Slow & Steady: Tortoise unveil The Catastrophist
Chicago's long-standing instrumental heroes Tortoise return with The Catastrophist, their first record in seven years – John McEntire tells us about getting lost in a world of their own making.
It’s entirely in keeping with our chat with John McEntire that he should barely even notice his own bon mots. Even after more than 20 years of carving out a thoroughly idiosyncratic niche with Chicago experimentalists Tortoise, it seems clear from our Skype call that his knack for conversation remains outweighed by a capability to sculpt remarkable sonic masterpieces alongside his four bandmates (to wit: Doug McCombs, Jeff Parker, John Herndon and Dan Bitney). In plainer English: this particularly talented musician and producer speaks music as his primary language. He doesn’t often elaborate, which – despite his pleasant, polite demeanour – doesn’t exactly make for a free-flowing exchange.
Still, when he’s right, he’s right. We’re discussing their approach to songwriting and genre-dabbling – a key component for a band who managed to fuse elements of dub, krautrock and jazz into an ostensible rock band format, sprinkled with electronics in the manner of a logistical puzzle – when McEntire casually remarks, “Maybe there’s an occasional reference to something in the real world.”
That sound you just heard was a nail being smacked soundly on the head, because this is the perfect summary of the Tortoise experience. All bands create their own worlds – at least, those worth listening to – but the best ones completely immerse you in a reality of their own making. The Catastrophist, the forthcoming seventh record by the group in question, is the latest evolution of their world, and it’s as perfectly absorbing an album as they’ve ever made. Naturally, the down-to-earth McEntire laughs when we ask whether notions of ‘the real world’ are how he considers the difference between his band and everyone else.
"It can be easy to get lost a little bit. But we always find our way" – John McEntire
“I guess so!” he chuckles. “When you’re in the middle of working on something it can tend to feel pretty isolating. There’s all this stuff out there that’s tangible and concrete, and you’re in this place that is kind of unknown, trying to figure out where to go.”
Their destination in this instance was originally determined by the City of Chicago, who in 2010 commissioned the band to compose a suite of new music with nods to jazz and improv – two styles firmly entwined with the locale’s rich history. “The city does a lot of things like that,” McEntire says. “They have some really great programmers. It was an attempt to bring together some disparate elements of the musical communities here, and it was a really excellent experience.”
“We had done things kind of like that before, but were never asked to write specifically for something, so it was an interesting challenge. I think it still retained the identity of the band.”
APPROACHING THE CATASTROPHIST
When the quintet later reconvened with the plan of writing and recording a new album, the resultant compositions proved an excellent jumping-off point.
“That was never the intention,” he explains, “but when we decided that we wanted to start recording, we knew we had that material that we could work from, so that was what we started with.”
There’s a certain irony in Chicago providing a spot for inspiration for the band’s new material; after all, they originated in the city’s forward-minded indie scene in the early 90s, emerging alongside the disparate likes of Gastr del Sol and The Sea And Cake (both of whom have featured the ever-busy McEntire in their line-ups), with bands often sharing influence despite rarely sounding much alike. Location, however, doesn’t appear to be a factor here:
“It used to be pretty important,” he remarks, when quizzed about the city’s importance to Tortoise. “Much less so now, I think. In the early days there was a lot happening here, it was really inspiring. That’s probably still true, but all of our circumstances have changed; people have families now so it’s a little bit different for us.”
Meanwhile, The Catastrophist displays the sound of five musicians lost entirely to their work; an expansive and perhaps more melodic assemblage than their previous albums, from the opening title track’s triumphant synth flourishes (think Masamo Nakamura’s Sonic The Hedgehog soundtracks welded to a murky, minimalist groove and you’re halfway there) to the clipped, cold funk of Hot Coffee. You’d be hard-pressed to play any of this record to a newcomer alongside seminal previous efforts such as Millions Now Living Will Never Die or TNT and have them immediately believe it all to be rooted at the same source. There’s been a slow evolution in their oeuvre since those early days, and it’s tempting to assume that there’s a determination within their collective mindset to react against whatever they’ve done previously. McEntire pauses thoughtfully at this suggestion.
“Uh, I wouldn’t say ‘react’, but it’s always there, you know, it’s something that we think about. We’re pretty conscious of not wanting to repeat ideas or themes or sounds, so it’s always a bit of a challenge in that sense. We’re always faced with the concept of creating something pretty new and fresh for us.”
“It wasn’t anything specific. I mean, I don’t think we set any parameters for this one in particular, which may or may not have been a good thing. It seems like if you have a few restrictions that actually helps you get the work done faster.”
AN UNEXPECTED INFLUENCE
Sticking to our belief that we’re better than cheap gags about working at tortoise pace, we observe that this new absence of parameters is most evident in two particular tracks: Yonder Blue and a cover of David Essex’s Rock On mark the previously-unthinkable debut of vocals on a Tortoise album. That’s not to say they’ve not worked with singers before – in 2006 they released The Brave And The Bold, a collaborative covers LP with Will Oldham’s Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy persona – but even so, this is the first time that such a thing has occurred on one of their own records.
Rock On is an especially unusual choice: a standout on Essex’s schizoid debut album from 1973, long before the schmaltz of Winter’s Tale came to define his later career. Skeletal, tense and brittle, its reverb-laden malevolence makes ‘rocking on’ sound grim rather than hedonistic – an undertone made even more apparent thanks to the skulking presence of US Maple’s Todd Rittman on this surprisingly faithful cover.
“We just always loved the original version,” McEntire explains, “and in some ways it maybe reminded us of when we were super-minimalist, just bass and drums, in the very early days. I’ve always really loved the production of the original.”
He denies David Essex fandom (“Don’t know anything else actually!”) and offers little in terms of reasoning for choosing Rittman (“We went through a long list of people… it was probably Doug came up with the idea; it seemed like a perfect fit”) but regardless, the noise rock veteran’s scintillating delivery almost certainly provides its own justification.
Similarly, the album’s other guest spot comes courtesy of Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley, whose typically breathy sighs add an irresistible warmth to the song’s woozey tranquillity. It’s testament to the performances from both band and vocalist that it sounds like it could have been composed by either camp (“I think we were fortunate to strike that balance,” McEntire concludes).
With these new considerations in mind, we ask McEntire how he would choose to describe the record. He takes a deep breath. “It’s mostly instrumental. Kind of standard rock band format, with keyboards and some other instruments. I dunno, I’m not good at that kind of stuff.”
Defining Tortoise is a challenge that has beaten many over the years, of course – ‘post-rock’ is a tag that comes up often, but the band remain resistant to it, and in any case, it seems a redundant concept in 2016. No longer a loose term summarising bands using the ‘standard rock band format’ to create futurist sounds that were very definitely not rock, it now seems a catch-all phrase for a certain type of formulaic, instrumental indie, which would do a disservice to the length and breadth of our heroes’ eclectic frame of influence.
“At a certain point, we decided that everything was fair game,” he summarises. “There was no reason to consider anything to be stigmatised. It’s kind of liberating, you know, ‘cause it gives you the ability to take risks with things that to other artists would seem off-limits.”
Did it feel more or less natural, with that in mind, to approach songs with a more ‘traditional’ structure, à la the Hubley/Rittman contributions?
“I don’t know if natural’s the right word, but you’re dealing with a language that’s established. There’s parameters that you can move around in pretty freely, and know that something’s gonna work.”
To continue that analogy, do Tortoise generally trying to push the boundaries of that language?
“Maybe… we start from a total blank canvas, and it can be easy to get lost a little bit. But we always find our way eventually.”