For nearly two decades, Chicago's Tortoise has been defying expectations, winning fans to its eclectic mash-up of prog-rock and post-rock, without the benefits of lyrics. After a couple of albums in the wilderness (if you give credence to the opinions of music critics), Tortoise made a strong statement with Beacons of Ancestorship, its sixth proper full-length, released by Thrill Jockey in June 2009. Multi-instrumentalist Dan Bitney checked in from the band’s current tour to offer some thoughts on returning to form, high-concept music, and the impossibility of re-creating classic Springsteen on late-night television.
Now that it’s been around a while, how do you feel about Beacons of Ancestorship?
I haven’t thought about it at all, seriously. I’ve thought about it in funny ways; there are still songs that we haven’t learned to play live, so I’m thinking about it from a logistics standpoint. It was a good experience to put out a new record after such a long break. I guess that I’m still on that new-record high.
It was tagged as a “return to form” in a couple of pretty prominent media outlets. How do you take that sort of criticism?
Usually with criticism, you can’t really take it too seriously. A writer might nail something about the album, and then get something else completely wrong. So when critics are saying that it’s a return to form, they could be right. The question is what kind of form are we returning to? It’s always been a goal in the band to move forward on every album. Maybe there wasn’t as big a step taken between Standards and It’s All Around You. I never thought those two albums were duds, but maybe the step we’re taking on Beacons of Ancestorship is more in line with what writers expect.
But a return is still going back to a previous place. If I were in a mood to argue, I’d say that we never came in with so many ideas that were different from anything we’d attempted before. We used techniques this time that we’ve never used before, so then the return to form would be that we were more adventurous. There’s sometimes a tendency among critics to need to find something wrong with a record rather than just enjoy it.
When you came together to record this album, what goals did you have in mind?
I think people think we have these concepts, but really we’re just looking for the best ideas, and then compiling them to make it something that sounds like one idea. The easy thing to say is that there’s a harder edge that’s been happening in the band that’s on this record. It’s kind of a weird joke that we didn’t use vibraphone on the entire album. Then I waited until the last day of recording and told everybody I had an opus written for five vibraphones. We’re always talking about a lot of high-concept ideas, like, given people’s attention spans, making an album that has an entirely untracked side. Really, though, we’re just scrambling to get good ideas. Not a good selling point to cast yourself as a genius, but that’s how it goes for Tortoise.
Given that you’re an instrumental group, how do you approach song writing?
The huge difference now is that people can make stuff on their computers. As nice as they are, it’s hard to get magic out of a cassette four-track. Half and half on the new record came in with all the parts already established. Once we’re in the studio, though, it becomes a weird mix of people bringing things in and then manipulating them in the studio. It’s a question of whether to use a drum machine or real drums, people actually playing versus running it on a loop. Once it gets to editing, there’s always a chance that you’ll have a “What does this button do?” moment and find something entirely new on a song that was nearly finished.
How are songs named?
It’s kind of a microcosm of how the band works in general. If you write it, you have the right to name it. People always defer to the best name for the track, however. Sometimes it’s just a collection of words that somehow describes the song, or there could be a narrative element involved. Sometimes I try to name the songs after what inspired me to write them. That was the case with “Gigantes.” Gigantes are these people in huge costumes that march in the Carnival parade in Brazil. They look absolutely hilarious, and that was the image I wanted to have associated with this particular song. There really isn’t a set way. It’s an open process.
In a band that seemingly has few boundaries, how do you maintain a sense of quality control?
It’s kind of rough to maintain any sense of order in this band. Part of how we survived this long, however, is that we all like each other and there isn’t a super ego imposing itself on the rest of the band. Usually the most critical people are the ones trying something. I can’t say that anything’s happened in the history of the Tortoise’s recordings that has made me uncomfortable. I’ve learned over the years as a musician and a person to just say what’s on my mind instead of letting it fester. We’re all kind of that way. I have disagreed with things that have happened during the recording of albums, but usually it turns out great. That, again, is a big part of making music in a group: You have to be able to step back from what you might like personally and embrace what somebody else is doing.
How long do you see Tortoise as a functioning entity?
I don’t know. That’s a good question, because we’re not spring chickens anymore. Right now we play everywhere from small college towns to big jazz festivals, and the music we play isn’t age specific. I’m not in my twenties anymore, and I don’t think I want to be one of those grizzled old vets dragging myself onto to the stage every night. As I say that, however, it’s going to be hard to quit as long as we’re still being fulfilled and people are interested in hearing the music.
What goals does the band have for the future?
We want to be a little more active. We’re all busy, but an album every four years isn’t exactly a blazing pace. I suppose we all want to become better musicians. I can’t say that I want this band to be bigger. There’s something that happens to music when it’s presented in arenas -- I think it’s a quality thing. I also shouldn’t drink as much on the road.
Will there ever be vocals on a Tortoise album?
I think it could it could happen. It’s a loaded question. There’s a certain amount of industry pressure to have lyrics, because it makes the music more saleable, but there’s pressure in the other direction because Tortoise’s identity is as an instrumental band. There’s no standing rule in the band about having singing or not having singing. It could happen sometime in the future. The discussion would then be what type of vocals, and who would sing them, and how could it be integrated without being self-conscious about it. It is strange to be an instrumental band. You’re part of a subculture that functions separately from most popular music. I’ll tell you that being an instrumental band has kept Tortoise off late-night television. There seems to be a block about putting an instrumental band on. Every once in a while someone breaks through, but not often.
Like Los Straightjackets?
Yeah, they appear once in a blue moon. I’m not sure what happened. There have been times when music was looked at differently. I’m not sure not sure if there was a trigger event or something, and we’ve been close a couple of times, but there just doesn’t seem to be a way that Tortoise is going to play on one of those shows. I thought it might happen when we did The Brave and the Bold with Will Oldham. My greatest fantasy was to be playing “Thunder Road” and then have Bruce Springsteen come out of the audience and dance with Will like in the “Dancing in the Dark” video. It could have even been somebody dressed like Bruce Springsteen. It didn’t matter -- it would have been perfect. The problem is that the song is like six minutes long. I just can’t see a producer giving up six minutes of television for something like that.