Tortoise’s Dan Bitney is going through a bit of a crisis. After 25 years with the instrumental outfit, the last few years have been about reflection for the percussionist and for good reason too. Everyone goes through this when they approach mid-life and question their choices. “That’s the funny thing, with some of us are getting toward middle age now,” Bitney ponders. “When we were like 30 and you’re like ‘I’m in this band’ and people go ‘…what’s the band?’ and you go ‘It’s Tortoise’ and they’re like ‘…wow! That’s cool’. Then later on, it’s probably not that impressive of an endeavour to some people. When you meet people that are like professors of economics or something (laughs).”
He doesn’t mean this in a bad way at all. “Believe me, I’m proud of it and very humbled at the success we’ve had. I feel we’re lucky, but I also know we’ve worked really hard to be where we are. It’s a weird group because we’ve been together for so long and, it might sound corny, but I love these guys. Really, I’m not insecure as a person (laughs). My perspective is that it’s not the most realistic of paths in life as a parent, like I am now.”
He’s right; Tortoise earned their place as one of the most significant forces in the post-rock movement not by pure ‘luck’, but by pushing boundaries and forging their own path. And, after a seven year break between albums, the quintet have returned with one of their most interesting, intelligent and improvisational recordings to date, The Catastrophist.
Borne from entirely different origins to their previous six releases, The Catastrophist was sparked by a commission from the City of Chicago to develop a series of pieces inspired by their hometown’s storied jazz and music scenes. The project was really just the bones of what became the finished album, with Bitney quick to point out that it took considerable effort to “whittle down” material for this release. “I think it’s removed from the initial idea, but the commission was a good jumpstart,” he says. “For me, making a record has a lot of anxiety going into it. I think in the past when I was younger, it was a lot easier. Their ends up being pressure just to come up with good ideas to present to the other members, then—as a collective—to make a good record.
“It’s definitely not easy for us to put an album together, especially today. With so many people having life changes and with us getting older too. Two members were leaving Chicago for Los Angeles during this record; there was a lot going on. It was different from when we did the first two records when we just all went into the studio and played some music. Now, even recording has changed so much that you can construct a song over a period of a month. So just having finished the record, I was so excited about that. That was a huge accomplishment.”
Marking a subtle change for the band, with more cohesive elements amongst their usual penchant for experimentalisation, their latest also delves even further with the notable addition of vocals making their debut on select tracks. Featuring guests from Yo La Tengo and U.S Maple, this full length reveals a new direction that is not only more mature—but still doesn’t stray from their trademark atmospheric guitars and opulent percussion. “I think music with singing, like when you hear Bob Dylan talk about something like ‘...it’s a rainy morning’ and you think ‘oh my god, it’s a rainy morning! I can relate to that’. You already have this tie. Instrumental music, on one hand, it in itself can be more open because there’s no lyrics to date it. It’s available for all ages to create links with it. This record strikes a balance between the two, and it was definitely an interesting process.”
Although many won’t hear these vocal renditions at their live shows, Bitney is just happy the band is actually touring again after years of writing. “I’d even started teaching music to make ends meet when we weren’t on the road,” he says. “So to be active, after not being active for years, is all that I hoped would happen after the release of this record. And just that people are into it is cool, and getting to see the world again.”
Hear The Catastrophist live for the first time when Tortoise return to Australian and New Zealand shores next month.
Catch them at any of these dates:
Auckland – Kings Arms – December 2 - Co-Presented with Under The Radar
Wellington – San Fran – December 3 - Co-Presented with Under The Radar
Brisbane – The Zoo – December 6
Sydney – Manning Bar – December 7
Melbourne – The Croxton – December 8 - Co-Presented with PBSFM
Adelaide – Fowlers Live – December 9
Perth – Rosemount Hotel – December 10 - Co-Presented with Cool Perth Nights