Tortoise: Instrumental Rock’s Heavyweights Return

“That’s one of the real positive things about this band. The way that we work together, and the way we approach writing and playing, has remained relatively consistent, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to do it as long as we have.”


Let’s establish something right away: we will not characterize the music of Tortoise, Chicago’s acclaimed instrumental quintet, as post-rock. Some of us find that phrase wholly inadequate to convey the sort of virtuosic, richly textured music for which Tortoise is known. John McEntire, the band’s drummer and producer, doesn’t care for the label, either.

“That was just a certain journalist trying to create a genre, and therefore get a little notoriety for himself in the process,” said McEntire, reached by phone between stops on the group’s tour to promote It’s All Around You, their fifth album. Of course, one can’t blame a music writer for trying to find new ways to describe an intricate, sculpted sound that draws on jazz, electronica, rock, lounge, and even ambient and cinematic moods. Tortoise have been accused in some quarters of being cool, detached craftsmen for their seriousness of purpose, but repeat listens reveal that although their music is indeed highly structured, it’s actually very fresh, lively, and invigorating. Post-rock doesn’t begin to cover it. Asked to provide a description himself for the uninitiated, McEntire gamely gives it a whirl.

“I’d probably give you a 50-word description to get it in the ballpark,” he said. “It’s instrumental; the lineup includes but is not limited to drums, bass, keyboards, mallet, percussion, and synthesizers. It’s often melodic, works with textures and a focus on rhythms. And it’s fairly cinematic at times…something like that.”

Like its name, Tortoise represents something mighty, thick-skinned, and slow-moving, something that has been around for a long time. Tortoise is king of modern instrumental rock; in fact, this year represents a bit of a milestone for the band, as their self-titled debut came out ten years ago. Other than one or two personnel changes early on, the lineup has remained stable: McEntire, John Herndon, Doug McCombs, Jeff Parker, and Dan Bitney, multi-instrumentalists all. McEntire thinks that very little has changed in the group’s aesthetic through the years.

“That’s one of the real positive things about this band. The way that we work together, and the way we approach writing and playing, has remained relatively consistent, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to do it as long as we have.”

They’re a patient bunch, these guys. They don’t feel a need to churn something out every year—and besides, all the members have projects outside Tortoise. McEntire is a member of dream-pop purveyors The Sea and Cake, and has produced or worked with dozens of artists including US Maple, Chicago Underground, Neil Michael Hagerty, Teenage Fanclub, and Norway’s instrumental peers Salvatore. Herndon soloed as A Grape Dope and has recorded with Savath & Savalas, The Aluminum Group, and Beans. McCombs is in Brokeback, another Thrill Jockey artist. Parker plays in a number of jazz ensembles and released a solo album called Like Coping; he’s also doing horn arrangements for The Aluminum Group. Bitney has worked with Spectralina. The point is, none of the members sit around waiting for the next Tortoise project.

When it’s time to devote themselves to Tortoise, they do it, 100 percent.
The results are always memorable: 1996’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die is considered a landmark instrumental work, lauded for its “sustained brilliance” in the All Music Guide. 2001’s Standards, recorded mostly live in McEntire’s new Soma Studio in Chicago, added powerhouse rock and funk elements to the Tortoise sonic palette, broadening the band’s audience considerably. Now, three years later, It’s All Around You is ready for its closeup, and it’s a thing of beauty.

From the stunning cover art designed by Peter and Matthew Girardi (a throwback to the epic visuals of ’70s prog rock albums) to the mixture of graceful, loungey grooves and evocative, layered ambient soundscapes within, the album is a relaxed stride forward, rather than a big departure. Its creation, however, was no picnic.

“ I’m really pleased with it, but it was one of the more difficult ones to put together,” said McEntire. “Compared to Standards, especially— Standards sort of happened really quickly and was rather painless. This one was almost excruciating in terms of how long it took and how detailed it got and everything. In the end, it was totally worth it. In terms of the writing, it’s probably our strongest one. And I’m just really happy with the overall production.”

Each and every sound seems to matter on a Tortoise album. The fizzy sparkle of “It’s All Around You,” “On the Chin,” or the luminous “The Lithium Stills” (which actually features some vocal harmonies as a texture) generates one sort of mood; a more contemplative one emanates from the epic keyboard tones of “Crest” or the moody ambience of “Unknown” or the Eno-esque “By Dawn.” What sort of process shapes such unique pieces of music?

“I think what tends to happen is that, when we accommodate enough material, to a certain extent that determines the breadth of where the piece could go,” said McEntire. “If something is in a demo form, we can look at it and say that we’ve already covered that sonic territory. The way we work is sort of slow and painstaking. At any moment, a piece could go in a different direction than where it started. Everyone in the band has veto power.”

At the live shows, Tortoise is able to stretch out, to loosen the reigns that keep things so structured on the albums. “People move,” said McEntire. “It’s not like an all-out crazy dance party, but we typically get a pretty lively crowd…wherever we go.”

McEntire has something of an air of seriousness in conversation, perhaps befitting one of the most important musicians in Chicago’s vital music scene. He seems to want the music to speak for itself, and Tortoise’s brand of instrumental stylings can indeed speak volumes to the attentive listener. McEntire doesn’t want to be pigeonholed or labeled.

“We’re all drawing on a vast pool of influences and inspirations,” he says of his band. “The only real goals we have are to keep making interesting music that satisfies or challenges us. Anything else that happens after that is a bonus.”

It’s All Around You is in stores now. Catch Tortoise live at Mississippi Nights on May 24.

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