Interview, photos and footnotes by Steve Albini, 1995
Talk Is Cheap - so cheap it's free, and comes barreling at
you non-stop like junk mail. In Chicago, the talk is about bands and has been
for years. Chicago has a history of bands forming on a whim, the "band" almost
always being another arrangement of a set of players who are already in six or
eight other bands. Back in the day (the pre-slacker heyday when bands had
preposterous and pretentious names and anything was possible) there was a period
when Naked Raygun, Silver Abuse, Toothpaste, the Bonemen of Barumba and the
Wayouts all had common members, and didn't blanch at playing each others' songs
(thus beginning the "who wrote 'Bombshelter'?" controversy that rages to this
clay - "rages" is a funny word, I guess, since there are probably only about six
people left who would remember or care, but they're probably still wondering).
There were even "poster bands" who only existed in rehearsal rooms and as names
on flyers pasted on every flat surface. If anybody ever actually saw a gig by
Dog at Large, Lazorblades or A Mason In Ur, I'll give you a buck. Wait a
minute... I saw A Mason in Ur once.
The "maturation" of the Wicker Park scene over the last few years (aided by a steady influx of post-collegiate bohemians and heroin from Ohio) spurred a rebirth of the many bands/few musicians duality; this time fueled by the musicians' desire to be as noticed as possible, but being too fucked up to keep anything going for more than a few weeks/hours at a time. This phase will be recorded in the Big Book of Chicago Rock as "The Really bad Period," during which you could see your choice of sixty dreadful bands any night of the week, and never have to walk more than 20 minutes (the distance from Rainbo Donuts to the Rainbo Lounge).
Three years ago (roughly speaking, you know how the memory goes with age), the talk of yet another new band began again among the usual sources - musicians, scenesters, pot dealers, barmaids - with a twist: This re-arrangement of scene regulars was supposed to be really good. By that I mean they were supposed to not suck. Not suck and be good, I mean. Before long the evidence was before us: a demo of skeletal music, a pair of beautiful, moody singles, a handful of enveloping live shows, and ultimately an amazing album that displays a brilliant and talented band stretching its legs for the first time. The Tortoise LP is hands down the best record ever made in Chicago. Yes, including "Vehicle" by the Ides of March and "Gacy's Place" by the Mentally Ill.
The lineup is a loose and evolving assembly of (usually) two basses, (often) two drummers, (sometimes) additional hand percussion, melodica, vibes, keyboards and saxophone. What looks on paper like a nightmare of forcedly-eclectic jamming "musicians" is prevented from being so by the one thing you can't buy, borrow or steal: genius.
Some people call it "jazz" - even some who don't mean it as an insult. these people are clearly fucked. You can tell the difference just by listening. One of the worst things about "jazz" is the way musicians are encouraged to strut their stuff in solos - in a perverse parody of "Peter and the Wolf," where the instruments trot out one by one, in a comical little parade. One of Tortoise's most elegant traits is the way every member of Tortoise bears, as an essential part of the sound, an equal role, even if he is doing nothing at the moment - the nothing is a studied, sculpted nothing without which the fabric of the music would collapse. "Jazz," my ass.
Another distinguishing feature of Tortoise is the Putney, an archaic analog synthesizer and sound modifier that John McEntire "liberated" from the Oberlin electronic music lab. If such a beast can be said to have a virtuoso, he is John.
In the months since the album, the band has changed membership, but the guiding principles remain: an aesthetic unfettered by style, technical and instrumental facility, and a communal approach to the structure of the music at hand. There have been other transitional recordings released, and an imminent full-length record which promises to be as brilliant and diverse as their epoch-making first LP. — Steve Albini