Tortoise Continues to Defy Classification

Not long after Tortoise wrapped up its tour for 2009’s Beacon of Ancestorship, the post-rock quintet was commissioned by its hometown of Chicago to write music inspired by the city’s jazz and improvised music communities. In 2010, Tortoise’s twentieth anniversary, the group performed the piece in Chicago’s Millennium Park with some heavies of the city’s free jazz scene, including cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, flautist Nicole Mitchell, pianist Jim Baker and saxophonists Edward Wilkerson Jr. and Greg Ward.

When the members of Tortoise started thinking about making what would become its new album, The Catastrophist (released in January on Thrill Jockey), they decided to try to revise that material from that concert but make it more playable for the band, since the music, as Tortoise multi-instrumentalist John Herndon says, was essentially written as a platform for the musicians to solo over.

“We just kind of wrote these themes and melodies, and then people would just kind of solo on the form,” Herndon says. “So it took a fair amount of reworking the material to make it playable in a way that would be approachable to us as a band.”

While the songs on The Catastrophist might have originally been an ode of sorts to Chicago’s free-jazz scene, it’s not necessarily a jazz album, though some members of the group have backgrounds in the genre. In a sense, like many of Tortoise’s recordings, some of the compositions on The Catastrophist feel like jazz players approaching rock with a jazz sensibility, but with a whole lot more thrown into the mix, whether it be Krautrock, minimalism, electronica or dub.

Tortoise - Shake Hands With Danger (Live at Thalia Hall) from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

That amalgamation of genres has long made Tortoise's music difficult to define, but it's also possibly the quintet's biggest asset and something that stems from having overlapping musical tastes among its members.

Around the time that Tortoise formed in 1990, Herndon says he was listening a lot to the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts while also steeping himself in a lot of Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad, the hip-hop production team and Chicago free-jazz players who were members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. During that period, Herndon says, he met guitarist Jeff Parker (who would later join Tortoise) and started doing jam sessions.

Herndon also discovered Japanese noise-rock band Boredoms around the same time and listened to a lot of releases on the English imprint On-U Sound Records, including the first two African Head Charge albums. He says songs from the band’s 1982 album Environmental Studies were some of the murkiest and weirdest recordings he’d heard.

While some of Herndon’s influences have seeped into Tortoise’s music, other members' influences helped define the band’s forward-thinking music, as well.

“Like John [McEntire],” Herndon says. “He knows a lot more about the avant-garde classical end of things, and I think he was more into a lot of Krautrock stuff, Neu! and Can. He’s much more familiar with a lot of Brazilian Tropicalia stuff than I am. Doug [McCombs] was listening to Television, like, all day every day. He listened to Marquee Moon every day for like six years in a row or something.

"Dan [Bitney], he was in Madison [Wisconsin] and playing with the band Tar Babies, who are a huge influence too. That started out as this punk-rock band, and I think they discovered stuff like James Blood Ulmer and NRBQ and Sun Ra, and just started doing this weird variation on Midwestern punk but added all this weird funk and African and Latin stuff into their music too.... It didn’t lighten the touch; it made it even more awesome and cool. So everybody brought stuff in. Everybody brought influences and we kind of smeared them around.”

Tortoise, with Chris Brokaw, 8 p.m. Thursday, May 12, at the Bluebird Theater.