Tortoise’s story begins, in a sense, to the sound of Coltrane’s golden lamentation, Africa/Brass, its frenetic drone finding the ears, and fingers, of Doug McCombs and John Herndon circa 1988 in Chicago. The two are playing with Michael Cerzigan in a band dubbed “Simple”, and while the trio never manages to perform beyond their rehearsal space, they do jam ceaselessly and often to “Africa”–a track that helps trace the art and intent of Tortoise, and to account for the band’s sterling new album, The Catastrophist. (Interesting to note that an influence as important to the band’s sound as Coltrane, Steve Reich, was just as affected as a young man by side A, one track, of Africa/Brass).
In many ways—especially musically—Chicago in the late 80’s is one giant, vibrant patchwork of contradiction. The city has recurrently given birth to the million-selling act, cats like Kanye, R. Kelly, and Chaka Khan, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Cheap Trick, and of course, Chicago. Equally vital, and always teeming beneath the slick cover of the marketable scene, are the rappers and DJs, the punk, hardcore, rock, post-rock, indie, and whatever-else bands that make the city truly vital to the American landscape. In the Reagan era, these groups forge and follow traditional DIY paths—making and unloading tapes and merch, swapping records with other regulars, going to your friend’s show who’s got a band too, and even playing in that guy’s band when necessary—all while creating singularly new styles of music never before heard, but certainly not without precedent, which is to say, roots. It’s remarkable the number of seminal acts who start out around ’89-’90 in the Windy City: Urge Overkill, The Jesus Lizard, Local H, Liz Phair, Eleventh Dream Day, Ministry, The Squids, Veruca Salt, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, Material Issue, LaTour, The Tossers, and The Smashing Pumpkins—all in their various musical wombs, about to bring themselves into the light of the ever-evolving sonic world.
Simple doesn’t last, though the duo of McCombs and Herndon continue to play, now considering themselves a sort of white Sly & Robbie, a “rhythm section for hire.” No one knows for sure whether the two ever fulfill their dream of being Chicago dub-slingers, but they do record new material at Steve Albini’s “Basement” Studio; material that, sadly, now is nothing more than apocryphal, lost in the bin of history. It is worth considering, however, whether the recordings managed, in some form or another, to find their way into the tracks on the first Tortoise LP. The world may never know. With the positive feedback from the “Basement” sessions, McCombs and Herndon book time at Idful Music Corp. to record with Brad Wood, and because the local scene still operates like that of an insular small town and not a major city, the two approach fellow musical experimenters Bundy K. Brown and John McEntire of Bastro with the intention of having them join the group. The phrase “double rhythm section” is thrown around. The four begin calling themselves “Mosquito”, and the next summer they are invited to play in support of cult Dutch gods, The Ex. Unfortunately, due to immigration issues, The Ex never make it to the States. Mosquito play anyway, covering Gang of Fours’ “Suicide.” Soon enough the band decides to change its name to Tortoise, and in 1992 releases two 7 inches of material culled from the Idful sessions. The first is “Mosquito”, named in homage to the band’s old moniker, and “Lonesome Sound”, the first Tortoise release on Thrill Jockey, their forever home, and featuring the original Tortoise line-up: Douglas McCombs, John Herndon, Bundy K. Brown, John McEntire, and Dan “Djembe” Bitney.
Whether they’re playing compositions sculpted digitally or with the traditional rock standbys—bass, drums, and guitar—the Tortoise m.o. has always been one of addition and subtraction. Consider “Djed” and the way samples enter and exit the scene like commuters on an ‘L’ train, or the various melodies and voices on “In Sarah, Mencken, Christ, and Beethoven There Were Women and Men” (title taken from a 1972 piece by composer Robert Ashley). The reason this style still sounds so alien to Western ears is because its source sits entirely outside of Western canon, a linear tradition where meaning is found in the temporal, a method of scientific intent. Eastern and African musical traditions—at least the ones that Tortoise draw upon—are atemporal and circular (a spiral is an apt metaphor). Think of the composition as a merry-go-round: The base that supports the apparatus as the beat, and the horses as the melodic-harmonic constructions, bobbing up and down in time as we all turn briskly in circles.
Tortoise are not the only Western act to have utilized this idea. Consider The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” and George’s sitar-tinged pseudo-ragas, much of The Velvet Underground, John Coltrane, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and the whole “minimalist” school, then later, krautrock, Brian Eno and the ambient movement, and the early incarnations of hip hop. Their vocabulary is not one of character or story or knowledge, but ecstasy, transcendence, and ultimately surrender; their end not a victory or reward, but a shedding-away, a change and return to the source, where we realize that any single point of the circle is equal to the infinitely many others. As John McEntire once said: “Traditionally, rock and roll is based on the idea of perfection: getting the perfect take, writing the perfect song. Doing the opposite of that is what we’re interested in.” Is the opposite imperfection? Hardly. If most rock bands want to hit a target’s bull’s-eye, Tortoise aims for every square and circle on the board—very much akin to what Coltrane felt as an undeniable imperative to play every single note possible during solos.
By 1994, the band have enough material to record an album, and on June 22 of that year release their self-titled debut, featuring cover art by fellow Chicagoan and The Sea and Cake (which features Tortoise member John McEntire) founder Sam Prekop. Immediately the band is heralded as leaders at the vanguard of an entirely new movement in music, one that will eventually be dubbed “post-rock.” The record is favorably reviewed, and by ‘95 the band offers a new record not of fresh material, but remixes produced by friends, titled Rhythms, Resolutions, and Clusters. That a rock band would put out a remixes record as their sophomore effort may not seem so outlandish to our enlightened minds today, but back then it was groundbreaking, as house DJs are largely the only musicians who do such a thing. That Tortoise are hip enough to cop an alien method from another genre is testament to just how culturally and musically aware they are—students of all traditions, from dub to Devo. RRC shows them not only ahead of the pack, but flying through the ionosphere, smiling down on the earthbound (Check “Ry Cooder” from Tortoise).
The following years see the release of a couple more 7 inches, the wonderful Gamera and Why We Fight, replete with more changes in the line-up. Bundy K. Brown has by now left the fold and been replaced by Dave Pajo, of fellow post-rockers, the late Slint of Louisville. For the next record the whole Tortoise crew retreats to Vermont for ten days in which the bulk of material for their second LP is penned. On January 30, 1996 the epochal Millions Now Living Will Never Die, the title of which comes from an essay of the same name by Joseph Franklin Rutherford, the second president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, is released. The band’s actual ties to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, if any, is as of yet undetermined. If Tortoise signaled a continental shift in the scene, then MNLWND is the earthquake that follows. Virtually every journalistic music outlet awards the record rave reviews and a spot on their “Best of” lists. The album’s primary earth-shattering feature is the way in which it effortlessly combines so many afore-considered mutually exclusive genres. You hear the dub of Scientist, Neu! krautrock, British house, Reich-like polyrhythm, all played using the traditional (minus the vibes) rock and roll materials: bass, drums, and guitar. There is even a bit of traditional rock ‘n roll in the mix. Additionally innovative and splendid is John McEntire’s production. Supposedly, the whole of “Djed”, the track that essentially forged a genre in 20 minutes and 57 seconds, is recorded all to tape, its pastiche-like structure a result of McEntire’s attempt to wrangle and tame his physical materials into something manageable and intelligible. Ultimately, the most remarkable aspect to the record as a whole is that one never gets the feeling of hearing a different band playing each individual piece, yet track-to-track it seems to be a guided tour down a vast hallway in which the brighter lights of musical history mingle and cut up with one another.
Relentless touring followed along with a handful of odd releases—more remixes (all of which are excellent), a split with fellow genre-benders, Stereolab (who McEntire would later produce and play with on Emperor Tomato Ketchup), plus a Japanese compilation titled, A Digest Compendium of the Tortoise’s World. By 1997, Jeff Parker, a mainstay in the local jazz scene, has joined the group, and the sextet play a handful of European dates while recording LP three, to be called TNT, in the newly christened Some Electronic Recording Studios, John McEntire’s Fortress of Solitude-cum-RV Calypso. Album highlights include the eponymous track, the lovely “I Set My Face to the Hillside”, the shimmering “The Suspension Bridge at Iguazú Falls”, and “In Sarah, Mencken, Christ, and Beethoven There Were Women and Men”, in which the band’s blending of the instrumental and the digital—the live and the non-linear—is finally perfected.
In the years following TNT the band transforms radically, again and again. They continue their critical darling climb as Brazilian avant-garde musician Tom Zé contracts Tortoise as his backing band through a 1999 tour, a new record of remixes is released, and, in a nod to their past, finally link up with Dutch experimenters, The Ex, through a collaborative release. Standards, the group’s fourth LP is released in 2001; apt, considering that it is the band’s most futuristic in sound up to that point. The record’s title is fitting as it finds Tortoise at their most confident. There is absolute strutting from track to track, here coming closest to their initial musical vision—their ideal sound—on tracks like “Eros” (double bass guitars) and “Monica” (double drum kits).
Between Standards and present day, we see The Brave and Bold, a covers only collaboration with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, repeated curation of the All Tomorrow’s Festival, and a tour in support of ambient pioneer Daniel Lanois. In 2006, the release of A Lazarus Taxon (a title in paleontology which refers to a species which appears, disappears, then re-appears in the fossil record.), a three-disc box set, features some of the band’s finest work, plus a DVD of live materials and music videos. 2009’s Beacons of Ancestorship starts and ends strongly, but may be the most flimsy entry to the band’s discography. From 2010 until quite recently, all is quiet on the Midwestern front.
Enter 2016 and with it, The Catastrophist. “Catastrophe” comes from the Greek, καταστροφή, to overturn. In traditional drama, it refers to a play’s apex in action—the climax—which signals the conclusion. Today, of course, we use “catastrophe” to refer to any disaster or unexpected and unfortunate occurrence. What makes, then, for the bridge between past and present? Who is the Catastrophist? John McEntire, the band’s acknowledged guiding force (who seems to grace the cover of the album)? The group as a whole (who all actually exist in the composite cover art)? One certainty is that the record again overturns our collective sense of who they are, what it is that they do, and our dearly held notions of what is possible in music up until now. The Catastrophist is the band’s most mature record in sound and stance—a remarkable feat given their innovative oeuvre over the past twenty-five years.
The foundation of Tortoise was two guys who wanted to be Sly & Robbie. Sly & Robbie played reggae, and more importantly, dub—the “dark side” of the reggae. Whereas the focus in reggae is on the band, the rhythm section especially, in dub the emphasis is place on the producer’s ability to manipulate the studio itself as an instrument. On these tracks, we here reverb wash over everything, samples drop in and out as if through a trap door, vocals reduced to their sonic constituents, with single syllables sometimes echoing on for multiple measures like a bell intoning the eventual entropy of the track itself. Again, the point is the journey, not its end; the opening up of the entire field of possibility and filling it et al. The idea is akin to Brian Eno’s concept of “idiot glee” in funk. Think of Bernie Worrel and the way he plays like a kid with a brand-new new toy on Christmas morning—that abandon and complete lack of self-consciousness, a certain Zen innocence. In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, John McEntire says, “We all try to expand the arrangements as much as possible to see how many musical voices we can bring into the fold.” Again, it’s not about the “clinical precision” or perfection of pop, but a deconstruction through manipulation and explosion—even to the point of riffing on the self and its former incarnations. There is no essence to preserve. This is existence music. You don’t listen. You surrender to the wash of the catastrophe.