Formed in: 1990, Chicago, Illinois
Key Albums: Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996), TNT (1998), It's All Around You (2004)
Tortoise are an instrumental band from Chicago with an unusual line-up: three drummers, a bassist, and a guitarist. Drawing influence from dub, jazz, modern composition, and krautrock, Tortoise fashioned a singular, highly rhythmic sound that quickly became the benchmark for the blossoming post-rock movement in the mid-'90s.
Tortoise's roots begin with the partnership of bassist Doug McCombs (a longtime member of psych-rock combo Eleventh Dream Day) and percussionist John Herndon. Under the name Mosquito, the pair started playing repetitious rhythms and 'grooves' in 1990.
In '91, as they begin recording, they invited the rhythm-section of math-rockers Bastro, drummer/producer John McEntire and bassist Bundy K. Brown on board for a twin bass, twin drummer lineup that attempted to use familiar instruments in new and unexpected ways. “We goofed around with synthesizers and vibraphones a bit," McCombs recounts, "but the core of all of our music was two drumkits and two basses.”
“We were committed to this idea, to exploring the limitless potential of the group over a long time; and we were going to keep doing it because we wanted to, regardless of whether other people were interested.”
The quartet records over a period of a year-and-a-half, making material that, in 1993, would eventually become the first Tortoise 7" singles, "Lonesome Sound" and "Mosquito." The long gestation period would become the band's working way. "Two or three people will put down the foundation," McEntire would explain, years later, to Electronic Musician, "and usually there'll be an overdubbing process, which can last anywhere from a couple of days to years, depending."
After recruiting another percussionist, Dan Bitney (formerly of Wisconsin punk-funk outfit Tar Babies), Tortoise set out recording their debut, self-titled album with McEntire (who, by then, was also playing in soft-pop outfit The Sea and Cake) taking the role as producer/sound-shaper. 1994's Tortoise laid down the band's percussion-centric, studio-manipulated sound, and its release, on fledgling Chicago imprint Thrill Jockey, would prompt the band to play their first-ever live-shows after years as studio concern. Shortly thereafter, Brown leaves, and is quickly replaced by former Slint/King Kong member (and future Papa M/Zwan hand) Dave Pajo.
In 1996, Tortoise release their second LP, Millions Now Living Will Never Die. Having began as a way of playing with the particular roles of instruments in a band, Tortoise's follow-up stretches the definition of 'songs': ranging from the sprawling, multi-part, 21-minute opus "Djed" to "little two-minute snippets" heavily indebted to composer Steve Reich.
The album met with a rapturous critical response, especially in Europe, turning Tortoise from an on-the-side, in-the-studio project to a fully-fledged band. "Once Millions came out," McCombs would say, "it just seemed like amazing opportunities were presented to us, because we were in this band that people really wanted to see. People reacted so positively to us that we suddenly had offers to play shows all over the world. Just as we got to do things in this band that we hadn’t been able to do in some of the more ‘rock’ bands we’d been in previously, we got to go places that we’d never been and play shows.”
After playing countless European festivals and shows in Japan and South Korea, Tortoise set about working on their third album. Wanting to, according to Herndon, prove that they were "not all about chin-scratching, musical theories” and to show "that [Tortoise is] always trying to remain creative," the band recruit jazz guitarist Jeff Parker as their sixth member, and set about moving away from the cold precision and stark rhythms of their early records.
Drawing heavily from the spaghetti-western scores of Ennio Morricone, they made the more upbeat, playful TNT. The change is symbolized by a 'doodled' album cover, a radical switch from the tasteful, letter-pressed/recycled-cardboard artwork of Tortoise's first two LPs. Pajo amicably leaves after TNT's completion.
TNT is released in 1998 to more ecstatic critical plaudits, leading Tortoise to play throughout Europe, and visit Australia and Brazil for the first time. It also finds the band's American audience starting to catch up with this overseas embrace.
Hoping to remain forever changing, Tortoise set out to make a "raw-sounding" album of shorter songs and shorter length. The result is 2001's Standards, which finds Parker drawing inspiration from free-jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock, playing heavily-distorted lead-breaks that give the album a more conventional, almost 'rocking' feel.
Standards was a "loaded" title, Bitney explained, that referred to jazz standards and how Tortoise were "used as a measuring device for other musicians and groups,” as well as personal and societal moral standards. With its evocative name and cover art depicting a desecrated American flag, the wordless LP was received as Tortoise's attack on the then-nascent presidency of George W. Bush.
"Sure it's political," Bitney offered, "but, as a band without lyrics, we can never get too preachy about it."
After a short tour in support of Standards, Tortoise set about recording their fourth album; a process that would take them three years of solid studio-time. "We really did work on it for that whole period of time,” laughed Parker, after the eventual release of It's All Around You in 2004. “We went into the studio with no preconceived ideas, and we created all of this music, wrote all of these songs, in the studio.”
Down-time and Return
Tortoise went on an unofficial hiatus thereafter, surfacing only to release a covers-album collaboration with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy (The Brave and the Bold) and a four-disc box-set of early singles, remixes, and obscurities (A Lazarus Taxon), both in 2006.
Tortoise would return to action, in 2009, with Beacons of Ancestorship, which, even after a five-year lag, felt like a logical next step from It's All Around You.