Out of its shell
Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, samba and stolen '70s funk samples-they're all in the new Tortoise album.
Chicago’s celebrated art-rock quintet hasn’t exactly been idle in the half decade since its last full-length, It’s All Around You. In the meantime, the band’s come out with a covers album with Bonnie “Prince” Billy (The Brave and the Bold), a box set of rarities (A Lazarus Taxon) and 2007’s Bumps, collecting breaks from the band’s three drummers, Dan Bitney, John Herndon and John McEntire. The latter figures most prominently on its sixth LP, Beacons of Ancestorship, which steers away from the back catalog’s mallet-driven melodies and haunting spaghetti Westerns. We spoke with all five players individually to get a deeper look into their unique creative process.
“High Class Slim Came Floatin In”
John Herndon That’s me playing those brushes—the version that I recorded at my house was up on my MySpace page for a long time. I don’t know if it’s ever going to see the light of day—but Shunda K from Yo Majesty rhymed on the original version. She was staying at our house because they were playing a show in town. She rolled a blunt and was just like, “Man, let’s build! I wanna rhyme on some of your shit.” She wrote lyrics, but then I had to do some other stuff so we didn’t finish it. I got too high to do anything except clean the house.
“Prepare Your Coffin”
John McEntire I was messing around with this chord progression, and I got really interested in the idea of having a simple progression over a bass line that changed really slowly—like every four bars. That would change the harmony, or the perception of the harmony, real slowly as the bass line moved around. That was about it, really; it started out as an exercise in seeing how that would work.
Dan Bitney The song used to have a rhythm that I would describe as a Charleston beat or something. There was one point during mixing when I said, “Y’know, it’s kinda fast and weird.” With Tortoise, it’s about getting weird or imaginative, but I just don’t know about that rhythm. But at the last minute, I could definitely see more people starting to move to a dancehall beat than to this straight-ahead beat. People say it’s like dubstep. It’s kind of the same thing. That’s the kind of stuff that I hope for when working with these guys—I’ll bring something in, and somebody will start trying something, and it’s something you never would’ve thought. That’s the magic for me.
John Herndon John [McEntire]’s playing the hammer dulcimer on the beginning. That tune was one of the songs that we thought was finished when we turned in the record back in December, then we decided that we needed to overhaul the whole thing and did so in February. The dulcimer was not on the original version. I had to leave the studio early that day. When I left I saw John grabbing for that thing, and I was like “Shit, what’s gonna happen here?” And I came back and I was like “Oh, damn!”
Dan Bitney I copied a weird old samba record. There’s a break in where it’s two measures of drums and I based the last Bumps song on that. The Bumps record easy, because you’re not making complete songs, you’re just coming up with what you think is an interesting rhythm. I just had a couple of those ideas left over for the Tortoise album.
John Herndon That tune came out of being obsessed with J Dilla. It’s a post-Dilla world now. If you’re making beats or you’re into beats, it’s hard to escape his influence. One of the things that I love are those short, instrumental loops of his floating around out there. I have like 100 or so. They’ll be 30-second pieces where he’ll take a really obvious sample and rock the shit out of it. So I was doing that at my house, asking myself, “What are some really obvious samples that I could take?” The whole tune is based around a loop of a second-long break in a ’70s funk tune.
John McEntire We’ve had that one kicking around for four or five years. The working title for it was “Omnichord,” which is what I wrote it on. It’s a cheesy toy instrument—like a cheap electronic auto-harp. You have this array of buttons that produce chords and then there’s this little metallic plate off to the side that you can “strum” to get arpeggios. But it’s a weird sounding progression to go through really quickly. Plus, since it’s all major chords in a row, it’s not harmonically correct in any key either. It’s a little funky. But it’s fun when you have an instrument that can suggest something you would never think of if you were sitting at a piano. The title is a Chinese word that I saw in a book somewhere. [It roughly translates as “acoustics synthesizer”—Mandarin researching ed.] It just kinda popped out, and I thought “Oh, that could be a good title.” I think we’ll just keep calling it “Omnichord.”
Doug McCombs It’s definitely the most physical, in-your-face tune that we’ve ever done, for sure.
“The Fall Of Seven Diamonds Plus One”
Doug McCombs I was trying not to write a song like that for the album, because it seems like I always do. It’s a style of writing that I always fall back on. But nothing else I was doing was working that well. I mean, all the collaborative stuff was great, as usual, but there were some niches that seemed like they were missing. We needed a tune like that. I’ve been listening to almost nothing but ZZ Top for the last two years, so that’s probably part of it.
Jeff Parker I was on tour with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten’s band last year and we were driving up a super twisty mountain road to get to a small town for a gig. I think it was in Slovenia. I was making beats on my laptop in the back of the van. The road is twisting all around. I was randomly playing these chords that I had sampled, and it just ended up sounding really angular and weird.
Jeff Parker A few years back somebody put up all these solo John Bonham drum tracks online. I came up with those first two chords, those arpeggios, and I recorded them to my computer. Then I dropped in this John Bonham sample I had chopped up. When I did so, it made this weird double-time rock beat against the triplet that sounded super cool. It was a cool, happy accident that the tune ended up having that fucked-up rhythm.
Thrill Jockey releases Beacons of Ancestorship Tuesday 23. Tortoise plays the Pitchfork Music Festival July 17.