Out of their shell: post rockers Tortoise
The early post-rockers have always walked their own path rather slowly. Now they're heading to Asia
Text: Charlie Carter
In Aesop's fable, the determination of the tortoise helped him beat the swift but cocky hare, proving that hard work will triumph in the end. It's an apt metaphor for the reptile's music-world namesake. Well into their third decade, Tortoise may not be the world's biggest-selling band, but as they prepare for their first Asia tour, they are one of its most critically acclaimed.
Widely credited with originating the post-rock genre — an experimental fusion of diverse styles from jazz and classical to hard rock, found sounds and repetitive beats — they have inspired a litany of bands such as American arena act Animal Collective and Britain's 65daysofstatic in an ever-growing subculture where musicianship comes first.
Members of Tortoise have helped score movies, produced some of the experimental arts' biggest names including Stereolab, and collaborated with alt-rockers including Bonny Prince Billy and Bright Eyes.
But since forming in Chicago in 1990, the band's career output has been slow at best: they've made just six albums. Their most recent, Beacons of Ancestorship, was released five years ago. Work on a new CD is progressing at, well, a tortoise's pace. It's a work rate that drummer and band kingpin John McEntire is comfortable with.
"We've been taking our time because we've got a lot of other things on the go and we try not to repeat ourselves," McEntire says of the recording sessions for the new album, not due out for another year. "That's really difficult for instrumental bands because you can't rely on the lyrics or the focus on a singer."
Tortoise, who play Grappa's Cellar in their debut Hong Kong gig on May 15, took shape from the embers of McEntire's earlier band Bastro, who were joined by fellow Chicago experimentalists Doug McCombs on bass and percussionist John Herndon. At a time when Seattle was becoming the world focus of indie rock with grunge, the Chicagoans were looking for a different outlet.
"We all came out of the punk rock scene that became the indie scene and for some reason it seemed that by '94 people were ready for different stuff and didn't want loud guitars all the time — it just worked out for us."
McEntire's musical career started in school jazz bands before he moved into more experimental territory in local free-jazz and rock bands and then teaming up with McCombs, Herndon and fellow former Bastro alumni Bundy Brown.
"Everybody had been in other projects and because we were not primary songwriters or front people, we needed an outlet for some of the more creative things we wanted to do which wouldn't have been appropriate in other contexts," he says.
They found an audience with their debut album, 1994's eponymously titled CD. The sound they created was almost immediately dubbed post-rock — the antithesis of pop, which turned rock'n'roll almost full circle into a form more reminiscent of classical music in its complexity and arrangement.
Eschewing rock's rigid verse-chorus-verse blueprint, Tortoise applied traditional pop instruments such as the guitar and drums to non-traditional pop structures in pieces that lasted anything up to 20 minutes.
The spread of the genre — by the early 1990s, bands such as Mogwai in Britain had begun making similar music — was quickly seen as part of a general reaction against the all-pervasive grunge. In the US, that rebellion took on an experimental nature. Many bands, such as Vermont's Phish opted for a retro-rock route, playing extended jam sessions in the vein of The Grateful Dead.
Others, like Tortoise, opted for a complete overhaul of the idea of rock, fusing it with the sort of genres once shunned by pop purists.
For jazz-trained McEntire, the band's eventual direction was an easy choice, and if the dangers of jumping headfirst into a new sound were apparent to everyone else, they bypassed Tortoise. "It might be more correct to say that we were not super concerned that the band wouldn't find an audience," he says by phone from his home in Chicago, "and to be honest we were quite surprised that anyone liked it."
Although the band found critical acclaim, McEntire felt uncomfortable whenever they were described as the "godfathers of post-rock", especially as other local bands, including Slint — whose Dave Pajo later joined Tortoise for a time — were already blazing a trail of rock contrariness.
"We've made our peace with it now — we just didn't like being called pioneers before," he says. "Originally, it just seemed like a lazy attempt at being a music journalist; create some bogus music category. But I guess it's really become something.
"I see everything as being more on a continuum. There were bands like Slint before us who were moving in that direction already," he explains. "There was something interesting happening and we ran along with it," he says.
Tortoise, May 15, 8pm, Grappa's Cellar, B/F Jardine House, 1 Connaught Place, Central, HK$390. Inquiries: ticketflap.com