By now, Tortoise is more than just a band — it’s become a philosophy. The Chicago-based instrumental fusion group take their time in the recording studio, and this month, nearly 22 years after the release of their self-titled debut, they’ll put out their seventh record. It’d be easy to complain about that glacial pace if it weren’t so hard to argue with the results, which are as challenging as they are emotionally resonant.
“We’d get in a room together for a week and start throwing ideas around, and then we’d have to stop,” bassist Doug McCombs explained of the band’s laborious writing and recording process. “We have to let those ideas sink in a little bit, and then we have to get together again a couple months later and work on the same stuff again to try and inject new ideas into it. Eventually, maybe a couple years down the line, we’ll start to have some things that are interesting.”
For their latest record, The Catastrophist, the band opted to build upon a series of live, recorded improvisational pieces that were commissioned by the City of Chicago in 2010. If they hoped that would cut down on the time needed to get a new record out, they were sorely mistaken. Pictures of the band working in the studio on these new songs began popping up online in 2013, and they only finished last year. Consequence of Sound spoke to McCombs and drummer John McEntire about how that elongated creative process unfolded and how they finally and conclusively arrived at this particular set of 11 diverse and evocative tracks.
Why did The Catastrophist take so long to complete?
Doug McCombs (DM): We can pretty much assume at this point that a Tortoise record is going to take a long time to finish anyway no matter the circumstances.
John McEntire (JM): I think we started on it in 2013, but as usual we only work in small increments at a time … maybe one to two weeks at the most. That’s one of the reasons it took so long. We let things sit. We tend to do that, then come back and do a lot of revising and editing and whatnot.
DM: If you compound that factor with the fact that the longest period of time that we can all schedule to be in a room together is about two weeks, and that’s pushing it, it just means that it takes a long time.
The origin point for this record came from a suite of music that you guys put together for the City of Chicago back in 2010, correct?
JM: Yeah, they asked us to compose something for a special show, a one-off that involved a whole bunch of jazz musicians. We did that and then didn’t have any further thoughts about it until we decided it was time to work on the new recording, and since we already had that stuff somewhat written, it was kind of the obvious first thing to go back to.
DM: We definitely knew that it would be a good jumping-off point to start work on a Tortoise record since we had already made a certain amount of progress with that material. To actually crystalize into Tortoise songs took that extra sort of thing that I was talking about before: sitting on it for a while and letting ideas seep into it or trying a whole bunch of stuff and seeing what worked.
Can you expand on that process a little bit?
DM: Initially, when we wrote the stuff for the performance at Millennium Park, we knew that we just needed to have a framework for these extra musicians to participate in. There had to be a certain amount of harmony and melody so we could have some cool and interesting arrangements for different horn players to play on, plus some room for improvising and soloing. At that point, I wouldn’t have called them completely finished songs. They were more like interesting fragments of melody and harmony with room for improvisation. To make them into Tortoise songs, we just had to push a little harder on them. Maybe add a bridge or something. The goal whenever we’re making this music is to make something that’s interesting to listen to for at least five minutes.
Can you think of a specific example of a song that began as an improv piece in 2010 and turned into something more fully fleshed-out on this record?
DM: “The Catastrophist” started off as one of those Millennium Park, City of Chicago songs. All it was to begin with was a bass line that I had. Jeff [Parker] heard me playing it once in passing and was like, “Oh, hey, that’s a really cool bass line.” And then I bookmarked that and thought, “Okay, I have this cool bass line. I’ll write some melodies to go with it.” That’s essentially what it was, a bass line, a key change, and some melodies to go with it, and then the rest of the band just filled it out. For the record, we pushed it. We added some chord changes and some different melodic elements, and it ended up as a Tortoise song six years later.
How much of the creation of these songs was worked as a collective, and how much of it was done in a more individual capacity?
JM: We never sit around in a room together and come up with stuff, but there is a lot of time we spend in the studio actually building foundations of things to work on together.
Both of you, as well as many of the other members of the band, keep busy in other musical ventures outside of this band. I’m curious how you know what’s right for Tortoise as you work on new and different things.
JM: It’s pretty easy for me because I don’t do a lot of writing for other projects, so it’s pretty focused. I feel like everyone’s got their own unspoken criteria for what might be relevant for the band.
DM: For me, I should just put it this way: I don’t write songs for [my other band] Eleventh Dream Day. I more or less just participate in the writing and band arranging process. Rick Rizzo writes most of the songs in Eleventh Dream Day. Occasionally I’ll write songs for that band, but that’s only when I have a really rare burst of writing a few lyrics or something. Most of the time when I’m sitting at home, playing guitar watching TV or something, a lot of those things end up being [another project] Brokeback songs. Then the rare beast is the thing that seems like it’s going in some sort of other direction that makes me go, “Maybe I should use that for Tortoise.” That’s pretty much it.
What do you see as some of the benefits and drawbacks to creating an instrumental set of songs?
DM: One of the drawbacks is that there may be a certain segment of the music listening population that is not really interested in hearing instrumental music (laughs). I think people are used to hearing lyrics and singing so that can be a hurdle sometimes, but I think we’ve been able to find an audience that appreciates what we do.
JM: There’s lots of drawbacks (laughs). As soon as we work on anything with a vocal, we’re all like, “Oh, this is so easy we don’t have to do anything.”
How do you mean?
JM: We put together that record we did with Will Oldham [The Brave and the Bold] so quickly. It was like three days, boom, we had six tracks done. It just erases a whole set of concerns.
When you’re creating music, do you consciously pick emotions or moods you try and capture, or do the songs unfold more organically?
DM: I think there’s definitely a certain amount of trying to construct a song that feels a certain way. That’s what happens in the studio for us a lot — trying to bring one song or another into a certain direction that makes sense. That usually means going, “It has this certain harmonic structure; let’s go with that,” or “let’s push that in a completely different direction.” We’re definitely conscious of trying to set a certain mood with a given piece of music. That’s basically what our band is doing. Trying to convey the human experience without the voice there to help you along. The audience is going to have their own interpretation. Everyone is going to perceive something in a slightly different way than you do regardless of lyrics. Even with lyrics, I think people misconstrue and put their own lives into the place of the singer.
Listening to this record, it sounds on its face a lot more optimistic or lighter in tone than your last release, Beacons of Ancestorship. Was that something you were aiming to achieve, or was that just more of a product of where you’re collective headspace was at across these last couple of years?
JM: I’m not sure. I guess off the top of my head I would say that it’s actually kind of dark. I feel like there’s a lot of mid-tempo to slow things, minor keys and kind of a heavy vibe to some of the stuff.
Maybe lighter is the wrong word. It’s definitely less abrasive.
JM: Oh yeah, I can see that.
DM: The music I tend to like personally myself … I can think of certain reference points where it’s sort of … uplifting melancholia. The stuff that really strikes me emotionally is Roy Orbison or Coltrane or Television or Neil Young. Stuff like that all seems to have the same feeling to me. It’s kind of like this mixture of sadness with the chance that things are looking up. That’s usually what I’m trying to go for.
Whose idea was it to do a cover of the song “Rock On”?
DM: It was kind of a weird coincidence. I think I was driving to the studio to work on some Tortoise stuff, and I heard that song on the radio, which I’d heard a zillion times, of course, and I just mentioned it to John [McEntire]. That’s a really strange song from the arrangement to the way it’s organized. It’s sort of sparse and minimalist. But for whatever reason, on that particular day, it struck me as being a very unusual song to be a hit song on the radio. I mentioned it to John and he said something like, “Yeah, I know. I always thought Tortoise could do a great version of that song.” I’m not sure if the other three guys in the band were convinced that we should do a version of that song, but we did it anyway. I wasn’t even sure it was a song that would end up on the album. I thought we could use it as a 7-inch or we could have it be a bonus track for digital – the digital world now needs all these sort of extra things from you. I never intended for it to be on the album, but everyone was so into it that it ended up there.
Are there a lot of David Essex fans in the band?
JM: We like that track, but I don’t know any of his other stuff to be honest.