“I wanted to be in a band that was really singular and didn’t sound like anything else,” says Doug McCombs, bassist, guitarist, and co-founder of American rock band Tortoise. The band was formed in Chicago in 1990 and is currently comprised of McCombs, Dan Bitney, John Herndon, John McEntire, and Jeff Parker, all of whom share a variety of instrumental duties. As an instrumental quintet, they remain joyfully undefined, drawing from a wide range of influences, including punk, jazz, minimalism, ambient, kosmische, dub, and electronica.
“If we find ourselves doing something that seems too familiar or too easy, our tendency is to push it in a different direction to see if we can make something else happen,” McCombs continues. This methodology has been part of Tortoise’s ethos since the beginning. The band started as a double rhythm section, making it an outlier in the grunge and indie rock-filled landscape of the 1990s. Incorporating marimba and vibraphone, now a signature part of their sound, the band released a self-titled LP in 1994, followed by the heady Millions Now Living Will Never Die in 1996 and the critically acclaimed TNT in 1998. These releases established Tortoise as one of the more emblematic acts to come out of Chicago’s music scene.
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Tortoise’s idiosyncratic approach has roots in the influential DIY scene of the 1980s. “I was in punk bands in the ’80s,” says percussionist Dan Bitney. “There’s an ethos that goes with being from that era, of kind of ‘doing stuff yourself,’ doing what you want to do.” The 20-minute long “Djed,” which opens Millions Now Living Will Never Die, is representative of that attitude in being almost a “fuck you” to what any other rock band would have been doing around that time. With its stormy opening loops and moody melodic line (played by McCombs and David Pajo, of Slint fame), it sounds unlike anything else that was being made at the time. “I feel like [‘Djed’] kind of set some aesthetics for us and was like an open door to experimentation, it’s got a rocking groove in it, and atmospheric textures kind of happening, kind of an oldie; an oldie but goodie,” points out Bitney.
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In keeping with the punk spirit shared by many of Tortoise’s members, multi-instrumentalist, engineer, and producer John McEntire touches on a lesser-known aspect of the band, which is all the jokes in their music. “We’re all comedians, at least in person,” he deadpans. “I don’t know how much of it comes through music, but we try to get little Easter eggs in there every once in a while.” I ask about “The Suspension Bridge at Iguazú Falls,” from TNT. Being from Argentina, where Iguazú Falls are located, I politely say I don’t think there is a suspension bridge in the national park. “That was actually a reference to a Dadaist prank, where a man started spreading a rumor that they were building a suspension bridge over the Iguazú Falls,” says McCombs. “There’s a healthy dose of that going on in Tortoise for sure, sort of like art-based humor pranks that mostly manifest themselves in sort of musical in-jokes amongst us in the group.”
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The band could have kept going with what they started on Millions and TNT, but instead, Tortoise redirected on 2001’s Standards. “I always liked Standards a lot because on our first three records, we were doing a lot of esoteric stuff,” says McCombs. “We were trying a lot of different things, and we were experimenting. But the rock part of us had sort of been lost a little bit.” Bitney agrees. “[Standards] was the first time where it was like, ‘No, there’s a drummer, there’s a guitarist, there’s an organ, and there’s a vibe.’ You know, maybe not a rock band, but that’s a lot different than a drum, a bass that nobody’s playing, but it’s turned on, and somebody’s playing, like, bowing a vibraphone key,” he laughs.
McCombs expands on this idea: “I feel like on Standards that was the best of both worlds, sort of being a really good rock band and also having a good amount of experimentalism or inquisitiveness along with it. To me, it still stands out as a really great, diverse record.”
Standards opens with a massive, saturated drum sound courtesy of McEntire. “We were working on the first track, ‘Seneca.’ And I think Doug had that intro piece sketched out and everything, and we were trying to figure out what to do with it. And I […] turned all the preamps all the way up, and everything just smashed the level to the tape. And then that was the sound. And obviously, that’s what needed to happen. But that was kind of an accident, actually. Having little breakthroughs in the studio is always super inspiring,” says McEntire. The album marked the band’s departure from recording at their apartment, which doubled as a rehearsal space and recording studio, to recording in a state-of-the-art facility run by McEntire. “By the time we made Standards, he [John McEntire] had already built another freestanding recording studio, his commercial recording studio. And he had better microphones, he had a better room to record in, all that stuff. Better gear, better equipment,” says McCombs.
Having access to a professional studio helped shape the band’s fifth album It’s All Around You. Less aggressive than Standards, It’s All Around You indulges Tortoise’s ability to manipulate and obsess over sound. Each song is meticulously crafted. “Repetition is one of our building blocks, but I feel like there’s a fluidity in what we do,” says McEntire. “That’s great because we can go from like, strictly textural layered stuff to more conventionally harmonic and melodic things pretty easily.” These stylistic choices are evident on It’s All Around You. “It’s about finding new layers and whatnot within the confines of our somewhat traditional setup,” he says. The end result is a record that, while borrowing from their previous direction, offers something progressive, with melodies that are blissful and kinetic. It is more controlled and electronic than their albums from the ’90s. It’s All Around You is also strangely prescient: it predates Spotify’s mood-inducing instrumental playlists by over a decade.
The band’s next record, Beacons of Ancestorship, found Tortoise expanding further into electronics while retaining their signature in-jokes. “There’s a track on Beacons of Ancestorship, ‘Yinxianghechengqi,’ there’s a false intro to it. And then we dropped a Wilhelm Scream in there.” Says McEntire. “It’s a stock sound they use in movies, it’s really common, it’s an in-joke amongst film editors, Sound editors, they always have to find an occasion to put it in. It’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark like thirty times or something. Anyway, we got one in.”
Released in 2009, Beacons of Ancestorship deviated from the band’s percussion-centric sound and highlighted synthesizers instead. “Electronic music is a big part of the culture of Detroit and Chicago. And that’s all real synth-heavy house music,” says McCombs. On Beacons of Ancestorship, with its pitch-bent Moog, the synths are crunchy, at times close to abrasive, the percussion less straightforward than on Standards: the record is somewhere between math rock and a fine-tuned tracklist for a Nintendo video game.
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“One of my favorite movies is Raiders of the Lost Ark,” adds McCombs. “Film soundtrack work has been inspirational to us, almost since the beginning.” This is reflected in tracks like “The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One,” with its zigzagging guitars and chain-like clashes that sounds as if it’s taken straight out of a spaghetti western. “A long time ago, we were all going crazy for Ennio Morricone because, in the ’90s, they suddenly started to reissue all of this Ennio Morricone stuff that most of us had never heard,” says McCombs. This influence touches on something more profound. “The general feeling of a film, or the general feeling that you get from a piece of art, it’s obvious that it’s impossible to define that, but it’s what drives us to make music—is trying to put these things, these ideas that we have, into some kind of audible form,” reflects McCombs.
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In keeping with that cinematic spirit, “The Match Incident,” stands out. The track is a remix of the band’s “Ry Cooder” by legendary engineer Steve Albini. Albini blends a layer of ambient sounds with the original track’s loungey vibraphone and clear, dry drums. “I don’t know where he [Steve Albini] got this idea. But he had this whole concept of doing like a short radio play. And it’s just a narrative of somebody coming home from work. Going into the kitchen, lighting a cigarette, getting a beer out of the fridge, and hearing this song playing through the wall or something. Pretty simple but well executed,” says McEntire. Rhythms, Resolutions, and Clusters, a collaborative remix album reissued this year, exemplifies the value of being part of a creative musical community. “It was inspirational to be around a lot of creative people basically, and to have the shared interest with people just like, being so interested in music—and I mean, for me, that was the reason I moved to Chicago,” says McCombs. “There’s so much culture here; the amount of shows in one night is crazy,” adds Bitney.
Tortoise has achieved a long-lasting communion by consistently expanding their musical practice and valuing all individual contributions when composing. “Everything we do is so collaborative, it couldn’t exist any other way. The music that we make, as when we come together as five individuals, is much stronger and more interesting than it would be if there were just one person running the ship,” says McCombs. This union has allowed the group to outlast trends and build a body of work that is musically diverse and delightful. “Something that keeps our band fresh is the fact that we’re always like, trying different things and trying to move in different directions,” says McCombs. “I think that we still all really just enjoy the music that we can play together. I think if the music had gotten stagnant, we wouldn’t be as happy being a band still. But every time we get together to work on music, there’s something new. Something new and different comes from it, and that’s what Tortoise is about.”