Sonic Beacons: An Interview With Tortoise

Tortoise’s Beacons of Ancestorship, a potent dose of unclassifiable sound that veers from dub, funk and hip-hop to jazz, punk and rock without ever dissipating into incoherence, is the Chicago-based quintet’s most self-assured record yet.

Like indie label Thrill Jockey Records, with which Tortoise has been affiliated since the band’s self-titled 1994 debut, Beacons of Ancestorship pushes the envelope of sound to its breaking point, without giving up accessibility in the process.

Both the band and the label have made comfortable careers over the past two decades by challenging and hypnotizing listeners’ brains in equal measure.

“Tortoise began as an outlet to experiment with different ways to create music,” said Jeff Parker, who plays guitar and bass in the band, in an e-mail to “Over the years we’ve tried to keep it at that. In order to move forward, we have to keep learning and acquiring knowledge. Is this intellectualism? I don’t know. To me, it’s just a natural part of living life.”

The genre deviations, signature changes and sheer blast of Beacons of Ancestorship, released Tuesday, make Tortoise’s sixth standalone full-length sound as if Parker and his comrade multi-instrumentalists (Dan Bitney, John Herndon, Doug McCombs and John McEntire) just got out of a grad school class run by Sun Ra, Devo and J Dilla.

Those are some of Tortoise’s towering influences, according to Parker, along with The Minutemen, David Axelrod, Miles Davis, ZZ Top, The Fall and John and Alice Coltrane. But having influences is one thing: Compressing them into nearly two decades of brainy but approachable musicianship is another.

From the multimovement expanses of “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In” to the electrified funk of “Prepare Your Coffin” (viewable below) and the hypnotic stomp of its finest tune “Gigantes,” Beacons of Ancestorship‘s warp drive sounds like every narcotic beat has been plotted in advance.

“We really had no preconceptions when we started to work on it,” Parker said. “It started out rather unfocused and experimental, and things weren’t coming together very easily. It wasn’t until we made a conscious decision to take a step back that it started to come together. I think the music is pretty reflective of all of our individual musical interests over the past few years; many of us had been DJing and making more beat-driven music.”

Unlike past Tortoise efforts, such as the chilled jazz of the brilliant TNT or the band’s undisputed brain-teaser Millions Now Living Will Never Die, Beacons of Ancestorship is an openly raucous affair, with an emphasis on the rawk. “Yinxianghechengqi” is a distorted punk thrasher the likes of which few Tortoise die-hards have probably heard.

Tortoise bass and guitar player McCombs “has gotten really into classic rock over the past few years,” Parker said. “But what we are all into is always changing, and that open concept always allows room for those influences to shine through.”

Not that McCombs or Parker’s guitars overwhelm Ancestorship‘s sonic spectrum, which fans can hear live when Tortoise launches a months-long tour July 11 in Los Angeles. “Yinxianghechengqi” settles around the three-minute mark, as most great classic rock or punk songs do, but then it takes a turn into an ambient haze of digital static. The moody “Charteroak Foundation” rests on Parker’s spiraling arpeggios, but Tortoise’s many synths get to play across the album like fantastic complements.

“We used a wide variety of synthesized sounds from the Moog Voyager, Micro Korg, Korg MS-20, Oxford OSCar, Elka Synthex and ARP 2600, among others,” said Parker, and a studio trick helped pushed the sound of Beacons to 11: “A lot of the overdriven sounds come from hitting the signal hard to tape during the recording and mixing processes.”

Experimentation, in performance or in the studio, is what has set Tortoise apart from other soundscapers once tagged as post-rock. And even in the new new economy, the band is still playing ball with technology and progress. From letting the fans at July’s Pitchfork Music Festival pick its set list to embracing change in its own work, Tortoise is always looking at what’s coming rather than what’s over.

“All of us are progressive folk, meaning that we’re concerned with moving things forward and making progress in the general sense,” Parker said. “I believe that the re-examination of free-market capitalism that we’re currently seeing will have a positive effect on pop music, and music in general, down the line.”

One thing that is probably over for good, according to Parker, is the music industry as we know it. In fact, it might have committed suicide.

“The digital format has been far more destructive to music than file sharing,” Parker said. “The music industry shoved digitalization down everyone’s throats, and now it’s paying for it. We are seeing the results of a total lack of vision and shortsightedness on the part of the people running things. They totally shot themselves in the foot. The music industry needs to be restructured if it is going to thrive once again.”

This article appeared at Wired