Tortoise formed in Chicago in 1990, which means the American post-rock institution is approaching its “platinum” anniversary. While none of its records have earned that same designation in terms of sales, the predominantly instrumental five-piece has been incredibly influential over the past two decades, carving out a sound that has favored, in turn, Krautrock, jazz, dub, electronica, and the cinematic. Tortoise’s new Beacons Of Ancestorship is not only the group’s first proper LP in five years, but it’s the first to take a grittier, almost hip-hop-tinged tack. That’s not surprising considering that in the interim between albums, Tortoise percussionists Dan Bitney, John Herndon, and John McEntire recorded a breakbeat record, Bumps, for indie-rap label Stones Throw. In that time, the band also released A Lazarus Taxon, an acclaimed four-disc set compiling B-sides and remixes. In advance of Tortoise’s show Monday at The Great American Music Hall, Bitney—who also plays vibes, guitar, bass, keys, and sax—spoke with Decider about his band’s sixth album, critical backlash, and getting older.
Decider: Even for Tortoise, five years is a pretty long time between albums. To what do you attribute to that gap?
Dan Bitney: We’ve never had label pressure, even management really, so there was never anybody cracking the whip. Plus, in the last five years certain members have started families, John McEntire has a recording studio… We’ve just never been a conventional band, like the Foo Fighters or something, that releases a record, then tours for 10 months, then does it again. I don’t think we’d be around if it was that type of a setup.
D: So you feel the band has benefited from not having external pressure?
DB: Well, if it’s your livelihood it’s probably not that good of an idea to wait that long. [Laughs.] But we still did a bunch of projects. I’m really proud of the drum record we made, and with the box set, you’d think, “Remixes? That’s going to be easy,” but it was tons of work. You can only fit 70 minutes onto a disc!
D: What was the writing process like for Beacons?
DB: Generally, we don’t write tunes before we go into the studio. It’s a lot of what I call “construction pieces,” where you start with, say, somebody’s drum idea, and then people start layering. The problem with that is your dynamics are predefined—unless you go back and redo those first elements, you end up with a linear composition. But with these songs, we started them out last summer, just meeting a couple times a week to play, which felt like a healthier way to work. Still, once you’re in the studio, you can try one idea that will open everything up.
D: Was there any song in particular that took a truly unexpected turn?
DB: “Gigantes,” which started as an unused beat from the Bumps record. It’d grown into this slow, six-minute piece where nothing was happening, and my brilliant idea was, “Let’s cut three minutes out of the middle.” I went home and Herndon started to experiment with dulcimer and Brazilian berimbau. He e-mailed the song to me later that day, and he’d totally fucking saved it.
D: Did “Monument Six One Thousand” originate from the Bumps sessions as well?
DB: No, but we always called that one “the Dilla song.” Jeff [Parker] brought in the demo, and Herndon recorded the drums—I’m a groove drummer; his funk patterns have nicer variations—and we ran them through a frequency shifter. Immediately it siphoned out the straight funk vibe and gave it a totally creepy feeling, which is what we’re good at: taking something that’s genre-specific and mutating it.
D: With five cooks in the kitchen, you guys must butt heads. How do you settle disputes?
DB: There’s never really anybody storming out of the studio, but I’ve had several instances where I’d come home having internalized something I had a problem with. You learn that it’s better not to stay silent, but mostly, we’re ruthless self-editors. So often people will try something and then just walk into the control room and hit “command + delete.”
D: In one interview, Doug McCombs mentioned you were aiming for something “a little more rough around the edges” with Beacons. Is that true?
DB: Definitely, but I think we started embracing that on It’s All Around You. When this band started, I wouldn’t say we were reacting against grunge, but we wanted to create a different space for music. As that feeling wore off, it just made sense for stuff to get a little more aggressive. Also, you know, after Millions, I remember people saying, “The pressure’s on,” and I really didn’t feel any pressure, but I definitely did for this one. There had to be a bigger stylistic jump than between Standards and Around You. I’d say we got there. I gave Beacons to a good friend and said, “Tell me the truth,” and he goes, “You guys have ADD now. And some of these songs only have three people playing on them.” He was totally right. What other band would do that? Like, “Steve Shelley’s just gonna sit this one out, guys.”
D: Did that pressure have anything to do with It’s All Around You’s lukewarm critical reception?
DB: Kind of, but that also came at a time when we were spending more on marketing and PR, and I took it as backlash to us being media darlings in the late ’90s. And we never went from playing thousand-seaters to rocking small clubs, so our popularity in our perspective has maintained, if not increased.
D: Do you feel a certain gravitas coming up on the band’s 20th anniversary?
DB: It’s a little strange to me; it’s like getting older. A lot of bands don’t make it to five years, and even at 10, it’s like, “Wow, we made it,” but anything after that gets confusing. Because you can’t be 22 if you’ve been in a band for 15 years. [Laughs.]