockers Neu! filtered through the lens of American indie rock, jazz and dub. On its debut, Tortoise started to synthesize the elements that make its second release one of the most important records of the 1990’s.
Directly after Tortoise was released, the band enlisted friends and its own members to remix songs from the record. The result is the long out of print Rhythms, Resolutions And Clusters (1995 Thrill Jockey). Featuring remixes from McEntire and Brown, as well as friends Casey Rice, Steve Albini and Jim O’Rourke, the album places songs from the band’s debut in the realms of hip-hop, ambient, noise and techno. Back when the remix of an indie rock song was a new idea, this record was groundbreaking. The remix concept was something Tortoise would visit again, with even greater results.
1995 was also the year the band released the "Gamera" 12” (1995 Duophonic) on Stereolab’s label. It’s a watershed recording for Tortoise. “Gamera” begins with a steel string guitar melody that references American guitarist John Fahey and soon builds into a drone that explodes into a beat lopsided enough to feel like slowed down drum 'n' bass, but played by Can. It all masses into layered guitar ambience and an increasingly polyrhythmic pulse. And that’s just the twelve minutes of the A-side. The track is still one of the best Tortoise has recorded.
Before the band started work on its second full-length, Bundy K. Brown left to focus on his solo work. Tortoise drafted Louisville guitarist David Pajo, formerly of Slint, to replace Brown. Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996 Thrill Jockey) is easily Tortoise’s best record. The album is filled with sublime moves both structurally and sonically. “Djed” opens, clocking in at 20-plus minutes. Beginning with an up-tempo motorik stomp, the song smudges its way through several sections of dubbed-out Kraut-pulse, Steve Reich influenced phase patterns of dirty organ and marimba, lo-fi hip-hop breaks, wild bursts of electronic noise and cracked electronica. It’s Tortoise’s masterwork and still sounds totally inspired.
“Glass Museum” follows with a huge, watery pulse and soaring melody anchored by fractured Spanish inflected guitar and quivering vibraphone. The quiet “A Survey” showcases a meandering bass pulse wrapped in shimmering field recordings and static, immediately jumping into the album’s most dynamic track, “The Taut And Tame.” Employing dramatic time shifts and interlocking rhythms with dynamic bass and keyboards and strange lo-fi electronic detail, “The Taut And Tame” is the most propulsive song on the record. This gives way to “Dear Grandma And Grandpa,” a melancholy lament with buzzing minor key synths, a burbling drum machine rhythm and barely-there recordings of speech weaving in and out of the mix. Closer “Along The Banks Of Rivers” fades up into the previous track with an insistent bass pulse, rolling drums and a loose guitar melody Ennio Morricone would be proud to call his own. Amazingly all this fusion of influence never results in pastiche, not even close. With Millions Now Living Will Never Die, Tortoise solidifies its place as master craftsmen of a new sound, a totally unique sound that would define the face of new music in the 90’s.
Again enlisting artists to remix tracks from the record, Tortoise this time had an international group of forward thinking musicians on board. The remixes were released as a series of four 12” records featuring contributions from U.N.K.L.E., Oval, Spring Heel Jack and Luke Vibert, among others. Thrill Jockey collected the vinyl releases on CD as Remixed (1998 Thrill Jockey). The diverse choice of remixers stands as testament to Tortoise’s genre spanning taste.
As the band was recording its third record, TNT (1998 Thrill Jockey), Pajo began to spend more time on his solo work as Papa M. He left Tortoise soon after, and long-time friend of the band Jeff Parker joined in his place. Parker, a guitarist, comes from the legendary creative jazz community in Chicago and is a member of the AACM. His improvisational jazz leanings furthered that dimension in Tortoise’s music on TNT. Although the band stresses its democratic group-think and eschews the idea of a soloist stepping forward, preferring instead to form its songs around patterns that intertwine, Parker’s instrumental prowess is clear from the beginning of TNT. The title track begins with rollicking free-jazz double drumming, with Parker’s clean guitar ringing out the lead melody while gurgling electronics flow underneath. Standouts “Ten-Day Interval,” a gentle Reichian marimba piece, and “Jetty,” incorporating electronic drum sounds and thick glowing synth textures, again showcase Tortoise’s adept ability to mix influences into a sound that is distinctly its own. On TNT, Tortoise’s sound has become more poised and its compositions more intricate, recalling the structures of modern classical music.
In 2001, Tortoise released its fourth full-length, Standards (2001 Thrill Jockey). This record proves the compositional depth of Tortoise that TNT began to show. If TNT felt slightly jammy at times, Standards takes Parker’s style and secures it to absolutely solid foundations, proving Tortoise to be master sonic architects. This is not only evident in the songs' arrangements but also in the subtly detailed use of production techniques. The grooves are more dynamic, the sounds more explosive and the melodies more anthemic. “Seneca” is one of Tortoise’s finest moments, with a wild John McEntire rhythm and a smoldering guitar line from Parker. It fully sets the tone for the rest of the album, with songs like the electro-prog bass groove of “Eros” and the breezy Parliament inspired funk of “Monica” sounding just as huge.
Tortoise’s next record, and final proper full-length to date, comes in weighing a little bit less than its predecessors. It’s All Around You (2004 Thrill Jockey) feels slightly limp and self-referential. Although the record undeniably has good tracks, notably “Dot/Eyes” and “Five Too Many,” the production feels slightly too glossy at times and the arrangements a little too familiar.
Joining forces with enigmatic singer-songwriter Will Oldham, appearing in his Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy guise, Tortoise co-crafted an album of covers titled The Brave And The Bold (2006 Domino). With song choices ranging from artists like Bruce Springsteen and The Minutemen to Richard Thompson and Milton Nascimento, the album is as diverse as it is beautiful. Oldham’s creaky voice is particularly touching over Tortoise’s blurred and tender arrangement of Elton John’s classic, “Daniel.”
Over the years Tortoise have been invited to play rock festivals like All Tomorrow’s Parties and Bonaroo, as well as many jazz and avant-garde gatherings. They have been the only “rock” band to contribute songs to compilations filled with hip-hop and electronic music. They have worked with musicians ranging from Chicago’s veteran jazz musician Fred Thompson to techno producer Derrick Carter. All while maintaining their indie rock roots. By incorporating elements of creative music across the genre spectrum and deftly weaving those elements into a signature style, Tortoise has made some of the most unique and important music of the last fifteen years. And if that’s not enough, it’s no overstatement to claim that this band is responsible for greatly widening the palette of independent rock the world over.
Tortoise’s sixth full-length release, Beacons of Ancestorship, was released in June of 2009 on Thrill Jockey.