Tortoise: Synergy Amid Writer’s Block

Though major stylistic strides were taken between TNT and Standards, the band felt that It’s All Around You wasn’t a similar advancement, despite containing some of its finest creations. Whatever came next, Bitney says, called for another evolutionary leap.

Hours were logged in McEntire’s studio, where the band had spent so much time successfully building the brilliance of its back catalog, one chunk at a time, layer by layer. But little workable material came from these sessions, and the band began working on other projects, including a covers record in collaboration with folk mainstay Bonnie “Prince” Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham) and a career-spanning, four-disc box set.

It would take four years to finalize the material for Beacons of Ancestorship, the group’s latest album that must be considered its most diverse release to date.

“This was kind of a strange record,” Parker says of Beacons of Ancestorship. “We kind of started right after we finished touring for It’s All Around You. But we didn’t have any songs, so we just set up some gear and started recording some ideas.

“It was really conceptual. We’d set up this chain of ring-modulated instruments, turn knobs, and see what happened. We did some stuff where everybody in the band played some minimal drum parts. We tried out a lot of experimental, conceptual ideas. A lot of the stuff was interesting, but it wasn’t really going anywhere.”

John Herndon

Ironically, it took a reversal of routine to make progress on the new material. At the advice of a good friend, the band got out of the studio and began writing songs in its rehearsal space. Though Soma previously enabled creativity and production, Tortoise resolved its “writer’s block” via traditional means — playing during practice, as opposed to layering ideas on top of one another in a recording session.

And in another aberration of the Tortoise tradition, Beacons of Ancestorship unfolded as one of the band’s most individualized efforts, birthing roughly two major compositional contributions from each member.

“It really varies by song,” McEntire says. “There were several that were quite finished, conceptually, before we started recording them. There are others that we spent hours and hours and hours trying to develop into something coherent.”

“But the thing is,” McCombs adds, “that even with the tunes where somebody else brought in the idea, it’s usually the collaborative process that makes the tune, and there are different harmonic and melodic elements — and rhythmic elements — that usually become more important than what the person actually brought to the band.”

Leave a Comment