Jeff Parker explains ‘Beacons Of Ancestorship’...
Tortoise by Jim Newberry 2009

Ahead of its release this coming Monday, June 22, Clash asked Tortoise’s Jeff Parker to provide us with an invaluable track-by-track guide to the seminal Chicago band’s latest album ‘Beacons Of Ancestorship’.

Look for a full feature on the influential post-rock-cum-jazz-cum-whatever-they-want band – completed by Dan Bitney, Doug McCombs, John Herndon and John McEntire – in issue 40 of Clash Magazine, and a review of ‘Beacons…’ on these very pages next week.

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‘High Class Slim Came Floatin' In’
“This tune was introduced to the band by John Herndon. He played us a demo version he'd recorded of it at his home studio. The Tortoise reinterpretation remained relatively faithful to his initial demo, the only differences being that we added some more harmonies on the bridge, and stretched out the ending. He composed it in the Tortoise style, which is to take two or three different ideas for songs and then smash them together to try and make one song.”

‘Prepare Your Coffin’
“The initial melody and chord changes were introduced by John McEntire. He had a pretty good idea of the direction that he thought the song should take when he presented it to us. Doug McCombs' bassline ended up becoming the countermelody that serves as the introduction before the proper melody comes in. I doubled it up on guitar at practise one day, and Dan suggested we use it as another part separate from the melody. ‘Coffin’ is a lot of fun to play live...”

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Tortoise – ‘Prepare Your Coffin’

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‘Northern Something’
“A holdover from the ‘BUMPS’ session that McEntire, Herndon and Bitney did for Stones Throw a couple of years ago. The bassline sounds like some type of a freaky keyboard, but it's actually a filtered bass drum.”

“Another holdover from the ‘BUMPS’ session. This one was from Dan Bitney. The song went through a lot of transitional phases before we finally settled on the finished version. Once John McEntire put the hammered dulcimer part down, the whole thing really came together.”

“Extrapolations on an idea that John Herndon came up with on the MPC 1000.”

“This was a holdover from the sessions for ‘It's All Around You’. John McEntire came up with the chord progression on a great little push-button chord organ called the Omnichord. We've been playing this tune at shows for probably about five years. It's nice to finally have it on one of our records. Employs use of ‘The Wilhelm Scream’. Look it up.”

‘The Fall Of Seven Diamonds Plus One’
“Introduced to us by Doug McCombs. This one kind of came out of nowhere. Very creative percussion work by Johnny Herndon. It started as a duet with Doug on guitar and Dan on bass guitar, and then we built it up from there. Josh Abrams plays a little bit of acoustic bass on this track.”

“Introduced by Jeff Parker. This whole song is based on a minor chord (hence the title) that was sampled and then moved around. I came up with the chord progression while riding in the back of a van, up a twisty mountain road in Slovenia, which is why it sounds kind of twisty. I improvised over the chord changes, and it ended up becoming the melody of the song. The intro came later, and employs the ‘hocketing’ technique, which was interspersed throughout our last record, ‘It's All Around You’.”

‘Monument Six One Thousand’
“Basically just beats, a synth bassline and the melody comes from some sampled JP guitar phrases, which were later recreated in the studio by JP and McCombs. Inspired by the late, great James Yancey, a.k.a. J

‘de Chelly’
“Introduced by Doug McCombs. A small guitar melody brought to life with great organ chords.”

‘Charteroak Foundation’
“Introduced by JP. Started out as the guitar arpeggio, recorded at home with Ableton Live. I dropped in a drum break, and the way said break was interpreted by the program set the rhythmic foundation of the tune. It was a happy coincidence and after that, everything fell into place. We came up with the bridge of the song during practise one day.”

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‘Beacons Of Ancestorship’ is released on June 22 via Thrill Jockey; find Tortoise online HERE.

Words: Jeff Parker
Photo: Jim Newberry


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