Marching Through Ages: Our Interview With Dan Bitney, Co-Founder of Tortoise

For some bands, a name is more than a name. Take Tortoise, for example. It’s not a moniker that inspires speed but resilience, a steady onward progress towards goals that most of us can’t begin to fathom, and if that’s not an apt description of the Chicago innovators then what is? After seven years in the wilderness they have returned with another uncategorisable gem in The Catastrophist, and we nabbed co-founder Dan Bitney to find out what keeps Tortoise marching through the ages.

You’re just about to head out on a pretty sizeable tour and your first in a while. How are you guys gearing up for that?
It’s going to be fun. We’re excited. We’ve just spent a whole week rehearsing every day from 8:30 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon, just rocking the stuff, so it’s getting good. When we make a record we don’t necessarily worry about how to perform it, we just make the song into what we think it should be. Unlike most other bands, we spend most of the rehearsal time trying to figure out who’s going to play what instrument, if it even works to play live. It’s been a fun week, just figuring that out.

Have any of the new songs presenting more of a problem than the rest?
There’s one song that I play drums – “Tesseract” – but I didn’t want to just let somebody else drum. It’s the only song I drum on on that record so I want to be in that seat and so I put John, who usually doesn’t play bass, in the position of playing bass and he did a great job. He learned it and it sounds really nice. We run into stuff like that. Certain people have their voices but the two Johns and myself, all being drummers, sometimes are put at a station where it’s not necessarily where you thought you would be. I don’t know if you know these things but they’re called synares. It’s from the 70s and it’s a little drum that looks like a UFO – a disco drum, basically. Well, on the David Essex cover all I played was that, doing this low-frequency wubwub – it sounds kind of like dubstep bass. It’s not odd for us to not play on a song. Certain members just won’t be on a composition so it gets tricky in that regard, where you have to say, “Even though I’m not playing on the song on the record, I have to do something because we have to play it live.” You have to imagine something to do or create a new role. It’s tricky like that and for the most part, on this record, we really are rehearsing the whole thing which is kind of odd. Usually, there’d be at least 40% that you know you can’t even play because you know it’s not going to work in a live setting. This one’s a little different in that we can really play the whole record.

What does determine what makes the cut, then? Is it purely logistics or do you look for certain qualities that will translate well to a live setting?
Most of it at this point is logistics. I’m a bit more obsessive with trying to pare down what we use and travel with. I’m kind of obsessed with not paying baggage fees, which is the opposite of when we’re in the studio where it’s not uncommon for us to, with one melody, layer four instruments. We might put organ on top of a vibraphone on top of some orchestral bells so it’s a duality in that the recording is exploration and trying different things, but live I want to make it that we’re not carrying all this stuff around. The biggest work we have now after having rehearsed for a week straight is how to build the sampler and how to make its tones sound really good and what keyboards to use on stage. For the live setting, certain songs might not even work. We’ll see how it goes but I’m stuck on logistics at the moment.

This album originated from a commission from the city of Chicago. How did that come around and how much did the material change from that initial brief?
It’s changed dramatically, really. I’m not sure when but our city went through a drastic change that’s probably reflected throughout Europe and the world. We used to have funding for the arts in Chicago – there used to be a bit more money, there used to be a bit more of a presence. A lot of those people are gone and a lot of the good ones moved to the NEA, the National Endowment for the Arts, but just being who we are we knew a lot of the people closer to the top that would curate these performances and so we got asked. The idea was to use musicians from the creative music scene and the improviser scene in Chicago which we all know and work with outside of the band. We teamed up with them and it was a really good experiment in that usually when we write music it’s drawn out and very long. It’s almost like clay. Even if somebody has a really good idea for a composition, you’ve got to really form it into a shape and that seems like it’s really a long process. It was an experiment in that we didn’t really have that much time to write the material and then we took it upon ourselves to incorporate these other musicians. The one thing that I would say is that if you heard a recording of it you would hear Jeff’s guitar tone, you would hear Doug’s bass tone, you would hear both Johns playing the drums – I just played the synthesizer. I think you could tell it was us and that there was a quality to it but you wouldn’t necessarily say, “Oh, that’s Tortoise!” because it has these other players, and maybe what we did with the ideas wasn’t so original either in the forms of orchestration or composition. It was a little, I don’t want to say generic, but it wasn’t our voice so when we went in the studio, I remember not even considering that we were going to use those compositions for the recording. I was thinking, “Oh, what are we going to do?” And then those guys started working on that stuff. I thought it was great. I thought it was a really good idea and I’m really happy with the results. We really worked with the stuff and made it sound like us. It was easier than starting from scratch but it was still a long process.

Given how long it has been since the last album, and from that initial commission, just how long did it take to pull everything together?
It’s not fair to say it took seven years because we weren’t working. It was really the last year and I’m not exactly certain but I wouldn’t say it was more than a few months of working on it in the studio. It’s not uncommon for us to have a gap, like the gap between the last two records was five years but we were still very active and playing a lot, but in the last few years I had a daughter. We slowed down as far as playing shows and it made life a little more challenging. You kind of relied on the income. It made my life a little more complicated to the point where you start to wonder if you made the right decision to take on this creative life. I can also say I just dove into the creative music scene in Chicago more than I ever had in the past. As far as being a musician, a drummer and a multi-instrumentalist, it’s probably the best thing that could have happened because I’m playing a lot more with people and doing a lot more improv and creative music whereas if I was just touring I’d be playing the same songs every night. I advanced but it’s been difficult. Now we’re ready to start up again and start touring. We move really slow. We have fans, but people forget; people have short memories. I think we are in a strange position where we’re older but there are people who are out there becoming music lovers who probably don’t have an idea of what we do or even what it is. That’s kind of interesting.

Tortoise by Andrew Paynter

“I think we are in a strange position where we’re older but there are people who are out there becoming music lovers who probably don’t have an idea of what we do or even what it is. That’s kind of interesting.”

Even saying that, though, the albums you released in the 90s are held in incredibly high regard. Do you think that puts any pressure on new material?
The thing is, I know that and I appreciate it, and I also feel that I love stuff off Standards as much as I love that second record, so for me I love all these different songs from throughout the catalogue. I realise why that happened and I realise the magnitude of the beauty of a song like Djed but it’s contextual. Back when that happened, it was pretty original and strange. I find that from Beacons Of Ancestorship, it really starts to become that you’re careful not to do something that sounds like a song you already made. There is a blueprint for Tortoise, and even on the new record there were moments I thought were reminiscent of other compositions. I can’t specifically point them out, but in the studio there might be points where I pick up a bass and start playing something and find it was too close to a song we already have. There’re so many bands where they’re creating a brand and an aesthetic, trying to find a sound that you want to be able to describe very easily for writers and the public to help market it, but with us it’s kind of the opposite. We’ve been a band for 20 years and we’re trying to not ever repeat ourselves. I always use ‘the Ramones theory ‘- obviously, they’re not going to make a jazz record. They found what they did and they did it. I think there was pressure early on because Millions… was regarded as a really great record. There was pressure for following that up but now I feel like there’s more pressure to not just do the same old thing and sound like our old compositions. That’s the pressure I feel. Just trying to come up with good ideas, that’s the hardest thing. For the first song on The Catastrophist, I’m counting myself as a good drummer but to have three drummers with the skills that we have being older dudes, it took us so long to even imagine what kind of drum patterns to play underneath that song. That’s why it takes so long too.

Did having the gap help with this album, not only to give you time to develop as musicians but also to gather ideas that could be brought together at once?
It definitely does. Part of our writing nowadays really is people bringing sketches on computer demos. We each had a bit more of those to bring and time made that happen for sure. I think there can be something about not slowing down with your activities that would be more conducive to being more creative and productive. I would like to say that we wouldn’t wait as long next time but we always say that. “It’s not going to be four years next time!” But it never works that way. People are busy, people are working on other projects. Life happens, basically, and before you know it, it’s seven years later!

With The Catastrophist, there seems to be a very playful mood that runs throughout the whole album. Did you go into the writing with an overall feel like that in mind?
Apart from some of the music coming from that commissioned performance we never really have a concept behind any of these records. People always think, especially in the old days, that it’s planned out but really we’re not that concept-driven in the initial stages of recording and/or the artwork. A lot of it’s after the fact. The song titles are the perfect example of that in that I’m not exactly sure of what song’s titled what. I have a little list here so I can check. There’s been a duality in Tortoise in that we are perceived to be very serious, like scientists of rock, and there is that quality but even the cover art for TNT was us trying to show this humour that we have and some people didn’t want that to be our artwork for that record. Showing some of our humour is how I perceive this one, especially with the artwork and the title.

Where did that title come from?
I don’t know. John Herndon just kind of presented it and I just looked at that cover photo and was like, “Yep, that’s it. That’s perfect.” I remember asking some body, a Spanish speaker, how you say catastrophe in Spanish and he said that it was the same. “Okay, that’s it. That seals the deal.” I don’t know why that would be so profound for me! Maybe it’s situational and it was because I was hanging out with a Spanish-speaker. I can tie it in with being a human and taking on the endeavour of being an artist, a musician, and creative people are sensitive people. It’s not an easy lifestyle. There are times when I think I’m crazy for thinking I can do this, that I can be a professional musician in this day and age with a family playing weird music. There’s times when I think I should just get a job, become… something. That’s how I see it. Maybe we are the catastrophists for thinking that we can do this, that we can make music in this day and age. How’s that!?

That’s a lot deeper than I was expecting!
Pretty bleak and heavy, but you know what I mean! It’s a lot easier if you’re 22 years and you just got done with school, you’re not sure what you’re doing and you’re sleeping on a couch.

Tortoise by Andrew Paynter“With Tortoise, I think there’s a quality in the music where people don’t mind if it’s different”

You’re all regarded as great musicians and a lot of that seems to be to do with the fact that you all have so many avenues of expression. How much do you feel you’ve managed to develop in your time in the band?
For me, my quality as a multi-instrumentalist is that I can be very adaptable, switching instruments. I’m not sure that that’s the best thing to do to be able to develop a singular voice. Obviously, most people would pick a single instrument and develop a voice to work with throughout their career. With me, being in the group is being able to play with high-quality musicians and getting challenged. Like I mentioned, the gap for me was moving into the improv scene here. That built my skills. Usually, I approach that realm as a drummer or as an electronic musician. To me, that’s more conducive to advancing as a musician as opposed to writing songs and playing the parts in Tortoise. A lot more of the growth comes from the creative music scene in these smaller shows, where you make mistakes and stuff doesn’t work with improv all the time but then you build as a musician and you have crazier ideas to bring to everyone. Tortoise is lucky. I’d say most bands make a record and then they really just try to represent what the recording is while they tour the world. With Tortoise, I think there’s a quality in the music where people don’t mind if it’s different. Obviously, you want to be able to recognise key elements of compositions but we’ve already changed compositions from the record. Maybe we should have done these rehearsals before we finished mixing the songs because we’re changing the compositions already. Certain lengths of sections are different now and it’s not to the point where people are going to be disappointed. You’d really have to know the song to do that but I think with the quality of what we’re doing, we have leeway. My point is that you get better at the compositions but you don’t necessarily get that much better as a musician playing the same song every night. The composition will get better over the course of two or three months but if you’re playing a part, you’re not necessarily growing that much as a musician. That sounds bad, doesn’t it?

Not really. It’s great that Chicago has a scene that allows you to develop in that way. Was there always that kind of environment?
I think it has been because, if we’re talking historically, when some of us arrived here it was on the downside. I think it’s true with most cities in the US. If you look at New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was on the verge of bankruptcy and Chicago’s no different, really. You had a city based on manufacturing and those jobs were dying, there were heroin problems from the late, mid-60s and it’s classic gentrification, really. We all moved into a very depressed region of the city that was mostly Puerto Rican and it was an area where you would get an apartment for very little money. It’s like a classic blueprint for creativity in that you get a cheap apartment and a very inexpensive lifestyle in that you could work two days in a bar and play music with your friends. It was very easy to get shows at small venues and a lot of that’s changed. Now, it’s an expensive city but as opposed to New York, I think a lot of people here were a little bit less career-driven. Stereotypically, I think some of the New York people had a trajectory of “I want to be a straight-ahead jazz player” or “I want to be in this rock band.” I think Chicago, due to the economy and some of the cultures, is a very segregated city but there is a thriving creative music scene with the AACM and there’re people that go between these worlds. Tortoise was always kind of right there. We were into the jazz music and some of us came from the rock world. It seemed like a very good environment for exploration or crossing some of these boundaries. I’m sure there are people that did that in other cities but I think a lot more of it happened here and a lot of it is due to economics and where artists move into, these depressed areas. The areas change – I basically had to keep moving west. I would get priced out of an area. They call them ‘pioneers’ because you live in a really sketchy area for a while and then it gets nice so you can’t afford it and move again. It’s really cultivated now in that there are these really good venues that host really quality creative music. I’m sure there are similar scenes in New York and Europe, even possibly L.A. but I’m not so sure about that, but Chicago really has a history. It’s drawing people from the Midwest and if you’re really good and want to be a musician, people will want to come to Chicago either to study or to play with other people that they think are good. It’s kind of the story of Tortoise as a lot of us are not from within Chicago but if you were in any kind of counter-culture back then, that’s what you did. It’s harder to be weird in a small town. You gravitated towards where you thought it was happening.

What do you feel looking back to those early days and to your legacy?
I have fond memories of those days but as a human you clean up your memories. I forget what era, but it started when we were doing press and thinking that people perceive Chicago as a magical place, like the Shangri-la of the rock world. In some ways, it is. Some of us used to play weekly gigs and you’d get tourists who couldn’t believe that some of us would be in these small clubs and there wasn’t a cover charge. I’m an optimist for the most part but I remember the other side. Here’s another story of people complaining about gentrification. “Oh yeah, I remember when kids would chase you with golf clubs, threatening to bash your skull in. So much better back then!” As magical as stuff seems, it was never that simple. Any human can realise that but I think I feel lucky. We worked really hard at creating what we created and touring so much, playing for so many people and we were lucky to do that. We matched that luck with hard work and fortunately for us we did get a few royalty cheques before the world of selling music changed on everyone. I made a little money, you know what I mean? In that regard, that was nice. Sometimes I think, “Oh my God, what if I was still getting royalty cheques?” I don’t dwell on it but it does occur to me.

Words by Dave Bowes // Photos by Andrew Paynter – THE CATASTROPHIST IS OUT NOW VIA THRILL JOCKEY
You can also read the interview here:

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed