Catching Up With Tortoise

After recording and performing for nearly two decades, the members of Tortoise  seem to possess a calm, slow patience not unlike that of the reptile with which they share a name. In a world of buzz bands and supergroups releasing multiple albums a year, these guys prefer to take their time and do it right. And at a rate of eight studio albums over their history of nearly two decades, that’s exactly what they’re doing. After 2004’s tepidly received It’s All Around You, the post-rock pioneers rescinded back into the studio for five years to craft their next album. The result, Beacons of Ancestorship, is the carefully cultivated product of writing, recording and revising, over and over again. The album is an enormously complex amalgam of influences that comprise one of their most unconventional works yet, proving that age-old aphorism which Aesop taught us all long ago: slow and steady melts your face.

Just nights before their four-month tour in support of Beacons, Paste caught up with bassist and band co-founder Doug McCombs, who shed some light on hip-hop’s inevitable influence on the group, the secret treasures that they hide on their albums and the Beacons song title that no one, including McCombs himself, can pronounce.

Paste: The album came out just a few weeks ago [June 23]. How are you feeling about the critical reception of Beacons of Ancestorship?

Doug McCombs: I think the impression I’m getting is that people are responding really well to this new album. For whatever reason, I’m getting the impression that people, or at least the press in general, is a little bit more behind this album than maybe they were our last album.

Paste: Tortoise has many different influences, genres and sounds that your albums reference. For example, a lot of critics say that TNT is your most jazz-infused record, and so on. What sort of genres or traditions were you mostly referencing in Beacons?

McCombs: That’s a hard question. In some instances, I might have a good answer for that question, but when talking about this album, it’s kind of such a huge mishmash of different ideas and different source materials and different inspirations that it’s a little confusing to actually trace something back to where the original inspiration might be from. I can tell you that something I’ve heard the other guys talk about is that there’s a lot of beat-making coming from the hip-hop world that has been kind of facilitating some of this new material. I know that for instance, Dan Bitney, John McEntire and John Herndon all made a sort of Tortoise off-shoot record a couple years ago called Bumps. That record was kind of made with the idea that it would be for breakbeats, for DJs to have some source material to get some breaks from. That album is all drums, and it’s just those three guys making beats, cutting them up and doing these different grooves. They weren’t songs at all, they were specifically made as breakbeats. And I know that the fact that those guys made that record really influenced the Tortoise record a lot, because we ended up using that idea as a starting point for a lot of the songs. Having these cool drum patterns, and trying to develop some sort of song out of it. Trying to come up with structures and melodies to work in these different drum patterns. Similarly, I know that whenever we’re on tour, one thing that Jeff Parker  does a lot just to kill time when he’s sitting around in hotel rooms, he’ll just mess around on his computer and make breaks. He refers to it as “making beats.” When Jeff does it, he’ll be cutting up different stuff. He might take a little guitar riff or some rhythmic guitar thing and try to put a beat to it, and come up with something a little off-kilter or a little obtuse. And he’ll try to make a song out of it. And sometimes, that will be something that he’ll show us. On this new Tortoise album, at least two things that we did were things he showed us that were like that, with different cut-up rhythm pieces that we then made a song out of. So I guess what I’m saying is, at least in the new album, some of the starting points for some of the songs came from this idea of cutting up beats, and hip-hop.

Paste: So in a roundabout way, would you say then that hip-hop has influenced Tortoise on this new album?

McCombs: Well, that’s the thing. Hip-hop is not something that I personally have been really deep into, ever, but some of the other guys in the band have been way deep into that stuff for a really long time, like since the beginning of the band. But in this particular instance, it’s kind of like the one time that I’ve been able to pinpoint where certain things are coming from, and from a real hip-hop perspective specifically. So that’s one definite thing that’s happening on this new album.

Paste: Well, we can ask you about genres and influences all day long, but the fact of the matter is that Tortoise’s music is really complex and unconventional, and it always is. But I felt like this album was a little bit more so, as far as the layering and sounding completely different from any other album I’ve heard this year. Is this why it took you so long to come out with another album—that it’s just so complex that it just takes a really long time?

McCombs: One thing that I’ve noticed is that each time we make a new record, it takes us a little longer. And that’s because I think we are pretty self-conscious about not repeating ourselves too much. I feel like there are certain types of songs and maybe a certain sound that you can kind of pinpoint as being sort of Tortoise-like. We definitely have five people in the band who all write music for the band, and each one of those people has a pretty distinct writing style. I think you can definitely recognize that, certain reoccurring themes over the course of our career, and certain types of harmonies and melodies that we tend to lean towards. But at the same time, we’re always trying to find different ways to preserve that. We’re trying to mix it up and change things up, and throw interesting twists into the thing so that it remains engaging or interesting to listen to. So each time we make a record, that becomes harder and harder. Whenever we do something that seems too familiar, we end up shying away from that and trying to work on something that sounds a little different.

Paste: That definitely seems like a major question for Tortoise: How does such an experimental group keep experimenting for almost 20 years? There must be some sort of pressure to reinvent yourself with every release while still maintaining a consistent sound.

McCombs: Um, that’s pretty much exactly what we’re trying to do. And you know, I think unless we make some major breakthrough at some point, or just decide to go off on a completely obtuse tangent, I feel like at least for now it’s going to continue to be like that. It’s going to be a little more work each time we make a record to come up with something that’s new.

Paste: Well, for a lot of groups, there seems to be a pressure for constant output.

McCombs: I think a lot of bands that have radio hits and stuff like that, those bands feel a lot of pressure to duplicate that or keep those hits going. But since we don’t have any hits, our main pressure is on ourselves to try to keep things as new as possible. The other factor is that, even though we have been working on this album for three or four years, time just kind of slips by. We were actually really busy doing other things too, playing live a lot. We did a few different tours in that time, and a lot of one-off shows, playing all over Europe and all over Asia . So we were pretty busy as a band, and pretty busy doing other things too.

Paste: So when you were touring during that time, were you ever road-testing any of the material that ended up on this album?

McCombs: We’ve been doing a few of these songs live for a while—one of them for a really long time. Actually, one of the songs on the album we’ve been playing all the way back to our last album.

Paste: Which song is that?

McCombs: Oh, that’s the one that nobody, including us, can pronounce [“Yinxianghechengqi”]. That song has been around for a long time and has been through a lot of different phases. We had always been playing it live because it was really fun to play live, and plus it was really short. So it was kind of surprising to have a song like that in our live show, because a lot of our songs are really long and slowly developing, so it was fun to have a short little song like that. But we’ve had other songs from Beacons that have been around, at least in a state where we could play them, for about the last year or so. Two or three songs from the album have gone through a couple different phases of being played live, so we could sort of test them out and see how they were working, and then we went back and changed a couple things about them.

Paste: So how did that material translate from live to studio? Was that a difficult transition?

McCombs: No, not really. What happened in almost every instance would be, we’d have a recorded version of the song and then we would go try some of the songs live while touring. And we would then go back to the studio and change the song, re-writing or re-recording, doing a different version of it. That’s how we ended up with what we have on the album now.

Paste: Earlier, you mentioned every individual band member writing, and having a different writing voice. When you were recording this album over the course of a few years, did everyone have similar ultimate visions for it?

McCombs: We work really well collectively. So we don’t actually discuss this stuff too much. We just kind of know when something is working, or when it’s not and it needs more work. Every once in a while, it’s helpful if someone pipes up and says that, but normally we all know if something needs more work or if it doesn’t. We all have a similar aesthetic. Basically what we’re trying to do is make something that sounds really cool and interesting, and I think we can all agree on what that would be, what “cool and interesting” means to us. We really don’t talk about it. We’ll just keep working on it until finally, one day we’ll say, “OK, this sounds good. We like it, it sounds done.” Sometimes that can take a year or two; other times it can be pretty immediate. There are a couple songs on Beacons that just never had the right thing happening until maybe two years later. We just keep coming back to them and keep checking in to see if we like them. Eventually, either we throw them away or we turn it into something we like.

Paste: Well, Tortoise has a pretty lengthy career. When you look at some bands that have a similar time-line, like Wilco, there’s often a lot of swapping around. But you’ve stuck with your lineup for over a decade now. Is there something about working with this group that has a certain staying power?

McCombs: Well, I think we’re all on the same page as far as being interested in being career musicians. So that’s one hurtle that you can sort of get over. One of our collaborators, and one of the people who was a very early member of Tortoise, decided pretty early on that it wasn’t really his bag. He didn’t really want to go on tour a lot, and that’s why he decided to quit the band pretty early on. Going through a couple years of just finding our feet and getting settled, we eventually settled into this thing where we just kind of found our own goals, and it’s really simple: we just want to be playing music. And we all have gotten to the point where we have this group dynamic, where we trust each other, we have a lot of confidence in each others’ ideas and abilities. And even though sometimes we might struggle to push through a barrier or some kind of writer’s block, eventually something really good will come of it. So I think we’re all just really interested in keeping it up for as long as we can.

Paste: Did you have any of these breakthrough moments in the recording process for Beacons?

McCombs: You know, it was really weird. It was kind of like… it happened really, really late. There were a couple songs that we were still sort of stuck on, and we were trying to meet the deadline because we really wanted to have the album out at a certain time so it would be easier to schedule the next year. And we really pushed to meet this particular deadline. We had a version of the album that was finished, and we all listened to it for five days or a week individually. And we just all knew instinctually that it just was not done yet. We had a couple of these songs that we were just stuck on a little bit, and we weren’t really completely happy with the versions. So we went back to the studio and we worked for another five days, and that was when we made all the breakthroughs. We made some major changes to a couple of the songs, and changed some minor things on some of the other songs, and everything finally just fit into place. That was back in January or February, so it was pretty recent. But we just suddenly knew that that one week of work was the only thing that we needed to put everything in the right place.

Paste: Do you think that was part of working under the pressure of a deadline?

McCombs: I don’t really know. I’m not sure why it happened that way, but I’m really, really happy that we didn’t put out the earlier version of the album because it wasn’t as good.

Paste: Earlier in the recording process, the band said that they were originally thinking about making the whole album comprised of one piece.

McCombs: Yeah, that was something that we were thinking about doing. At one point, we had thought about making one really big composition that went through a bunch of different movements. That was just an idea that somebody threw out there just to have maybe a concept to be working towards. Eventually that proved to be impractical. Based on the material that we were bringing in, it just wasn’t working that way.

Paste: But is that something that you’re keeping in mind for future records?

McCombs: I mean, it would be great. We would love to do something like that. I feel like we may have gotten to a point with this new album where we can sort of do away with the more conventional songs and maybe work toward something more abstract in the future—which could include some big, massive album-length composition. I think something that we were clinging to for a long time was that, from our album Standards and from It’s All Around You, we were working really hard on becoming better songwriters. Trying to get more comfortable with the conventional side of songwriting where there would be lots of verses and choruses and bridges, lots of melody and harmony, that kind of stuff. So now I think with this new album, we were moving toward some more abstracted kinds of song structures, which might be an interesting place for us to go in the future. Another idea that we have that hopefully we’ll be working on soon, before we even do another album, would be working on a series of really short pieces. We were hoping to do a series of five-inch records, and as you may know, there’s a very limited amount of time on that format. It’s like two-and-a-half minutes per side or something. So we were thinking it would be really cool to do a series of records like that, with a lot of really short pieces of music on them. So that’s something that, as soon as we can have some time to breathe, we might like to start working on.

Paste: Speaking of the abstractness of the new album, and the song that no one can pronounce… was that a Wilhelm scream  that I heard in the very beginning?

McCombs: Absolutely! I actually was not aware of that phenomenon until we were making this album, and one of the guys in the band had just found out about it. We’re all film buffs, so it was a really interesting thing to us. We were checking out this website where you can see all these clips of all the different films using that scream over and over and over again. So we were just inspired—we wanted to be part of that history.

Paste: It’s almost like an inside joke.

McCombs: Yeah. And I think we do that quite often, throwing little secret cryptic things in there for people to discover if they happen to be interested in some of the same things that we are.

Paste: So what are some of the other secrets you’re hiding in your music for us?

McCombs: Well, some of that stuff might be in the song titles and stuff like that. Usually our song titles are referencing some part of culture that maybe one of us is interested in, or something that we read, so that kind of stuff is always in there. There’s also musical stuff too, but I can’t think of any instance right off the top of my head.

Paste: Whenever anyone is reading about Tortoise from any kind of critical perspective, there’s always the “post-rock” thing. What’s your perspective on that term as nailing Tortoise down into a genre? Do you agree with it, or are you feeling somewhat pidgeon-holed by it?

McCombs: When that term was coined, it seemed like there were a few different bands around at that time that were moving away from a traditional rock ‘n’ roll kind of stance. At least in the underground music scene, which is where we came from. You started to have some bands moving away from that rock ‘n roll format at that time, and I think that’s where the term “post-rock” came from. But I really felt like we were just putting our own stamp on rock music that had been inspiring to us. We were trying to create something that was our own out of it. Which is what all our favorite bands had always done, putting their own personal stamp on rock ‘n roll, and making it into their own thing that no one else could have done. So I guess the implication that what we were doing was somehow meant to be the end of rock ‘n roll, I didn’t like that implication. I just felt like we were trying to be part of a continuum more than anything else, trying to push things in different directions. We definitely didn’t feel like we were above, or more intellectual than, or doing anything more important than anything else going on at the time. Grunge was definitely happening at that time. And to a certain extent, I feel like the underground music scene that we came from is the same underground music scene that grunge came from. We just happened to go off on a tangent that was completely different from that. But we didn’t feel like we were above that, or any more cerebral than any of that stuff… it was just different paths.

Paste: “Post-rock” as a term isn’t applied as often to bands these days, but you still have bands with a pretty heavy emphasis on unconventional instrumentalism, like Explosions in the Sky  or Sigur Rós. Do you ever hear your own influence in some of these younger bands?

McCombs: I think we may have influenced some of those bands. But I also feel that we’re close enough to those bands that even younger bands feel more like contemporaries than just people who’ve come after us. I feel like it’s just as possible that they might have gotten a certain amount of influence from some of the same sources that we were influenced by. It’s also definitely possible that there are bands who have come along, younger than us and newer to us, that have been inspirational to me, too. I know, because I’ve done it. It’s more of a back-and-forth thing. I can appreciate, and do appreciate, bands like Explosions in the Sky, or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, or Mogwai. Regardless of whether or not any of my influences are in their band, I’ve seen those bands perform and I’m inspired by it. So I can say at least in the opposite direction, that’s definitely happening. Ninety percent of my friends are also musicians, and some of them play in bands that don’t sound anything like Tortoise or anything remotely like any other band in what they call “post-rock,” and yet I know for a fact that they love Tortoise and that they’re inspired by our music. I know it because they’ve told me. And they don’t sound anything like us. So it’s all out there somewhere, and I feel like it’s more of a reciprocal thing.

Paste: On The Brave and the Bold, the covers album that you did with Will Oldham , you guys covered everyone from Springsteen to Devo. Which band would you choose to cover your own material?

McCombs: I actually do have an answer for that. But it’s going to sound redundant because I’ve been talking about this band a lot. In almost every interview, people ask me what I’ve been listening to lately, and it’s always the same answer because I’ve really only been listening to one band for the last two years or so. If I could hear them doing a Tortoise song, it would probably be the most awesome thing I’ve ever heard. It would be ZZ Top . I would love to hear ZZ Top do a Tortoise song.

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