Legendary post-rock band Tortoise have been announced as guests at the forthcoming Mogwai’s 20th anniversary ATP events at The Roundhouse in Camden on 28 June, and are due to release a seventh studio album on Thrill Jockey this year, their first since 2009’s “Beacons of Ancestorship”
With that at the forefront of the cerebral cortex it seems timely to revisit an interview with the band including John McEntire, Doug McCombs and Dan Bitney from one of the later issues from the Velvet Sheep archive (issue 20, circa 1996) and discuss the cerebral music of their landmark post rock tome “Millions Of Us Now Living Will Never Die”.
A Tortoise interview “Re-Djed-erated” if you will. Here is epic song/movement “Djed” in video form as part of a piece commissioned by 1996 collaborators Mo’Wax to whet your swannee whistle, before the guys discuss post rock, Slint, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, jazz and disaster movies.
Easy listening but this ain’t no Burt Bacharach. This is challenging music. This is Radio Tortoise. Okay roll call: John McEntire, Doug McCombs, John Herndon, Dan Bitney and Dave Pajo. They got rhythm, they got pedigree claiming their personnel from Tar Babies, Eleventh Dream Day, Poster Children, Bastro, the seminal and legendary Slint (Dave Pajo was their bassist) and Palace. They heralded a revolution of music that is back to the future. Working with technology and now branching out into six string piccolo basses (and not just one – 4 or 5 at a time) Tortoise meld rhythms in a great big swirling pot, add interference break-ups and glitches as punctuation marks. They fuse elements of marimba, glockenspiel, analog synths (Les from Vic Reeves’ Bontempi organ and a kitchen sink probably thrown in). They are a Gamelan world orchestra for our days and nights. Dub meets film score, meets plinking 70s piano a la Money Mark’s fucked up organs (heart and lungs) makes a pact with Serge Gainsbourg and goes into record blips on old recording equipment in Sakho’s studios.
It’s all built up methodically and precisely and the dance crossover of a song like “Djed” (which has often been wrongly perceived to be DJ-ed) cannot be denied – the 21 minute extravaganza of almost rainforest soothing proportions with oozlum birds a-twittering at the peripheries of the soundscape which breaks down two thirds through like a CD gremlin. This was apparently due to John McEntire’s exasperation with the editing where he stuck 40 scraps of tape which had been dropped on the floor back together. The interference seems so much part of their ethos, and rucks the carpet from under your feet to startle you just as you were lulled by the hypnosis.
It is the dance potential of tracks from the Tortoise masterpiece “Millions Of Us Now Living Will Never Die” that has brought about a collaboration with James Lavelle’s Mo’Wax for some remixes UNKLE style. Everything is forward moving if it is sometimes backwards glancing. Tortoise take all the best elements of rock and fuse them seamlessly – following on from their self-titled debut on Thrill Jockey and the remix experiment of “Rhythms, Revolutions & Clusters” which included an ongoing mix featuring people such as Steve Albini and Jim O’Rourke and a 12” on Stereolab’s Duophonic label – they’ve broken out like a rash with some other great genre-surfers of ambient, instrumental and rhythm building excellence: Pell Mell, Gastr del Sol, Labradford, the wonderous Ui, Cul De Sac, The Sea and Cake, Trans Am, Run On, 5ive, Poem Rocket to name a few of the perception benders, but Tortoise by virtue of chronology will be considered the Sex Pistols of any such movement.
I spoke to them prior to the Stereolab gig – John Mc, Dan Bitney and Doug Mc…
VS: Do you get pissed off at people talking about you heralding a new era of music? Do you get pissed off talking about music?
John: Just a little. There’s so much talk of the music we’re disbelieving.
VS: Is it because there are so many genres within your music – people see you as musos?
John: I dunno – that’s probably the case. I guess it’s kind of annoying in a way – we’ve been projected in the press as “The Leaders”! Bullshit y’know. We just do what we do.
VS: You’ve been called the PiL of American rock – is that a heavy weight to carry?
John: Yeh it’s flattering but I don’t think it’s true.
VS: What film would sum up the spirit of Tortoise best?
John: I’m not much of a film afficianado – “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea” maybe. That whole genre – kind of like disaster movies – airplanes crashing and stuff.
Doug: Irwin Allen – he did Towering Inferno.
(At this point all the lights go out and flicker back on as if to confirm the Tortoise cinema choice – and it was a nice analogy to the ebb and flow textures of their music).
John: Making exciting things happen!
Doug: He would use the same props from “Twenty Thousand Leagues” like a giant seamonster attacking the submarine would turn up as an alien in “Lost In Space”.
VS: How did the Mo’Wax collaboration come about?
John: Well they just contacted us about doing something – they had this remix project idea and they seemed really keen on doing it – so basically that’s it.
VS: Did you perceive yourself as having a crossover appeal into more dance-orientated territory? Some club DJs are playing your stuff…
John: Maybe – I think that’s cool that people who don’t normally listen to whatever kind of shit it is we’re doing and getting into that. Obviously it’s a little easier for DJs when they have something UNKLE’s done to spin at a club.
VS: If you were a DJ would you play your own music?
John: No. Something quiet maybe, tones…
VS: Why does Dave Pajo never talks in interviews – is it the Slint thing to hide?
Doug: He doesn’t talk anywhere else…
John: He’s got a lot of secrets floating about him…
Dan: He’s running from a chequered past.
John: I think he likes to in a way perpetuate that image of being this strange aloof figure.
VS: Is that to keep the legend of Slint alive?
John: Perhaps. In fact we did an interview today where the guy started asking about Slint and Dave just zipped up.
VS: Do you find it difficult to transfer what you do in the studio over to a gig?
John: We don’t try to transfer directly – considerably different sorts of areas.
VS: What is your relationship John to the Sea and Cake?
John: I play drums.
VS: Is there a lot of incestuous goings-on in Chicago?
John: We all play in different bands – we’ve all done that for a long time.
VS: Would you not be happy if you were just playing for one band?
John: Working with other people simultaneously is good – the way you approach things or think about things – totally different situations – you can bounce ideas back and forth in your own mind. It’s a good thing to do. You can look back to the jazz players – those guys were playing sessions all the time. That’s the way you can get to be good players. Obviously it’s not the same for any of us.
VS: You’re sort of flavour of the month at the moment – how do you cope with the attention?
John: What flavour would that be? Cherry? We’re pretty oblivious to it.
VS: Would you rather play gigs with bands like Ui and Labradford or would you rather have a completely diverse line-up?
John: Obviously we like to be playing with people who you’re friends with, but there’s something to be said for certain tensions too – if we played with The Fabulous Thunderbirds, that could be cool.
VS: Is there anyone you wouldn’t play with?
VS: Would you play with James Brown if you were asked?
John: The second, man.
Dan: Then after we’d played with him we’d get all embarrassed and split up.
John: I quit.
VS: Would you die happy then? How would you die happy? What would you have to have done?
Dan: Done it all man.
(John holds his finger to his head like a gun and says “kerpow”.)
John: I don’t really think abut things like that to tell the truth.
VS: Who’s the boss?
Dan: I am.
John: He is.
Dan: I am.
VS: What’s the most ridiculous question you’ve ever been asked?
Dan: Who’s the boss?
TORTOISE ARE BOSS. THANKYOU TORTOISE AND JULIAN (STONE IMMACULATE).