It might seem like a fairly long time, but the only real catastrophe for TORTOISE would have been not finishing the album at all as John McEntire admits in a whisper: ‘It always worries me a little because it takes us so long to make a record. Honestly, it could have come out a year earlier if we had been a bit more disciplined. Maybe we will have a new record out in two years and everybody will be shocked!’
The spark that finally triggered the birth of these new songs marks a very different approach for the band. Being commissioned by the City of Chicago, the instrumental quintet set out to compose a suite of music acknowledging the area’s jazz and improvised music communities. With these pieces already floating around in their very own universe, it only felt natural for the band to develop the existing ideas into something that would become a new album, eventually:
‘Those pieces were done for a specific event, but they didn’t change or evolve until we finally sat down to record them. When we took those five songs, we realized we would need to do some pretty serious rethinking to make them album material. The major thing was putting them together in a form that made sense because they were very open ended before they geared more towards improvisation. The challenge was to create structures for them’, says drummer John McEntire.
‘We’ve tried to sit in a room together to write, but that’s tough for us.’
The ongoing transformation progress of the songs didn’t come easy and saw the Chicago based band shifting back and forth between ideas for years. With an experience of roughly 25 years, TORTOISE defied the danger of getting lost on their way. After all, the group of multi-instrumentalists distinctively seems to know what it takes to put all the necessary pieces together. Even if some of the aspects are very time-consuming along the way as McEntire recalls:
‘Being in an instrumental band makes this awareness much more acute. In some ways you have minimal possibilities and you’re also confronted with the fact that without a singer you’re trying to keep people’s attention by all means. We have been doing this for so long so we know what works for us, eventually. Even though, it can take a long time until we get there. We’ve tried to sit in a room together to write, but that’s tough for us. We’ve also tried to just improvise and do some jamming which doesn’t really work either.’
Recording The Catastrophist required a more traditional concept with the band bringing demos into the studio and turning them into elaborate and much more complex songs in the end. A formula that has proven to work well. While other bands are chasing after one extraordinary approach after another to add some much needed spice to their work, this kind behavior has never been crucial to the band and their creative outcome. In fact, they seemed to be pretty happy to hole up in McEntires Soma Studio and just reconstruct what was already lying in front of them. No fancy extras needed. John McEntire explains this attitude with a smile and says:
‘Making an album is a self-fulfilling thing. We really enjoy each other’s company and we enjoy working together. Even if it takes a great deal of effort and time because we know we will arrive somewhere interesting.’
An element of expectation filled with strangeness
Instead of worrying about a change of scenery and waiting for inspiration in a totally new environment, the band likes to focus on ‘creating a narrative over the course of the record rather than throwing together a bunch of individual tracks’, even though their sound still strives to pull the listeners to a lot of different places. For the moment, a different form of working together seems far away, but not totally absurd as McEntire reveals:
‘At some point it might be good for us to work somewhere else. There is a number of things that sound appealing on paper – like going to some tropical place. But why would you go to the Bahamas if you end up sitting there in a dark room all day? Studios in the countryside could be interesting because you’re not dealing with the daily distractions. I feel like a lot of people are doing this now. They find a house, bring enough equipment with them and make a record. It’s incredibly easy to do it this way nowadays.’
Surprisingly, TORTOISE throw a cover of David Essex’s Rock On in between their own songs on The Catastrophist which is sung by U.S. Maple’s Todd Rittman. It is another song in the overall daring soundscape that plays with the element of expectation which the band likes to fill with strangeness. In McEntire’s opinion, this particular song reflects a vibe that the band seems to know well:
‘We’re big fans and we thought we could do something interesting with it because the song itself is so open. Maybe it reminded us a little of when we started the band. We were just two bass players, a drummer and a percussionist. It was kind of a similar vibe that spoke to us. It’s pretty rare we feel like doing something like this. It’s an exception, I guess.’
Once again, the band achieves to stay true to their own philosophy of songwriting that has never been bound to one particular direction which makes The Catastrophist at times challenging and confusing, but always vibrant and therefore exciting.