Tortoise: The Chicago School of Democratic Theory

The making of The Catastrophist
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As anyone following the 2016 U.S. Presidential election cycle will tell you, democracy can be scary. But it can also yield wondrous and beautiful results. Take, for instance, the relative peace and comfort democratic nations of the world enjoy in these modern times. Or, as another instance, take the new album from Tortoise, The Catastrophist.

In conversation with John McEntire—founding drummer/keyboardist and engineer of Tortoise’s studio releases—the democratic nature of his band, and how that nature affects the band’s output becomes readily apparent. “Our process is strange,” says McEntire, sitting in the control room of the new Soma Studios, where the album was mixed. “Everyone has an equal voice in how we should proceed, which tends to make things take a bit longer. But it’s interesting because we always drive at someplace that was totally unforeseen.” This ethos has yielded a celebrated collection of diverse, adventurous, and famously description-resistant music (the near-meaningless term “Post-Rock” was invented for Tortoise by head-scratching music critics). This collaborative atmosphere extended to every part of the production process for The Catastrophist, including mix-down. “In the actual working process, I’m running the board, but the other guys are all super involved.”

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All this high-functioning egalitarianism becomes even more impressive when you consider the fact that not all bandmembers were living in the same city during the production of The Catastrophist; guitarist Jeff Parker and drummer/keyboardist John Herndon relocated to Los Angeles in the seven years since Tortoise’s last release, 2009’s Beacons of Ancestorship. That goes double when you consider—and at this point it’s hard not to start thinking of the new album’s title as having some deeper meaning—McEntire moved his entire studio out of the space it had inhabited for the previous 15 years and into the lower level of his house in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. “That set us back six months or so just because of that transition,” McEntire says. “It was a dead stop.”

The transition also meant paring down some of the studio’s impressive hardware collection, but McEntire’s new digs still house a covetable collection of oddball classic synths, outboard gear, and other unique pieces. Gone is the Trident A-Range mixer that used to be at Soma’s core, but in its stead is an extremely rare Electrodyne ACC-1204 from circa ’68-’69. Soma’s current stock of keyed electric instruments is a mix of vintage classics and rare creatures. A small room off the main control space houses a MemoryMoog, ARP Solina, Korg MS-20, Elka Synthex, Oxford OSCar, a Rhodes, a Wurlitzer, and one of the newer, digital Mellotrons (the M4000D). Back in the main control room space lives McEntire’s awesome collection of modular gear, including a big Eurorack frame “with many manufacturers represented,” an ARP 2600, and a CMS MC-24.

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While McEntire curates this collection with obvious care and consideration, he remains gearagnostic when it comes to production. When asked if any of the compositions on The Catastrophist were inspired by any piece of hardware in particular, McEntire’s answer is “not really.” One track, “Gesceap,” was “written on a Lowery Organ, like a weird home organ. . . it influenced the way the piece progressed” but didn’t even end up on the final recording (ultimately being replaced by a Farfisa Mini Compact, a Roland C-80, and a Moog Minimoog Model D for the low tones). Though Soma’s hardware collection is impressive, McEntire doesn’t feel obligated to work outside the box. “I’m certain [SoundToys] Decapitator would have appeared on every song,” he mentions, citing also the Sonnox GML EQ and SoundRaddix’s Auto Align as plug-ins that get used “daily.”

Keyboards and synths were generally recorded direct to allow for liberal experimentation with in-the-box reamping via Line6’s AmpFarm plugin, and MIDI performances captured along with audio whenever possible to allow for further future tweaking. When I mention that the new album struck me as pristine and hi-fi when compared with the previous outing, McEntire assures me it is not by design: “It’s never a top-down process; we don’t have an end vision of how it’s going to sound. It just kind of emerges.���

This open-minded approach to composition and production yields some truly memorable moments and unique textures on The Catastrophist. Take, for instance, “Gopher Island,” which features a comically fat synth bass, heavily processed acoustic drums, and a run time of 1:33—a track that somehow manages to be both whimsical and menacing. (When I pressed John for the source of that bass tone, his response was “Nobody can remember, sorry!”)

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By contrast, the aforementioned “Gesceap,” which clocks in at 7:37, is a winding, evolving landscape of interwoven organ lines and polyrhythmic guitar and snare counterpoint that threatens to fall apart but somehow never does. “Yonder Blue” sports a dreamy, nostalgic vibe thanks to the clever processing of the drum track—100 percent wet through an EchoPlex clone called The Plex, then nudged forward to align with the rest of the performances. The result perfectly complements the lounge-worthy vocals provided by Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley.

Oh right, this is the first Tortoise album (not counting their collaboration with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, The Brave and the Bold) to feature lead vocals—on two tracks. The second is a trippy, tricky cover of David Essex’s “Rock On,” menacingly sung by U.S. Maple guitarist Todd Rittman. Perhaps what’s most surprising about these two tracks is how little they stick out from the rest of the material on the album. It’s a feat made possible not only by Tortoise’s years of far-reaching experimentation, but also McEntire’s clever production touches. Hubley’s voice is a dreamy smear awash in a gentle din; Rittman’s is hard-panned and doubled, a ’70s-rock Cerberus on the prowl, the band his diabolic wingmen.

Yet as pleasing as these diversions are, the longtime Tortoise listener may wonder: Why now? Perhaps a reason for these guest appearances can be found in the instigating event of this newest album. The band was commissioned by the City of Chicago to write music with the intention of inviting musicians from the city’s vibrant jazz and improvised music scene to join the band for a performance at Millennium Park. These works were mostly sketches, frameworks for showcasing the guest players. When it came time to make the new record, the Millennium Park commissions served as a jumping-off point. However, the final, composed tracks on The Catastrophist are not a stark document of the live band.

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“Everything that we do [during production] tends to be a construction job—there’s very little that has four or all five of us playing live at the same time,” McEntire explains. This makes taking Tortoise songs on the road yet another challenge the band throws its collectivist energies at. “When we do get ready to prepare for a tour, it’s a bit of reverse engineering; people may have played certain parts on the record but end up playing something entirely different live. It takes a few weeks to figure out.”

At the Catastrophist release show in Chicago’s new Thalia Hall, the band was a participatory democracy in miniature, going so far as to build a temporary stage in the middle of the otherwise traditional venue’s general admission section (the show was billed as “Tortoise in the Round”). McEntire, Herndon, and drummer/keyboardist/percussionist Dan Bitney rotated between two drum kits and four keyboard stations. A laptop—a “hackintosh” running Reason 4—sat near center stage, controlled by a CME keyboard controller and a Kenton Killamix knob controller. Additional textures and samples were triggered by a Marimba Lumina, which nearly every member of the band got a turn at whacking, sometimes concurrently. Guitarist Parker stepped away from his guitar for a song to put some time in on the vibraphone, and bassist Doug McCombs manned a MicroKorg after handing his bass off to Herndon.

There is no apparent power-center in the Tortoise stage plot, no identifiable performance hierarchy, and yet as the band moved from robo-funk to trip-hop to acid-jazz, there was always a sense of effortless cohesion and unified intent. A lesson to be applied, come what catastrophes may.