MATH ROCK for the Masses

Over the course of three decades, Chicago quintet Tortoise has achieved that rarest of feats: imbuing their instrumental music with roiling emotion and an instantly recognizable vibe. Equal parts improvisational jazz, math rock, dub, prog pop and every other funny-sounding niche genre under the sun, Tortoise’s seventh album, last year’s The Catastrophist, also pushed them closer to mainstream than ever before.

Oddly enough, that newfound cohesion and concision came from a decidedly experimental place: The city of Chicago commissioned Tortoise to compose several open-ended celebrations of the city’s avant-garde music scene, and the resulting arrangements were honed over several years into minor masterpieces like “Tesseract,” “Hot Coffee” and “Yonder Blue.” The album also contained the first two singing songs in Tortoise’s illustrious history—one was even a cover of “Rock On,” the 1972 classic rock chestnut—a radical departure that percussionist Dan Bitney laughed about in an interview with Folio Weekly.

Folio Weekly: Songs with vocals, more three-minute jams than seven-minute epics, even one song, “Gopher Island,” that’s only a minute long … The Catastrophist seems like a radical departure for Tortoise.

Dan Bitney: It depends on your perspective of our body of work. The “Rock On” cover, we thought, “That’ll be a fun tour single.” Within the context of “Gopher Island,” which precedes it on the record, it works—it’s kind of goofy with these Devo-like drums on it. We don’t plan too much as far as genre-based decisions, but you can see something happening with our aesthetic shifting. We’re more acutely aware of trying not to repeat ourselves, though. That creates pressure to change. You can’t just make the second record forever, even if some people might want us to.

Will the set list on this tour focus onThe Catastrophist?

We try to do an equal mix—the fans have their favorite songs, and those might not be the new ones. But this record is one of the first where we can play every song live. Sometimes on a record, one person might play five instruments, or we use a sequencer. There’s always been a catch. And I guess [on] this album there is, too, with the two singing songs—“Yonder Blue,” which has Georgia [Hubley from Yo La Tengo] singing, we play as an instrumental. That’s fun. And “Rock On” we only play in Chicago with the guy who sang it on record.

Dang—we were hoping you might be singing those on this tour.

[Laughs.] We do play stuff off every record. We have enough songs where we can change the set list every night; if you see the Miami and Jacksonville shows, they’d be different. When we get back to Chicago and play two shows in one day, those will be different. We’ve got enough where we can cycle through—if one of us doesn’t like a song, we’ll say, “Let’s skip that today” or “Give it a rest for a week.” That keeps it fun. There is some weird music [in our past], and as a musician, I like pushing the boundaries of what rock music is. And the new tunes do that. They’re still fun, even after playing 120 shows last year. That’s a good sign.

Another good sign is that, even with an album like The Catastrophist, Tortoise has kept its diehard adherents happy while expanding to newer fans.

I think it’s a good mix. It changes depending on where we are. One of our last shows was in St. Louis, and I was talking to a guy who was old enough to have seen Hendrix. Then you turn around and meet kids who are, like, “I never knew about you guys!”

Everyone in the band has several side projects. Does Tortoise still feel “special” compared to those?

Definitely. For me personally, there’s a set of parameters that has really opened up in the last few records. There was something, I don’t want to say precious, but more stiff about the earlier records. Now we have more of a sense of humor. Some of my rhythm ideas can be pretty pedestrian, and in the old days I would have never brought some of them to the band. I used to have more of a rigid idea of what was appropriate for Tortoise. But lately, everything feels appropriate. That said, it’s important to have other pursuits. I’ve gotten super-involved with the improvisational scene in Chicago, and that’s helped me as a musician.

Given the long, drawn-out, multi-year process of recording The Catastrophist, do you think you’ll approach things differently next time?

We always say, “Let’s go in and knock one out!” Everybody wants that, but we’re pretty bad at planning, and now we’re a multi-city band with three members in Los Angeles and two in Chicago. So it’s a little complicated. There was an idea floating around of a real immediate record—everyone picks one instrument and plays that throughout. Narrowing down our palette would streamline production. But obviously if we were in the middle of that and somebody said, “Man, I really need a string section for this tune,” we would break the rules. So the idea is out there—I’m holding my breath trying to figure out how to kickstart it.