Beacons of Ancestorship

Beacons of Ancestorship

Jeff Parker, Doug McCombs, John Herndon, Dan Bitney and John McEntire of Tortoise. Photo: Whitney Bradshaw
Jeff Parker, Doug McCombs, John Herndon, Dan Bitney and John McEntire of Tortoise. Photo: Whitney Bradshaw

When Tortoise released their first record in 1994, their relaxed and cinematic brand of instrumental rock music was markedly different from the standard verse-chorus-verse song structures of grunge and punk and the stubbornly lo-fi production found throughout the indie music scene. But by their second release, the studio masterpiece Millions Now Living Will Never Die, the band had found a sizable audience of in-the-know music fans and made a deep impression on music critics. They were even given credit with establishing a new sub-genre of music called “post rock”, based upon their seeming deconstrution of traditional rock idioms, most notably on longer compositions like “Djed” from Millions, which used the negative space of dub and Krautrock rhythms to create compositions that seemed to writhe and change several times over the course of a single track.

And if Tortoise has always marched to the beat of a different drummer, his name is John McEntire. In addition to contributing percussion, McEntire has also lent his skills as a producer to the band’s recordings, and is often given credit for some of the dazzling sheen of their sound. In advance of the band’s June 23rd release of Beacons of Ancestorship (their sixth full length and the first in 5 years), we talked to McEntire about the new album, his work in the studio producing the next Broken Social Scene album and how the more the music business may change, the more Tortoise keeps making music the same way they always have — by not listening to anyone but themselves.

Watch the first official video for the track “Prepare Your Coffin” below, then read on for our conversation.

Tortoise – Prepare Your Coffin from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

“Prepare Your Coffin” – Tortoise (Right Click on link to save to your computer.)


At Length: This record is more playful than much of your previous work. Was that a conscious choice on the part of the band?

John McEntire: Oh, boy. I don’t know. I guess so. It’s been so long since we did our last record. We were simultaneously very concerned and had a sense of abandon. I think that what we ended up with is a pretty good collection of those kinds of impulses.

AL: This record seems to have an even broader sonic pallet than the band’s previous work. One example that comes to mind is “Yinxianghechengqi,” which has a fuzzy punk sound that I can’t imgaine being on another Tortoise record. Have you or the other band members been getting into things lately that might have colored this record?

JM: I don’t think anything specifically, no. It’s funny that you mention the one with the Chinese title — that song’s actually really old. We had a version of that done around the the time of It’s All Around You [their last album, released in 2004], and there was a big debate about whether to put

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it on the record, and like you said, we felt like it didn’t fit. This seemed like a much better platform for it.

AL: Some of my favorite moments in Tortoise’s music over the years have been some of the longer tracks, when you take time to build up something and then use a sudden shift to resolve into something

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completely different. When I think of bands like Animal Collective or Battles, it seems that’s becoming more popular, that way of constructing a song. Do you think there’s more of a home for Tortoise

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these days than maybe there has been since the late nineties?

JM: That’s an interesting question. I’ll be really curious to see how this record is recieved, and how things go with it out on the road. It could be. It feels like it’s better than it was five years ago.

AL: Some of your recent work, particularly “Monument Six One Thousand” from the new record, has a bit of a hip-hop feel. Do you feel like hip-hop is an influence at all in the beatmaking for the record?

JM: Maybe more so for Jeff [Parker] and Johnny [Herndon]. I think those guys listen to that stuff more than the rest of the people in the group. Well, maybe Dan

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[Bitney], too. There probably is, to a certain extent, not massively, but maybe in terms of technique or a manner of doing things inspirationally. Yeah, there could be. That track is interesting in particular because it is so minimal, and that is one of the few that we were on the fence about and we revisited late in the process and did a whole bunch of extra work to it and finally felt like, “ok, this is finally sounding like something we can put on the record.”

AL: In the five years since the last time Tortoise has put out a record, the music world and the music industry have obviously changed a lot. When you go into the studio, do you think in terms of how the music might be recieved on the blogs or whether individual tracks might stand up on their own, instead of as a single coherent album?

JM: No, I don’t think it really affected our process at all. I mean, maybe we’re just not being sensitive to the realities of the modern world. [Laughs.] I think we just made a record like we always do. I do think

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this record is a little more diverse in a bunch of different ways, so in that sense maybe it will be a little more friendly to people in 2009 than, say, some of our other stuff has been at various points.

AL: Ten people could hear this record and each one of them might have a different favorite song — there’s so much diversity on here. Do you have a personal favorite?

JM: I really like “Gigantes”, actually, because that was another one where we had been working on that thing forever. We started it like two and a half years ago and we tried to play it live, but we just could not figure out how to

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do it. And in that very last mixing session we said “we’ve gotta do something with this.” And finally, there was enough of a breakthrough where we were like “ok, cool. Now we got it.”

AL: I read a rumor that you were going to be recording Broken Social Scene’s next album.

JM: That’s not a rumor, that’s an actual fact. (Laughs.)

AL: Did they come to you for that, or was it something more serendipitous?

JM: They came to me. I started talking to Kevin [Drew, of Broken Social Scene] more than a year ago. He was thinking about doing some remixes for his solo record [Spirit if…], but they were busy and I was busy at the time and

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that didn’t really happen, but we kept in touch. When they had a show here last fall, they came into the studio to try it out for size and see what they could do in a day, and it went really great and we all got along famously. They’ve been out here for about twelve days total already and we’re just going to keep working this thing for the rest of the year until we get it done. It’s going to be a big project.

AL: They’re another band that, like Tortoise, have a lot of people working on side projects. Does the fact that everyone in Tortoise has outside projects get in the way of the recording process or a touring schedule?

JM: It’s gotten a little more complicated recently (laughs), but we’re trying to make it work. It’s been fine.

AL: Are you going out on the road to support Beacons?

JM: Well, it’s really choppy, everything that we have right now. We’re doing a very truncated US tour (just major

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a week of Midwest dates in late September, I think. So we’ll definitely be out and about, but it won’t be one big tour.

AL: Tortoise played here in New York at the end of May as part of the Bang on a Can Marathon, at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden. How was that?

JM: It was interesting. It was kind of a new type of venue for us. We’ve never played in a huge glass atrium before (laughs.) But it was good.

AL: Tortoise seems to be at the nexus of several different kinds of music, so it seems that you might be at the center of several different music communities as well. Do you feel equally comfortable in these different communities, or do you feel more at home one scene or another?

JM: Absolutely. That’s one of the things that’s always been great about the band, that there’s been this fluidity, the ability to drop ourselves into different circumstances, that usually tends to work pretty well. Just for me personally, I prefer play in small clubs where it’s really intimate and loud and people are vibing on the whole thing. The sit-down chamber music things are interesting in their own way, but they don’t have the energy and the immediacy that the club shows do.

AL: Some criticisms of Tortoise’s work fault the band for not rocking out as much as people may want or expect. But it seems to me that this record has a number of songs, especially the single, “Prepare Your Coffin”, that sound as poppy as anything you’ve put out. When critics complain, do you feel that

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you need to answer them, or do you put that out of your head when you go into the studio?

JM: I try to not read any press about the band at all. At some point five or six years ago I just realized it was absolutely not productive to know what people thought. So I guess you can surmise what the answer to that question is. [Laughs] We just do our thing, or at least that’s the way I approach it. I think that one of the core things about this band was just defying expectations in the first place. So if somebody feels like it’s not ‘rocking enough’, then maybe we’re going to tone it down even more, and just turn it into a very pleasant drone for an hour. I don’t think we have any set of assumptions or things that we hold as core foundations. We just do what we want to do.


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