Tortoise : What’s Underneath The Shell?

“About ten years from now, people who want to be left alone and read a book will go to Tortoise shows,” a friend joked to me a few months ago.  I had been complaining to him about my fatigue with live shows.  Despite visuals in the background, predictably of urban scenes at night, I found it incredibly boring to have to stand in a room full of people watching and listening to the music unfold during a recent Tortoise show.  It’s not like there was anything wrong with it.  It’s engaging as in nice wallpaper.  Emotionally neutral, yet somehow evocative at times.  Predictable, for sure.  It’s utility music.  Like electricity and hot water, this should be pumped into a room — it’s perfect for inner city websurfing.  But to sit and watch it get played, I don’t think so.  So I swaggered out of the venue’s main room, and into the foyer area and sat on a stool.  A couple of guys I didn’t know came and sat down beside me, and we started chatting.  It was pretty funny, cause I think they were expecting a punk rock show or something, and they were highly frustrated — their pent-up energy denied an outlet in this music.  “It’s elevator music,” one complained.  A waitress came by and sat down, taking a break.  “Well, it’s pretty quiet, at least,” she said.  “I usually go home with a headache.”  I told them that someone told me the album charted in the Top 100 in Germany.  They thought I was just kidding.

But I wasn’t.  The rise and rise of Tortoise continues to baffle many.  Rarely does a group meet success so disproportionate to what you might expect.  Where many groups with sounds that straddle too many styles, audiences, demographics, and traditions fall through the cracks into oblivion, Tortoise has somehow magically rose above all its elements.  “It is whatever you make it.”  Since Tortoise come forward with no ideas of their own, people are given the chance to read their own ideas onto the music.  Indierockers, techno producers, drum’n’bass DJ’s, and jazz lovers are all able to convince themselves that Tortoise, who have no ideology, fit into their ideologies.  Tortoise has expertly chosen who they remix, and who they are remixed by.  The list includes Oval, Coldcut, UNKLE, Yo La Tengo, Spring Heel Jack, Wagon Christ, and most recently Techno Animal, Derrick Carter and Autechre.  I’ve always been hesitant about remixology, cause it’s an easy way for groups to obtain massive amounts of credibility on the backs of one another.  If you assemble enough top-notch remixers, then your merits become almost indisputable.  And I think this is true in Tortoise’s case.

But credit is due, cause it’s not often a group has the bases so well covered.  What other group could simultaneously draw comparisons to King Tubby, Can, Kraftwerk, John Coltrane, Steve Reich, John Barry, and James Lavelle’s Mo’ Wax label?  There’s no limit on the music that Tortoise will remind you of, but I wonder if any comparison could be made to Tortoise that couldn’t be taken back to another source.  You can see this more clearly in many of the Tortoise side projects.  Like Isotope 217, an improvised jazz spin-off, whose best song “La Jetee” reminds me of a certain lush, slow track on Miles Davis’ Live Evil.  As I overheard someone remark during their opening set for Tortoise, “It sounds best when it sounds like someone else.”  Then, there’s the Designer drum’n’bass project, or this Fall’s Pullman release, with its acknowledged debt to John Fahey.  In fact, the most unique group amongst the whole Tortoise-related stable is probably the Sea and Cake, who really sound like nothing else — white soul music, which when combined with McEntire’s lush productions and rich layering sounds genuinely fresh.   Ultimately, it’s indisputable that Tortoise sound like Tortoise, above all else.  If a group is able to define their own sound, and meld all the influences together into a seamless whole, isn’t that enough?

In interviews, Tortoise’s biggest quotes arrive on the heels of a comparison they disagree with whether its denial of the influence of Steve Reich or progrock, or more sympathetically contempt for the term “postrock.’  And so, the only time I get much of a rise out of Johnny “Machine Gun” Herndon, primarily the Tortoise percussionist,  is when I ask if Tortoise was exploring the relationship between certain faces of drum’n’bass and jazz percussion.  “I think that’s just ridiculous,” he says, as if I was trying to say that drum’n’bass came from jazz.  All I was saying is that you can hear some influence in the snare action sometimes, and I’m not even the first person to say it either.

It’s become a Tortoise feature article cliche to say that they have little to say.  The fact that Tortoise was formed predominantly from people who played either bass or drums in their former rock groups explains not only a great deal about their sound, but also, as a friend pointed out to me, their lack of charisma in interviews.  Cause drummers and bassists are used to having a front man do all the talking for them.  Tortoise has no front man.  In fact, Tortoise is eerily democratic.  Maybe they’re part of a New World Order, or something.  Their personalities blend together like youth in a church group.  No tension or conflict is perceptible.  As far as I know, there are no noteworthy discrepancies in terms of what music the members like to listen to.  And I would probably guess this is true of much of the core audience.  Sure, it’s an eclectic bunch of music, but the listening lists are all the same.

Don’t you ever get bored?  Everyone listens to the same music these days.  I could travel to England, to anywhere in the US, and everyone would have the same damned records decided upon by some tastemakers of whereabouts unknown.

The closest Tortoise does come to a front man is John McEntire — an occasional studio wizard, but also producer of one too many, way-too-average US indie records.  He’s also the most talkative, but only in relation to the others.  I probably wouldn’t have interviewed them at all, were it not for the fact that I thought I’d be interviewing John McEntire, who happened to be out with his girlfriend when I called.  It was a perfectly understandable circumstance, however, cause Tortoise were leaving the next day on a European tour.

It is probably the live element that provides another reason for Tortoise’s success.  Much of their sound still comes from notes that can be replayed on physical sources of sound.  Those of us who prefer to think of sounds giving birth to themselves are still a minority, and most people still feel reassured when they see the fingers move up and down a guitar.  It’s the reason that most people like to see live rock shows, cause they like to know where the sounds come from.  The world outside of club culture is still uncomfortable with the notion that music is losing its physical sources, that prowess on an instrument has become redundant and even sometimes detrimental in the field of recorded music.  Tortoise’s music remains balanced somewhere imbetween studio trickery and the live medium.

If anything though, the balance has shifted on TNT, their latest album, towards the former.  Part of this, as discussed, can be attributed to their involvement with remixing.  Though downplaying the amount of remixes they’ve been on, Herndon states that “some of the same processes are used.  Cause a lot of the new record was done on the computer.  There’s a lot of reworking of the material and extensive editing happening.  But none of us are really huge remixers.  John’s done a couple.  But the process is probably similar.  I don’t know if remixing influenced us,  as much as the learning of that gear.”

I ask, if he finds working in front of the computer a little stuffy in comparison?  “Yeah, sometimes.  It can get really annoying, really tedious.  But it’s also an interesting way to approach music.  For us, it’s trying to find a balance.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing.  You can make some really cool interesting music that you couldn’t make any other way.  It’s just a tool like anything else.  It’s not “the” way, it’s “a” way.  But it is hard to breathe life into.  I think you just have to leave some mistakes. It’s hard to breathe into something that’s completely quantized, and sequenced, and very precise.  Sometimes, you just have to leave your mistakes and loose ends hanging to give it that raw feel.”

In the end, TNT sounds like a very calculated, well-coordinated record, yet somehow the sound does remain raw and vitalized.  It has a certain grit, the kind you feel when you’ve been walking the streets all day, and finally, with a tired disposition and a grimy feeling, you wait for the bus that will take you home.  It’s a music built up very slowly and carefully by blending together multiple layers.  Not much happens in the way of chance.  “Well, we try to be musical about it,” says Herndon.”  “Like figuring out what’s best for the track, instead of putting on a bunch of crap for the sake of putting on crap.”

After about 20 minutes talking to Herndon, I get to speak with Tortoise’s newest member, Jeff Parker — both play in Isotope 217, which Parker says is much more improvised and less structured than Tortoise.  But he also doesn’t say too much.  It’s as if new members are forced to take an oath of silence, and his amicable tone is offered as an apology.  Winning me over, he even says at one point that he wishes he had something “more concrete’ to say.  He’s not completely without comment, however.  “I talked to someone earlier today,” he says, “and they said that new record seemed really quiet compared to the other record.  But I think that had a lot to do with the fact that we could take as much time as we wanted to finish it.  It think it has a lot of patience.  It’s a very patient album.”

Refined to a rare degree.  In a sentence, that’s how I’d describe the album.  Says Herndon, “I think it’s a really subtle record.  It doesn’t knock you over the head.  But there’s a lot of stuff happening inside it as well.  It’s not easy to pick up on a lot of what’s happening, unless you sit down and give it some time.”

The rule for easy listening music has always been that you should be able to listen to it closely, or just ignore letting it fill the space, influencing the room’s mood.  The same could be said for Tortoise.  Herndon agrees, “Yeah, you just put it on and forget about it.”

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