Back in 1994, Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot reviewed the self-titled debut album by Tortoise. Even for Chicago, a town noted for musicians who tease at and push the boundaries of rock and jazz, the group was difficult to pin down. “The group’s dynamic is to layer textures and construct atmospheres rather than write linear rock songs,” Kot wrote. “Tortoise is hardly an esoteric art project.”
Two decades later, not much has changed. Tortoise is still five musicians—Dan Bitney, John Herndon, Doug McCombs, John McEntire and Jeff Parker, who each play multiple instruments—making their imperatives melt together. That notion is reinforced in the album cover of The Catastrophist, released in January, which features the members’ faces superimposed into one Frankenstein collage. And the quintet still makes music that defies easy categorization.
“Tortoise started out as an outlet for us to do something different,” says Parker, who joined the band in 1997. “Everybody else has history in punk and hardcore bands and punk and hardcore communities, and my background was more from a very broad jazz. So we all had this thing where we were doing the shit that we couldn’t do with the other people we were playing with.”
The band built a crisp instrumental aesthetic most tied to cool jazz and prog-rock by focusing on instrumental prowess, heady group interaction and unique arrangements that make full use of standard and nonstandard rock instrumentation. (Indeed, Tortoise is famous for using malleted instruments such as marimbas and vibraphones, sometimes two at a time.) Its music nods to dub, Krautrock, jazz, glam-rock, electronica and minimalism throughout its revered discography, but the resulting sounds have always been distinctly—even stubbornly—its own. Almost entirely instrumental, it’s all carefully constructed—Parker insists Tortoise does not jam.
“The only thing that we really do is we take small ideas and we make them bigger,” Parker laughs. “That’s why stuff takes so long, to be honest. There are so many possibilities, and we’re trying to figure it out. It doesn’t come easy.”
Since the turn of the millennium, the wait between albums (The Catastrophist is the band’s seventh record) has gotten longer and longer. The breaks are partly a consequence of the members’ long list of extracurricular activities: McEntire runs a studio in Chicago, for example, and Parker, who now lives in Los Angeles, is an in-demand jazz guitarist. But it’s mostly a result of Tortoise’s meticulous composition process.
“The way that we work takes a lot of time because there’s a lot of trial and error involved,” Parker says. “We experiment a lot with the material. But we’re also a band that composes together, so it has to go through everybody’s filter in order to reach any kind of fruition. And that takes awhile in and of itself.”
Seven years, in fact, in the case of The Catastrophist. In 2010, the city of Chicago commissioned Tortoise to write a suite of compositions in celebration of the city’s robust community of jazz and improvisational musicians. The quintet then used the bare-bones themes as a springboard for the densely orchestrated compositions on The Catastrophist.
“It was improvised music,” Parker says, “and Tortoise isn’t a band, collectively, that works in that way at all. We’re not an improvising band.” The band took the melodic and thematic material created for the suite, and refined it, expanded it and made it into something that worked for Tortoise. “Now,” Parker says, “it sounds like us.”
The Catastrophist feels like a microcosm of the band’s body of work. It often goes deep instead of wide, building on eerily pretty vibes with meditative repetition before pounding, frenzied, full-band finishes. (Perhaps weirdest of all, the album includes a cover of David Essex’s 1973 pop hit, “Rock On.”) Its cerebral latticework is built from serpentine melodies and a playful labyrinth of interlocking rhythms.
Even as its past innovations have become common practices, Tortoise still pushes forward against convention—especially its own. To wit, malleted instruments, eschewed for the scuffed hard bop of 2009’s Beacons of Ancestorship, make a return on the new record, but they’re hardly at the forefront.
“We still have fans that are like, ‘Man, why don’t you guys use the mallets,’” Parker laughs. “Nobody really wants to explore that anymore, because we started to feel like it was becoming a crutch. And we didn’t want to be defined in that way. So we retired it to do something new. Once we get to that point where we feel like anything we’re doing is inhibiting the progress of our band or making it seem stale, we’ll leave it behind.”
To be smart, playful and provocative, to follow no internal logic but its own—those are the standards to which Tortoise still aspires, and still meets, after a quarter century.
“I remember when we used to suck,” Parker laughs. “Now, I think we’ve turned into a pretty good band.”