"I've never been in a band that I wanted to break-up. I want to keep them all going. I feel like Tortoise has the potential to keep doing stuff for as long as we want and whenever we want, it just might possibly be more sporadic."

Doug McCombs is sat in the lobby of a London hotel taking time out from a far-reaching world tour which Tortoise, the band he has played bass guitar in for the past twenty-odd years, are currently engaged in. He is joined by John Herndon who started the band with him in Chicago in 1990. "I was in a band called Precious Wax Drippings and we played shows all the time with Eleventh Dream Day - the band that Doug was in - and we became friends," says John, before Doug chips in, "Tortoise started around the idea that Johnny and I had to play together."

In fact the pair had imagined themselves as a rhythm section for hire, sort of like an indie-rock Sly and Robbie, but when they met with recording engineer and multi-instrumentalist John McEntire, Tortoise started to take shape. Their other musical projects continued of course, but two decades and seven Tortoise albums later they have made one of their finest records to date with the inventive and varied The Catastrophist. Musically this new album is as hard to define as the rest of their work, though jazz, dub and atmospheric instrumental rock are still much to the fore.

The seeds of The Catastrophist were sown as far back as 2010 when the band were commissioned by the City of Chicago to compose a suite of music inspired by the area's noted jazz and improvised music communities. Those pieces were performed live and were re-worked and expanded when this new album began to take shape. So was it easy to build on that and make it into a proper album?

"It was nice to have some material to work with before we got into the studio," explains John Herndon, "but it wasn't easy, it took a lot of restructuring and not everything on the record was from that group of songs either. I know that the title track was from that material and 'Gesceap' or as we like to call it "Gascap" he laughs, "so those two songs for sure. I want to say that 'Yonder Blue' was one but I honestly can't remember. Parts of 'Shake Hands with Danger' maybe? It was only a handful of songs really."

This Tortoise record is rare in that it includes a couple of lead vocals. We will come to their cover of David Essex's 'Rock On' soon, but 'Yonder Blue' features a beautifully downbeat vocal from Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo.

John explains, "It was originally written with the idea of it being an instrumental tune, there's actually an instrumental version as a bonus on the Japanese release, so there's a keyboard melody that's totally separate from what Georgia sang. That was already written, so when Georgia did vocals we just took that melody off the top. She wrote the lyrics and the vocal melody, she totally nailed it too man, it's awesome. We do it as an instrumental live, though on two performances in Chicago Sally Timms from the Mekons sang so that was super nice."

"I've played on Yo La Tengo records," continues Doug, "and it was payback time - and John McEntire recorded their recent album Fade which was awesome. I've been friends with those guys for like 30 years and to finally have them hanging around Chicago for the best part of a year was super fun, because I don't see them enough for how much I like them, they're really great friends. James (McNew, YLT's bass player) and I are like weird brothers that see each other once or twice a year."

The most surprising thing about this album is surely the cover of David Essex's 'Rock On', which features a fairly faithful-to-the-original vocal from former U.S. Maple and current Dead Rider frontman Todd Rittmann. Although the original version was coated in weird reverse reverb, Tortoise's one is dubbier and in a way it harks back to their equally unusual covers album The Brave and the Bold. Why did they choose this song?

Doug explains, "I've heard that song since I was about twelve and I always thought it was a cool song but then one day I heard it and thought this is almost like a Tortoise song or something. Then I mentioned it to John (McEntire), and he said yeah, I've always thought the exact same thing about that song. So we just did it on a whim, and if it didn't work then who cares, but we all ended up liking it. Probably the hardest part about deciding to do that song was trying to think of a good person to sing it and Todd occurred to us almost immediately. He is a consummate performer, he will often have confetti hidden in pockets of his clothing to surprise you, and he's got that great voice."

John continues, "I don't know anything about David Essex other than this song, although I heard he has made TV and films in the UK, but if that was the only song you had ever heard from him it would just be like, this is so weird. Someone said that the song is like David Essex's take on American rock n roll, and just being so completely removed from American rock n roll it becomes quite bizarre, like a '70s tribute to the '50s. When we decided we were going to do it I was like - damn, I think there are some really bad versions of this song. So I started looking up on YouTube and there are! Def Leppard did one, Smashing Pumpkins - oh my god that one, it's really hard to deal with. Corey Hart did one - oh my god man, these versions were so grim that I was like, we're entering that territory."

Doug interrupts, "So what makes our version any better than any of those?"

"It is way fucking better!" laughs John. "It's like the best one!

Yours is the most like the David Essex one. I can't imagine Def Leppard would've got close to that feel.

"Everybody else just seemed to squash any of the weirdness out of it, and we tried to enhance the weirdness," concludes John.

Changing tack a little, Tortoise is almost synonymous with Chicago, but I heard that you've moved away John.

"Yes, I live in Los Angeles now, for about two and half years. I have two kids and their mother and I are divorced but we have joint custody. She wanted to move to Los Angeles and who was I to say no, but I was also not going to live across the country from my children, so I followed her to co-parent. I go to Chicago when we (Tortoise) rehearse."

And do you make music in LA?

"Some. Jeff Parker (Tortoise guitarist) and I had a duo gig and I did some things with Ray Barbie - he's a guitar player but he's also a professional skateboarder, he rode on the Bones Brigade team with Tony Hawk and co. I did some recording with him and his son for a Vans movie that came out and Dave Sitek from TVOTR was around so I did a bunch of session work for him, as well as some session work for Action Bronson - little bits here and there. I played a little bit with Tara Jane O'Neil, she lives in LA now - she's awesome, she's a great person and her songs are beautiful. I would really like to start a band out there to have an ongoing musical outlet in Los Angeles but it hasn't happened yet."

Is The Catastrophist a different record for Tortoise to make - in terms of your parts or your roles, because you do swap around a little bit, you multi-skill. John you're a drummer...

"Yes..." he pauses for thought..." I don't know why I'm not able to play the keyboards better than I do but I'm making it through, learning the parts," he laughs. "I'm also playing bass guitar - for the first time ever - and that's almost the most fun part of the gig now for me, and I'm like, why the fuck haven't I done this before cos it feels so good!"

"That's what everyone says when they pick up the bass! Why haven't I done this before, it's so fucking easy!" laughs Doug.

"It's not easy, it's just good!"

You're a renowned exponent of the six-string bass Doug, how did you get into that?

"Yeah, the six string bass is a huge instrument for me but I consciously didn't use it that much on this album because I was looking to push myself into guitar a little bit more. It has been a process for me. I play a lot of guitar on It's All Around You, I play almost only bass on Beacons because I thought I should step back (from guitar) a little bit but now I don't know, now I'm just trying to do what's right for the songs or whatever, but yeah, the six string bass was huge for me as it was the gateway for me from playing bass to playing guitar."

The band's roots remain in post-rock, jazz and dub, though it's interesting that the dominant synths from their previous album Beacons of Ancestorship are never far away. In fact the first fifteen seconds of opening track 'The Catastrophist' are a flurry of them, as if we've stumbled upon a synth jam, although the title track relaxes into a more cinematic post-rock amble. 'Gesceap', which John tells me is "an old German word for a beer-drinker, or weed smoker" (although when I looked it up I was disappointed to find it actually means "shape"), is similar, with a couple of weaving synth lines combined before the whole band kick in. Is it a conscious decision to have more keyboards and synth in the mix or is it just something that evolved naturally?

"Well there's the whole vibes thing - nobody wants to play the vibes," laughs John. "I think we'd like to just put them away for good but somehow we can't. The instrument that we play was built at the Deagan factory (in Chicago) by Gilberto Serna who has been the Deagan man for years and years. They developed a pick-up system so there's a pick-up on each bar so you can just plug the quarter-inch into it and you don't have to worry about mic-ing it. Unfortunately the instrument itself from the stage just sounds like this," he clunks the table hard with his fist, "it sounds like a trashcan, it's not very fun to play."

Doug agrees, "Those vibes are pretty dead sounding these days, we've been touring with them for fifteen years or something. I think every bar has probably cracked."

I guess they aren't a thing that travels well.

"The ones that we use over here in Europe won't be those ones, they'll be ones that have microphones on them so they'll be more resonant, but our soundman has trouble getting them to be audible with the amount of other instruments in the mix. Also, I don't own a vibraphone any longer so I never practice,? explains John.

Doug adds, "We still have to bring vibes, that's the whole crux of the thing, to be able to play a diverse set of material we still have to have vibes. Then we started using all the synthesisers when everybody got into synthesisers on Beacons - there's probably one song with vibes on that album."

"Zero," states John.

Doug looks surprised. "There's not one vibe on that album?"

John shakes his head. "No. And there's maybe two on the new one."

"We haven't solved any problems for ourselves, we still have to bring more instruments than we did ten years ago, but that's a whole other story," smiles Doug, no doubt contemplating the world tour ahead of them.

  • Tour Dates
  • Mon 30th May - Frankfurt, Germany - Das Bett
  • Tue 31st May - Paris, France - Villette Sonique
  • Wed 1st June - Koln, Germany - Kulturkirche
  • Thu 2nd June - Besancon, France - La Rodia
  • Fri 3rd June - Barcelona, Spain - Primavera Sound
  • Sun 5th June - Nimes, France - This Is Not A Love Song Festival
  • Mon 6th June - Toulouse, France - Metronum
  • Tue 7th June - Limoges, France - CCM John Lennon
  • Wed 8th June - Metz, France - Les Trinitaires
  • Thu 9th June - Tourcoing, France - Le Grand Mix
  • Fri 10th June - Porto, Portugal - NOS Primavera Sound
  • Tue 28th June - Leipzig, Germany - Werk 2
  • Wed 29th June - Dresden, Germany - Beatpol
  • Sat 2nd July - Keflavik, Iceland - ATP Iceland
  • Mon 4th July - Karlsruhe, Germany - Tollhaus
  • Tue 5th July - Berlin, Germany - Columbia Theater
  • Thu 7th July - London, UK - Electric Ballroom
  • Sat 9th July - Lublin, Poland - Different Sounds Art'n'Music Festival
  • Tue 12th July - Rotterdam, Netherlands - Annabel