In existence since 1990, Tortoise, the instrumental quintet from Chicago, deserves to have transcended the now stale label of post-rock. Its sound is distinctive enough to become incomparable to other bands and recognizable enough to belong to only one group of musicians. With the elastic bass work of Doug McCombs and smooth guitar licks of Jeff Parker as the sugar atop poly rhythmic percussion — be it electronic or analog instrumentation — of its three drummers, Dan Bitney, John Herndon and John McEntire, Tortoise has come to sound like … Tortoise. Recently, I was able to ask some questions of both Bitney and McEntire that speak to the essence of the band and its struggles with unfair, reductive labels.
I spoke to Bitney for “PureHoney Magazine” about his life with the band from its inception through the recording of seven albums. He had just put his 5-year-old daughter to bed and poured himself a little rum. “Just kinda unwinding,” he said with a laugh. He doesn’t mind the post-rock label much anymore but prefers to use the term progressive rock only because it’s practical. “Even though,” he quickly qualified, “I’m not sure that’s how I would categorize the band.”
A label in music has its positive and negative sides. On the one hand, it helps as far as marketing goes. However, Tortoise started on a whim with no commercial interest. The band never even released a record until 1993. “You definitely want to label yourself to market yourself,” noted Bitney, “and that was never our intent, I would say. Obviously, a band starting as this band did, it’s not like we were trying to make it, you know what I mean? It’s kinda like we were just making creative, weird music, so a label doesn’t help us.”
On the other hand, the negative side of being labeled can reach heights of personal insult to a band. “There’s a history of musicians definitely not wanting to be labeled,” Bitney continued. “It can get offensive and racial and weird to be labeled or have your creative output labeled. That’s a sensitive ground that a lot of people don’t consider when they ask a question like that.”
I later spoke with fellow Tortoise drummer McEntire for “Miami New Times.” He had just finished moving to his new home in Los Angeles when we connected over the phone one recent Sunday afternoon. Though rooted in both jazz and rock, McEntire noted that it was the incredibly integrated music scene of Chicago, at the time, that encouraged a band like Tortoise to exist. “There was a great deal of communication between people that were working in different genres, so there was the rock scene, if you will, and the DJ folks and then the people in the jazz and improvise scene, and there was a great deal of people checking things out that weren’t necessarily what they did specifically, so that felt like a really healthy thing.”
It’s great to have the band back in Miami to make up for the 🙁 that closed news of their first leg of their U.S. tour when I reviewed their new album, early last year.
Tortoise play The North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, Sunday, March 19, at 7 p.m. Tickets are general admission and $27.50 in advance or $35 at the door. Purchase them here. For current tour dates, follow this link.