Mosquito. That’s the name Chicago post-rock pioneers Tortoise went by at the beginning of their career. Not exactly an image that conjures the longevity and sturdiness that’s been synonymous with the genre-defying instrumental quintet for nearly a quarter-century.
But with the January release of The Catastrophist, the first Tortoise album in nearly seven years and only their third since 2001, the band further solidifies the constantly growing parallel to their current moniker.
“There’s a lot of evolution to our compositions,” drummer/producer John McEntire tells CityBeat, in a phone interview from his Chicago home. “People will ask, ‘Why did it take you so long to make this record?’ Well, to be honest, it’s because we write these songs at least a couple of times before we get them anywhere near to being done.”
And that’s just for starters. The genesis for most of the tracks on The Catastrophist came in 2010 when the city of Chicago commissioned the band to compose an original suite based on their ties to the city’s jazz and improvised music scenes. After expanding their sound with the addition of two sax players, piano/synth, flute and cello for the gig, the original idea was to record the new material with guests included. So they did. But it didn’t stick.
“We came to the realization that it was cool,” says McEntire. “But it wasn’t us. It was something else entirely. That’s another reason why when we finally did decide to re-record that stuff, it took quite a bit of thinking about how to make it our own.”
They also resurrected an idea from the 2004 album, It’s All Around You, for the steady, funk chugging of “Hot Coffee” and decided to put their own unique spin on the David Essex ’73 pop hit “Rock On.”
It’s a lengthy and complex process. For every song that gets a second chance, there are dozens that end up on the scrap heap. Unfinished but satisfactory compositions can wait in the queue for decades, sitting in limbo until necessity or nostalgia calls them back. But when the philosophy of a band centers on pushing boundaries and expanding sounds, things are just going to take a little longer. Also, McEntire is aware there are certain penalties for being so meticulous.
“We have this phrase we always use with each other,” he says. “It’s like, ‘We’re really doing way too much work here.’ And it’s true. We loved that record we did with Will Oldham (The Brave & The Bold). But we were all like, ‘Holy shit! All you need is a singer and you can make a three-chord song and everybody likes it.’”
Despite only occasionally having lyrics to help with a song’s emotional cues or narrative, Tortoise is also battling a logistics problem. Cofounder John Herndon and longtime member Jeff Parker left the Midwest for Los Angeles a few years ago. So without overt poetry or the ability to literally put their heads together without jumping on a plane, how do they find succinct ways to add emotionality or a narrative arc to the music?
“That’s a tough one,” says McEntire.
“It’s not something that we really ever discuss. I think we just try to let things evolve to a certain point and then once it becomes kind of apparent there’s a feel developing, it’s a matter of trying to harness that and see what can be done to make it more interesting. But it’s hard to say. We just do our thing. We’re never really explicitly working towards some goal.”
Tortoise play May 3 at The Belly Up
Not that any Tortoise song is ever really done. With all of the changes it takes to just get the songs onto a record, many of them continue changing through their life on stage with the band and beyond, taking on a new identity distinctly different than the recorded version. Each song seems to have its own story of how it had to fight, live and have some serendipity in play to see the light of day.
But through the continued process, the band has amassed a collection of compositions that have survived their rigorous scrutiny. Tortoise also recently revitalized their once stagnant playlist, a move McEntire knew would bring benefit to both the band and their fans.
“It’s been wonderful,” he says. “I think we now have about 35 tunes in rotation. Which means we always play a different set every night. And now we can make them really different. And if we happen to play somewhere two nights in a row, we can do it without overlapping. And I think people really enjoy that.”
Tortoise will get plenty of opportunities to prove that theory, as their current tour continues through North America and Europe until July. After that, the long process of what the band will do next begins.
“We haven’t talked about anything specifically,” says McEntire. “But I know that everybody’s really enjoying this, and the process of making the last record, too. I think the main thing that we’d really like to do is just be more consistent in terms of getting stuff out, at least more than once every seven years.” He laughs. “Everyone’s into it right now, so I think it’s the thing to do.”