"It's pretty simple. There's no smoke and mirrors. We're just a musical group." John Herndon is looking for a way to make it clearer, to say that all he and the rest of the guys in his band do is plug things into amps and set up microphones and try not to think that hard. He screws up his face, a little disappointed that he's had to wake up early to say these things into a tape recorder again. Finally, an answer surfaces in the cafe au lait steaming short-lived curlicues into the air in front of him. "We just, like, play instruments."
For a second I feel sorry for him -- sorry that I've rewarded his work with this kind of slow torture and sorry that I've still got 15 questions left to ask him. It's one of those situations where each of us knows that the other one knows that this sucks, and that we're only here because we're attracted to what the other one does: Me, I like Tortoise, Herndon's band, and the music they make; Herndon, he wants to sell a couple copies of Standards, the record he and his bandmates have just released, and he knows I can help him. That's why the coffee's still steaming, and I'm getting nervous, and John McEntire, another member of the band, is leaning back in his seat a little, relieved that I'm not pointing my tape recorder at him for a second. Herndon swallows and tries one last time.
"We think about things on a musical level," he sort of frowns. "Doing things that sound good musically to us are the decisions that we end up making."
Fair enough, I tell him, loosening my grip. I kind of like the idea that this band that has quietly transformed the underground music scene in its decade together did so with no agenda, no laboratory-devised scheme to draw attention to its freewheeling bouillabaisse o'sound -- one rooted in traditional rock forms but increasingly informed by more exotic sources: the throbbing choogle of vintage Krautrock, funk's rhythmic elasticity, Ennio Morricone's sun-baked strum 'n' twang, the billowing flutter and wow of German electronic music. Standards, more than any other record the band has released, backs up that story. Tortoise's fourth album, it's the group's most relaxed effort yet, full of life, giddy with vim, but cool as lemonade, too.
I tell the guys -- who by now aren't even trying to hide their grimaces -- that it sounds like they've grown into their own skin, like they're happy with what they're doing and have become comfortable with the idea of simply being Tortoise. Doug McCombs, the band's bassist, throws me a bone. "Yeah, there's definitely some truth to that," he says. "However, we were definitely trying to make something new or take a step in some new direction. At the same time, we were trying to not overdo it and make something very immediate."
If anything, the new direction McCombs mentions is the band's willingness to let it all hang out. As the title winkingly suggests, Standards is a handy distillation of Tortoise's history. Less electronic than 1998's TNT, but more fucked-with than the band's early, earthy work, it stakes out a heady midpoint between live-band chemistry and postproduction science. Songs such as "Monica" ride fat-to-the-point-of-bursting grooves straight out of old Herbie Hancock and Frank Zappa records, yet come encased in a reflective digital sheen.
McEntire, coming out from behind his tea for a second, explains that that was part of the point. "On TNT we did a lot of recording and then editing after the fact," he says, citing the new album's three-week recording period. "[With Standards] it was a little bit different. We had a few things that were more put together before we started recording them."
"We definitely made an effort to come up with decisions for song arrangements before recording," Herndon pipes in, apparently interested in the conversation's turn. "So there would be a group of people working on the arrangements of the tunes, even if other people were working on another tune in the control room."
I tell them the image of Chicago's most revered post-rockers scurrying about the studio, working like a group of excited Fraggles, makes me smile, and is one that I find a little surprising. Prior to meeting them, I explain, I always envisioned Tortoise as the kind of guys who sit around in long-sleeved shirts and hunch over their guitars, looking up only for more effects pedals and the occasional breath. They laugh -- well, sort of -- and backtrack a bit, making sure I know that while they're not studio nerds, they're also not improv-happy longhairs.
"We never have really been the type of band that rehearsed well, for whatever reason," Herndon explains. McEntire, at the bottom of what I'd feared was a never-ending cup of tea, sees an in. "We can rehearse well when we know what we're gonna do," he specifies, "but if we're at the beginning and we don't have any kind of focus, it's just really difficult."
No jamming, then? No weekendlong benders full of cheap liquor and complex arpeggios?
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"I think we've done it twice," McEntire deadpans. "Oh, we've jammed," Herndon, digging into his role as McEntire's straight-guy foil, assures me. "But it was so fucking burning, we couldn't even put it on a record. Your stereo would just explode."
We all laugh. Sort of. I take a sip of my coffee, which by now is cold and really wasn't all that great to start with, more a prop than a beverage, and remember why I'm here, and why the guys sitting across the table look like they were ready to go a half-hour ago. I ask Doug McCombs, the one who apparently really, really hates doing interviews, how it is that Tortoise has managed to confound expectations for all these years, how they've surprised us again by doing exactly what it is that comes naturally to them. How their new album, which comes packaged in a cut-up American flag, sounds like the most obvious thing in the world, only it's the most startling.
"There's no agenda to write certain pieces in different ways," he says evenly. "But in the pursuit of creating something new, we do try to avoid taking the easy way out of a song sometimes. Instead of following what's logical, we choose to do the illogical."
I nod my head, relieved that I finally got the quote I came here to get, and tell the guys they can go. They linger for a second, hesitant to leave too quickly. Then, as elegantly as their records unfurl themselves, they're gone.