Six Questions for ... Tortoise


I couldn't help but start my interview with Tortoise drummer John Herndon by asking him to guess the name of this blog. "I can't answer that. I'm not going to say Post Rock," he said. So that got things off to a great start.

How could I resist, though? More than any other band, the veteran Chicago group has most singularly been associated with the largely instrumental, '90s-born genre that incorporates all kinds of non-rock sounds yet most appealed to an indie-rock audience. The band's latest album, "Beacons of Ancestorship," is one of the most vigorous of its career, but still has some of the jazzy and ambient touches that made albums such as "Millions Now Living Will Never Die" and "TNT" enduring favorites. Herndon also plays in a large handful of avant-garde bands -- Exploding Star Orchestra with Rob Mazurek, Powerhouse Sound with Ken Vandermark and A Fox Can Be Hungry with fellow Chicagoans -- and explains why foreigners are more open to out-there sounds than Americans. Tortoise plays at the Black Cat on Sunday.

Of all the terrible microgenre names, that has got to be one of the least exciting ones to be branded with, doesn't it?
It's something that we've been trying to [expletive] crawl out from under since some jackass pinned it on us.

The new album has more of a kick to it. When you make a record do you have a specific sound in mind or does it just find itself?
It's more like the latter. With this record the only thing that we really had in mind about the sound was that we made the conscious decision to not use any mallet instruments on the record. (Ed. note: Gotta be mallets-free sometimes, believe me, I've heard that one before.) So the space that those mallets may have been, it's now kind of filled up with synthesizers. That was our only real conscious decision about our direction for the record. The sound just came out of us doing our thing.

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

(More after the jump.)

It's obviously a personal aesthetic choice, but do you think it's lazy for a band to confine itself to one specific sound?
I don't even know. I guess I don't even really think about how we're hopping from this to this. It all just seems like if you're coming from a place within yourself, you're just making music and that's what it is. The only times I really think about that are when I'm on a gig and I'm just playing swing, and I have to be a "swing drummer," something like that.

But if we're just writing music or if I'm playing with people, music just tends to be an expression of a person. And in this day and age, for sure, that includes a lot of music that they've encountered. That's everything. Unless people are trying to be really precious about where they fit. Unless you're like, We're going to be a garage rock band! Or, We're going to be a traditional jazz band. Or, We're only playing dub reggae. Then that just seems like you're choosing to do this thing that has a very specific place. But otherwise, man, everything is available.

You've had some downtime, some hiatuses, but have never broken up and reformed. You missed out on that big, nostalgic reunion thing.
We just keep plugging along. I was thinking the other day, Can we be like the Mekons or the Ex, bands that have never broken up but are still going at it? And then I was thinking, Well maybe we need some songs that we can sing if we're going to do that. Because old people like to sing.

Yes, most people like words. You've obviously come to terms with that. Do you think you could actually do a Tortoise record with vocals?
We didn't start the band intentionally to be all instrumental music. It just kind of happened that way and now it's been almost 20 years of all instrumental music. But Doug [McCombs] sang on the first singles and perhaps will again.

We don't have any rules about a singer or not. So it's open. If someone came in and they had some lyrics and they wanted to sing a song, everybody would be up for hearing it. And then we would be allowed to veto, or whatever, if it didn't seem like it would break up the band. (Laughs.) But yeah, anything goes with Tortoise, really. And I think that we like to believe that that is still possible. So there are no rules. Anything could happen.

You tour outside the country a lot with some of the more experimental bands you're in. Do you feel like people in places like Brazil, Japan and Europe are more open to some of the avant-garde stuff than American audiences are?
The answer to that is a resounding yes. The cities, there are pockets of people who are open-minded to that kind of stuff. But it can't really compare to the support that you get, especially in Europe, but also in Japan, Brazil and other places in South America, for sure.

I think it's just education. I don't know. I feel like if there was a booking agent or a promotional company who had some ideas about getting different kinds of music together. It's just sort of a lack of vision amongst people who are dealing with the business and booking end of things. I don't really know. It's funny because in the '60s Sun Ra would play with MC5 and Miles would be playing with Led Zeppelin. And I don't know why that stopped. Because I think you could do some creative booking and open people's ears to more avant garde and more experimental improvised music. And I think people would really get it. And really dig it. But they sort of have this idea of what it's supposed to be and it stops people before they even give it a chance.

By David Malitz |  July 17, 2009; 11:50 AM ET Interviews
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