The Life & Times Of Tortoise, According To Tortoise

As Tortoise release their back catalogue, Glen Mcleod spoke to John Herndon to get his guide to the Strange World Of Tortoise

Tortoise inhabit a space in between realms. They straddle the musical equivalent of the Kármán line – rising into the sprawling expanse above then dipping down into more familiar environments below as they see fit. Over the course of their twenty-two-years they have drawn from a vast palette of sounds, creating their own unique topography. They are a dusty trail, a warm electronic beat vibrating through the wall, an early morning fog which is slow to clear, the sweat dripping off the walls of a packed punk rock club and a foreign smell being blown in by a humid breeze – sometimes all within the same song. This makes the task of navigating through their back catalogue sometimes challenging. Their record label Thrill Jockey are helping to put some signposts in the ground through re-issuing the seminal records from their back catalogue. These document the way the band’s sound has mutated throughout the years and pull into the spotlight some moments perhaps not fully appreciated at the time. To get somewhat of an insider’s guide, The Quietus caught up with Tortoise member John Herndon just before the band took the stage at this year’s Field Day festival. Over the noise of two nearby competing stages he talked us through his favourite moments on record, live and outside of the band which have shaped Tortoise for him.

The Tar Babies Playing Live


Seeing Dan Bitney’s group The Tar Babies play in Madison, Wisconsin was like being hit by lightning. I had their record Respect Your Nightmares and I couldn’t get enough of the sound of that album. If you’ve never heard it, go and find it today! It’s dark and funk and psychedelic and Midwestern as hell. It’s sound, man, one of the best. So seeing them live, especially in Madison, where the hippy punks came out and just went fucking wild was the best. Tar Babies were James Blood Ulmer and Black Flag, and Hendrix and Funkadelic wrapped up and bouncing in a field somewhere. Bucky Pope is one of the baddest guitarist to ever live. Just saying. One of my favourite bands ever!

Mosquito’s one and only gig


The first Tortoise show was supposed to be us supporting Tom Cora and The Ex. The Ex had some trouble getting across the border from Canada into the United States and it turned out they were not going to make it in time for the show. The gig was at the Lounge Ax, and they decided rather than cancel the show they would make it a free show and just Tortoise – actually under the name Mosquito at the time, ha! our one and only gig under the name – would play. So all our friends came out and packed the house and I thought, ‘holy shit this is amazing, all of our friends are the coolest most awesome people for coming out, and the Lounge Ax is the greatest club in the history of clubs for making it free, and sorry Tom Cora and The Ex couldn’t make it but this might be the best night of my life’.

Drumming with the Mekons


I actually missed the second ever Tortoise show and went on a UK and European tour with the Mekons as their drummer. Somehow Steve Goulding couldn’t do the tour and I was on their list of people to call! One of the greatest tours of my life. We played some bars, clubs, squats. Stayed with friends of theirs, stayed at strange communes in Switzerland. Drank plenty. Sally Timms and Jon Langford live in Chicago so I get to see them fairly often. Two of my favourite people in all the world.

‘Tin Cans & Twine’ from Tortoise


I like playing that song live even though it is twenty years old. It’s just a really open arrangement and you can leave a lot of space or make it more dense and it sort of allows to have a lot of different things going on depending on how people are feeling about the way to approach it on the night. I like that because I think there is an improvisational aspect to it that I find interesting. I guess this contrasts with performing a song like ‘Djed’ live, which became really rigid in the way that we were doing it. We hardly ever play ‘Djed’ live (but had to as part of the ATP Don’t Look Back performance of Millions Now Living Will Never Die) so we kind of set it up as a bunch of samples as a way to play it and it became a totally different thing than recording it. What we like to do is play music without having to have loops or play along to a sequence but that was the only way that we could figure out how to play live. It was interesting the first couple of times, but I like the songs that are a little bit more open like ‘Tin Cans & Twine’, that allow for re-arranging on the spot.

Jeff Parker playing with New Horizons Ensemble


I went to see the New Horizons Ensemble at a club in Chicago because I knew Jeff Parker. We had started to play together by then but hadn’t known each other very long. I had a couple New Horizons records that I liked but had never seen them live. That particular night their regular drummer couldn’t make the gig for some reason so Famoudou Don Moye from The Art Ensemble of Chicago, was sitting in! The band was deadly. Swinging so hard with an insane bounce. So tough. At one point Jeff got into a duet with Don Moye and the rest of the band walked to the sides of the stage (I swear this happened! Jeff says he doesn’t remember it) and the sound was like a free, noise, metallic, spiral that just kept climbing in intensity. I knew that improvised music could be like this, but I had never witnessed something so visceral and sublime like the two of those guys playing together.

Tortoise performing as Tom Zé’s Backing band


Touring with Tom Zé. I don’t even know what to say about this. I wish it could have lasted forever. Tom Zé is one of the kindest, most talented, Tai Chi, ancient-to-the-future, chicken-and-rice-eating humans I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. He was so open about the music and passing his knowledge about how to approach playing his songs. Like the best music teacher you could imagine. His music was hard to play but he was super patient and helped us all to not get hung up. He would wake up at five in the morning and do Tai Chi and vocal exercises on the bus and then go back to bed! I learned so much from him. He showed me a way of having a lifetime in music and art. There is a new Tom Zé box set on Luaka Bop that comes with a 45 with a live recording of Tortoise backing Tom Zé. Get your hands on one because it’s totally burning.

‘Seneca’ from Standards


I like all of our records but I think Standards stands out for me as one of my favourite records we have done. I think it was the first record we recorded when Soma – John McEntire’s studio – opened for business. I think the thing that sort of shaped the tenor of that record was just getting the drum sound. ‘Seneca’ was one of the first songs that we started recording and John had these little reel to reel tape decks that he would use as a pre-amp so he was sort of putting the signal to these little reel-to-reels and then using the playback of the tape and overdriving it really hard and then outputting back into the mix. I think that record was mostly done on Pro Tools but sort of using an analogue tape to flatten and expand the sound. He was sort of like twisting dials and getting a lot of tape compression and that sound came out and we were all just like ‘Holly Shit! That is it – that is the sound!’ That was an exciting point during the recording of Standards, just getting those drum sounds that McEntire was able to get. We did some of that on Beacons as well and I think it’s a very nice sound – it really sort of flattens your eardrums in a very enjoyable way.

Tortoise perform at Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s Meltdown


Playing with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry with Mad Professor at the controls was pretty amazing. The show was part of the Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry Meltdown at Royal Festival Hall. I don’t think Scratch knew he was going to be performing with us until just before the gig when the promoter of the show, Glenn Max, suggested we play our set, come off and for the encore Lee Scratch should come out with us. "Really?!" Scratch asked and looked at us all wide eyed… Hell yessss! We played and fake dubbed and stretched some Tortoise tunes and Mr. Perry chatted on the mic and it was weird and psychedelic, seemed like a dream. I kept trying to take photos and play the drums! I felt like a teenager who had just discovered bong hits for the first time.

Tortoise and Wire’s Colin Newman collaboration for BBC Late Junction Sessions


Oh my God that was super fun! Colin Newman was great – working with him was amazing he was really energetic and super open to ideas. We hadn’t rehearsed before that – we just went into the studio and wrote stuff on the fly. There was one point where, I don’t think it got recorded but Colin Newman got on drums and I was playing guitar and I can’t play guitar at all, but I can play ‘Rise Above’ by Black Flag. So I was playing that and he was playing drums and we just jammed for ten minutes like that and we just laughed.

‘High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In – Eyeremix’ from Beacons of Ancestorship Remixes


I think my favourite remix so far is the one that Yamantaka Eye (from the Boredoms) did for ‘High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In’. When we got it back it was all of this crazy shit. When I heard it I was like how did he do this? Does he live on another planet? Crazy cutting and collaging – it was amazing. Seeing the Boredoms play live – I think I have seen them five times and each time was such a mind-blowing experience. The first time I saw them was at CBGBs. I was playing drums with a band called King Kong- and somehow we got on the bill with them. Eye and Yoshimi were climbing all over the ceiling all the way to the back of the club – it was insane. The next time I saw them was in Chicago and it was like somebody had dropped a bomb. Then they were nice enough to play at an ATP we were curating and they had all the drums facing into the middle of the stage like an apex of a circle – I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. That actually made us reconfigure our own stage set up – put the drums in front facing each other.

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