click here for more
Interview: Tortoise

Interview: Tortoise

Tuesday 29th November, 2016 5:49PM

This weekend long-standing Chicago post-rock quintet Tortoise will be in the country for their first New Zealand shows since 2001. The genre-defining group, which formed in 1990, are coming this way on the coattails of releasing their seventh studio album, The Catastrophist, which is the band’s first in nearly seven years - following on from 2009 offering Beacons of Ancestorship. The 11-song offering marks a subtle yet marked style shift for Tortoise, the most obvious being that it is the band’s first record to ever include prominent vocals, thanks to the enlistment of Georgia Hubley (of Yo La Tengo) and David Essex who feature across two tracks. In anticipation of their upcoming shows Tam from Dirtbag Radio spent some time speaking with bandmember Doug McComb discussing the band’s creative process…

Tam: I'm curious as to how a band like Tortoise works in terms of decision making, given you seem to be constantly looking to challenge yourselves and create music that is new and evolving. How do you decide on that final outcome?

Doug: Well, it's a kind of a long process. Any particular song that Tortoise works on could potentially be kind of a long process in arriving at something that we all think is good. But we all have similar sensibilities and so we kind of have this unspoken aesthetic that directs some of the material. When we're working on a song, if any one member of the band has a certain direction that they think the song should go in, we explore that possibility. And then sometimes it works, and then if it doesn't work then maybe someone else will have an idea and we'll steer it in another direction. But it's sort of a long process of trial and error because, I guess, we're trying to push the music in unexpected ways. Even if it's only a minute shift in aesthetic sensibility, or whatever it is, we're always trying to push it somewhere different or somewhere we haven't explored before. So the results sometimes are unusual, and sometimes the results are 'oh well, that's maybe what the song should have been all along'. It helps us to not to stagnate is the main thing. The group dynamic that we have is trying to push the music some place that we haven't been before and so even if we end up with a song that's similar to something that we've done before, it will at least have some minute part of it that is new and interesting to us. That's a really long-winded way of saying, I dunno, I don't know what....

It sounds like a fairly democratic process...

Yeah. I think a lot of bands would possibly become frustrated with that dynamic, but we've found in the long run it makes us better musicians - trying to direct things into new and different places.

Does that process change from album to album?

Yeah, it does. And given time it could be driven by any particular interest that any member of the band has, or something that is inspiring them at the time - and those things can be fleeting, you know. Sometimes one member of the band is trying to push things in one direction, and then suddenly they'll be thinking that's not working and try and push it in a different direction. But like I said, one thing to take from this, is that it doesn't always result in some mind-boggling shift in dynamics for the band. All these things are just really incremental, minute shifts in interest.

And when you are on tour are you continuing that process of adaptation with your music? Are you actively trying to recreate the sounds you have on your album, or is that absolutely not an interest for Tortoise?

Um, it varies from song to song. I mean, some songs are played the same way for 20 years, and other songs sort of evolve in slow, vaguely interesting ways until the may even take on a slightly different form. Some songs only seem to work if they're played the way they are on the record, and then other songs we discover over time that they have certain of room for improvisation or evolution.

That must make live performance quite exciting, that element of trial and error, with music that you've been playing for 20-odd years. Your music changes from album to album - sometimes quite drastically - and I was wondering how that translates into live performance...

There's a certain amount of freedom. I mean any given night could have a different set of circumstances that makes things sound different or feel different, but ultimately I think our goal is to play a show that is interesting for the audience and that gives - at least to a certain degree - gives the audience something that they are expecting to hear. Well, I dunno, I mean we're definitely trying to play a really great live show and sometimes we figure out that certain songs are just not that interesting to play live - for an audience. I guess the audience that comes to see Tortoise comes because they appreciate what we do, and I think that's because we put a lot of work into what we do and it translates to them. So I feel like where sort of the same as them, like we know what's working and they know what's working and we're all on the same page.

I read Dan [Bitney] talk about Tortoise being an 'ideas band', and I really love that description because I feel it has more weight and relevance to your music than any genre description I've ever heard. And I was wondering if you ever feel frustrated when you're asked to describe what you do in terms of genre or sound, and if you get tired of the buzzwords that often surround music that don't particularly fit into specific mould?

I think people need terms and descriptors for music, to a certain degree. And so it doesn't bother me that much when people come up with descriptors for the band, but *we* don't think about it as a band. We just like to play music and that's about a much as we say about anything we do.

I read that the song 'Hot Coffee' off the Catastrophist is at least 10 years old. What is it about certain songs that sees them float around for so long?

I mean, that a really specific instance where it just wasn't working, and it wasn't working, and it wasn't working. But I personally was not willing to let go of it. And eventually it just started to work, we didn't even really change that much about it. If you hear it it's not even that complex of a song, but there was just something that wasn't working about it. I mean, if it was like 'Wild Thing' by The Troggs, if someone had told you The Troggs had worked on 'Wild Thing' for 10 years you wouldn't believe it. I mean, 'Hot Coffee' it didn't work so we'd just stick it away for awhile and then we'd try it again. It was just patience.

UnderTheRadar Proudly Present...

Friday 2nd December, Kings Arms, Auckland
Saturday 3rd December, San Fran, Wellington

Tickets available HERE at UTR and in-store at Flying Out (Auckland) or RPM/Slowboat Record (Wellington)

This interview originally aired on 95bFM’s Dirtbag Radio Show and has been slightly edited for readability. Head over to the Dirtbag Facebook page to stay up to date with your fine hosts Rapley, Sam and Tam. And head over here to listen to the Dirtbag Radio podcasts.


Share this
Subscribe/Follow Us
Don’t miss a thing! Follow us on your favourite platform  

You can show your support to keep UnderTheRadar running by making a contribution. From $1, any amount can make a huge difference and keep us bringing you the best, comprehensive local content. Support UTR!