Tortoise is a Chicago-based band that has been creating a brilliant and unique blend of jazz, indie post rock, prog, spacy jammed-out, radness for the better part of the last two decades. The band is a veritable supergroup, featuring members of The Sea And Cake, Slint, Isotope 217, and Grape Dope. No “jazz” band has ever crossed over in to the realm of post rock or indie rock like Tortoise, and no “indie rock” band has ever been so influential and instrumental in carrying the torch of instrumental jazz style rock ‘n’ roll than Tortoise. Generally speaking, when a band reaches it’s fifth or sixth album, things can start to get repetitive and start to blend in to ephemera, but for Tortoise, who are set to release its seventh full length album titled, The Catastrophist, they’ve just gotten better and pushed their own limits in to a realm of genius that will twist and contort your frontal lobe in to pure jazz-rock ecstasy zones never before reached by modern music. Hefty claim, yes, but seriously give this new album a good hard listen and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. I was beyond hyped to get the chance to ask one of the founding members of Tortoise a few questions regarding the band’s past, present, and not-so-distant future.—Chris Coté
What is the story behind the band name, “Tortoise”?
Tortoise: Well, in the early ’90s, we were about to release a 7-inch as Mosquito, but Steve Shelley and Jad Fair beat us to the punch, releasing a record as Mosquito, so, we had to find another name, Doug came up with Tortoise. One story is that someone saw that the guitarist, John Fahey’s publishing company was named Tortoise, and that’s where we got it; guess it’s still a bit of a mystery.
How does the band function as far as the songwriting process goes? Do the members bring ideas, riffs, or written songs to the sessions or is it like a jam situation where songs come from the whole band getting together?
We all contribute to the writing process. Everybody brings in ideas. Some are fully composed and others are just ideas of where to start, maybe a melody or drum beat. Some people use computers with Reason or Ableton. Some people come with just a riff and we all build on it experimenting while recording, trying different instruments, editing different ideas together. The song “Yonder Blue” is two ideas edited into one song. We’ve tried jamming to write tunes without much success.
What would you say the main differences are in the record making process from back when you guys first started to now?
Well, we used Tape recorders in the old days on our first two LPs, then with TNT we used Pro-Tools for the first time, that allowed us to record and then go in and fix any little mistake — it made the process of making a record take a lot longer, but then later doing press for TNT, we had to explain to everyone what “non linear digital recording” was. Tape was more fun — people left mistakes in songs just because the energy was good.
The Catastrophist is yet another incredible and diverse Tortoise album — how did the band’s various surroundings inspire the music?
Thank you so much. Culturally we’re going through some interesting times. In that, there is a greater access to music, art, and film, with the Internet everything is cataloged. Living in Chicago is very profound in that we have all these different cultures at hand, with such a large diverse city and a rich musical history especially in jazz.
The “Rock On” cover came out of nowhere and blew my mind! What’s the back-story on doing that song?
I think we all were a little freaked out by that song as kids, and to think it was a hit song was just crazy. We didn’t really alter it too much. It is a bass players kind of song, the original featured famous session bassist, Herbie Flowers. Doug came in with the idea to cover it and in the end it was so awesome it made the cut.
When Tortoise hits the road to tour, what kind of set list mix will fans hear? In this case, when you say, “Here’s a new song”, I think people will be hyped cause the new songs are so good!
Well, its been a while since we had new tunes, I think it gets tricky in that people have some strong associations with the older material, “I fell in love to that record” or “that was my grad school soundtrack”. We’re super excited to play the new songs and mix in some of the classics. We really always play a few songs off each record.
Lastly, what keeps you excited about making music with Tortoise?
Man, I love these dudes! They’re all serious, hilarious and there’s nobody else making music like this combo. We’ve worked hard for a long time and I feel lucky to be a part of bringing some beauty into this world.
Tortoise’s new album The Catastrophist is out now on Thrill Jockey Records.