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The Tortoise Taught Us

Chicago collective outraces critical hares with its genre-melding mind warps

In music, genres are used to simplify things so that would-be fans don't need to investigate every act that comes out of the chute. But in some ways, categorizing is a dismissal of the basic function of thought. Everyone speaks from his own frame of reference, each comparison or contrast based in one's own finite catalog of ideas. However, in certain cases, the spectrum may be too broad, or narrow, to provide an accurate label.

The 12-year-old Chicago music collective known as Tortoise makes music that defies genre-specific terms. The group's fans run the gamut from hip-hopsters to indie hipsters, from jazzbos to trance kids, and if any of these people were to describe Tortoise's music, their definitions, though varied, would all be correct. With each member of Tortoise having disparate roots in rock, jazz, house and everything in between, their music is more a product of all that has been waxed in the last 20 years. Somehow Tortoise reflects the music that inspired each member, while providing insight to what the sounds of the future may be.

"It always makes me feel happy," says Tortoise co-founder John Herndon, "that people can hear our music and feel like they can get something out of it. And to me, if what our band does is make people branch their listening habits out, like they wonder what does this represent, or what does that represent, and people go and check out albums that they may have not otherwise thought to, then I think that's special."

Tortoise in transit, in Mormon disguises.
Susan Anderson
Tortoise in transit, in Mormon disguises.

An instrumental outfit, Tortoise crafts records that can go from Herbie Hancock-esque jazz to minimal rock stylings. One minute you hear flamenco guitar, the next you hear 808-type drums that fade into sounds that mirror Fela Kuti's Afro-funk. Kraut rock, film music and cool jazz also fit under this Tortoise's carapace. Despite a continuous morphing of sound and structure on its records and various remix singles, Tortoise rarely, if ever, sounds forced or out of place.

The band focuses more on the collective rather than on the individual talents of the musicians, who could each be a front man in his own right. E pluribus unum ("from many, one") is as appropriate a motto for Tortoise as it is for the United States. Each member shares duties on all of the instruments, so that the group's sound may change dramatically from song to song, depending on who's playing what. Whereas one tune may lean toward a harder drumbeat with Dan Bitney or John McEntire on the skins, Herndon's rhythm can send the band into dubby realms or jazzy strata. Jeff Parker may lay out a smooth George Benson-style guitar line, or he could go straight into Sonny Sharrock territory with the lightning change of one chord. Douglas McCombs's bass can provide a soulful backdrop or a gentle bottom sound that recalls the hum of ocean waves.

"It happens all types of different ways depending on the song," notes Herndon. "Generally we're working for what is going to sound good with each song. Sometimes it's just happy accidents, like this sounds good with this. There was this one song -- I'm trying to think of what it is" -- he never does -- "and it's like we had the basic structure and we were trying to come up with a melody line. Dan had a melody from a tune he was working with on his MPC [a sampler/beat arranger], but it was in a different key and the song actually modulated to a different key within the song, so we figured out a way to incorporate it in the song even though it wasn't written for that song."

Tortoise's recorded tunes transform into completely different creatures in concert. The live performances are a must-see experience for anyone who is a champion of musicianship, as the band takes what seems like studio-dependent songs and changes them into jam sessions that are as much a banquet for the eyes as for the ears. The group's live takes generate even more respect for these talented multi-instrumentalists.

"We definitely try to come up with versions of the tunes to play live," says Herndon. "Some of the stuff on the record is so thick with layered instruments that we have to decide what's really important and what can go."

In these musicians' eyes, all interpretations and conclusions about their tunes are to be decided by the listener. Their records are a journey through decades of amazing sounds. Yet Tortoise doesn't see itself as being different from any other group that tries to play good music. The band presents itself as such, a band with no individual's contribution being more important than the whole. If anything, Tortoise hopes only to inspire people to celebrate good music, and if along the way they change people's preconceptions, so much the better.

 
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