After a few years of appearing relatively inactive to the untrained eye, Tortoise is again on tour promoting their newest record, Beacons of Ancestorship. I was able to catch up with Dan Bitney over the phone Wednesday afternoon, and he graciously answered all of my questions even though he was starving for some Tex-Mex. We talked about what the guys have been up to over the last few years, their music-making process, and we discuss who represents the metaphorical hare for Tortoise.
So how’s it been going with the tour?
It’s a weird kind of press tour, stuff we’ve never done like radio stations and in-stores and tv shows…it’s pretty weird, you know, we’re usually doing bus tours where you’re playing every day so it doesn’t make sense to double it up. You know, we’re stepping it up. we believe in this new record so much and we’re stepping it up.
Well, we believe in it too.
So what’ve you guys been doing in the meantime?
You know, we’re still super active…I mean I know how it’s listed it seems like we haven’t done anything. We’re lucky that we do a lot of small tours. But you know, like last year we were super commuters going to Europe every weekend for like three months. You know, so tortoise is still pretty active…we’re not like the Foo Fighters where we go out for eleven months each time we have a new record, but we do stay pretty active. And we’ve always had the type of situation where people play in a lot of other bands, too.
Right. And so you guys did do a tour, what was it, like two years ago, where you didn’t have a new album to promote. Do you like it better to necessarily do that kind of thing as opposed to a promotional tour? it must be awesome to be able to see that kind of strong fan base during the in-between periods.
Yeah I mean I think we’re super lucky that it’s non-genre specific so we can do the Oslo jazz festival and get these weird other gigs. But you know, kind of the most important thing about having the new tunes is that it’s just really exciting for us to be able to play new material, you know. And also a kind of interesting thing about this new record, at least for me personally, is that I always kind of had tracks that I made at home that were maybe a little more generic. And I thought, well, that’s no good for Tortoise because it’s a disco song, you know what I mean? so some of those parameters, some of those walls…it’s kind of like we opened up a little bit more with the different kinds of ideas that we’re bringing in, which is exciting. It’s just because of that time passing, and it’s not necessarily like anybody discovered a new genre, but some of the new stuff is very abstract. But it might kind of almost be like some hip-hop, too, so it’s an exciting record for us in that sense also.
Do you find that being non-genre specific makes your fans more receptive to your evolutionary process and experimentation?
You know, I mean it’s hard for us to tell from where we are. I mean, we can’t really see a different type of audience coming necessarily to our shows. Through our career with the early albums we attracted hipsters and people involved in the arts. It’s weird for me to say. Definitely over the years we stumbled into the jam band audience in certain areas of the country. But i don’t know, I think it’ll be interesting to see, you know? But the drummers, John McEntire, John Herndon and I, we did a record of all drums for Stones Throw last year, and we did notice after that record we did kind of get a lot of people who look more like they’re into hip hop showing up at the gigs. Usually most people are pretty open to creative music, and they can tell it’s not some gimmicky young cute guys making stuff that’s gimmicky. people can tell that it’s real and there’s a commitment on our part to it. I think that’s what comes off right away.
Yeah and I think that’s another awesome thing about you guys, you know, you can kind of just do your own thing. Obviously you want people to be receptive to your music, but you don’t have to worry so much that you’re catering to any specific audience.
Yeah, thanks. I mean really it started…you wouldn’t start a band like this in the early 90’s if you wanted to be famous or anything. Because really, back then it just seemed like the weirdest music. You know, it was the whole grunge explosion and whatnot. And people of my age, we kind of saw people doing that, that like, you know, they fell off. And something about society and marketing kind of caught up, and it’s like, oh god, there were all these bands that were so much better than Nirvana kind of doing this sort of thing. But then obviously after a while, with some of our success the parameters did change. Now it is, you know, for most of us it is our livelihood. And there was pressure on this record we thought. I personally thought, there has to be a bigger step than the ones we took between Standards and It’s All Around You. That’s why I think some of it is a little more…i don’t want to say contemporary…but it really did influence what we put into this record as far as material and thought. So you know, it is weird that it did become our livelihood. I guess my point is you can’t even try to imagine what people want to hear.
Right. And so, you know, with the experimentation process you guys have done over the years, is there anything you’ve found that just doesn’t work for you?
Well I think a lot of people think we have concepts before we start to work, and really, creatively for this record we were really just kind of scrambling to come up with basically everything that’s on the record. I mean the first song, for instance, has three movements. And we didn’t ever think, okay, this tune is going to have three movements. We had two of them worked out and we were playing it like that, and then I kind of was nudging people for this last movement. I was like, you know there’s parts of our live show where we open up some of the compositions, like our tune ‘Swung From The Gutters’, we have this whole open section in the middle where we get the two drummers going and then really it can be different every night. Some nights it might not be happening and it might just be a short section. So I really wanted that energy, and I was like, god, we do that so good, but working with these compositions none of that energy shows up on the record. So I really pushed everybody for this open space rock kind of section in the song. You know, so it’s really like we’re scrambling. There’s really no leftover material when we’re done making a record…there may be like one little thing or something, but you know, there can’t be a box set in like five years with all the stuff that didn’t make it on the record. We even had two weeks last year where we tried to improv, but none of it was really that strong. It made me think that maybe need to learn how to write together again because it’s been so long. But John ended up kind of splicing all that stuff together on…i don’t want to say iTunes, but it’s like a bonus track. I think he did a great job on it. And there’s funny stuff, like Jeff plays drums on one of the little sections and normally he doesn’t do that. So having fun and improving, but if you tried to look at those things as songs you’d think, oh shit, it’s really not working! (laughs)
So for that whole song writing process like you were just talking about, how do you guys contribute? Does one person have an idea and it flows from there, or is it collaborative?
Yeah it goes across the board. some people might bring in really just a simple melody and you kind of build around that. On a song like ‘Prepare Your Coffin’, that song went through probably like five versions of the actual song structure meaning the lengths of the different sections and even the part where it drops the bass and drums…we really just stumbled upon that and thought it would be super cool to have in there. So whoever’s in the studio can really kind of suggest stuff and things will be revealed. Like while you’re mixing you might think, oh it’d be great if everything stopped except for this, you know? And something as simple as ‘Gigantes’, I kind of had the drum parts worked out that was a leftover from another project and I just kind of brought that in. And it was made on the computer so it was like drum machine tones and I really just kind of taught the other drummers. I think it was John McEntire and myself, I was like, oh it’s super easy, you just play this bass drum pattern and layer these shakers and stuff, and then it was up to other people to kind of come in, like Jeff came in with a bassline. I gave a copy to my friend Rodney Anderson in Chicago, and he’s like a genius. He’s like my barometer because I know he won’t lie and say he likes it if he doesn’t. He’s like one of those people that you really need to have around, you know? So he said, “Well, I think you guys got ADD. All the songs are shorter.” And I said, well, you know, these days people don’t need to listen to whole songs. But then he mentioned some of the tunes are like, not everybody playing on it. And that’s always been, for me, a weird part of this band where I feel like I’m not just like this anxious dude who’s trying to get in on every song. You know, sometimes you just say it doesn’t need anything more. You know, I could go in and layer a glockenspiel over a flute and…you know what i mean? It takes something to say a song is just great how it is. And after that too there’s always gonna be people that have to play parts that somebody else made on the recording because, you know, we never think we can’t layer all that stuff because we won’t be able to play it live. That’s another interesting point that’s different with this band, you know? Once you make the record you really have to learn how to play the stuff. (laughs) Most bands write and then kind of go in and bang stuff out and they don’t have to worry about it.
So do you always feel that a song has to be totally complete, or do you find it’s okay to leave songs kind of unfinished?
Yeah I mean, I think that with this band, too, we change a lot of stuff later on. We just did a show today in Austin and you know I just had an idea to change the song structure while we were in the radio station. It was the punk rock Chinese song, and that song had a bunch of different versions and structures, and even on the record we cut out one of the sections. And I just had an idea today and thought let’s just play the b-section to it again at the end, and it’s kind of like the classic rock ending where you watch the drummer and he hits the symbols, just a huge BOOM! I was like, let’s put the b-section on again and everyone watch John Herndon, so when he’s hitting those symbols we all kind of do it in unison. There’s a lot of songs we wouldn’t change just because they are kind of strong and definite, but there are definitely songs where we might just say let’s try to do it different or something.
So if you’re the tortoise, who’s the hare?
Oh man, I don’t know, like the Jonas Brothers or something? I don’t know, isn’t that it?
I mean, yeah. That’s a pretty accurate statement.
Maybe I should dis somebody with that question, though. But I mean, I’m not a hater.
Well, think about it and we’ll come back at the end to see if you’ve come up with something better. Okay so I’m basically going to really exploit that your band is called Tortoise and continue with these tortoise-based questions.
Yeah, everyone does it, it sucks! (laughs)
Okay so tortoises usually live to be around 150 years old. What do you want to see when you’re 150 years old? Because I’ve already decided you’re going to live that long.
What do I want to see? When I’m 150 years old I want to see a cure for cancer a cure for aids…I want to see poverty wiped out, racism wiped out, genocide wiped out, global warming wiped out…I only got a couple more in me before I start crying! (laughs) That’s probably it. If I got three of those I’d be really happy. I mean, if I even got one of them, I’d be really happy.
So tortoises are herbivores, as wikipedia has told me. what does your diet consist of while you’re on tour?
Well, while on tour it gets a little challenging. I try to eat well but sometimes you’re just stuck, you know? I can tell you last night I wanted good and evil food so I got a Mediterranean salad and two steak tacos. So that’s a good representation of the yin and yang from my diet. It’s so hard to travel and get good food, though, you know? And then getting time for food…I’m starved out of my mind right now! I guess I’m gonna go for some Tex-Mex again. When I’m at home I have a garden…I have a lot of berries growing, a lot of vegetables, although my wife just called me and said she caught a squirrel running away with one of our first ripe tomatoes. Which is weird, because I didn’t think squirrels ate tomatoes.
Yeah, I can’t say I thought they liked tomatoes either. That is weird. Okay so do you want to change your answer about the hare?
No, we can stick with the Jonas Brothers. Or I guess we could throw in, what’s her name, Hannah Montana.
Maybe Disney Channel as a whole is the hare.
*Don’t forget to check out Tortoise w/ Grey Reverend at the Black Cat this Sunday July 19th! tonight @ The Black Cat In the meantime, you can check out their MySpace and their official website for more Tortoise.