Tortoise guitarist chats to Clash...

Tortoise are aptly named.

As a collective, the Chicago group are responsible for producing some of the most forward thinking music of the past twenty years, fusing rock, electronics and avant jazz in the process. But Christ, are they slow...

Previous studio album ‘Beacons Of Ancestorship’ dropped in 2009, and since then the band have been inactive to the point of silence. Coaxed over to British shores by Field Day, Tortoise played a typically inspiration set at the London event.

Guitarist Jeff Parker escaped just long enough to chat with ClashMusic for a few minutes. Fresh from his own trio setting ‘Bright Light In Winter’ the Chicago based musician was quiet; softly spoken to the point of almost appearing withdrawn. Each answer was coaxed out gently, a slow moving train of logic that sits almost entirely in keeping with the Tortoise label.

Really, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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‘Bright Light In The Winter’ was the first album under your own name in seven years, was it good to get back in the studio? I believe it was a trio recording as well, that must offer you a different set of challenges?
Yeah completely different, but pretty similar, I mean the process... y’know, in the mid ‘90s or early ‘90s, all of us...there’s a community of us that developed a rapport... and a lot of us were playing in the same bands but different groups and you kind of develop a kind of specific or similar aesthetic in making music, and the trio record I did, the way we constructed it, is not that different from how Tortoise make music. I guess the only difference is improvisation.
One of the things about this year is Tortoise are re-issuing / re-pressing, all their studio albums. When was that decision made? 
It was more of a label decision. We thought it would be good to celebrate the anniversary of a label and y’know she ran it back to us and we thought it was awesome. It’s really cool, the vinyl pressings of the old stuff. It feels really good.
Do you get nostalgic as people, as a band?
You mean in terms of melancholy way or in the middle way?
Sentimentality is what I’m getting at, in a way. 
No. I mean there are certain experiences that you remember around the making of the record and those are some good memories. But as far as the band...we’re still moving and really creative and getting better every year. A lot of the times we listen to the old records, and the either sound juvenile or underdeveloped. The band... we keep moving and getting better and keep writing and keep trying to stay vital and creative.
Tortoise being the beast it is are continually shifting and evolving. So how do you approach the older songs in the live set? 
One of the challenges was... y’know, aside from our last record, a lot of our music is conceived in the environment of the studio. We go in the studio and we create it, like using the editing process to construct things and arrange things. The challenge at times for us is to figure out how to play the stuff live. Most of the well known stuff in our repertoire, we’ve playing it for years. 'TNT' is a song we could never really pull off live, and that’s probably the only one I can think of that fans really want us to play, but we don’t.
How do you go about piecing together a Tortoise set? 
I think the last 3 or 4 years we had a pool of maybe about 20ish songs we were performing live. At this point we had 6 full length albums out and at this point there are dozens of songs. The band has a lot of records to draw from in terms of how much there is on record. We got to a point where we thought... we got sick of playing the same songs over and over again, even though they’re a really good solid set of music that we had... for shows. So, with the reissues in mind, and also the kind of... to challenge ourselves, we started to re-learn a lot of the older songs. So now, when we play live, we have probably twice as much material to draw from. We probably have 35-40 songs to choose from. We played a show at the Empty bottle here in Chicago about a month ago, and we did 2 shows in one night and we pretty much played different songs for both sets, and that felt pretty good. But the occasion of the reissues definitely made us sound...increase our repertoire.
You mentioned earlier that some of the earlier material sounds unfinished or juvenile. Do you think that’s because technology’s moved forward and that what you're capable of now in terms of technology and studio technology is so much richer than it was in the late ‘90s?
Yeah, for sure. Absolutely. One of the band’s benchmark is ‘Djed’ off of ‘Millions Now Living...’ That song is a product of analogue technology. It was created from spicing together takes. When we entered the digital age in the mid to late ‘90s when hard disc recordings came, Pro Tools, and you were able to make much cleaner edits and you were able to experiment with moving sound around in a way that was much more fluid and you could do as much of it as you wanted to. It told me the way Tortoise constructed music to the next level. Even though when we listen to something like ‘Djed’, and think that it’s really cool, the ideas weren’t developed and it’s kind of like a way we presented something that wasn’t... it was small unfinished ideas that were kind of smushed together to make one big thing. Where as now we can develop one idea much more instead of having to work in a way like that.
Are the band still writing just now? 
Yeah, for sure, never stops really. Just between everyone’s schedules and the way which our band works, stuff happens very slowly. We’re Tortoise...old and slow.
Do you find yourselves communicating almost through email now? 
No, we haven’t gone to that level yet.
Do you still have to get together in the same room then?
Yeah, it feels real that way. We already get together frequently as it is, I think that that’s a level...I don’t think we’re ready to go to that level yet.
So why the hold up? Is it just because you have other projects? 
Yeah, like other projects - family. Three of us have young children and older children. Family obligations, other projects and once we’re actually doing the work, the process is slow, because our music relies on experimentation. It’s a lot of experimenting. Figuring out a lot of trial and error, trying things. I can effectively say that we throw away more stuff than we use. We probably have a lot more bad ideas than good ones. That process takes a while, especially when everybody in the band keeps so busy. Doug McCombs, he has a new album out, 'The Sea And Cake', they’re just recording a new album. Everybody’s really active.
So can you envisage a point this year where the band can actually just get together and make music?
 I think sometime in the Fall we’ll probably try and do something new. At least start the process, because it’s been a while. We haven’t even got together in that way since we finished ‘Beacons’.
Are you personally planning to work with the trio or are you just going to leave it with the album?
 I’d like to get a few more gigs. Trying to lineup some gigs in New york, but I guess I have to stick with the work I’ve planned to do, but nothing’s confirmed yet.

To finish, we should maybe talk a little about Chicago. What is it about Chicago as a city that’s embraced so firmly left field music and improvisation?
I think the mid West is more for independent music. Chicago is in the midwest of the United States, it’s not on the coast, where a lot of the industry is. It's not New York, it’s not Los Angeles, it was always forced to create it’s own thing. As a result from that it was forced to create, to make it’s own way in the musical climate. It kind of has it’s own audience here that is really supportive of the local scene, local musicians, traditionally. I’m not saying just now, but it’s always been like that here. People come in from out of town and the audience aren’t as receptive as they’re to the local community. I don’t know, I guess it offers a lot of experimentation... yeah, I guess the climate fosters it more... experimental attitude.

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