After recording and performing for nearly two decades, the members of Tortoise seem to possess a calm, slow patience not unlike that of the reptile with which they share a name. In a world of buzz bands and supergroups releasing multiple albums a year, these guys prefer to take their time and do it right. And at a rate of eight studio albums over their history of nearly two decades, that's exactly what they're doing. After 2004's tepidly received It's All Around You, the post-rock pioneers rescinded back into the studio for five years to craft their next album. The result, Beacons of Ancestorship, is the carefully cultivated product of writing, recording and revising, over and over again. The album is an enormously complex amalgam of influences that comprise one of their most unconventional works yet, proving that age-old aphorism which Aesop taught us all long ago: slow and steady melts your face.
Just nights before their four-month tour in support of Beacons, Paste caught up with bassist and band co-founder Doug McCombs, who shed some light on hip-hop's inevitable influence on the group, the secret treasures that they hide on their albums and the Beacons song title that no one, including McCombs himself, can pronounce.
album came out just a few weeks ago [June 23]. How are you feeling
about the critical reception of Beacons of Ancestorship?
I think the impression I'm getting is that
people are responding really well to this new album. For whatever
reason, I'm getting the impression that people, or at least the press
in general, is a little bit more behind this album than maybe they
were our last album.
Tortoise has many different influences, genres and sounds
that your albums reference. For example, a lot of critics say that
TNT is your most jazz-infused
record, and so on. What sort of genres or traditions were you mostly
referencing in Beacons?
That's a hard question.
In some instances, I might have a good answer for that question, but
when talking about this album, it's kind of such a huge mishmash of
different ideas and different source materials and different
inspirations that it's a little confusing to actually trace something
back to where the original inspiration might be from. I can tell you
that something I've heard the other guys talk about is that there's a
lot of beat-making coming from the hip-hop world that has been kind
of facilitating some of this new material. I know that for instance,
Dan Bitney, John McEntire and John Herndon all made a sort of
Tortoise off-shoot record a couple years ago called
That record was kind of made with the idea that it would be for
breakbeats, for DJs to have some source material to get some breaks
from. That album is all drums, and it's just those three guys making
beats, cutting them up and doing these different grooves. They
weren't songs at all, they were specifically made as breakbeats. And
I know that the fact that those guys made that record really
influenced the Tortoise record a lot, because we ended up using that
idea as a starting point for a lot of the songs. Having these cool
drum patterns, and trying to develop some sort of song out of it.
Trying to come up with structures and melodies to work in these
different drum patterns. Similarly, I know that whenever we're on
tour, one thing that Jeff Parker does a lot just to kill time when
he's sitting around in hotel rooms, he'll just mess around on his
computer and make breaks. He refers to it as “making beats.” When
Jeff does it, he'll be cutting up different stuff. He might take a
little guitar riff or some rhythmic guitar thing and try to put a
beat to it, and come up with something a little off-kilter or a
little obtuse. And he'll try to make a song out of it. And sometimes,
that will be something that he'll show us. On this new Tortoise
album, at least two things that we did were things he showed us that
were like that, with different cut-up rhythm pieces that we then made
a song out of. So I guess what I'm saying is, at least in the new
album, some of the starting points for some of the songs came from
this idea of cutting up beats, and hip-hop.
in a roundabout way, would you say then that hip-hop has influenced
Tortoise on this new album?
Well, that's the thing.
Hip-hop is not something that I personally have been really deep
into, ever, but some of the other guys in the band have been way deep
into that stuff for a really long time, like since the beginning of
the band. But in this particular instance, it's kind of like the one
time that I've been able to pinpoint where certain things are coming
from, and from a real hip-hop perspective specifically. So that's one
definite thing that's happening on this new album.
we can ask you about genres and influences all day long, but the fact
of the matter is that Tortoise's music is really complex and
unconventional, and it always is. But I felt like this album was a
little bit more so, as far as the layering and sounding completely
different from any other album I've heard this year. Is this why it
took you so long to come out with another album—that it's just so
complex that it just takes a really long time?
One thing that I've
noticed is that each time we make a new record, it takes us a little
longer. And that's because I think we are pretty self-conscious about
not repeating ourselves too much. I feel like there are certain types
of songs and maybe a certain sound that you can kind of pinpoint as
being sort of Tortoise-like. We definitely have five people in the
band who all write music for the band, and each one of those people
has a pretty distinct writing style. I think you can definitely
recognize that, certain reoccurring themes over the course of our
career, and certain types of harmonies and melodies that we tend to
lean towards. But at the same time, we're always trying to find
different ways to preserve that. We're trying to mix it up and change
things up, and throw interesting twists into the thing so that it
remains engaging or interesting to listen to. So each time we make a
record, that becomes harder and harder. Whenever we do something that
seems too familiar, we end up shying away from that and trying to
work on something that sounds a little different.
definitely seems like a major question for Tortoise: How does such
an experimental group keep experimenting for almost 20 years? There
must be some sort of pressure to reinvent yourself with every release
while still maintaining a consistent sound.
Um, that's pretty much
exactly what we're trying to do. And you know, I think unless we make
some major breakthrough at some point, or just decide to go off on a
completely obtuse tangent, I feel like at least for now it's going to
continue to be like that. It's going to be a little more work each
time we make a record to come up with something that's new.
for a lot of groups, there seems to be a pressure for constant
I think a lot of bands
that have radio hits and stuff like that, those bands feel a lot of
pressure to duplicate that or keep those hits going. But since we
don't have any hits, our main pressure is on ourselves to try to keep
things as new as possible. The other factor is that, even though we
have been working on this album for three or four years, time just
kind of slips by. We were actually really busy doing other things
too, playing live a lot. We did a few different tours in that time,
and a lot of one-off shows, playing all over Europe and all over
Asia. So we were pretty busy as a band, and pretty busy doing other
when you were touring during that time, were you ever road-testing
any of the material that ended up on this album?
been doing a few of these songs live for a while—one of them for a
really long time. Actually, one of the songs on the album we've been
playing all the way back to our last album.
song is that?
that's the one that nobody, including us, can pronounce
That song has been around for a long time and has been through a lot
of different phases. We
always been playing it live because it was really fun to play live,
and plus it was really short. So it was kind of surprising to have a
song like that in our live show, because a lot of our songs are
really long and slowly developing, so it was fun to have a short
little song like that. But we've had other songs from
have been around, at least in a state where we could play them, for
about the last year or so. Two or three songs from the album have
gone through a couple different phases of being played live, so we
could sort of test them out and see how they were working, and then
we went back and changed a couple things about them.
how did that material translate from live to studio?
that a difficult transition?
No, not really. What
happened in almost every instance would be, we'd have a recorded
version of the song and then we would go try some of the songs live
while touring. And we would then go back to the studio and change the
song, re-writing or re-recording, doing a different version of it.
That's how we ended up with what we have on the album now.
Earlier, you mentioned every
individual band member writing, and having a different writing voice.
When you were recording this album over the course of a few years,
did everyone have similar ultimate visions for it?
work really well collectively. So we don't actually discuss this
stuff too much. We just kind of know when something is working, or
when it's not and it needs more work. Every once in a while, it's
helpful if someone pipes up and says that, but normally we all know
if something needs more work or if it doesn't. We all have a similar
aesthetic. Basically what we're trying to do is make something that
sounds really cool and interesting, and I think we can all agree on
what that would be, what “cool and interesting” means to us. We
really don't talk about it. We'll just keep working on it until
finally, one day we'll say, “OK, this sounds good. We like it, it
sounds done.” Sometimes that can take a year or two; other times it
can be pretty immediate. There are a couple songs on
that just never had the right thing happening until maybe two years
later. We just keep coming back to them and keep checking in to see
if we like them. Eventually, either we throw them away or we turn it
into something we like.
Tortoise has a pretty lengthy career. When you look at some bands
that have a similar time-line, like Wilco, there's often a lot of
swapping around. But you've stuck with your lineup for over a
decade now. Is there something about working with this group that has
a certain staying power?
Well, I think we're all
on the same page as far as being interested in being career
musicians. So that's one hurtle that you can sort of get over. One of
our collaborators, and one of the people who was a very early member
of Tortoise, decided pretty early on that it wasn't really his bag.
He didn't really want to go on tour a lot, and that's why he decided
to quit the band pretty early on. Going through a couple years of
just finding our feet and getting settled, we eventually settled into
this thing where we just kind of found our own goals, and it's really
simple: we just want to be playing music. And we all have gotten to
the point where we have this group dynamic, where we trust each
other, we have a lot of confidence in each others' ideas and
abilities. And even though sometimes we might struggle to push
through a barrier or some kind of writer's block, eventually
something really good will come of it. So I think we're all just
really interested in keeping it up for as long as we can.
you have any of these breakthrough moments in the recording process
You know, it was really
weird. It was kind of like... it happened really, really late. There
were a couple songs that we were still sort of stuck on, and we were
trying to meet the deadline because we really wanted to have the
album out at a certain time so it would be easier to schedule the
next year. And we really pushed to meet this particular deadline. We
had a version of the album that was finished, and we all listened to
it for five days or a week individually. And we just all knew
instinctually that it just was not done yet. We had a couple of these
songs that we were just stuck on a little bit, and we weren't really
completely happy with the versions. So we went back to the studio and
we worked for another five days, and that was when we made all the
breakthroughs. We made some major changes to a couple of the songs,
and changed some minor things on some of the other songs, and
everything finally just fit into place. That was back in January or
February, so it was pretty recent. But we just suddenly knew that
that one week of work was the only thing that we needed to put
everything in the right place.
you think that was part of working under the pressure of a
I don't really know. I'm
not sure why it happened that way, but I'm really, really happy that
we didn't put out the earlier version of the album because it wasn't
Earlier in the recording
process, the band said that they were originally thinking about
making the whole album comprised of one piece.
Yeah, that was something
that we were thinking about doing. At one point, we had thought about
making one really big composition that went through a bunch of
different movements. That was just an idea that somebody threw out
there just to have maybe a concept to be working towards. Eventually
that proved to be impractical. Based on the material that we were
bringing in, it just wasn't working that way.
is that something that you're keeping in mind for future records?
I mean, it would be
great. We would love to do something like that. I feel like we may
have gotten to a point with this new album where we can sort of do
away with the more conventional songs and maybe work toward something
more abstract in the future—which could include some big, massive
album-length composition. I think something that we were clinging to
for a long time was that, from our album
It's All Around You
we were working really hard on becoming better songwriters. Trying to
get more comfortable with the conventional side of songwriting where
there would be lots of verses and choruses and bridges, lots of
melody and harmony, that kind of stuff. So now I think with this new
album, we were moving toward some more abstracted kinds of song
structures, which might be an interesting place for us to go in the
future. Another idea that we have that hopefully we'll be working on
soon, before we even do another album, would be working on a series
of really short pieces. We were hoping to do a series of five-inch
records, and as you may know, there's a very limited amount of time
on that format. It's like two-and-a-half minutes per side or
something. So we were thinking it would be really cool to do a series
of records like that, with a lot of really short pieces of music on
them. So that's something that, as soon as we can have some time to
breathe, we might like to start working on.
Speaking of the abstractness
of the new album, and the song that no one can pronounce... was that
a Wilhelm scream that I heard in the very beginning?
Absolutely! I actually
was not aware of that phenomenon until we were making this album, and
one of the guys in the band had just found out about it. We're all
film buffs, so it was a really interesting thing to us. We were
checking out this website where you can see all these clips of all
the different films using that scream over and over and over again.
So we were just inspired—we wanted to be part of that history.
almost like an inside joke.
Yeah. And I think we do
that quite often, throwing little secret cryptic things in there for
people to discover if they happen to be interested in some of the
same things that we are.
what are some of the other secrets you're hiding in your music for
Well, some of that stuff
might be in the song titles and stuff like that. Usually our song
titles are referencing some part of culture that maybe one of us is
interested in, or something that we read, so that kind of stuff is
always in there. There's also musical stuff too, but I can't think of
any instance right off the top of my head.
Whenever anyone is reading
about Tortoise from any kind of critical perspective, there's always
the “post-rock” thing. What's your perspective on that term as
nailing Tortoise down into a genre? Do you agree with it, or are you
feeling somewhat pidgeon-holed by it?
When that term was
coined, it seemed like there were a few different bands around at
that time that were moving away from a traditional rock 'n' roll kind
of stance. At least in the underground music scene, which is where we
came from. You started to have some bands moving away from that rock
'n roll format at that time, and I think that's where the term
“post-rock” came from. But I really felt like we were just
putting our own stamp on rock music that had been inspiring to us. We
were trying to create something that was our own out of it. Which is
what all our favorite bands had always done, putting their own
personal stamp on rock 'n roll, and making it into their own thing
that no one else could have done. So I guess the implication that
what we were doing was somehow meant to be the end of rock 'n roll, I
didn't like that implication. I just felt like we were trying to be
part of a continuum more than anything else, trying to push things in
different directions. We definitely didn't feel like we were above,
or more intellectual than, or doing anything more important than
anything else going on at the time. Grunge was definitely happening
at that time. And to a certain extent, I feel like the underground
music scene that we came from is the same underground music scene
that grunge came from. We just happened to go off on a tangent that
was completely different from that. But we didn't feel like we were
above that, or any more cerebral than any of that stuff... it was
just different paths.
with a pretty heavy emphasis on unconventional instrumentalism, like
Explosions in the Sky or Sigur Rós. Do you ever hear your own
influence in some of these younger bands?
back-and-forth thing. I can appreciate, and do appreciate, bands like
Explosions in the Sky, or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, or Mogwai.
Regardless of whether or not any of my influences are in their band,
I've seen those bands perform and I'm inspired by it. So I can say at
least in the opposite direction, that's definitely happening. Ninety
percent of my friends are also musicians, and some of them play in
bands that don't sound anything like Tortoise or anything remotely
like any other band in what they call “post-rock,” and yet I know
for a fact that they love Tortoise and that they're inspired by our
music. I know it because they've told me. And they don't sound
anything like us. So it's all out there somewhere, and I feel like
it's more of a reciprocal thing.
The Brave and the Bold
the covers album that you did with Will Oldham,
you guys covered everyone from Springsteen to Devo. Which band would you choose to cover your own material?
would probably be the most awesome thing I've ever heard. It would be
ZZ Top. I would love to hear ZZ Top do a Tortoise song.