Personal Icon: Tortoise

Music is my own personal dinner party. Tortoise is the uninvited guest who crashed and then became the life of that party. Now I never want them to leave.

The Chicago band’s music is largely indescribable. It is better heard than verbalized. But even that isn’t entirely accurate. One does not hear Tortoise. One experiences Tortoise. Given the opportunity, their sound transports one to another plane of existence.

Tortoise’s entry into my world was so unexpected, I can’t say specifically how they got there. I think it was in the late 90’s during my exploration of alt-Jazz bands Isotope 217 and The Chicago Underground Duo. I think a record store employee ultimately encouraged me to take the leap to Tortoise. It would be my first foray into post-rock, which proved quite impactful.

All the bands worked under an independent label out of Chicago called Thrill Jockey. I’ve often said this was the only label I would’ve pitched my band to. There are more than a few fascinating bands on that label, mostly within the realm of alt-jazz, post-rock, and electronica. But the band making the greatest impression on me has been Tortoise.

I experienced their self-titled debut (released in ’94) first. It was unlike anything else I was experiencing musically at the time. From the onset, I knew I was hearing something unusual. I was deep into my guitar playing at the time, so it eventually hit me: there were two bassists, but no guitar on the record! And it worked out just fine.

Two basses, vibes, marimba, keyboards, and drums. What the hell kind of arrangement was this? And how did it get to be so AWESOME?

I almost immediately bought Totoise’s second album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die. Once again, I was captivated. To make sure it wasn’t just me, I played the album for a friend. She was locked in from the word go, starting with the 20-minute track called “Djed.” When that tune took a sudden and I expected turn mid-tune, she gasped and said, “WHOA …” That told me what I needed to know.

By the time I saw them live for the first time in ’98, they were promoting their third album, TNT, which I hadn’t heard yet. They had also added guitarist Jeff Parker, giving Tortoise yet another layer of depth. “Ten-Day Inrerval” remains an all-time favorite, even if the guitar is minimal.

The album I had the most trouble grasping was 2001’s Standards, perhaps because of the opening tracks initial “wall of sound” approach. It was a bit off-putting at first, but I adjusted. And the grooves behind it were remarkable! It didn’t take long for the album to rank with the rest of the Tortoise catalog.

I saw them again a in ’04 behind It’s All Around You, which — it forced to choose — is probably my favorite record. I remember sitting 15 feet away from them at Mississippi Nights, which was the place to see up and coming bands in St. Louis.

I took a friend to the gig, who seemed a little baffled by what he was hearing. Tortoise is a band rooted more in groove than melody, and the sound was eluding him. He asked, “What am I supposed to do to this?” To which I replied, “Who says you need to do anything?” I don’t know if he ever completely got it, but the guys seated on the other side of me were completely on board, and we grooved the evening away.

A collaboration with Bonnie “Prince” Billy followed, along with a fascinating box set called A Lazarus Taxon. But by ’09, when the band released The Beacons of Ancestorship, Tortoise’s musical well appeared to be running dry, and the band members went on to other projects. I can’t begin to describe my disappointment.

But all was not lost. Tortoise resurfaced in ’16 with The Carastrophist, which also gave me one more chance to see them live. This time, at the Ready Room, I was close enough to the stage to literally pull a drumstick out of McEntire’s bag.

I do so regret not introducing myself and asking for an interview.

Tortoise hasn’t released anything new since that last gig, but why should I let that stop me? That I absolutely must break out their music every few months speaks to their importance. To say nothing of the need to get their catalog on vinyl, even though I already have it on CD. Worth it!

While I’ve never heard anyone in the band declare they were finished, Tortoise’s output has been next to nonexistent for awhile. Perhaps they’ve run out of things to say. If that’s the case, I respect that. Best to quit while you’re ahead.

I’ll never be able to overstate the impact Tortoise has had on my musical life. And should they ever want to come back to the dinner party, I’ll leave the door open for them.


You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell

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