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THE WAY AHEAD: TORTOISE and THE CATASTROPHIST

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The band Tortoise (John McEntire, Doug McCombs, Dan Bitney, John Herndon, and Jeff Parker) has been around for quite some time, maybe defining and redefining ideas about rock music and music.

Photo by Anndre Paynter

There is the official line, the oft written line as the introduction or reintroduction to the band, but in all actuality, is music about definition? Tortoise plays music of various types well and creatively. That music, while present in past albums, has not been heard in a new form since 2009’s Beacon of Ancestorship, but that has changed with the recent release of the fantastically titled “The Catastrophist,” a concept album to a fake movie about one man’s numerous adventures through the tumult and difficulty of life which eventually land him in a place of solace and solitude…No, I am bullshitting, it is not a concept album, I just thought that was a good narrative.

As Tortoise has never been the “album every year” kind of band one might wonder, what is the process, what dictates to Tortoise when it is time to return?

“It kind of varies between records,” notes John Herndon from somewhere in Los Angeles. “For this time, we had a bunch of tunes that we had been playing for some time in augmented groups in Chicago and in Minneapolis and then in Paris, and this group of songs, then we were kind of thinking about, maybe we should make a record with like a bigger band, like kind of the tunes we wrote for this thing be the new record and just kind of just have like these forms for soloists to jump off of, which is something that we had never done before, so we had a like a day or two recording these tunes that didn’t really go anywhere. Then we were trying to figure out what to do next, and it had been a few years between Beacons and any new recordings, other than those couple recording with the larger group. Someone suggested that we try and rework those tunes into being more Tortoise-like, which meant a lot more arranging and, you know, song parts to happen and to be written, so we started working on that, and that kind of slowly turned into this new record.”

The new album revisits some sounds from previous albums, probably something like “The Catastrophist” (the song) or maybe “Gesceap” being the most recognizable in terms of form, but then are other moments like “Shake Hands With Danger” which has a heavier edge, or “The Clearing Fills” which is absolutely wonderful, or “Hot Coffee” which is funky kind of late night number heavy on the funk and strutting down the street vibe. But one of the more instantly identifiable changes would be the addition of vocals on two songs, the David Essex cover “Rock On” featuring the always dynamic Todd Rittman of Dead Rider and US (motherfucking) Maple and the original tune, the soulful “Yonder Blue” featuring the beautiful tones of Georgia Hubley of the Yo La Tengo.

“The David Essex cover, Rock On, the idea came to John and Doug that they wanted to do it and they brought the idea to the rest of us, it seemed obvious to me that we would have to have a vocalist on it and then the tune “Yonder Blue’ was just this sort of like ballad, kind of like this weird robotic R&B ballad kind of thing that initially we were thinking that would be a great song for vocals, too. So we asked Robert Wyatt if he would be interested in singing on it and he politely declined and said that he had retired from music, so then we kind of re-thought about it, and were like let’s just have people that are our friends and we decided Todd Rittman from Dead Rider. I mean everything that he touches is golden. I mean U.S. Maple, Jesus Christ, and then Eleventh Dream Day (Doug McCombs other phenomenal band) has had a long relationship with Yo La Tengo playing shows, so Doug decided we should ask Georgia and she nailed it.”

Another difference on this album, for Herndon, atleast, is that he was not there during some of the recording and any of the mixing process.

“It’s been a strange one for me, the process of this record being on the West Coast now [vs. Chicago, where the band is based], so I missed some of the recording sessions and I missed all of the mixing. I was not present for any of the mixing, which is something that has not happened with a Tortoise record for me, I’ve always been there like ‘Turn the snare up! No way up, I can’t hear it!'”

This spring the band will embark on a pretty wide-spread national tour, which will have the band playing in Austin at the Mohawk May 6th, and while, as musicians and part of the entity of Tortoise, everyone remains pretty active, this will be the most touring of this type the band has done in a while, which is exciting and also poses new challenges in terms of presenting the songs live.

“We had a couple weeks of rehearsing a couple of weeks ago [Note: This is interview was conducted January 14th] and um, yeah, it was super challenging, for me, because, I guess, I am delegated to keyboard parts a lot of the record and, like, I sometimes play keyboard parts with Tortoise now, and generally really simple, not the stuff that I play [on The Catastrophist)] is complex at all, but I am trying to be a keyboard-ist when I am not a keyboardist. It’s a real eye opening experience; it’s really been pushing me to get some things together that I don’t have together.”

Tortoise are, in my arrogant opinion, one of the most important bands of the last 20 or so years in that what they have done and are doing really represents the arch of music from jazz through punk, soul, experimental (whatever that is) electronic based music, hip hop, and rock in a way that is still perennially their sound. They are also musicians in a time where that term is sort of fading in the DNA of current music. To hear and see Tortoise is to see an exchange of musical sensibilities that while varied, mesh together in a way that it is unheard of in any band before or since their inception. The Catastrophist exists as a continuation of greatness, a part in a catalog more than hot moment or a snapshot of a time. Tortoise represents possibility and the history conjointly. It took seven years to make another Tortoise album, but I would say it is well worth the wait.