Sometimes a name says it all.
While the music of Tortoise may not move as
slowly as the reptile the band is named after, there’s a methodical
deliberateness to the Chicago band’s way of doing things that perfectly matches
the painstakingly precise movements of a crawling testudine.
describing their show, the music website Consequence of Sound wrote that “All
five musicians navigated around the various stations on stage (including two
drum sets and two vibraphones) in a round robin of showmanship and talent, all
in a silent confidence communicated through raised eyebrows and head
That’s been the MO for Tortoise’s almost entirely instrumental
music for almost 20 years, during which time they’ve helped to bring
progressive, jazz and electronica to the indie rock landscape and have been
credited with perfecting the curiously titled futuristic genre of
For long-time guitarist Jeff Parker, who joined the band in
1996, the label only means that the band abides by no restrictions, opening up
their musical landscape.
“We’re really lucky – we can play at everything,
from folk festival to avant garde electronic shows,” Parker said from his
Chicago home last week, in a slow – you guessed it – deliberate cadence,
contemplating every word. “We’ve shared the stage with hip hop MCs,
improvisational musicians, punk rockers, hard core, you name it. The rock
audiences tend to have more energy and we feed off of that, but we’ve been
really fortunate that people think that our music seems to fit into all that
Parker and his band mates – Dan Bitney, Doug McCombs, John
Herndon and John McEntire – have gained worldwide praise over the course of six
albums and numerous tours for their adventurous, uncompromising sound, which
includes a standard rock setup enhanced by percussive-heavy vibraphone and
Despite the seemingly improvisational nature of the band’s
music, Parker revealed that it’s mostly carefully scripted, with the band
treating their songs like compositions.
“The music is really very
specific, even though we’re an instrumental band, and the way we compose is a
little different than verse, chorus, verse,” he said.
“There are sections
we use to create some space that can be improvisational, but the music is very
scripted in terms of what happens, and there’s not a lot of room for improv and
Which is surprising because, like the other band members,
Parker is well versed in experimental music and jazz, having played with
ensembles like Isotope 27 and the Chicago Underground Trio.
that despite Chicago’s being in the US Midwest, where metal and classic rock
reign supreme, there’s also a healthy alternative music scene that nurtures
bands like Tortoise.
“Chicago has always been a kind of stand-alone place
with a tradition of independent labels,” he said. “The city kind of caters to
the local community that’s somewhat isolated between the two coasts and has
developed a tradition outside of the mainstream. Then again, there’s a lot of
mainstream musicians from here, too – we have Styx and, of course, Chicago,” he
added with a laugh.
Parker was about to embark with Tortoise on a
European tour that will see them arrive in Tel Aviv for its Israel debut on May
31 at the Barby Club – a show that will see them go head to head against
Madonna, who’s performing at Ramat Gan Stadium. While the Material Girl has no
reason to worry that any of her audience will be slumming it for a post-rock
show at a south Tel Aviv rock club, Parker, too, has no illusions that the
average music-listener would be attracted to Tortoise’s sound.
been at this for a while, and our fan base is kind of the same, no matter if
we’re in the US or touring abroad,” he said. “I’d say the crowds are pretty
consistent, no matter where we go. There might be a greater appreciation of art
music in general in Europe than in the US, not that what we do is art music, but
it does come from a tradition of experimentation.”
The band’s experiments
don’t include adding vocals to their music, however. But Parker didn’t rule out
that a future Tortoise song wouldn’t come equipped with lyrics and a
“I can’t really see any of us actually functioning as a singer in
the band, even though I think we can all sing,” he said. “But nobody really
wants to – we’re all instrumentalists.”
And Tortoise’s tried and true
instrumentals are what the crowd will look for – and get – at the Barby Club
next Thursday. As anyone who’s read Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare”
can attest, slow and steady wins the race.