Tortoise's music has the bizarre ability to make its members appear less like simple creators and more like antennas tuned to inaudible global vibrations. It's a restless and subversive sound that encompasses various styles, but the Chicago band's greatest achievement, as manifested in a pair of albums and a few singles, has been to offer variations on the two major permutations of dub tradition.
Last year's Tortoise LP displays the musical spirit and studio smarts of the music of Augustus Pablo, African Head Charge, and other artists whose lasting gift has been an original instrumental music, produced out of what feels to be thin air. The recently released Rhymes, Resolutions & Clusters features radically remixed versions of some of Tortoise's tracks, employing crazed dub remix stylings gleaned from wizards like Lee "Scratch" Perry. It's tempting to peg Tortoise as the world's greatest indie dub band, though the tag glosses over the group's divergent impulses.
"It would be ridiculous for us to try to be a reggae band," observes founding member John Herndon (ex of the Poster Children). (Musical roles within Tortoise constantly shift, though Herndon usually plays drums and vibes, while Dan Bitney contributes percussion, bass, keys, and various samples.) Instead of reading reggae and dub styles as an aesthetic crib sheet, the band uses them to create a common ground from which the musicians work out their aural excursions.
"Some of the people in the band aren't really that attracted to [reggae and dub]," Herndon says, "but it overlaps with other experimental music, so if [they] aren't necessarily into dub per se, they're still into weird tones and stuff like that. And we're all very into space noises."
A shared emulation of reggae did lead to the genesis of Tortoise, however. Four years ago, Herndon approached Douglas McCombs, then the bassist of Eleventh Dream Day, and floated the idea of the two collaborating on a new project.
"I was thinking it would be cool to have a rhythm section that could play around on a lot of things, kind of like Sly and Robbie," Herndon says, referring to the legendary rhythm section that, by some estimates, provided the backbone for 75 percent of all reggae releases during several different musical eras. The thought of a similar team forcing indie America to focus on rhythm for a change is certainly tempting, but Tortoise soon grew beyond these original intentions.
The duo cut tracks with producer Brad Wood before deciding to bring John McEntire and Bundy Brown into the fold. Both had served time in Seam and Bastro, and McEntire also plays in Gastr del Sol and the Sea and Cake. Tortoise soon had offers to play live shows, but realized that reproducing their overdub-laden studio savvy would require another warm body; they recruited Dan Bitney (late of SST spaz rockers the Tar Babies).
Working with the potentially unwieldy structures of multiple basses, various percussive devices, keyboards, vibes, melodica, guitars, and samples, the resulting debut LP demonstrated an amazing cohesion and chemistry, considering that the paint was barely dry on the group's final lineup. Recorded and mixed by McEntire, the record sounds like a spot-on transmission across space and time; listen to it long enough, and the world seems to stand still. Although Tortoise almost never features actual reggae rhythms, its time-release sense of control symbolically links its best moments with dub classics like Burning Spear's Garvey's Ghost.
For Rhymes, Resolutions & Clusters, band members remixed some tracks, while others were given to various friends and technicians, under instruction to create something completely different from the original. McEntire's "Alcohall" builds overlaying drum fills into a colliding sequence that sounds tailor-made for the ghostly vocals of the late Prince Far I. Brad Wood's "Puerto Rico Mix" of "Tin Cans & Twine," one of the most eerily beautiful moments on Tortoise, pumps the bass before yanking it out from under you.
And "Ry Cooder," one of Tortoise's more genteel tracks, becomes something else entirely in the hands of Steve Albini: first a "realistic" soundscape that recalls the "getting in the car" prologue to KISS's "Detroit Rock City"; then a heightened drum mix of the original; and then the lovely strains of dirty tape heads and overloaded VU meters. Now you, the listener, can enjoy the illusion of blown speakers in the comfort of your own home.
As commentators like Simon Reynolds and Dick Hebdige have always pointed out, the large Jamaican presence in the U.K. has affected British styles in ways not generally felt in American music (hip hop notwithstanding, of course). So it's interesting that this experimentation is happening in Chicago, where local popular styles have often been linked with British counterparts, from house to the bass-driven Jesus Lizard/Shellac model. But there's also a more indigenous connection in Tortoise's music that recalls the moment when the hypnotic instrumental strains of Slint arose from the ashes of the Midwestern post-punk of Squirrel Bait.
"When I was into hardcore, that was all I listened to, and that gets tired after a while," Bitney explains. "I was playing in all these loud guitar bands, [but] I was listening to lots of hip hop, reggae, and jazz. Finally there was a point where I thought, 'What am I playing in these bands for, when I don't even listen to this music when I'm not playing it?' "
The Tortoise constellation includes more Earthbound projR>ects that demonstrate how these lessons can be applied in more familiar contexts. In particular, the Sea and Cake, which features McEntire on drums, keyboards, and vibes, as well as behind the board as a recording engineer. That band melds New Zealand/Big Star pop tendencies with a subtly funky rhythm section, jazzy guitars, coy vocals, and more of those outer-space noises, to create a wondrous brand of blue-eyed astronaut soul.
Where all this comes from is anybody's guess. Herndon says Tortoise's songs just seem to evolve, as individual ideas filter through a group consciousness, a process made especially audible on the import-only "Camera"/"Cliff Dweller Society" single. Once it all comes out, what you get is groove music for the waning millennium, perfect for your ever-changing moodiness.
The Sea and Cake opens for Pram Thurs, Sept. 14, at the Kilowatt in S.F.; call 861-2595.