Tortoise (Contemporary Musicians)
Instrumental post-rock group
Ask anyone to describe the music of Tortoise, and you will probably receive a variety of responses. Modern classical, dub, dance, cut 'n' splice, avantgarde, cinematic, progressive rock, and jazz represent some of the terms often applied to this instrumental group from Chicago, Illinois. Nonetheless, Tortoise owe a large debt to traditional rock, though they scrap the common verse-chorus-verse template. Rather than relying upon rock's confining guitar-bass-drums formula and the use of vocals, Tortoise instead sought something new. As one of the leading bands specializing in post-rock, a movement wherein rock is stripped to its bare form, Tortoise concern themselves primarily with spatial organization, sonic musical textures, and intelligent songwriting.
The groupow comprised of John McEntire (drums, keyboards, marimba, and drum programming), Doug McCombs (bass and lap steel guitar), John Herndon (drums, vibes, keyboards, and drum programming), Jeff Parker (guitar, vibes, keyboards), and Dan Bitney (drums, hand percussion, guitar, keyboards, and drum programming)chieved their expansive sound by embracing both a studio aesthetic and an unorthodox lineup. And as opposed to so many acts, each member of Tortoise participates in the songwriting process. "The one thing we never do is have somebody come in with a finished song," McEntire explained to Marc Weingarten in Rolling Stone. "We all try to expand the arrangements as much as possible to see how many voices we can bring into the fold."
Tortoise's roots date back to 1990, when McCombs and Herndon began experimenting with assorted rhythm-section strategies and production techniques during breaks from other commitments. At the time, McCombs played with the group Eleventh Day Dream, while Herndon, a former member of Precious Wax Drippings, worked with the Poster Children. Initially, the pair adopted the moniker Mosquito and held jam sessions with no mapped plan about how they wanted to sound.
"When Johnny (Herndon) and I first started as Mosquito, it was just because he and I wanted to do something together," said McCombs in an interview with Magnet magazine's Fred Mills. "It's turned out to be a natural progressionot concrete 'turning points'f just working together and knowing more and more as we go along how each one of us are going to react, what contributions each will make, what to expect. At the same time, we're always trying to challenge ourselves and go beyond those expectations. We use Tortoise as a vehicle to explore some of the things we're interested in."
This vision for Tortoise started to take shape with the addition of McEntire and guitarist/bassist Bundy K. Brown, both members of the group Gastr del Sol, and Bitney, formerly of the Tar Babies. In addition to providing more instrumentation for the group, these recruits brought with them studio experience. Fully embracing the studio-as-instrument concept, as well as non-linear dynamics and stunted rhythms inspired by the band Slint, the quintet recorded a handful of singles as both Mosquito and Tortoise for the Torsion and Thrill Jockey labels during 1993 and 1994. That same year also saw the release of Tortoise's self-titled debut LP, which generated little attention.
But the group's 1995 follow-up, Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters, revealed something far more exciting and original. A collection of remixed songs from Tortoise created by the likes of Steve Albini, Brad Wood, Jim O'Rourke, Tortoise's sound engineer Casey Rice, and members of Tortoise themselves, the album pulsated throughout with heavy bass beats and a variety of urban sounds. "It was this dusty grit," concluded Peter Shapiro for Rock: The Rough Guide, "that transcended the occasionally scary echoes of prog-rock into which their rampantly intellectual approach inevitably sinks."
In the midst of establishing themselves among rock critics, the members of Tortoise regularly participated in a long list of side endeavors, including work with the Sea And Cake, Red Krayola, 5ive Style, Uptighty, and the For Carnation. McEntire and Brown, in particular, now sought after by other groups for their studio expertise, took on several engineering gigs. Some of the bands that McEntire worked with during this time included Stereolab and Trans Am, and Brown forged a relationship with the group Rex.
Despite their heavy schedules, Tortoise continued to perform frequently in Chicago and in 1996 released their second proper album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die. Prior to its recording, however, Brown, preferring his studio gigs to touring, decided to leave, and bassist Dave Pajo member of Slint, For Carnation, and King Kongtepped in as a temporary replacement. The highlight from Millions was arguably the stylistically twisting, 21-minute "Djed," which became a club favorite. Overall, the album, supported by tours across Europe, North America, and Japan, earned favorable press, even though reviewers seemed confused trying to find a specific label for Tortoise's music.
As Tortoise settled down to make a new album, they enlisted guitarist Jeff Parker of Isotope 217 and New Horizons Ensemble. The resulting TNT, released in 1998, proved to be Tortoise's most cohesive and satisfying release to date. Noteworthy tracks included the romantic "Hillside," the lap-steel and synth-laden "In Sarah, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven," and the bass and groove number "The Equator."
Brown, who remained close to the band after his departure, offered the following perspective on TNT: "I really feel like it's the most accurate realization of the vision of Tortoise that has ever happened," he said, as quoted by Mills. "I mean, that is the paradigm of what Tortoise is about. In a way, I wonder how it will be received, how there could be tens of thousands of people who might be interested in Tortoise, whose music, I think, takes a fairly refined sense of taste.... Just from a purely academic standpoint of what Tortoise is doing, there is a certain degree of surface appeal to it. But underneath the surface, the technical difficulty of what they're doing and the way they put it together is really quite intense."
Spending most of 1998 on another ambitious tour across Europe, the United States, and Japan, Tortoise focused on local performances and other projects thereafter. McCombs, for one, continued to play with Eleventh Day Dream, played solo gigs, issued singles under the name Broke Back, and became an occasional member of the Boxhead Ensemble; McEntire played with the Sea And Cake; Bitney started collaborating with rap artists; and Parker, Herndon and Bitney played with the six-piece jazz ensemble Isotope 217.
In 2000, they completed their Standards album, to be released in 2001. And after trying out new compositions on audiences in Chicago and receiving a warm reception, Tortoise appeared poised to maintain their reputation. Although their songs will probably never find acceptance within the mainstream, the member of Tortoise themselves view their career as fulfilling, both personally and artistically. "I think Tortoise has been really satisfying for all of us in that we've been able to accomplish certain things that we set out to do, that by our own measures we're fairly successful at it," Mc-Combs told Mills. "It all kind of turns around and feeds on itself. We're all really sincere at what we do; we don't have any of the extraneous reasons, like the search for fame or wealth. Even if you were looking for something like that, you know how rare it is when it happens."
"Mosquito," Torsion, 1993.
"Lonesome Sound," Thrill Jockey, 1994.
"Why We Fight," Soul Static Sound, 1995.
"Gamera," Duophonic, 1995.
"Djed," Thrill Jockey, 1996.
"The Taut And Tame," Thrill Jockey, 1996.
Music For Workgroups, Thrill Jockey, 1996.
Rivers, Thrill Jockey, 1996.
Tortoise, Thrill Jockey, 1994.
Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters, Thrill Jockey, 1995.
Millions Now Living Will Never Die, Thrill Jockey, 1996.
A Digest Compendium, Thrill Jockey (Japan), 1996.
Remixed, Thrill Jockey (Japan), 1996.
TNT, Thrill Jockey, 1998.
A Means To An End, Virgin, 1995.
Marco Dub Infection Vol. 2, Virgin (U.K.), 1996.
Lounge Ax Defense & Relocation CD, Touch And Go, 1996.
Headz 2, Mo' Wax, 1996.
Offbeat: A Red Hot Sound Trip, Wax Trax!, 1996.
Buckley, Jonathan and others, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
Chicago Tribune, June 17, 1998; January 8, 2000.
Magnet, March/April 1998.
Melody Maker, December 13, 1997; March 28, 1998; April 18, 1998; August 1, 1998.
Rolling Stone, December 14, 1995.
Washington Post, April 8, 1998.