If there is a band about today that exemplify why the album format is such a special artistic channel, it’s Tortoise. Oscillating out of Chicago in the Nineties, their debut eponymous album was a piece of masterful composition that felt as much like a 'deployment' of music than an artistic expression. This debut gave the initially unassuming band faith in their abilities, before the follow up ‘Millions Now Living Will Never Die’ propelled them into the limelight via the burgeoning post-rock pigeon hole. Just as quickly they fled that nest with the jazz-tinged ‘TNT’. Now with their seventh album ‘The Catastrophist’ recently released, we caught up with bassist Doug McCombs and percussionist John Herndon on their European tour to take a fine tooth comb through the catalogue.
Doug McCombs: There was a recording studio in the neighbourhood we lived in, just blocks away where from where we lived. At some point right round when Tortoise was starting, John and I moved into this house, it was where all the members of Tortoise lived, off and on, over a number of years. But anyway, it was in the neighbourhood, this recording studio.
We had really just started to gel as a band and the band was an idea more than anything else for a long time. We probably hadn’t played - I don’t think we’d played very much before making that album - maybe one or two shows. Do you remember, John? We played the first show, the first Tortoise show was before we made the record, right?
John Herndon: Yeah it was.
DM: And then the guy who ran the recording studio was going to be out of town for 10 days, or something; there were no bands booked in over that time and John (McEntire) had just started working there as an engineer. John hadn’t actually done that much there yet, maybe a couple of things, and the guy Brad who owned the studio was just like “you might as well just use the studio while I’m gone, there’s nothing booked.” And he didn’t charge us for it. That’s how we made the first record. Maybe we did give him some money… eventually. I don’t remember.
At that time we didn’t really have a method of working together and most of the songs on that record were not worked out as songs or anything. It was more just like the other bass player, Bundy K. Brown, and I had a handful of these baselines that worked together, these two baseline ideas. I think we did a lot of it, maybe some of it at least, just by playing the baselines to a click track and the rest of the guys would add drum ideas or whatever. Other ones I think maybe we played more live as a band.
DiS: Were you considered an unusual band at the time?
JH: We were super lucky I think. In Chicago we knew people who were booking clubs because of other bands that we were in, so the first bill that Tortoise was on was with the Ex. That was a weird show because somehow on the way coming in to the United States from Canada, there was a snag in them getting across the border so they didn’t actually make the show and the show was at the Lounge Ax, which was a kind of legendary venue in Chicago which for years had really great programming. So the owners of Lounge Ax were ‘let’s just keep the show on, we’ll open the doors for free and you guys still play’ and the place was packed out for our first gig and the response was great, people were really in to the music.
So from then on we’ve been really lucky in Chicago to have strong support, and I think also we kind of came at a time - when we came to our first European tour - we were just kind of this curiosity. People came because we were this weird group. But it was tough coming here also because we were so unknown and we were supposed to be supporting Eleventh Dream Day, but they had to cancel and so it was us and Sea And Cake, two relatively unknown bands, we still did the tour but there were a lot of shows where we would play and it would be a disco afterward so all these kids would show up and stand with their backs to us and talk at the top of their voices, yelling.
DM: Those were Italian shows, maybe.
JH: It was weird though, it was a very bizarre time, but cool and exciting.
DM: There was also a really healthy and supportive community of musicians in Chicago. It was a really healthy post-rock scene. All of us, everyone in Tortoise played in more conventional rock bands before Tortoise but we weren’t the only oddballs in Chicago. There were tonnes of people doing unusual things in Chicago and people would go out to shows and people would go out and support their friend’s bands. So it wasn’t like we were struggling. The thing that we were struggling for, for the first couple of years, was just to be able to figure out what it was we actually wanted to do and to come up with a set of material that we could actually perform in front of people. We knew that we were on to something, in that we could that make it interesting, but it took a lot of hemming and hawing and ‘let’s actually sit down and do this’ and the first record was actually, maybe, the biggest catalyst towards that. We finished that record, it wasn’t a disaster and it sounded good to us. So then it was kind of like ‘oh, we could have done this two years ago if we had just pushed a little harder for it, but now we know it can work.’ And it was kind of encouraging.
JH: In the beginning we had some, we had a djembe, a djembe rocker, which I look back and I just think ‘wow, holy shit, we had the djembe rocker’ which was very weird. We didn’t know what the fuck we were doing.
DM: We were trying different ideas to see what would work. There was a djembe, some antiquated analogue synthesiser, but there was also the vibes which was a complete surprise to me that we could incorporate vibes into the band it be this cool thing… that now nobody in the band wants to play anymore. But it became a big part, the whole mallet thing became a big part of what were doing for a time.
Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996)
Dave Pajo joined and Slint had written Spiderland, which didn’t have the cult status then that it does now…
JH: Oh my God, when that record came out I did not stop listening to it.
DM: Yeah from day one.
JH: I put that record on and I put it on repeat for two years. I was working at a bar in Chicago during the afternoon shift and I would literally put that record on repeat for four hours.
DM: There’s a chronological thing that maybe people aren’t aware of. There was a move to make a third Slint album which didn’t happen, which coincided with Bundy K. Brown leaving Tortoise. The upshot of the disbanding of Slint was that John Herndon, myself, and Dave Pajo ended up supporting Brian McMahan in making a record that was theoretically what some of the songs of the third Slint record - it was called The For Carnation - and that’s kind of what led Dave into Tortoise. Although what actually happened was that Dave joined Tortoise before that, or did he? I can’t remember. Bundy quit on short notice right before Tortoise’s first European tour and Dave filled in for him, but had we recorded The For Carnation stuff before that?
JH: I do not remember.
DM: Anyway, there was some kind of little cross-hatch where Slint stopped, Tortoise was just getting our legs and Bundy quit Tortoise. Something happened in there so that by the end of our first European tour we had asked Dave to be in Tortoise and he was really just filling in for the tour, and then we made ‘Millions’.
JH: We came home from Europe and were doing some shows in the States and we were thinking about making the next record and Bettina Richards’, who runs Thrill Jockey, folks had a barn in Vermont. So we did some shows on the way the out to Vermont and then holed up at the barn for two weeks, a week.
DM: I think it was a week because the Sea And Cake were on tour with us and they just had to sit around for a week while we practiced in the barn and they were pissed off.
JH: Fuck them. That’s a joke. Sam’s (Prekop, lead singer of Sea And Cake) playing with us on this tour on his analogue synth. So most of the material for ‘Millions’ was written in a barn in Vermont. That record was pretty quick to make.
DM: We had those ideas, and one of those ideas was a song we had partially worked on with Bundy before he left the group. There was a little residue from that. We had all those ideas and we showed them to each other in the barn and then just kind of figured out how to make them all work together. Especially for the ‘Djed’ thing, that was three or four different ideas that sort of got crammed into one song.
JH: At that point John McEntire had moved into the loft we were living in and had done this soundtrack for John Hughes, ‘Reach The Rock’. He’d got this big chunk of money for doing that so he bought a Pro-Tools system and bunch of gear with the idea of starting a recoding studio at The Rock. This record was essentially made with John learning how to use Pro Tools and at that time, right before that, we’d met Jeff Parker. We’d met Jeff and I’d had some jam sessions with him at some different people’s houses and we’d become friends, so we started asking him to just sit in with us when we were playing Chicago live. So he did that a few times and then we liked the way it sounded so much we asked if he would want to join the band permanently.
DM: We did a whole summer festival tour of Europe with Jeff sitting in, we hadn’t even asked him to be in the band then, it was after that. He didn’t really rehearse with us very much or anything he just played to figure out how he could fit in with us on his own terms. So if there was a song a he wasn’t familiar with, or he wasn’t sure what to do, he just wouldn’t even play. He just came along on the tour with us and tried to fit in with the music any way he could.
When he was first sitting in with us none of ‘TNT’ existed yet, it was old material. Then we asked him to join the group at the time we started recording ‘TNT’.
JH: Then at the time we started recording ‘TNT’ Dave Pajo dipped, he decided he wanted to move onto greener pastures.
DM: It was Ariel M, he waned to focus on something that was just his. Something personal. I’m not too even sure, we’ve never talked about it. I got the idea he wasn’t super interested in some of the directions we were going on with ‘TNT’, but also it was just him wanting to do something very personal and just his own thing.
His leaving had some impact on ‘TNT’. I’m not sure what exactly. He’s on the record.
JH: We erased most of his parts.
DM: I’m sure he’s on every song and then eventually Jeff and I absorbed his parts and sort of fused them. Stuff from ‘TNT’ I know on any of those songs I’m playing a combination of things that I played on the record and that Dave played on the record. Even on ‘Millions’ I was starting to get into this bass that sounds like a guitar, it’s a higher register - a bass six, a six string that goes up higher. So I’d starting using that on ‘Millions’ along with standard bass and on ‘TNT’ I also played standard bass, but I was starting to get really into that instrument so I put it in wherever it seemed to fit, and Dave was playing bass. When Dave joined the band it was as second bass player. He started to play more guitar as we got into ‘TNT’.
JH: So we fired him.
DM: So anyway. All of the bass and guitar on ‘TNT” is a combination of me, Jeff and Dave.
DM: A couple of things happened on ‘Standards’. One thing I’ve always thought, that may or not be true, by the time we’d done all that touring after ‘Millions’, after ‘TNT’, we became a more confident and a more powerful sort of rock band. I think some of that is evident on ‘Standards’, even though we’re not a rock band, we had been playing so much in the previous five years, like more than we had ever played in any other band that we just got, became this solid rock band. The other thing happened was that we started recording some of the ideas for ‘Standards’, got to a certain point, and we thought we should try and play these songs in front of an audience before we finish the record and see what changes and if we have ideas on what could be different and any ideas on what makes them work and what makes them not work as songs live.
So we had this half-finished album, then we went out and played 10 shows, just playing that material, material that we weren’t even that sure about. We did it under an alias so people didn’t come expecting a Tortoise show. That helped us finish the songs basically. Made them rock out more. Made ‘em get more solid, then we went back and re-worked the ideas and maybe re-recorded the songs or whatever.
JH: Then they were way more rock.
DiS: I remember when you curated ATP just as ‘Standards’ was released.
DM: That was one of the first shows playing those songs was that ATP. That was so fun that first ATP that we created. It was super fun to get to do that, to choose all those bands and have an audience that would come and see all this diverse music, that was awesome.
It’s All Around You (2004)
DM: I think ‘It’s All Around You’, was us trying to refine or to do a more refined version of what we were doing on ‘Standards’. Trying to be more conscious of meticulously crafting all of the melody and harmony that could happen on something like that. I guess sort of like in a Beach Boys way or something. Trying to be aware of, and I love this too, that in Tortoise there are certain harmonic ideas that you don’t think too much about, in a Sonic Youth way, things can clash but it creates an interesting harmonic or an interesting sound. We often pursue these kind of things. In ‘It’s All Around You’ we were trying place everything . That’s just my perception, someone else in the band might say a completely different thing, but that’s just my take on it. It was meticulously crafted.
DiS:The time between albums increases from and around now.
DM: It’s a combination of things such as life happening, but also each record takes us longer and longer. After ‘Standards’ for sure, each record takes longer and longer and requires more thought to achieve something that we’re all happy with. It’s mostly to do with throwing away songs that sound too much like something we’ve done before, or random things like that.
JH: Having children, moving across the country as well, those kind of things.
DM: There was a time gap after ‘Standards’, and then from ‘It’s All Around You’ to ‘Beacons’. That increment increased and is now even longer this time. It keeps getting longer.
Beacons Of Ancestorship (2009)
DM: There’s at least one song on ‘Beacons’ that was started in ‘It’s All Around You’, or at least that time period. A track or possibly a couple that were just put aside because we didn’t know what to do with them. So revisiting things later has become something that we do now occasionally, is go back and sift through things that we stalled out on and see if there’s anything left there to work on. Occasionally it ends up with a good song, so that’s cool too.
The Catastrophist (2016)
DM: So we started working on this new record in 2012/13. But the city of Chicago commissioned us in 2010 to write some music which in part contributes to this album.
JH: Once we had done the commission for the city, we set up a recording session to record the band that performed the commission at Millennium Park in Chicago, but one of the key horn players couldn’t make the recording session. So it was like this weirdly crippled recording session as we left spaces for him to solo. So we did a couple of days of recording that material with the intention of finishing it, but it just fizzled into nothing.
DM: I thought we were recording it just as a document, to make sure we at least had a document of what we did then if we wanted to come back to it, we could. Some of the music became parts of ‘The Catastrophist’, but none of those specific recordings did.
JH: There’s some ‘from the vaults’ materials sitting there, waiting. Like ‘Tales From The Crypt’.
DM: The thing about those city of Chicago commissions is that it worked as live performance with these extra musicians and it worked as a good vehicle for them to be guest soloists and ensemble players on some of the parts of the songs, but it wasn’t necessarily the kind of thing I would put out as a Tortoise record. I mean it could have been, some of it possibly a special thing as ‘Tortoise with guests’, but to turn them into Tortoise songs we had to work on them beyond their original forms, to push them into other places.
JH: The material needed a lot more attention to arranging details and parts added and tightened up to be songs for us to play, rather than just vehicles for people to solo over.
Writing for other people wasn’t harder, it was actually easier than our normal writing process.
DM: It’s easier than making them into Tortoise songs for sure because; there’s enough melody there, enough harmony to make things work as interesting sounding music, and then someone can launch into a solo, which is engaging for a few minutes and that makes a good live performance. But that’s not really a Tortoise song, I have to say.
There’s a lot of things on the ‘Catastrophist’ did not originate from the commission and that’s some of the most interesting stuff. For me it’s a really interesting record overall. I think it’s unusually concise for us, and it has things that we’ve never done before almost in an opposite, more conventional way.
JH: This record was a weird one for me because I was living in Los Angeles for the majority of them king of it, and I was not in Chicago for any of the mixing of the record at all.
DM: Parker too. You have to understand a lot of what happens on a Tortoise record happens in the mix.
JH: Maybe that’s a sign, a ‘you know what… you stay home, coz’ we needed to make a good record’
DM: It’s not unusual for a Tortoise song to be in the mixing stage for three or four days. And then people are still throwing out ideas and changing tonnes of shit about it in the last stage. We were sending these guys mixes everyday we were working on it, and were getting their feedback, which was very helpful.
JH: I would like that to not happen again, but it was kind of ok.
DM: Me too. I mean tonnes and tonnes of interesting stuff happens on Tortoise records in that last phase of mixing, especially when everyone’s there in the studio.
JH: And we can put the great ideas out there more fluidly, like ‘it has to be more dancehall’.