We chat with Tortoise
Two decades is a long time. Ask Tortoise, they know.
The five-piece instrumental band from Chicago have been injecting their post rock, jazz infused tunes through the airwaves since the early 90s, influencing movements and bands along the way, through their six astounding albums.
They’re set to hit our shores this October for the first time in over 12 years, on a long awaited nationwide tour in conjunction with their headlining spot on the brand new This Is Nowhere Festival, held in Western Australia.
Drummer and co-founder of the group, John Herndon, said it had certainly been years since Tortoise has ventured to our far southern land.
“The last time we came to Australia a friend of mine had a baby. She’s not a baby anymore,” he laughs.
Having made a name for themselves in the Chicago music scene in the early 90s as rather than just smashing out classic rock ‘n’ roll hits like their musical counterparts, Tortoise added dub, techno and jazz influences to their already progressive sound.
Their presence added to the already burgeoning scene and influenced the growth of the progressive rock genre, but Herndon said they’d never really tried to do anything different or tried to stand out. “We just do what we do,” he adds modestly.
Stand out is what they’ve done though, for most of their long history. Having got together in 1990, released their first single in 1993, their debut self-titled album in 1994, four more albums between 1996 and 2004, culminating in the latest addition to their impressive discography, 2009′s Beacons of Ancerstorship.
The band came to be because of a friendship between Herndon and bassist Doug McCombs. In the earliest days, Tortoise was originally only going to be a drum and bass two piece.
“Doug and I were friends and we both played in bands that did a bunch of gigs together. We liked hanging out so we thought it would be a good idea to maybe start a band. We started recording just drum and bass, I don’t think those recordings ever saw the light of day,” recalls Herndon.
“Then we decided to record again in another studio and Doug started talking to Bundy Brown there. He was interested in joining what we were doing and he was in this band called Bastro, with John McEntire, so we asked John to hang out too and that’s how the band started. Those recording sessions ended up being the first hit singles. It just sort of happened.”
As their slow-and-steady-wins-the-race inspired name suggests, Tortoise don’t rush their releases. “I guess old and slow is us,” jokes the drummer. “We’ve put a record out every 5 years, and we’ve been going for 20 years.”
But considering the number of acts that form these days, only to break up in a matter of months, if it means remaining together for over two decades, perhaps slow and steady is the way to go, new age bands take note.
With only two member changes throughout their entire existence, Herndon says it’s simply learning to appreciate life itself that keeps the five-piece together and constantly inspired.
“Being able to wake up and walk the earth is a pretty big inspiration. We’re on this weird planet in space; it’s pretty awesome when you think about it. There’s a lot of inspiration, I could go on and on forever.”
While Herndon has a surprising keenness for black metal bands from right across the globe, the family orientated man says the key to keeping on top of things in the crazy music scene is being grounded and staying true to who you are.
“I love playing live, but I don’t love being on tour. I’d rather be playing a gig down the street from my house. It’s awesome that we can bring our music all across the world – like to Australia, that’s amazing – but I have two kids here in Chicago and it’s really hard to be away from them,” he explains.
“If I can just wait til they’re like 18 or something and not living in the house anymore, then I feel like I could go on tour again forever. But they’re just my little boys at the moment and I want to be around them. I guess, people don’t wanna hear that, it’s not very rock n roll,” he laughs.
Fortunately for us he’ll be spending some time away from his beloved children as he and the rest of the buzzing Tortoise are due to pay us that long overdue visit for their nationwide tour in October. As well as headlining WA’s newest music festival, This Is Nowhere, atop an impressive left-field lineup that includes Xiu Xiu, Grails and Beach Fossils – to name a few.
As for plans after that, are there any thoughts on a new album? “Probably not….maybe,” confesses the drummer. “We’re just focussing on touring right now. But it’s always a possibility,” Herndon says.
Considering their track record, there’s a high chance we’ll have our hands on a new album from Tortoise in the next few years. In the meantime, we’ll just enjoy having them in the flesh.
Beacons Of Ancestorship is out now through Thrill Jockey. Tortoise kickstart their national tour on October 11 at Sydney’s HiFi Bar and play two more sideshows as well as Perths’ This Is Nowhere Festival. Full dates and details here.