Fracture: How Post-Rock Stopped Dancing

In the early and mid 1990s, says author Jeanette Leech, the language of dance and electronic music was an intrinsic part of post-rock. So why, by the end of that decade, did post-rock lose its groove? Also we have an extract from Jeanette's recent book, Fearless, regarding the bands Tortoise, Bastro and Gastr Del Sol

Tortoise in 2016, by Andrew Paynter

‘Instead of going to gigs, we’d be going to all-nighters at the Brixton Academy,’ Sarah Peacock of Seefeel recounts in my book Fearless: The Making Of Post-Rock. ‘We’d be taking Es and watching The Orb, and thinking, how good would [Seefeel’s music] sound if we were to stretch this song out to ten minutes and put a drum machine on it? It just seemed to be a slightly more exciting direction from before. We were all up for it.’

In the early 1990s, dance was in the marrow of post-rock. As well as the euphoric explorations of rave, there was the persistence of techno; the go-pleasantly-nowhere cadence of Ambient House; outlaw sampling; Jungle’s no-fucks-given vibrancy. You might not have been able to actually dance to it, but post-rock wouldn’t have existed without the practical and conceptual tools of dance. Post-rock artists used samplers, they were interested in the spatial hypnosis that certain dance music offered, they were drawn to the deconstruction of remix culture.

Fast forward to the millennium.

‘It’s around then that the concept of what post-rock was – it kind of changed from what I’d thought,’ says Kieran Hebden. At that point, Hebden had been in the post-rock band Fridge for several years, and had just begun making music as Four Tet too. ‘[Post-rock] left me a bit. It turned into something else. All of a sudden it was more drone-y, bands with bass guitar solos. It was less about electronics and dance music and all these things.’

Hebden is right. In 1999, Sigur Rós (who had emerged in roughly the same period as Fridge) spoke rather proudly about how the only synthetic sound on the Ágætis Byrjun album was a ping in ‘Svefn-G-Englar’. The version of post rock that the Icelandic group embodied – sweeping, soaring, ‘authentic’ – was now the dominant one, and did not include dance or electronica. The definition has broadly remained the same ever since.

When journalist Simon Reynolds first named post-rock, he started out by highlighting the intrinsic dance culture of this slithery, slippery thing. Via canny mental mapping, Reynolds hit upon a way to capture a number of seemingly unclassifiable acts: in late 1993, he wrote of a ‘lo-fi but non-Luddite zone of post-rock/post-techno experimentalism that encompasses Disco Inferno, Seefeel, Aphex et al’. Here, he was writing in the Melody Maker about the Brighton-based duo Insides, who had just released their Euphoria album.

‘People were always trying to force you to make a choice,’ says Kirsty Yates of Insides, about indie and dance labelling. ‘Are you going to go here, are you going to go here? No, I’m going to go… here. Somewhere to the side. And, yep, he’s still going to play his guitar.’

‘We were at the start of what I see now as a breakdown in all those genre classifications,’ Julian Tardo, the other half of Insides, says, ‘where electronic started doing things rock, and it was back and forth.’

That Insides feature was the first time Reynolds can remember writing of ‘post-rock’. Six months later came a lengthy article in The Wire, ‘Shaking The Rock Narcotic’ – and, by this point, Reynolds had dropped the ‘post-techno’ bit, leaving post-rock alone without its formerly conjoined twin. While the Wire piece continued to emphasise the influence of dance on post rock, Reynolds now de-dancified it just a bit, by excluding the more obviously ‘post techno’ artists like Aphex Twin from his narrative. It certainly made the post rock definition more workable and catchy.

Reynolds never did develop ‘post-techno’ in a similar way. Maybe this was because another tag had already gained traction for this space. Intelligent Dance Music – IDM – was now in the journalistic lexicon, and more artist-loathed than even post-rock was. ‘If you consider the sociological origins of contemporary electronic dance music in black and gay clubs in Chicago and New York,’ Matmos’s Drew Daniel said, ‘and then consider the overall whiteness and straightness of the average IDM artist and fan it all starts to look kind of sinister, like people patting themselves on the back because they are so much more advanced than those savages who leap about to their wild drums or something.’

The name was poorly thought through, certainly – as if De’lacy’s ‘Hideaway’ was somehow less smart than Squarepusher – and elitist. But its idea, that dance music had broader implications than dancing, was well-meant and many embraced it. ‘A dance label?’ Warp co-founder Rob Mitchell chuckled in 1998, ‘well, you need to have quite an individual style of dance.’ Warp’s 1992 Artificial Intelligence compilation was subtitled ‘electronic listening music’, while ‘braindance’ was associated with Rephlex, the label founded by Aphex Twin and Grant Wilson-Claridge. Rephlex’s 2001 retrospective The Braindance Coincidence featured a brain and a foot sutured together, ready to hop awkwardly into action.

IDM coursed through strikingly similar veins to post-rock throughout the 90s. Both embraced the idea of patience, subtle musical shifts, and repetition as a form of change. There was a belief in the emotional value of texture rather than words. A high proportion of artists constructed their own instruments and contraptions, and had a fluid approach to what a band was. Autechre’s 1994 track ‘Flutter’ – a protest against the Criminal Justice Act’s prohibition on repetitive beats, expressed through a honeycomb of non-repetitive beats – is as powerfully defiant as anything by Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

When the original crop of British post rock bands broke up, fell out, moved on, gave up – most of them within six months of Reynolds’ 1994 Wire article – the salvageable wreckage was mainly electronic. Bark Psychosis’s Graham Sutton became Boymerang and moved into drum & bass; Main’s Robert Hampson was on a mission to disintegrate the guitar with each release; and Moonshake’s Margaret Fiedler created Laika, a project where, she says, she ‘wasn’t anti-guitar, but there was actually no room for it.’ Most striking of all was Seefeel, newly signed to Warp; the wooziness and fleshy qualities of the 1993 album Quique were replaced by exposed wires and automated despair in 1995’s Succour.

‘We took a lot of flak when we joined Warp,’ Seefeel’s Mark Clifford says, ‘just for the fact that we used guitars. Because Warp at that point was a label for people who didn’t like that stuff, didn’t like guitar bands. And so for a lot of people, suddenly having a band on there with guitars, even though we didn’t play them like normal guitars, was almost sacrilege. Life was pretty hard for us to start with on Warp.’

Post-rock in this original incarnation was de-centred, uneasy, but it acted as a bit of a bridge between all sorts of sounds and this anxious alliance worked even in the hysterical genre straightjackets of the British music press. Outside of Britain, others also comfortably accommodated the dance and rock elements of post-rock’s nature. Tortoise released a striking series of 12” remixes accompanying Millions Now Living Will Never Die and TNT; Matmos crafted beats from found sounds like a crayfish, a cigarette, and a plastic surgeon’s knife; German acts including Mouse On Mars, Kreidler, To Rococo Rot and Pluramon twisted guitar splashes with electronic effects into dappled marble.

But the meaning of post-rock was already cleaving apart from dance music, and it was very much recast to the irresistible rise of Mogwai. Although Mogwai were open-minded to remixes and sampling – certainly more so than Sigur Rós – they also unapologetically had rock ambitions and excelled as an energetic live act in a way artists like Insides and Seefeel didn’t. Mogwai oozed a band-like sensibility, an us-verses-the-world grit that attracted many who probably wouldn’t have listened to, say, the far less extroverted Tortoise.

Peers with Mogwai, Fridge were probably the last British act to embody the original polymath meaning of post-rock, consciously and explicitly embracing dance music as part of their identity. Kieran Hebden, Sam Jeffers and Adem Ilhan were teenagers: they were keen on Tortoise, on Quickspace Supersport, on instrumental hip hop, on jungle. ‘For me, the best thing about the so-called post-rock thing was it had this brief moment where the concept of it was to make music that came from the indie scene but had no limitations,’ says Hebden. ‘Any instrumentation would go, any song lengths, any format.’ Titles such as ‘Ceefax’ and ‘Zed Ex Ay-Ti-Wan’ expressed Fridge’s interest in cheap tech, and they’d strap antiquated tape recorders to an ironing board to make a naive synth.

Fridge mothballed after their 2001 album Happiness. Since then, artists to evoke the original post-rock aesthetic – such as Oneohtrix Point Never, James Ferraro, Caribou, Maria Minerva, even Anohni – are shoehorned into IDM far more often than post-rock. We’ve moved so far from post-rock’s original exploratory and dance-influenced base that it would seem a mistake to label them as such.

This is such a shame for post-rock. Not since post-punk had one genre been able to encompass so much and ask so little in terms of boxing artists in. ‘So what is post-rock?’ may have been hated by those who were asked it. But it spoke to the glorious inability, for a time, to pin post-rock down.

‘VERTICAL FLUX’ – An Extract From Fearless by JEANETTE LEECH

Two-thirds into ‘Djed’, the side-long track on Tortoise’s second album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, a short, attractive, ringing gets crunched up by a harsh electronic glitch. It’s an arresting moment. The first time it’s heard, the natural reaction is to check the equipment: surely the needle is bouncing over the track, the CD player has got jammed on some fluff, the internet connection is breaking, the radio has been interrupted by an electrical storm?

But no. It’s there, woven into the track, and – since the rest of ‘Djed’’s psycho-geographical travelogue deals in gradual overlaps – it’s an especially effective strategy. It’s also an appropriate metaphor for a particular attitude that emerged from, but was not confined to, Chicago in the 1990s. It was disruptive, tearing through a linear narrative, although it created pockets of lucidity in its wake.

This music was ‘vertical’. In a philosophical sense, it rejected expected structure (although it still could be highly structured), and did not move laterally from stage to stage. In this, it resembled the ideology of Ornette Coleman, because the music made sense according to its own terms, and there was no real way of knowing what was coming (nor, often, was it easy to comprehend what had just passed). It was interested in the margins of thought, creating meaning by stacking up spaces between gestures and overlapping perspectives on a moment in time, rather than having a story or a static focus. In terms of musical theory, too, it was vertical: it tended to explore the ‘colour’ of sound, the timbre. The plethora of sounds layered and interlocked to draw attention to harmonic differences, with less emphasis on the ‘horizontal’ melodic line. Finally, in a very literal sense, there was an absolute explosion of records released by an eye-watering array of projects: piles upon piles of physical product teetered upward and colonised the shelf space of the devoted.

However, and as literate as its practitioners usually were in musical theory, muso chops weren’t ultimately needed to appreciate it. ‘If the idea is exciting, the way that you choose to express it, with what instruments you use, or the timbres and the textures, is not so important as the initial thing,’ says Tim Gane of Stereolab. ‘As soon as you hear an idea, you go “eek”, go crazy. It goes into your head straightaway.’

Chicago was a city with major pedigree in non-conformist music: Sun Ra, The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Big Black, Frankie Knuckles, Phuture. ‘I guess the air in Chicago might have affected the way we are a little,’ Tortoise’s Johnny Herndon said in 1998. ‘There’s a lot of weirdness there, which might be what attracted us to the place originally.’ The artists orbiting this Chicagoan aura during the mid-to-late 1990s include Tortoise, Gastr Del Sol, Stereolab, and their myriad associated projects formed a remarkable collection of voracious musical and cultural bon vivants. There was no Balkanisation of genre. At once, they could sustain a mood on a pallid pinpricked sound, or expand into a colourful, complicated sphere of remixology.

‘To me, that was totally normal,’ says Tim Gane. ‘You’d see Tortoise, and they’d play this kind of music, and everything was included. It was a bit like the world of hip hop where everything’s included; if they can use it, it doesn’t matter what the music is.’

A seedling for this musical Babel was Bastro. ‘Bastro had a slow start, and then picked up a little steam when John McEntire joined the group,’ David Grubbs says. ‘John McEntire is three years younger than I am. I met him when he was a college freshman [at Oberlin Conservatory, Ohio], when he had just turned eighteen and I was probably twenty-one. And I immediately found him as a simpatico person. He was an incredible drummer. High-school state marching snare drum champion, and a musical omnivore.’

McEntire had just enrolled at Oberlin’s TIMARA programme. ‘Because I’m from Kentucky, I pronounce the word TIMARA as to-morra,’ Grubbs adds. ‘I assumed it meant “artists of tomorrow”. But it stands for Technology In Music And Related Arts, and I didn’t understand that until a couple of years later, because I’m a fucking hillbilly.’ McEntire was honing his skills as a studio engineer, and Grubbs was learning alongside him; they were also enhancing one another’s musical taste. ‘John was playing early Xenakis, and Stockhausen electronic pieces. And I just couldn’t believe my ears. That these were figures taken seriously, people who produced scores and so on. People studied them at college, and the music itself was unprecedented, sonically.’

The two Bastro albums, Bastro Diablo Guapo and Sing The Troubled Beast, were released, along with a handful of EPs and singles, on Homestead (which had also put out Squirrel Bait’s records), and are fine examples of tinderbox post-hardcore. Contemporary Bastro interviews do give a sense of what was to come; it was clear that this group was above the fray of lunk-headed Big Black copyists. ‘The lyrics must go hand in hand with the composition,’ Grubbs told Melody Maker in 1990. ‘And, since the music is climax after climax, so the lyrics similarly are a series of peaks, a series of very strong images.’

‘I remember at the very end of Bastro feeling like we did one thing and we did that thing well, of playing this loud, muscular post-punk power-trio music,’ Grubbs says. ‘And I recall that there were some places where we played where it sounded wonderful, it sounded amazing, and there were some places where we were much too loud for the space, or unable to respond to the acoustics of the space. It just seemed inflexible. All of a sudden it seemed weirdly inflexible, and we needed to go back to the drawing board.’ Playing in the final iteration of Bastro was Grubbs’s roommate, Bundy K. Brown, and this period seeded electric sketches of many songs that would soon be subject to thoroughgoing deconstruction.

‘In 1991, when Codeine toured with Bastro, I thought they were amazing,’ says Stephen Immerwahr. ‘John McEntire is an incredible drummer to watch, and to listen to. And there were definitely some non-rock elements, or more avant-garde things that people were interested in. Grubbs was into it, and I was into it. He turned me on to lots of interesting things, and I really dug his interest in doing stuff on piano.’

‘Bastro burned itself out kind of quickly,’ Grubbs continues. ‘I was juggling school and being in a band, and I’d started a graduate programme in literature. Tortoise had just started, which quickly became John’s main thing. And it just seemed a good moment to reassess. To reassess the idea of being in a group with fixed membership, to reassess being in a group that had two rehearsals a week, and to reassess being in a group that only did one thing, no matter how well it did it.’

Gastr del Sol, in its first performances and recordings, had the same membership as Bastro, but ‘it was a bit of a unilateral disarmament,’ says Grubbs. ‘Instead of practice space, with the amps always set to maximum volume, Bundy and I started writing music together in the living room. I’d never really played an acoustic guitar before. I just remember at the time, this idea of “human scale” and working without amplification.’

‘Human scale’ relates to measurements of the physical, sensory, and mental proportions of a human; as opposed to, say, light years or the subatomic scale. Amplification, therefore, goes beyond what a human can produce on his or her own.

‘I’d grown up playing piano, and suddenly the sound of acoustic instruments became really, really of interest to me,’ Grubbs says. ‘When Bundy and I, and then Bundy and John and I, and then Bundy and Jim O’Rourke and I were meshing acoustic instruments, particularly acoustic guitar and piano, with electronics, we didn’t really feel that we had role models for it. Squirrel Bait could always measure itself up to the slightly older generation, but I really felt that we were travelling without a compass at the early stages of Gastr del Sol.

‘I recall the very first time that we recorded, recording this stuff that was on the record The Serpentine Similar, and recording the song “A Watery Kentucky”,’ he continues, ‘and just lying on the rug on the studio after we recorded it and thinking, this is unbearable! It’s unbearably slow, tempo-wise, the rate of it unfolding, it’s so long, what the fuck are we doing? It was one of those things where I think we had enjoyed so much crafting this sound in the living room, and then actually going to the recording studio was a total shock, you know, that was the one moment where I thought, we have absolutely lost our minds. We need to get back into the practice space, plug into the Hiwatt amp; what the fuck are we doing? Now I listen to it, and actually it seems kind of brisk! But at the time, I just remember thinking, oh my god. How could anyone listen to this? It’s just the sound of water from a dripping faucet.’

The Serpentine Similar, the first Gastr del Sol record (Grubbs and Brown, with McEntire on percussion), is also clearly linked with Grubbs’s growing fascination with words and their non-narrative functions, which he had tentatively expressed at the end of Bastro. ‘Very few verbs in the early Gastr del Sol lyrics,’ he says. ‘It was imagistic in that way, and broken. And obviously it didn’t rhyme, it didn’t scan, line lengths tended to differ.’ Writing the music and the lyrics were completely separate processes, ‘then stretching one, or warping one, to fit the other, [until it] yielded a satisfying result. And that kind of distortion, whether its distortion in the delivery, in the timing, where many words need to occupy a small space or, conversely, where few words need to occupy a much larger space … to me, that’s compelling.’

In 1993, when The Serpentine Similar was released, Grubbs had another ‘instructive moment’—meeting Mayo Thompson and starting to play in The Red Krayola, further deconstructing the idea of a ‘band’ in his mind. ‘And there was something about going back to graduate school, and Tortoise happening, and wanting to do something that was more flexible and responsive and nimble and fleet, and could respond to the situation at hand,’ he says.

‘Tortoise is about being flexible enough not to be like a regular rock band, and to do things that wouldn’t normally be in their repertoire,’ Doug McCombs said in 1994. ‘Our thing is outside the realm of rock.’

Flexibility was the watchword for both Gastr del Sol and Tortoise. It seems that all the innovations to follow flowed from this basic attitude. ‘One of the reasons we started the band, actually, was so we could have a space to just do something that would give us a platform to maybe showcase some of the stuff that we weren’t able to do necessarily in other, more traditional projects that we’d been in,’ McEntire says.

McCombs and Johnny Herndon were the founders of Tortoise; membership and contributions came as and when. Bundy K. Brown and John McEntire were interested in what they were doing, as was Brad Wood, the owner of Idful studios—where Codeine had recorded—and he invited their new project to come in and use the facilities during dead time. Tortoise recorded and released two seven-inch singles, ‘Mosquito’ and ‘Lonesome Sound’, from these sessions; feet-finding exercises as they unpicked what being ‘outside the realm of rock’ might sound, look, and feel like.

‘Things really changed through having McEntire on board,’ Herndon said in 2001. ‘His studies of electronic music really opened up that whole area.’

‘Where with Gastr it was this real cerebral music, with Tortoise gigs, in the early days, they were like dance parties,’ Brown has said. ‘It was very rhythmic and people were into that vibe we were throwing out. I’ve been listening to hip-hop my entire life. But that just didn’t really come into play in Bastro or Gastr. But to be able to do this stuff that was more informed by reggae or dub or hip-hop was refreshing. We used to do Isaac Hayes covers.’

Next to get involved was Dan Bitney, who had long drummed in the art-punk band The Tar Babies. The idea of doing something more rhythmic appealed to him. ‘I had never played in anything like that,’ he has said. ‘I just knew I was kind of sick of dealing with guitar players, you know what I mean? It was reactionary. Nirvana was blowing up, and we were like, OK, let’s do something else …’

The funkiness of Tortoise was evident on their debut album, Tortoise, released in 1994. It was indebted to all sorts of things—Can, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, Spiderland, Steve Reich, hip-hop, jazz, dub, the Paris, Texas soundtrack—but it didn’t really sound like any of them. It was indeed outside the realm of rock, and perhaps this is why the still-young designation ‘post-rock’ was so readily applied to it. For it was Tortoise who first inspired journalists to broaden post-rock’s designation away from the British school and steam it across the Atlantic.

‘In the beginning, we pushed back against [being called post-rock] pretty forcefully,’ John McEntire says. ‘Because, for myself, it just seemed so lazy. Oh, I can’t figure out a better way to describe what this is, so I’ll create this category that doesn’t really mean anything.’

‘The problem I always had with [the term] is it basically had to reduce rock music to clichés in order for it to even have any platform to stand on,’ says Jeff Parker, at that point a fan and friend of Tortoise. ‘For me, rock music, it was never just about three chords or no rhythm. What was most interesting to me was when the music used to kind of like whoosh together and become indistinguishable. At least the musicians I admired and liked, who I was inspired by, were always blurring these lines. And I kind of saw our band as being in the tradition of that more than anything.’

Members of Tortoise were extremely interested in dance music culture and, at that point, the dominant innovative form was jungle (and its younger sibling, drum’n’bass). ‘Last year, when we came to England, I was sort of introduced to pirate radio stations and the drum’n’bass thing going on,’ Johnny Herndon said in 1996. ‘That just blew my mind—just the whole idea of … the music, I thought, was amazing, but the whole idea of people taking over the airwaves for themselves was incredible. I think that has left its mark on our music.’

The next Tortoise record, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, was written outside of Chicago: in Vermont, on retreat, in the summer of 1995. It’s a more consummate record than Tortoise; perhaps because the band was now functioning more as a group, aware of people’s interest in and expectation for them. (Bundy K. Brown certainly was; he left after Tortoise, as the band became more well-known, unhappy with the prospect of a long tour, and disgusted by the way some aspects of the music industry operated.) It was different from the earlier years of grabbing spits and spots of time together, since it was now other things that had to compete for time with Tortoise. Replacing Brown was David Pajo; he was inspired by Tortoise, and Tortoise admired his work with Slint. ‘Glass Museum’ is a Pajo-led track.

‘I think I tried to play—or thought of—the bass as I would a guitar,’ Pajo has said. ‘Everyone switched up instruments anyway: onstage, at the beginning of a song; during recording, if you wanted to. That was encouraged.’

While in Vermont, Tortoise had lots of fragments along with more cohesive tracks. ‘Doug came up with the intro bit, and he had the krautrock section, too,’ John McEntire says of what was to become ‘Djed’. ‘And then I came up with the organ mallet thing. And we didn’t know if they were going to develop more substantially into their own things. Or how to treat them. So, I don’t know, maybe we had the idea when we were there that we would make a kind of collage with the stuff that’s not really related and that we didn’t have to put a whole load of pressure on ourselves to actually write more stuff. We would just use those fragments as seeds for extrapolating as much material as we could without being too heavy-handed about it. It was really fun and interesting to put that together because we just recorded the sections all separately, and I’d do a mix of something, and then I’d do an alternate mix, and a third alternate mix, and so then we had all these things that were still existing in their own world. Then it was a matter of figuring out how to make the transitions. And that was kind of a painstaking process … OK, these things are totally unrelated, in tempo, in key, you know … so it was like, there was one part where I had to vari-speed the tape down so it would match the tempo of the next section, and weird stuff like that. It was definitely a learning experience.’

When the seismic glitch occurs, it’s because McEntire—infuriated by the experience of finding an edit at that point—snatched up dozens of discarded fragments, said ‘fuck it’, and physically, randomly, joined them together. ‘Djed’ remixes itself; it’s a further refinement from Rhythms, Resolutions And Clusters. It dismantles and piles sounds up again while the track is actually in process.

It all became even more meta with a series of three twelve-inch singles released in 1996, offering subtle-to-radical re-workings of Tortoise tracks (including two versions of ‘Djed’), often in collaboration with more electronica-identified artists whom Tortoise strongly admired: Oval, UNKLE, and Luke Vibert. This was different in itself from getting Steve Albini and Brad Wood to remix tracks. Furthermore, the twelve-inches were a strong visual proclamation. Prior to 1996, most of the Tortoise singles had been seven-inches, and the first two, especially, fit in with the US underground aesthetic of the time: coloured vinyl, wraparound poly-bagged sleeves, retro-tinged artwork.

These 1996 Tortoise twelve-inches, in bright die-cut yellow sleeves, were ‘a statement, in a way’, says McEntire. ‘The whole remix phenomenon did not exist until the mid, late 1990s. I guess it was a way for us to say, OK, we’re embracing this whole concept. And the formatting played a big role in that. Even though none of them—well, a few of them—were dance mixes.’ Putting this material only on a twelve-inch (there were none of the usual accompanying CD singles) was a conscious shop-window for Tortoise’s current ambition and, perhaps more pertinently, an indication of what they didn’t want to be identified with.

Tortoise existed as long as people still wanted to do it; David Pajo moved on, but in came Jeff Parker. ‘I was kind of trying to figure out my own way with music,’ he says of this time. ‘To figure out my own music, my own original ideas, I was making my living as a local, working musician in Chicago, which means playing jazz in restaurants, playing at weddings, playing at parties, birthday parties, but I was also touring with a lot of mainstream jazz artists, from New York. I was coming to Europe and playing jazz festivals. I had a very, very wide, broad collection of music that I was forced to confront every day. And at that same time I was beginning to play with Tortoise and Isotope 217 ̊, and there was incredible amount of, at least for me, information, musical information that I was processing.’

TNT, released in 1998, did not receive the rapturous welcome that Tortoise and especially Millions Now Living Will Never Die enjoyed. It was a double album, and for some this gave automatic licence for them to claim it bloated and egotistical; but it also felt muted, in the way that their previous releases had not.
 Lukewarm reviews meant the mood in the Tortoise camp was defensive. ‘It’s not an easy record to just sit down and listen to,’ John McEntire said in 1999. ‘I’m certainly not trying to blow my own horn or anything, but I think it demands a certain amount of attention. There’s a lot going on within it. I think another thing that put so many people off is that it’s so long and there’s so much detail in there. There’s a lot to take in one sitting.’ TNT was the first Tortoise album to be entirely created on a computer, using ProTools, and the group spent a year making it, picking down into ever-tinier details.

McEntire was right; TNT takes a dozen, or even more, concentrated listens before its full power is achieved. What at first seemed undemonstrative is revealed as slow-building loveliness; where there seemed to be naught but empty intent, TNT knows what it’s doing all along. Structurally, it doesn’t hold a listener’s hand, but then, after Millions Now Living Will Never Die, it shouldn’t need to. It also feels that, on certain tracks, the influence of Stereolab’s breezier moments can be heard; a ray of Tropicalia is also apparent (and, in 1999, Tortoise would back Tom Zé on a series of live dates, and Zé has said that ‘the guys manage to play samba that not even the Brazilians could complain about’). ‘Almost Always Is Nearly Enough’, the most glitched and jungle-influenced track on the album, also anticipated the next round of Tortoise twelve-inch remixes, this time by Derrick Carter and Autechre.

The cover was perhaps unsettling, too—almost a rebuke to the earlier lush LP artwork—as it was an off-the-cuff doodle by Herndon. ‘We were working on TNT and I went to Johnny’s room to look for him one day,’ says John McEntire, ‘and I could see he’d taken the CD-r and made that thing, and I was like, that’s the fucking cover.’

In very stark contrast to the meticulousness of TNT, Tortoise were then asked to contribute to the In The Fishtank series, the pet project of Dutch record distributor Konkurrent, where a band or two—in this case, Tortoise and The Ex—are given a very limited amount of studio time in which to create an album, and are not allowed to bring in any existing material. It was ‘very stressful,’ McEntire says. ‘I mean, it was fun, we loved those guys as people, they’re wonderful, but it was like, OK, we have to do … what did we have, three days or something? And that’s really not the way we work. At all.’

In The Fishtank stands as a peculiar aberration in Tortoise’s catalogue, recreating a garage-band sensibility, where the first take is best, and a studio is viewed exclusively as a functional place to capture a spontaneous moment. But perhaps it was apt that, after TNT, the wheels screeched in the other direction, albeit temporarily. And, in a small way, it did feed into what would emerge on their next album. For now, though, it didn’t alter the general mindset or the outside perception. After all, these artists had remixed and produced and watched and performed alongside one another for five or six years, they had become bywords for experimentation and, at that point, synonymous with the term post-rock. It counted as the term’s second phase.

Extracted from Fearless: The Making Of Post-Rock by Jeanette Leech, available now from all good bookshops. © 2017 Jeanette Leech / Jawbone Press

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