Tortoise: Return of the Terrapin Rhythm Section

Jesse Jarnow on January 22, 2016

What to do if you’re Tortoise? You’ve already kicked open the door of new music and flattened out the remaining walls between rock and jazz and dub and more, artistically and socially. You’ve been blamed for a genre (“post-rock”) and continued to be part of an intimate transglobal musical community while moving to lifer status. You’ve had a hand in redefining what it even means to be a band as technology changed around you. You’ve survived the relocation of two members from the Third Coast of Chicago to the freaky coast of Los Angeles, while the kind of music you make has emigrated from the avant-garde peripheral to the mainstream. You’ve been booked at big-money festivals and used in video games. You’ve got more music to make, because that’s what you do.

And by you, I mean they, and by they, I mean the five guys who’ve answered that question by simply continuing to be Tortoise on The Catastrophist, their seventh and newest full-length, which might not be the most exciting way to put it. But like every Tortoise album before it, The Catastrophist is, by turns, dense and minimal, rhythmically rich, layered and looped, buzzed and headspinning—good fun at proper volumes and rewarding of careful listening. Plus, for the first time on a proper Tortoise full-length, there’s singing, including one tune unquestionably in the early running for your favorite song of the year, and by you, I mean me (but maybe also you). So, that’s different. The singing part, anyway.

Though, to hear the members of Tortoise tell it, they simply showed up at the studio one day and started being Tortoise. But, it will be said, that by itself is kind of a wondrous achievement.

The members of Tortoise will deny that they jam. Nearly unprompted, at least two of them point out that Tortoise are not really a solo-oriented or improv group, even though most of its members play often in those situations, sometimes even together. It’s not an unwarranted denial to make in many respects. Tortoise’s music is almost entirely instrumental, and some of the band’s most well-regarded work has ranged up to 20 minutes, but it is all carefully constructed, filled with considered but unexpected turns. It’s not jamming at all.

But defining it isn’t easy, either. “It’s not like we have a singer-songwriter in the band who says, ‘I have 20 songs here, let’s figure out the 10 strongest ones and work on them,’” says Dan Bitney, who—like nearly every member of the band—is a genuine multi-instrumentalist. At times, in Tortoise, Bitney has played bass, guitar, keyboards, baritone saxophone, drums, and various distinctly Tortoise-sounding mallet percussion instruments, including marimba and vibraphone.

“With someone like the Ramones or the Foo Fighters, it’s not a problem,” says Bitney. “They’re gonna be like, ‘Well, of course we’re just going to play guitar and you’re going to play drums and you’re going to play bass.’ But with us, it’s like, ‘But we did that on the last record with the drumming and the synth bassline!’”

One conversation during the Catastrophist sessions was whether or not to use mallet percussion. “When the vibraphone was pulled out for someone to play on this record, there was a lot of kind of, ‘Whooooooa, what the…?’” says percussionist John Herndon. “‘OK, man, you wanna bring it back? Fiiiiiiiiiine.’ Just good natured.”

A distinct part of Tortoise’s sound— during what many will refer to as the band’s classic period, if only because the band removed them for 2009’s Beacons Of Ancestorship—the vibraphones are definitely back. While they hardly return to the forefront on The Catastrophist, it’s part of the distinct collaborative voice that Tortoise speaks with. “We’ve been trying to get rid of the vibes, but it’s very difficult,” acknowledges John McEntire, also proprietor of the Chicago-based Soma Studios where the band works. “[With] so many of the arrangements, you just can’t replace them with anything else. It sounds funny. We’re kind of stuck with them. We thought, ‘Well, this is kind of a defining element of what we were 20 years ago, and maybe it’s time to let that go, but apparently we can’t,” McEntire laughs, a little grimly.

Besides the vibes, though, the future is also something that the musicians don’t talk about as much anymore. Once known as the cream of the Chicago futurists, Tortoise’s future is here. While in-band conversation is sure to be lofty, Tortoise have been making music together for over 20 years and, McEntire says, they no longer have to discuss the quest for modernsounding, undiscovered territory as much as they once did.

“I think it’s sort of understood, as a principle, that we’re always looking for new ideas and new approaches,” says McEntire, an early-‘90s graduate of Oberlin College’s pioneering and ultra-heady Technology in Music and Related Arts program. Mostly, Tortoise let the strategies come up with themselves, which circles back to the question of how it is that Tortoise is Tortoise.

In this extremely specific way, Tortoise actually do jam quite a lot—just very slowly and nonlinearly and not always distinctly musically. Perhaps there’s a metaphor to be made involving the band’s name, but probably not. While it’s accurate to simply call Tortoise’s method of collaboration “songwriting,” that also doesn’t encompass the level of conversation occurring in Tortoise’s music, of working inside many moments until the right ones come along.

Paradoxically for Tortoise, though, The Catastrophist actually did begin as jazz, or as close as Tortoise get, when the band was commissioned to create music for a performance at Chicago’s Millennium Park with a number of esteemed local improvisers, including Ed Wilkerson on reeds, Nicole Mitchell on woodwinds, Greg Ward on saxophones, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and electronics, and Jim Baker on piano and a vintage ARP 2600 synthesizer. The songs were straightforward and fairly un-Tortoise-like.

“They were all original melodies and chord progressions that would kind of play along the lines of a traditional group, where you play a melody and somebody solos over the chord changes, extended sort of themes,” says Herndon.

Tortoise’s (mostly) bassist/guitarist/ keyboardist Doug McCombs notes: “A few of the pieces were more like compositions, where the idea was, since we had these extra musicians, have them flesh out all the harmony and melody. In other instances, they weren’t that composed. Sometimes, there’d just be a head and there’d be room for some of these great improvisers to play solos or whatever.”

“It wasn’t our intention to use that as the beginning of the album,” McEntire, “but it just so happened that we had it in hand already.” Tortoise songs by Tortoises. After all, Tortoise albums have to start somewhere. So when the band convened at Soma Studios, that’s what they had, and McEntire duly saved the pieces onto the Soma computer with the non-names of Roman numerals I-V. And from there, more pieces came in, just like always. Fragments, really: melodies, beats, basslines, often unconnected to one another, except by the dint of being all being slivers of Tortoise music.

“The way Tortoise writes stuff is by sitting down in the studio and starting on stuff,” McCombs says, his gears spinning slightly as he tries to actually figure out how to explain how Tortoise writes and starts stuff. First, the five of them have “tiny little ideas. Most of the time, that’s the first thing we do: Sort of lay it all out on a grid on the computer so we can rearrange it at will.”

So they do—lots of times. They move segments around. They play parts through to look for transitions and segues. They snap them together, looking for perhaps relative keys and tempos and, most important, feels—all the feels. Eventually, they work.

When they do, “You’ll have somebody track through the whole thing,” says Bitney, “like, the drums won’t be from a year ago. That way you have a better sense of dynamics. A lot of the problems we run into is when stuff is super linear and you just loop-recorded it to the point where there’s no dynamics. That can kind of bug me sometimes.”

One typically atypical piece began life on the Soma central hard drive labeled as “DB Idea vs. Slow Jam”—one segment by Bitney in the middle, and one slow jam by mostly guitarist Jeff Parker on either side. “I’m always hoping someone’s gonna help take it someplace,” says Bitney, “if someone wants to cut out a part or add a part to it.” Together, the two segments suggested something very specific that Tortoise hadn’t done before. An organ played a melody line and it was complete to the band’s ears, as much as the five of them could finish it, but there was still a part missing: vocals.

While the name of defiantly idiosyncratic and fragile-voiced British musician Robert Wyatt was thrown around, the task went to another distinctly ethereal singer: Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley, an old friend of the band’s. To McCombs, the song’s shimmering, shifting mood sounded like Hubley’s veteran New Jersey trio anyway. The band sent the tracks off to Hoboken, N.J., by way of the wires, and waited, not knowing what to expect. They’d only requested that Hubley sing. It didn’t have to be words. What came back was “Yonder Blue,” a song that effortlessly finds a haunting and ethereal pop space suggested in great songs by both bands, and yet, somehow goes beyond into an even newer shade.

“I wanted to cry when I heard it the first time, it’s so beautiful,” John Herndon says of the track, unquestionably in the running for song of the year for him. And by him, I mean him.

When the members of Tortoise came together in the early 1990s in Chicago, they thought to call themselves the Terrapin Rhythm Section. It was McComb’s idea. Originally, the oozing, shapeless, unformed project was his and Herndon’s. They hoped maybe they could be a freelance rhythm section, like a Chicago, jazz-weirdo Sly and Robbie or something. “I think maybe that was our wildest fantasy, like we were living in Kingston, Ill.,” giggles Herndon.

The duo, or sometimes trio, identified as Mosquito for a bit, before discovering that there was an East Coast indie supergroup called Mosquito (featuring members of Half Japanese, Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo), and thought about the Terrapin name for a while, not even realizing that it might sound like a Grateful Dead cover act. (Coincidentally, in the great Rolodex history of bands, Dan Bitney’s previous group, Poster Children, had forced the Nashville, Tenn., band Posterchild to change its name to Lambchop.) “The Terrapin Rhythm Section sounded a little clunky and weird to me,” says McCombs, “which, eventually, is what led to choosing Tortoise, something simpler.”

The point was all the same, a loose bunch of Chicago musicians with the yearning to do something different. So they did. It helped that all the members of Tortoise, who’ve included Bundy K. Brown and Slint’s David Pajo, were worldclass musicians who played a range of mind-bending and/or great music in other guises—from the powerful squall-songs of Chicago mainstays Eleventh Dream Day (in which McCombs plays bass) to the rich pop of The Sea and Cake (featuring McEntire) to the abstract hip-hop of Isotope 217 (with Herndon, Bitney and Parker) to the moody instrumentals of Brokeback (led by McCombs), or any number of other projects.

In the 1990s and on into the 21st century, Tortoise traced the cutting edge of new kinds of global musical pathways, out looking for new ideas and sounds. Early on, the band jumped from eggheaded and straightforward studio arrangements to the intricacies of Pro Tools cut-andpaste-and-overdub-and-whatever-else methodologies. Bitney recalls the feeling of discovering new kinds of sounds out in the wild. “In London, we’d heard pirate radio and stuff like that,” he says. “So with [1998’s] TNT, it was like we were finding out about all these other genres of music and bringing them back to people in the States. And, of course, now that’s just void because of the Internet and whatever.”

It is also void because Tortoise, in many ways, became indistinguishable from those pathways. Between 2004 and 2006, for example, in addition to Tortoise albums, there were full-length collaborations with anarchist Dutch punks The Ex and gentle-voiced Kentucky-born songwriter Will Oldham, and club dates with Overton Brown, the Jamaican dub pioneer known as Scientist (check BitTorrent for some live recordings). When The Catastrophist is released, the band will tour Europe, Japan, the States and the requisite All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Iceland. Their music shows up as a reference point in unexpected places, and is featured on its own radio station in some recent version of Grand Theft Auto—a fact that McEntire is baffled to discover.

Tortoise is a band, and the albums under that name are just recordings of Tortoises doing what Tortoises do—a group of Chicago musicians that has found a collective voice and gravitational center. In the Humboldt Park neighborhood, Tortoise has rented a coach house behind a small apartment building since just before the turn of the century. “It’s a brick structure between a garage and a house,” says Bitney. It is filled with Tortoise’s road cases and vibraphones and gear, and acts as a rehearsal pad for Eleventh Dream Day or Brokeback or whoever needs to use it. Sometimes, Bitney will duck over there in the afternoons if he finds himself with a few unscheduled, kid-free hours and wants to play drums, perhaps surprising McCombs or McEntire if they show up to pick up gear for a gig.

Children are a part of the Tortoisesphere and direction, too. It’s why Herndon, also a tattoo artist and, as of 2015, clothing designer, relocated to Los Angeles a few years back. He and Parker— who sometimes play duo sets together in LA—had to miss the mixdown and assembly of The Catastrophist, and Herndon sounds a little bummed about being hands-off. He’s not used to missing out on Tortoise-related activities.

Another surprise on the album is the other tune with vocals: a version of David Essex’s improbable 1973 hit, “Rock On,” covered by many, quoted by R.E.M. on “Drive,” and (if you vaguely know it and haven’t heard it in a while) probably weirder than you remember it being. At any rate, Tortoise make it weirder with the help of vocalist Todd Rittman (of U.S. Maple and Dead Rider). “I don’t really know how that one came up,” says Herndon. “I imagine it happening with most of the guys sitting around smoking weed while I was in Los Angeles, like, ‘What’s the most ridiculous thing we could possibly do?’ I’m kidding about the weed part. Maybe.”

McEntire says that he and McCombs landed on the idea simultaneously. It doesn’t really sound like Tortoise, and yet it does— dirty and futuristic but also grooving in some deeply cool pocket. The vibraphones are gone, and maybe the next unlikely step is even more vocals? Who is to say? What to do if you’re Tortoise? You’re not; they are. And when you try to figure it out any deeper than that, that’s all it is: Tortoises all the way down.