Slow and steady

Chicago-based post-rock band Tortoise makes its Israeli debut next week.

Tortoise (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
In 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 nods.”
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 post-rock.
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 stuff.”
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 marimbas.
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 jamming.”
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.
He explained 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.
“We’ve 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 singer.
“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.