Clip: Greg Kot interviews Tortoise's Dan Bitney
After more than a decade, Tortoise so past post-rock label
By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic
Published September 29, 2006
More than a decade and five albums deep into a career that began as a
side project, Tortoise is finally taking a deep breath and looking
back. "A Lazarus Taxon" (Thrill Jockey) is a handsome three-CD,
one-DVD box set that collects rarities, re-mixes and videos from
throughout the Chicago quintet's history.
It's remarkable stuff, including a ferocious live performance of "Salt
the Skies" that quickly puts to rest any notions that this smart
instrumental combo is somehow not a "rock" band. And a video of
"Seneca," complete with monkey masks and a bevy of dancing children on
the locally produced, quirky cable TV dance show "Chic-A-Go-Go" is
nearly worth the dirt-cheap $19.98 list price all by itself.
The box reaffirms Tortoise as one of the most important bands Chicago
has ever produced, a band equally at home playing with Brazilian pop
trickster Tom Ze or free-jazz giant Fred Anderson. Besides making the
vibraphone cool again, Doug McCombs, John Herndon, John McEntire, Jeff
Parker and Dan Bitney forged a fresh sound that brought a hip-hop
sensibility to rock music.
They did it by embracing the notion of the eternal remix; inherent in
their music was the premise that every song was never finished, but a
continual work in progress. Their ideas, imported from Jamaican
dub-reggae, Brazilian Tropicalia, German art-rock and '70s jazz fusion
as much as rock, helped shape a world that later would embrace the
boundary-leaping sounds of Radiohead and Gorillaz.
On Friday, Tortoise will play two shows at the Empty Bottle to mark
the retrospective box-set release. In an interview, Bitney recounted
the road that got them there:
Kot: How did you meet the guys?
Bitney: I moved to Chicago [from Madison] and went to Lounge Ax and
saw Doug and John [Herndon] play [in an early version of Tortoise].
They were living three blocks away from me in Wicker Park. I never saw
it as a "band." It was more like, "Let's hang out, do some recording,
play some shows." It was a different era. Nirvana was huge, and we
didn't want to be another power rock band. I spent the better part of
the '80s in guitar-driven punk and funk bands, and I was listening to
more jazz and dub and experimental stuff. It was like, "Grunge is
killing us ... [so] let's do something else."
Kot: You must've cringed being labeled "post-rock" visionaries?
Bitney: Yeah. I figured we'd go to New York and there would be 15
people at the shows. But there were a lot more. I remember thinking I
was with these hipsters, and the hipness was vast [laughs]. It
contained New York! At that point we were resonating even more in
Europe. We played London and Germany more than we played Chicago. We
were [cast in the European press as] these scientists who had this big
theory of deconstructing rock. We were made into geniuses. People
projected all sorts of stuff onto us. For me, we were just being
reactionary to what was going on in music at the time.
Kot: Did all the attention affect the music?
Bitney: Unfortunately, it does. I'm kind of a victim of that. You get
insecure at times. At first it didn't feel like a "career" band for
some of us. But now I wonder how long I can sustain myself from this
Kot: How has the music changed?
Bitney: [In the '90s] we moved from analog tape into Pro Tools [a
digital editing and recording medium], and started really using the
studio. With "Standards" [a 2001 album], we got more aggressive, more
immediate, and started to use more traditional rock or jazz
instrumentation. It was not strange for a song to have one drummer,
one bass, keyboards and guitar on it. Whereas the earlier stuff might
have two basses, a drummer and some weird little noises in the back.
We'd hang out in the studio and play one looping melody for 15 hours,
and then a new part would come up. It's a strange way to write songs
and it gives you a good representation of a melodic or rhythmic
element. But when you play a song 200 times live, you can lay into it
more, play it with more conviction, explore it more. So one of the
ideas for the next album is to write stuff ahead of time. We need a
paradigm shift to keep things fresh.
Kot: I love the monkey masks, by the way.
Bitney: We're always perceived as this super-serious band. The Germans
especially had this idea that we had this ideology to destroy all
music. But the humor is there, in a tune like "Madison Area" [featured
on the box set]. You go out to get a burrito after working on a song,
come back, and there's a new element on there that John [McEntire]
flew in and we're all cracking up about it. It's not rocket science.