Music Interview: Tortoise slowly saves rock

The hare pranced around the tortoise gleefully when he accepted the challenge. Of course the hare would beat the slow plodding turtle. On the day of the race the hare sprinted off, leaving the tortoise in the dust. Tired out and very much in the lead, the hare decided to take a nap. Moving at his same steady pace, the tortoise passed the snoozing hare, beating him to the finish line.

As everyone knows, the moral of the old fable is slow and steady wins the race. However, if the tortoise in the story had really been Tortoise, the Chicago post-rock band, the moral would have been something harder to discern. Indeed, in the ’90s Tortoise was heralded as the saviour of indie music, combining a background in the American underground rock scene with an exploration of new instruments and rhythms, they routinely baffled and delighted their audience.

“We tried to approach being in a rock band the way jazz musicians would,” says Doug McCombs, one of several bass players in the band. “We started the band with a focus on bass and drums. We thought it was a really cool thing to bring into a rock band.”

Crafting a distinctive sound through the use of unique time signatures, deft playing and mallet instruments like the marimbas, Tortoise has infused their music with a strong, persistent, simmering energy. Lately the band has been maturing, allowing their sound to grow while still remaining recognizably Tortoise.

“We’re getting older, we’re learning more, becoming better musicians,” explains McCombs.

Part of this maturation has been broadening their horizons with side projects. When not working on Tortoise, band members keep themselves occupied with a plethora of activities. McCombs alone can be found in Brokeback, Eleventh Dream Day and Pullman.

“We find it’s really healthy,” he says of taking some time off. “It develops other aspects of us and makes us more well rounded musicians. When we get back, we have more ideas to put back in to the band.”

Those new ideas are being shared with some very deserving musicians. On a recent trip to Chicago, Canadian hip-hop favourite Buck 65 called them up for a chance to get together and play some music. The result of these efforts can be heard Saturday at the Calgary Folk Fest on the Mercury stage, when Tortoise will grace the stage with Buck 65 and Hawksley Workman, before doing their own set.

“It’s all pretty loose, the concept of putting different musicians together,” muses McCombs. “There’s a bit of a fly by the seat of your pants attitude towards it.”

The near future certainly seems promising for the Tortoise camp. They already have plans for a collaboration with the breathtaking Will Oldham as well as releasing an album of Springsteen and Devo covers, and possibly setting out for some more touring.

In this Tortoise’s case the moral of the story should be: why bother wasting all that energy running when you can all just chill at the start line and make music together?

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