The group’s origins lie in the late 1980s pairing of Doug McCombs (bassist with Eleventh Dream Day) and drummer John Herndon, who initially wanted to establish themselves as a freelance rhythm section (like reggae legends Sly and Robbie). The idea did not come to fruition, but their interest in grooving rhythms, as well as their recording studio knowledge led to partnerships with drummer John McEntire and bassist Bundy K. Brown (both formerly of Bastro) joining, followed by percussionist Dan Bitney. Though songs are credited to all the musicians, McEntire became perceived as the group’s guiding force, as his contributions mainly took the form of being the recording engineer and mixer.
Their first single was issued in 1993, and their self-titled debut album followed a year later. Instrumental and mostly mid-tempo, Tortoise slowly garnered praise and attention, notably for its unusual instrumentation (two bass guitars, three percussionists switching between drums, vibraphones and marimbas). A remix album followed, Rhythms, Resolutions and Clusters.
They also released a Japanese-only compilation featuring tracks from the eponymous debut, Rhythms, singles and compilation appearances. Named A Digest Compendium of the Tortoise’s World on November 21, 1996
In 1998, Tortoise released TNT, arguably their most jazz-inflected album. Jeff Parker had joined as a guitarist alongside Pajo, who left the band following the album’s completion.
2001 led to Standards, where Tortoise incorporated more electronic sounds and post-production into its music than in previous works. In 2001, the band curated an edition of the British All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. They then returned in 2004 to curate another day of the same event.
Tortoise released their previous to last album Beacons of Ancestorship on June 23, 2009. The band toured the Midwestern US in September and October 2009, and then in Europe in November and December.
The band performed at the ATP New York 2010 music festival, which was held in Monticello, New York.
In 2012, Tortoise wrote and recorded the soundtrack to Eduardo Sánchez‘s Lovely Molly, a psychological horror film partly inspired by traditional folk-songs.
In July 2013, photos and short videos of the band recording new music were posted to Tortoise’s official Instagram and Facebook pages. On April 20, 2014, the band wrote on their Facebook page: “Hello, Facebook. We are heading back into the studio next week – LP VII in progress. Tokyo, Osaka, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Taiwan – see you soon.”
On October 6, 2015, it was announced that a new album, called The Catastrophist, would be released in early 2016 by Thrill Jockey. Additionally, a single from the new album, entitled Gesceap, was released and it is available on YouTube. Mail order pressings of the album are available through Thrill Jockey as of October 10, 2015.
The Catastrophist Tour Book intimately captures Tortoise during their 2016 west coast tour in support of The Catastrophist. The 6” x 8.5” 80 page perfect bound book features photographs shot by photographer Andrew Paynter on black and white film. In addition to live performance images, the book showcases intimate backstage moments as well as photos from the road
Packaged with the book is a download coupon for access to unreleased live recordings from the tour + a CD of Tortoise’s 2016 album The Catastrophist with new artwork exclusive to this book release.
BOOK + CD option gives you the 80 page photo book + download card of unreleased live recordings from the tour + CD of The Catastrophist with artwork exclusive to this release.
BOOK option gives you the 80 page photo book + download card of unreleased live recordings from the tour
TOTE BAG features the set list matrix used on the tour. Each night a set list column was selected (A-J). The set list runs from top to bottom with two markers at the end for Encore 1 and Encore 2. Each song is identified by the first three letters. How many songs can you identify?
Photographer Andrew Paynter on the project : This book… came about from the long term relationship I’ve had with both this band and their label, Thrill Jockey. I first came to meet some of the members through mutual friend, Tommy Guerrero. Over the years I started to contribute occasionally as a creative collaborator. The band used several of my photographs for their A Lazarus Taxon packaging. Then, in 2010 they commissioned me to both direct a music video from Beacons of Ancestorship and to also art direct & contribute images from my ‘SF Lines’ work. The band also used other images for additional 12 inch records and then seven years went by. I did think often about the idea of going on the road with them, but was patiently awaiting a return to the stage, as they took a long break between records. So the idea to do something long form became a reality. Once it was set, I organized to jump on the road with the band to cover the entire West Coast of North America and with an addition of a trip to Arcosanti, Arizona. I brought three cameras, Leica M6, Hasselblad X-Pan and a Pentax 67. I only shot b&w film and I kept my ideas simple and did my best to not force situations, but to simply capture them from the perspective of an insider. My craving to shoot from the hip in a reportage fashion was finally fulfilled on this 10 day project. I’m proud to say, this is my very first book.
Tortoise’s Douglas McCombs on touring and the live experience: Twenty five years ago in the early days of Tortoise there was a perception that we were a recording project. This perception was probably exacerbated by the fact that we barely played any live shows in the first three years. The reality is that we were slow in getting our band up and running due to a variety of logistical circumstances, internal and external.
Performing live was always a priority and a prime motivator in forming the band in the first place. By the time opportunities arose for us to tour in a self sustaining manner we couldn’t have been happier. This is what we wanted to do, and thankfully the audience showed up.
Presenting our slightly unconventional material was occasionally a challenge. We had to lug around more equipment than your average band and often had to deal with temperamental synthesizers and samplers that would fail at inopportune moments. Still, it was exciting and very rewarding.
These days a band at our level makes most of our living by playing live shows. It’s no secret that record sales are substantially lower than they used to be. At the same time we are all maintaining families that we didn’t have twenty years ago which makes organizing a tour exponentially more difficult. Still, every time we step on a stage we are trying to invest ourselves in the performance as much as possible so that we can give the audience a unique experience. We want you to know that we consider it a privilege to play our music for you.
As Tortoise rose to prominence in their early career, their often instrumental music has been noted for its ambiguous categorization. The members have roots in Chicago‘s fertile music scene, playing in various indie rock and punk rock groups. Tortoise was among the first American indie rock bands to incorporate styles closer to krautrock, dub, minimal music, electronica and various jazz styles, rather than the strong rock and roll roots that had dominated the genre.
Tortoise has been cited as being one of the prime forces behind the development and popularity of the post-rock movement. CMJ writer Jim Allen highlighted the influence of progressive rock on Tortoise’s post-rock style.
Tortoise owns a very particular sound that mixes various styles such as krautrock, ambient, jazz and rhythm blues, which, in a modern and creative way, generate an authentic identity for the band and which results in different records like TNT, the his main studio album. The classic Tortoise album is not for everyone! Even being laborious to absorb it in the first ears. In it, experimentalism is taken seriously, without simple melodies or “friendly” instrumentation, full of broken rhythms, guitars that come out of nowhere and unusual movements. However, this is what makes TNT a unique and different album from the others, because instead of taking only flat bases and background textures, as is usual in “ambient” and / or post-rock albums, here we have a different thing on drums and guitars. At TNT, we go from a relaxing pace, as is the case with I Set My Face to the Hillside, to something extremely experimental like Almost Always is Nearly Enought. In all cases, we note that beats and percussion are the most evident points in their tracks. Its instrumental structure is built by the roots of jazz and rhythm blues that are exposed in percussion and bass, being the most explored elements on the disc. The guitars are played with arpeggios / fingerings and punctual riffs – as if they were sound minutiae that decorate the melodies and make them more “palatable”. The “strange” background sounds (random voices, slides, xylophones, synthesizers) give the final touch to the songs that, together with the organic instruments, generate the eccentric atmosphere of Tortoise. TNT is a creative album that requires a dedicated ear to taste it, as its instrumental line is so well worked and out of the box that to absorb it you must be willing to a new musical sensation. With this, its aspects such as the jazz rhythm, the experimentalism of the krautrock and its sound environment, create a wonderful artistic experience – something psychedelic, sedative and vibrant. Main songs: TNT, Swung from the Gutters, I Set My Face to the Hillside Favorite music: I Set My Face to the Hillside, Four-Day Interval