Since the turn of the millennium, the wait between albums by the long-serving experimental ensemble Tortoise has gotten longer and longer. By the time the group’s seventh full-length The Catastrophist finally dropped into stores and online retailers last week, it had been just under seven years since the last LP. The long breaks are, by and large, forgivable as each of the five members of the group—John McEntire, Jeff Parker, Doug McCombs, Dan Bitney and John Herndon—are plenty busy with other creative endeavors. And good music, particularly when it is as complex and thoughtful as Tortoise’s, often needs a long time to gestate.
That’s certainly true of The Catastrophist. Even with their use of some material commissioned by the City of Chicago to help celebrate that town’s musical history, the songs on this LP were meticulously worried over during their sporadic recording sessions at McEntire’s Soma Studios (Parker and Herndon now live in Los Angeles, adding an extra hurdle to their process).
The album is all the better for their efforts, too, as it furthers the evolution of this ensemble, with them finding inventive ways to adapt their signature synth and bass tones into frameworks built from African highlife, Steve Reich, post-punk and modern hip-hop productions. The album also brings vocals into the mix for the first time since their 2006 covers album recorded with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, with former U.S. Maple singer Todd Rittmann joining them on a cover of the David Essex hit “Rock On,” and an original song co-written with Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley.
To learn even more about the process of creating The Catastrophist and Tortoise’s working methods, we grabbed a few minutes on the phone with multi-instrumentalist and founding member Doug McCombs.
Since a chunk of the material on The Catastrophist was initially written for a commission you received from the City of Chicago, how challenging was it to adapt those into the songs that are on the new album?
Doug McCombs: It wasn’t abnormally difficult. It was good to have some things to start with at least. Working on Tortoise music can be a tedious process because we usually start with bare-bones ideas and make them into songs in the studio. In this instance, we already had the beginnings of things so that made it a little easier. But we definitely had to rethink how to approach this material because originally the stuff we wrote for that City of Chicago thing…they weren’t uncomposed…it was more about trying to find room for extra musicians to play on them. In some cases they were just a framework of a song to allow the improvisers to have some room to play solos. In some instances, with the extra musicians we used them as part of the arrangements of the songs, but we had some pretty open sections for solos. To make them into stuff that we wanted to put out on a record we had to add more parts and change the arrangements and reharmonize some of the stuff. So, it took a little work.
Is that typical of how a Tortoise song is written, with some of the band coming in with the germ of an idea, or does it have to be all five of you in the same room creating things out of jam sessions?
McCombs: It happens in a variety of ways, but the most common is for it to be a really small kernel of an idea. And it could even be as minor as a rhythm pattern that someone thinks is interesting or maybe a melody without a chord structure around it. As a group, we work out what we think is an interesting way to present that. Over the course of time it builds up into something that we would call a song. On a few occasions there have been songs that have brought in as fully composed things that we’ve turned into songs. In any case, it all comes down to everyone’s input. That’s the interesting thing about the band: it’s five people’s viewpoint. We sort of end up with something that’s much more interesting than just one person’s input. Not every single member of the band has to be there all the time. We work on stuff in spurts. We were working on this stuff over the course of the last three years or so. Sometimes you don’t make any headway on a song and come back to it a year later and then somebody will have an idea of what direction it could take. Or two people have different ideas and we try to evaluate those things and try to incorporate them all into the finished track. Some songs go through multiple stages, and creative bursts and realizing that we don’t like the way it turned and we have to strip it down and do something else. Or abandon it completely. It’s a long process. In the end, it ends up being the most fruitful way for us to work because what ends up being a Tortoise song is ultimately much more interesting than just one person’s input.
Is it easy for all five of you to agree on, say, when a song is finished or is a more democratic, “majority rule” kind of process?
McCombs: It’s pretty democratic. I would say most of the time when a song is finished or almost finished, we all know it. There’s not a whole lot of dissent. Every once in a while there might be something that everyone loves and one person doesn’t love. In that case, we’ll go with it.
Both you and John McEntire talked about how you hit upon the idea of covering David Essex’s “Rock On” at the same time. What significance does that song hold for you?
McCombs: Not a whole lot of significance other than its ubiquitous on classic rock radio, which I happen to listen to a lot of when I’m driving around. Classic rock radio is something that I was never into until the last few years. I’ve recently enjoyed driving around and listening to this stuff that I’ve skipped over. I’ve heard that song since I was a teenager and until recently it never occurred to me what an unusual arrangement it is for a rock song. There’s not much drumming. It just sort of hit John and I at the same time that it was an interesting song and we could do a cool version of it. It was something we decided to do as a lark. I don’t think we were ever sure that we would put it on the record. Maybe it would be so many of those things that people use as a free song for a download or put it on a 7” to take on tour. It was kind of surprising in the end when we were deciding how to sequence the record that everyone was into putting that on. It was a coincidence that we had another song with vocals that we wanted on the album as well. I don’t know why those two songs happened at the same time. There have been a certain amount of encouragement for us to try putting vocals on songs just because it would get us more attention when it came to press or from a publicity standpoint. Finally when people stopped bothering us about it is when we decided to have two songs with vocals on an album. It’s part of our contrary nature to a degree.
As for your choice of vocalist, you must know Todd Rittmann as part of the Chicago music scene.
McCombs: Yeah we’ve known Todd for a long time and we’ve all been admirers of the bands that he’s played in. When we trying to decide who to sing that song, he was one of the first names that came up. I knew he would do a great job. Really there weren’t too many other contenders. I don’t remember who else we thought of. It’s come to the point where we’re like, “Are we going to perform that song ever?” We kind of don’t want to perform it unless Todd can do it with us. We might do it a few times in Chicago or something. We’ll see.
Would you consider playing along to a pre-recorded vocal track?
McCombs: That’s not something we would…I don’t know. We might. I kind of doubt it. With the song that Georgia sings, it’s a different story. We liked that song as an instrumental too. We’ll probably play that song as a staple of our set even if Georgia can’t sing it with us. We’re making plans for her to sing it with us here and there.
So much of the sound of Tortoise is this combination of synthetic and organic instrumentation. Is that something you are conscious of? Do you try to make sure that you have a balance of those elements in each song?
McCombs: Not necessarily. It’s more about trying to figure out what makes a song work, and how we’re going to perform it is secondary to that. We just spent the last week learning all the songs from this record. Because of how we work, we don’t know how to play the songs the way that they were recorded. So this last week was our time to figure out how to perform the songs live. There’s a lot of revelation there. We realized that John Herndon didn’t play a whole lot of drums on the record which is his main instrument. It’s sort of challenging. It forces people to take on different roles. Herndon has been really working hard to learn a lot of the keyboard stuff on the record. He’s a great musician but he has to work a little bit harder to figure out keyboard parts than he does drum parts.
Do you allow yourself room for improvisation in your live sets?
McCombs: Some songs, mostly in our back catalog, evolve over time to incorporate more improvisation. I have to say most of the songs on this new record, we’ve been approaching them as pop songs or play the way they are on the record. That’s one misconception about Tortoise that there is a lot of improvisation within the group. There really isn’t. But some songs over time have evolved to include a bit of that. It’s possible that it will happen with some of the new songs too, but they seem to not be going that direction currently so much.
There are also some very recognizable tones and sonic elements that carry throughout your catalog, which I’m sure you’re aware of. Would you ever make an album that sounds something completely un-Tortoise-like?
McCombs: I would say that we’re pretty methodical about stuff and because of that we’re not prone to any real drastic changes. Different shifts in our focus and what we’re trying to achieve seem to happen on a slow process from album to album. We’re always open to just about anything but it hasn’t really ever occurred to us to consciously flip everything. We’re more prone to keep growing at a slower, more incremental way. For instance, if you would contrast our first album with our new album you’d see many shifts and many changes but if you did the same with our last record, those shifts don’t seem as drastic. That seems to be part of how we work together.