Slow and Steady: Post-rock instrumentalists Tortoise look to the future with a new album and tour

2009 might just be the Year of the Tortoise — what with the band's numerous festival performances, massive tours, the fantastic new Thrill Jockey album Beacons of Ancestorship and a series of live performances of its highly influential 1996 record, Millions Now Living Will Never Die. Since the Chicago instrumental outfit usually subscribes to the slow-and-steady mentality of its namesake, its hare-like pace over the past twelve months is astonishing. Bassist Doug McCombs spoke to B-Sides in anticipation of Tortoise's return to St. Louis.

B-Sides: Did you have any specific goals with Beacons of Ancestorship? It's definitely a departure from [2004's] It's All Around You.

Doug McCombs: With It's All Around You, the focus of that album was trying to hone our skills as songwriters and arrangers. It was kind of us trying to perfect something — or, rather, to make something perfect. So I think when we started working on this new album, we wanted to try and get into something sloppier or messier. So the first thing we did, we just started improvising together. And we tried a few experiments with, for lack of a better term, modern composition, but nothing really came from any of that. In the end, the conceptual theme of Beacons was to just be a little bit rougher around the edges and sound a little more human.

I think that comes out strongly on — I don't know how to pronounce it — [the song] "Yinxianghechengqi."

I know which one you're talking about; I don't know how to pronounce it either. That roughness is always part of the challenge of making Tortoise records. A lot of people associate raw-sounding instruments with low fidelity. If something is right in your face, or it's real distorted or overdriven, or the drums are overdriven, people associate that with poor recording quality. So for us, it's interesting to get things that sound fucked up like that and have it be a high-fidelity recording. The purpose of a high-fidelity recording is for you to hear stuff the way it's meant to be heard, and I guess that's part of what we try to do in this band in the studio. We try to come up with cool, fucked-up sounds that are interesting to hear.

While you were working on Beacons, Tortoise played some shows for All Tomorrow's Parties' Don't Look Back series, where you performed Millions Now Living Will Never Die. Did getting into the mindset of that record influence the new album?

Actually, I feel like doing those Don't Look Back shows was kind of at odds with where we are now as a band. Just because I guess it seems a little, I don't know, counterproductive to me. The last Millions Now Living show was right around the same time that we had been playing a lot of new material from what eventually became our new album. So the point was really driven home because we had all these songs we were excited about playing and here we are planning on playing an album of songs we did fifteen years ago. It just didn't seem very fulfilling.

It seems like people have gravitated toward Millions Now Living lately because it's considered this defining moment in the post-rock movement. Is that flattering?

Well, I definitely appreciate the attention, but I'm just glad people like it and are interested in it. With Millions, we were aware that we were kind of breaking through into something new for ourselves that was going to point the way to what we could do in the future. But other than that, we didn't really see it as a signpost for any sort of movement or anything. It was just sort of a breakthrough for our personal accomplishments, and I think that's kind of the way we look at it still. That album sort of helped us realize the possibilities of what we could do.

Fifteen years after realizing your possibilities, did limiting those shows to only the songs from Millions feel like a regression?

As a group, I feel like we are happy to acknowledge our past. We still have songs from our entire back catalog that we play in a live set. Just focusing on one album and nothing else was a little frustrating. I don't know, it just doesn't seem that healthy. It's not that productive to us to do something like that.

I hope I didn't bring up any bad memories!

Oh, no! I mean, overall it was definitely worth it, and I'm not saying we didn't have a good time doing it. It was just not what our band is really about.