There's no "I" in "Tortoise"
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For better or worse, pioneering artists often end up inextricably linked to one genre or style—sometimes justly (like the Ramones with punk), sometimes not so much (is Johnny Cash strictly a country singer?). In Chicago and points beyond, Tortoise is synonymous with post-rock. The instrumental quintet has spent more than a decade establishing and re-examining an amorphous, genre-straddling sound that bears traces of rock, jazz, and others, but resembles none exactly. The group—multi-instrumentalist Dan Bitney, drummer/vibraphonist John Herndon, bassist/guitarist Doug McCombs, multi-instrumentalist John McEntire, and guitarist/bassist Jeff Parker—has a new box set out this month, A Lazarus Taxon. The three-CD, one-DVD set collects out-of-print material, remixes, compilation tracks, a live performance, and more odds and ends. Taken as a whole, it presents an incomplete history of Tortoise, and the band probably likes it that way. Bitney recently spoke to The A.V. Club about his band’s history and why an egalitarian setup can be problematic.
The A.V. Club: Was there anything specific you wanted to do with the box set?
Dan Bitney: Just to get all the stuff out there, basically. The hardest thing was that we just had too much. There were mixes that were almost alike, and certain people didn’t like the same mix. It’s an interesting thing, because as opposed to making a record, you think, “Oh, a box set is easy. You just pick this old material, throw it on there, and pick some artwork.” But it seemed like every decision took two months.
AVC: Jeff Parker said he hears a lot of incomplete musical ideas on Taxon. Do you feel the same?
DB: I can agree with that, but at the same time, how is any musical idea really complete? They’re only snapshots. It’s probably the same with anybody. You could talk to Brian Wilson and he’d be like, “Yeah, I still wanted to add the piccolos to ‘Good Vibrations.’” But, I think back then, too, it was part of the rock aesthetic. We hadn’t got our Pixies CDs back out yet. It was such a weird time.
AVC: How so?
DB: It’s all contextual. Back then we were very specific about entering a new space. It seemed really obvious to occupy a different realm in music. Whereas now it’s less obvious where we should go with the compositions.
AVC: How did Chicago affect the band’s beginning?
DB: I think it’s pretty profound. Chicago was always like a big city, but it wasn’t pimped-out. It was super-cheap—there were these huge apartments for like $270. You could maintain a lifestyle by working three days week. And there were like 15 places to play where you could set up a show with a phone call. Whereas, in New York you have people who are like, “I’m gonna be a superstar, so I’m doing this and this.” In Chicago people are more like, “We’re just crazy. We’re just gonna do our own thing.”
AVC: You all play in other bands. How does that affect what you do in Tortoise?
DB: I think Tortoise was slightly reactionary from the rock world that we were used to. Really, it was such a weird band. We would do stuff, and we would tour for a long time, but then we’d come home and see each other, but we wouldn’t necessarily work on something for a year and a half. So it kinda left all the space to do other stuff.
AVC: Tortoise abides by a revolutionary concept, at least in rock music: No member sticks out. Was that a conscious decision, or did it just happen?
DB: There’s implied leadership. I’ve read several times that we’re John McEntire’s band, which is funny. It just kind of happened naturally, and I think there’s just not like a super alpha in the band—like “Of course, I’m going to be at the front of the stage.” I think it’s one of the things that kept us going for so long, but it’s also going back to a Spinal Tap-kind of problem, too. We’ll be like, “Okay, we’ve got to make a decision about this, this, and this.” And it’ll be like, “We can’t decide, all we can do is choose.” It goes back to the almost comical: It’s just a simple decision, but it will take like three months.
AVC: Just because there are too many cooks in the kitchen?
DB: Or not enough cooks that are full of themselves. Sometimes that would be good, I guess. It’s probably why we lasted this long, but it’s one of our problems, too.