Tortoise: 20 Years of Evolution


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By: Ron Hart


It's been five years since Chicago's intrepid instrumentalists Tortoise released new material, but that hasn't slowed fan appreciation or band reflection. Following 2004's It's All Around You, Tortoise released The Brave and the Bold where they backed Bonnie “Prince" Billy on a series of totally inventive covers, as well as their career-spanning 2006 rarities box set, A Lazarus Taxon. The band has also kept busy on the road, recently performing the 1996 masterpiece Millions Now Living Will Never Die on the festival circuit. So, when it came time to record a brand new album, the band that created its own experimental post-rock sub-genre did what pioneers do, they reinvented themselves.

Seemingly inspired by such modern-day beat maestros as Prefuse 73 and the late J Dilla, Beacons of Ancestorship (released June 23 on Thrill Jockey, JamBase album review here) incorporates an alien, urban groove that more recalls the Bumps project Tortoise members Dan Bitney, John McEntire and John Herndon released on Stones Throw in 2007 than the group's regular vibraphone-heavy polymath, especially on tracks like “Penumbra" and “Minors." A more educated ear can even catch glimmers of the soundtrack work of John Carpenter on “De Chelly" and some classic David Axelrod on “The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One." Some fans might be taken aback initially by the sheer density of the songs here, particularly the fuzzy, freaky “Yinxianghechengqi." However, once you peel back the layers you will discover Tortoise's finest work since TNT (1998).

The following interview took place with guitarist Jeff Parker and percussionist/band founder John McEntire, where we covered a great deal of ground as it pertains to the release of Beacons of Ancestorship and where it fits within the dichotomy of this most ingenious and unique American rock outfit on the eve of its 20th anniversary.

JamBase: I just wanted to confirm with you guys, in listening to this album I get a sense you guys have spent a lot of time listening to J. Dilla and funky Lalo Schifrin soundtracks. Am I correct in my assumption?

Jeff Parker: We're really happy with it. I'm glad you dig it, too. Yes, you are correct in your assumption. We listened to a lot of Axelrod, too. Dan Bitney, John Herndon and myself are obsessed with Dilla, have been for about a decade, it seems.

John McEntire: I think to a certain degree, but we tried to keep it in check a little bit, ya know? We don't like to see any of the things that float around in our heads to show up in what we do too obviously. But, even having said that, I think that one tune, “Penumbra," is a pretty obvious nod to J. Dilla.

JamBase: How did you guys initially get into David Axelrod and what albums do you count as your favorites?


Parker: I only discovered Axelrod's music about six years ago when John [McEntire] played Songs of Experience for me. I felt like I had been waiting my entire life for that music; it was so stunning, conceptually advanced, etc. Of course, I was familiar with it secondhand through sampling [by DJ Shadow, Dr. Dre, Madlib, etc.]. We never tried to imitate Axe's music though. There's a little bit of the vibe of Axe on “Stretch (You Are Alright)" from IAAY [It's All Around You].

McEntire: We kind of discovered Axelrod back when everybody else did, like seven or eight years ago? [Axelrod] definitely stuck with us, 'cause [his music] is really inspiring stuff.

Parker: As far as [favorite] albums go, Earth Rot [1970], Songs of Experience [1969] and Songs of Innocence [1968]. The comp that was released a couple years back is great. It's a collection of stuff from his years at Capitol called The Edge. Personally, I love the records he produced for The Electric Prunes, and a lot of those Cannonball Adderley albums, too. I often use tracks from Soul Zodiac when I make birthday mix tapes for people!

In terms of hip-hop, who else besides Dilla has influenced you guys and the direction of Beacons and why?

Parker: A lot of us are huge hip-hop fans - some of us aren't such big fans, though. So much of the hip-hop aesthetic of making music has been very influential in Tortoise, from the very beginning [check Bundy K. Brown's remix on “Rhythms, Resolutions and Clusters" from '95 where he sampled A Tribe Called Quest and Minnie Riperton]. The concept of building music from the rhythm section up, chopping up breaks, loops, music that's dynamically stagnant, is all informed from hip-hop, but also a lot of other things, too. Hip-hop music is all about the manipulation of the recorded medium, and that's something that we are all very interested in. Just listen to the GZA's Liquid Swords.

Beacons of Ancestorship seems like a very big shift in sound from previous Tortoise albums. To what can you attribute this change?

Parker: We wanted to make a record that was more direct. The most important thing for us, as a band, is that we keep moving forward, and in order for us to do that sometimes we put self-imposed restrictions on what we allow ourselves to do. We made a conscious decision to leave the mallets off this record.

Did the Bumps project Dan Bitney, John Herndon and Jon McEntire did for Stones Throw harbor an influence on the Beacons sessions at all?


Parker: Two of the songs on Beacons were holdovers from the Bumps sessions, “Gigantes" and “Northern Something." It seems like our approach to rhythm is more beat-oriented lately, less abstract. I know those cats had a great time making the Bumps album.

John, did you guys make any good connections at Stones Throw during the Bumps experience? Can we look forward to a Madlib-produced Tortoise album in the future?

Parker: I would dig that immensely! I heard that Madlib and Guilty Simpson did a Bumps remix, but I have yet to hear it. It may be just hearsay.

McEntire: I feel like at some point in the future I hope we could do something together, because [Madlib] seems real open and like a good person to collaborate with. We did finally get to meet him for the first time briefly when a bunch of the Stones Throw guys were in town for a show. They stopped by the studio when we were working on something in order to make the connection, personally. And yeah, I'm really hoping something comes out of that.

Tell me about the decision to leave the vibes off the new album.

Parker: We like to keep moving forward, and we felt as if the mallets were holding us back from progressing as a band. No one in the band is a virtuoso on the instrument; we just use it to color our songs. It was an easy decision to let it go.

McEntire: We definitely felt like we were wrapping up an era with the box set and what have you. We knew that with this new record we had to turn a corner somehow and come out with a really distinct voice. And yeah, I think it worked out okay. That seems to be the feedback we're getting from people, that it's kind of a different direction for us, which is great.

How do you feel you have grown as a musician since joining Tortoise?


Parker: I got taken out of my safety zone as an improviser. Before Tortoise I was playing jazz, primarily, and I had never really played in a band where the focus wasn't specifically about improvisation. With Tortoise it was more about playing very specific parts. The only real improvisational aspect was in how you colored the different sections of the songs. It forced me to think about exploring the subtleties of ambience, exploring ambient sound. I had to deal with a very specific way of playing the [guitar]. It's hard to imagine how I would've developed as a musician without my experiences from playing in Tortoise.

McEntire: That's a tough one. I think, in a certain sense, we kind of set up a very, very loose template when we started. And, over time, we've been able to dive further into it and work on particular areas of detail and bring out things and articulate certain ideas within that raw framework. And that applies certain syntax to the abilities of the player. I think that's kind of just the gist of it. It's a long process of finding these areas of interest and strength and then building upon them.

John, have you thought about recording your own work as a solo artist?

McEntire: Yeah, definitely. I really want to, it's just really been hard to find the time between the multiple band commitments and keeping the studio running - full time jobs on both accounts. I think it's just gonna be a matter of religiously blocking out a bunch of time and throwing myself into it. I think it's gonna have to be done at some point for my own sanity.

What kind of music?

McEntire: I think it would be pretty broad and cover a lot of styles and textures. It'll probably be instrumental [laughs]. That much I can say.

Jeff, are you doing any recording as a solo artist? Can we expect a follow-up to The Relatives any time soon? If so, what direction are you taking your next solo album?


Parker: Yes, I plan on making another solo album. I've been making a lot of sample-based music over the past few years, and I've been trying to figure out how to mix it with improvising and composition.

Jeff, as a fan, when did you first discover Tortoise?

Parker: I first heard Tortoise at a 4th of July show at The Empty Bottle in Chicago in 1994. I was blown away, and knew that it was something that I could see myself being involved with. I was frustrated with what I was doing musically at the time and was looking for different outlets. It was early on, and I don't even think their first record had been released at that point. It was the original lineup plus Brad Wood on saxophone.

Tell me about the packaging for Beacons of Ancestorship. How did you guys come up with the concept of the album art?

Parker: The artwork and design was done by a longtime friend of ours, a San Francisco/L.A.-based artist and designer named Andrew Paynter. His design company is called JUICE. He sent us some photos of power lines, and we thought they were great and fit the tone of our music beautifully.

McEntire: He submitted them, actually, as a first part of an idea for a video treatment. We really liked them. We weren't really even thinking of them as cover art material at that time. We got into a situation where we desperately needed cover art and the deadline was approaching quickly and we hadn't found anything. At that point we were just like, “Let's revisit these photos and circle some of these together into a sleeve design." And it's great. There's this American photographer from the 20th century who I really like, Terry Callahan, who actually did some telephone wire photos that are almost exactly like the ones on the cover. I believe his were shot back in the '40s. So, I thought that was a nice little tie-in.

Tortoise has yet to put out a live album. Will that ever happen?

Parker: A live LP is something that we've been thinking about for a while now. I'm sure it will happen at some point, but I'm uncertain as to exactly when that would be. The studio is very central to how we make our music, but we really enjoy playing live, too.

McEntire: I think it would be cool to do because I think we could do it with a little twist somehow. So yeah, thanks for reminding me. We'll put that on the short list of things to do [laughs].

When you guys hit the studio, does the material stem from extended jam sessions or do you all come in with ideas that get worked up from one person's concept?


Parker: We get together and jam on occasion, but we rarely come up with anything that we can use. Years ago we came to terms with the fact that we're not an improvising band. Everyone contributes ideas to the band individually, and then we all contribute collectively until we have something that we can work with.

How much material was worked up for Beacons? Are there any extras for b-sides or even an extra album?

Parker: We recorded a lot during the sessions for Beacons, but the strongest and most complete material is what ended up on the album. The Japanese version has two bonus tracks. One is a remix by Eye from the Boredoms, and the other is a collage of snippets from jam sessions that we had during the making of the record.

You guys are basically career artists at Thrill Jockey. Have you ever thought of going to another label or do you feel too embedded in the Thrill Jockey fabric to leave them?

McEntire: You know, I can't really see anything like that as being particularly advantageous. It seems like, at best, it would just be like a parallel move, and I don't know what necessary benefit that would give us. Early on I think we got a few little nibbles from major labels, but obviously things were completely different back in the mid '90s. Now labels are barely figuring out how to stay afloat, much less try to pull established talent from smaller labels.

John, last question is for you. Seeing that all these great bands from the '80s and early '90s have been coming back together as of late - The Jesus Lizard, the original Dinosaur Jr., Faith No More, My Bloody Valentine - has there been talk about doing a reunion with your old pre-Tortoise band, Bastro?

McEntire: Well, we had some discussion about that when Drag City re-released our catalog, but we felt it was going to be too difficult at the time and there wasn't really enough incentive to do it. But me, personally, I'd love to. I told those guys whenever you want to do it, I'm ready.

Tortoise - Prepare Your Coffin from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

Tortoise tour dates available here.

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This story appears courtesy of JamBase.
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