Music News

Tortoise and the Air

One expects even those rock musicians inclined toward experimentalism to eventually embrace the four-minute pop song, or to otherwise marry the gems of their wanderings to our culture's more prominent musical conventions. But thus far, John Herndon, one of the five multi-instrumentalists who make up the Chicago-based Tortoise, has resisted the temptation. "The pop music structure is the least appealing to me at this point in my life," he concedes. "I find myself drifting further and further away from that every day."

Herndon, once a part of the Poster Children, began his current journey five years ago when he conspired with Doug McCombs, bassist for Eleventh Dream Day, to form a band consisting of two bassists and two drummers. But what was originally a ploy to avoid the ubiquitous rock lineup and the well-worn set of possibilities associated with it soon became a limitation. "When John McEntire and Dan Bitney joined the group, it seemed ridiculous not to take advantage of the immense musical background they both have, like John's knowledge of synthesizers and keyboards," he says. "And when Bundy Brown [since replaced by bassist/guitarist David Pajo] would write a song with guitar in it, it seemed ridiculous to say 'no guitar.' Why have these rules and regulations at all?"

Moreover, the addition of six-strings and other assorted musical tools didn't shift the group's central axis. Tortoise remains a rhythm section in duplicate--an act whose members play with the slo-mo deliberation of white-gloved plutonium handlers. This was especially true on the band's eponymous full-length debut CD, throughout which the performers stuck close to the womblike throb of tempered bass and drums. But on Millions Now Living Will Never Die, their latest release on the Thrill Jockey label, mallet percussion and increased studio manipulation help them broaden their palette. The result is a world as bizarre and primordial as the sea floor. "Djed," a twenty-minute-long epic, is a prime example: In the beginning, the number alternately dives and surfaces like a pedal-propelled submarine maneuvering among thousands of silvery fish. But the thralldom the opus inspires gives way to panic when the trance-inducing atmosphere is shattered by the heavily processed rat-a-tat of a snare.

The sounds with which the artists build their compositions inhabit the slender region between organic and synthesized. Many of the most processed bits retain a haunting familiarity, yet they don't quite cross the line into sci-fi beep-and-honk. This method is not a conscious one, Herndon insists. "We don't sit around and think how far away from its natural source we can take a sound. Once it gets to a point where it sounds good to everybody, that's where we stop." His musical tastes, like those of his comrades, suggest a continuum between man and machine. "I like listening to weird marimba music from Africa that's completely organic, or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which is pretty organic. But I also like listening to lots of the jungle stuff that's totally synthetic, computer-based music."

The process by which Tortoise assembles its songs varies as widely as do Herndon's musical proclivities. "Some of the pieces come together in ways that are similar to a lot of bands," he says. "Someone will come in with a riff or a part or piece of a song and show it to everyone else. We play it for a while, then people start coming up with their own ideas about how they hear it happening. But some songs are built up off of sequences from an analog synthesizer or sometimes just loops off a record we've sampled." Herndon sums up with equanimity, "We use those machines. The other machines we use are basses, drums and human bodies."

In this respect, Tortoise shares common ground with the pioneers of dub reggae. Though one hears more of Eno's airports than the Black Ark in the quintet's work, the mention of dub incites the reticent Herndon to launch into his most enthusiastic screed. "The pioneering studio trickology that King Tubby and Lee Perry and the Mad Professor and Joe Gibbs were doing during the Seventies had such an influence on so much music. More than the style of music, using the studio as an instrument in itself was more the idea behind our influence from dub reggae. Taking advantage of the studio to do something other than just document a live recording is the direction our influence comes from. Those were just the seeds of studio manipulation. The people who were doing that stuff in the Seventies were groundbreaking and really experimental in their use of the studio. It's amazing stuff if you think how subversive it was to pop music."

So, too, is the nearly unclassifiable music made by Herndon's band. McEntire, a onetime clarinetist with Gastr del Sol whose other band, the Sea and Cake, is currently touring with Tortoise, plays an important role in the construction of the washes and grooves that ground the tracks: He contributed most of the synthesizer patches on Millions, which he recorded and mixed in Chicago's Idful Studio. (Productions by Stereolab, Trans Am and Come are also on his resume.) As for McEntire's accomplices, they chip in with found sounds and chance samples. Herndon recently hit sampling pay dirt when he discovered a Fifties reel-to-reel at a resale shop. "It was in perfect condition. All I had to do was change the batteries. I was thinking there was probably music on it. Then I turned it on, and this little girl's voice started dictating a thank-you letter, and I was really happy."

Still, Herndon and company are not content to merely twiddle knobs. Though they delight in the aural mischief that can be accomplished with the assistance of technology, they derive just as much satisfaction from swapping the many instruments each plays during live sets. "In some ways, it was just wanting more sounds," Herndon ruminates. "In other ways, it was a punk-rock approach. There are bands that start where nobody knows how to play an instrument at all and their attitude is, 'Fuck it, I'm gonna learn how to play and start a punk band.'

"I had a set of vibraphones that I happened to find really cheap that I wanted to learn how to play," he elaborates. "When we started Tortoise, I, coming from the punk-rock school, said, 'Well, maybe I'll play the vibes on this tune.' I still play them very rudimentarily, but that was my way of learning to play in front of people rather than behind closed doors."

Despite the mother lode of sonic resources available to them, the Tortoises are rarely given to excess. "We're all musicians who listen," Herndon states. "And if you listen, then you realize that space plays a big part in the music that you play. Someone who can recognize and play the space of a song well is just as important as someone who can play a million notes at once." In other words, Tortoise employs piccolo, marimba, slide guitar, shakers, bells, piano, vibes, Moog, djembe and...air. "There are definitely parts where we get cluttered, for sure," Herndon admits. "Especially live, there are dense parts. But there's something nice to having air in a piece of music."

Like the soundscapes lumped into the ambient genre, Tortoise's pulsations can burble at the periphery of one's attention as well as prompt striking visions. Herndon has had similar experiences: "There are musics that definitely conjure up images for me and have more of a tendency to make me daydream." However, he claims that his own work doesn't have the same effect on him. "Maybe I'm just too close to the music in Tortoise to get beyond that."

The band's goal isn't to create music for illusory films but to simply keep moving into unexplored territory. "The idea of the band was to be as open as possible," he says. "That's why we gravitated towards each other. We wanted to get away from the confinements of what we were doing."

Tortoise, with the Sea and Cake and 5ive Style, 8:00 p.m. Sunday, June 2, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $8.40, 433-3399. All ages.

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Amy Kiser