Tortoise: Synergy Amid Writer’s Block

Parker’s addition to Tortoise came just before Slint guitarist David Pajo departed, resulting in a jazzier sound that changed the band’s guitar approach from a complementary element to an occasional focal point, much more capable of carrying a given piece. His first recording with the band, TNT (1998), launched what many consider to be the golden age of Tortoise.

“I love to play with as many different people as I can,” says Parker, one of Chicago’s busiest improvisational musicians. “I feel that there’s something to learn from every musical situation, be it positive or negative or whether it reinforces something that you’re dealing with anyway. Fortunately for us, for the collaborations that we’ve done, they’ve all been really positive and interesting.”

Jeff Parker

Parker credits Tortoise’s late-1990s stint as the backing band for Tom Zé, a legend of Brazil’s Tropicália movement, as being the band’s first powerful collaboration and opening their eyes to new possibilities.

“We did a tour with him for three weeks, and he’s someone who has so much depth and knowledge,” Parker says. “And besides being an elder, he also has this whole different musical sphere — Brazilian music and samba rhythm — and it kind of blew everybody’s mind. It was fantastic. I think that we all became a lot better musicians afterward.”

Indeed, Tortoise seemed to hit a synergistic stride immediately following this alliance, focusing its newfound musical awareness into Standards, an album that challenges for the title of best in the band’s catalog. Yet this work with Zé is just one of countless internal and external collaborations — collaborations that may paradoxically prove both vital and stunting to the band’s output.

Ironically, the same collaborative energy that drives Tortoise’s material tends to draw attention and energy away from the band, as outside musicians, fans, and the band itself seek to hear each member in a new context, one to which each member uniquely lends his own musical voice.

“It definitely makes us a stronger band to be involved in a variety of musical projects,” McCombs says.

Doug McCombs

“I think there is a pressure on us,” Bitney adds, “because it seems obvious that [collaborating] is what we should do — that it’s important for our careers. And I’m like, ‘You know what? The Ventures never hooked up with Mel Tormé or anything.’ It all seems interesting, and there are possibilities, but somehow there’s a pressure to it.”

Undoubtedly, pressure is something that Tortoise also feels from within, as it strives to reach its self-imposed expectations. In the past, they remained productive despite these standards; no more than three years passed between any full-length albums from 1994 to 2004. Yet unpredictably, this strain surfaced as the inimitable quintet set to follow up It’s All Around You in early 2005, and a group renowned for originality and creativity hit a wall.

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