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Tortoise Returns with The Catastrophist

A force in experimental rock for more than two decades, the group releases its first album in seven years.

From left: John Herndon, Jeff Parker, John McEntire, Doug McCombs, Dan Bitney   Photo: (Tortoise) Andrew Paynter; (album cover) JUCO/courtesy of Thrill Jockey

Tortoise doesn’t want to talk about the past. The three Chicago-based members of the experimental-rock band (John Herndon and Jeff Parker both moved to L.A. two years ago) are huddled around a coffee table at Cafe Mustache in Logan Square, all scruffy and smelling of smoke. “I was thinking it’d be great to not even look back,” says percussionist Dan Bitney, sitting between bassist Doug McCombs and drummer John McEntire and nursing a glass of whiskey. “When you start aging, you’re always looking back, like, ‘Remember that one time we were in Australia?’ ” McCombs finishes the thought: “Like, dude, that was 15 years ago.”

‘The Catastrophist’ by Tortoise
The Catastrophist

The guys may dodge trips down memory lane, but a quick visit reads like this: Since 1992, the five-piece instrumental group—originally two bassists and three percussionists—has made evocative post-rock music, collaborating with indie stalwarts such as Beck and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Tortoise released six pristine full-lengths on local label Thrill Jockey, earned plaudits from The New York Times, and in 2005 headlined Pitchfork (then called Intonation Music Festival). Then, gradually, the quintet went quiet after touring on 2009’s Beacons of Ancestorship. Before they knew it, seven years had gone by without releasing an album.

That’s about to change with The Catastrophist—their seventh offering—slated for release on January 22. When pressed about their long absence, McCombs explains that the members, most now in their 40s, were just living their lives: Bitney had a kid, McCombs bought a boiler for his house. “It just takes us a long time to make a record,” he says.

To be precise: three years in the case of The Catastrophist. The album is an expansion of a commission from Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Collaborating with five local soloists (flutist Nicole Mitchell and saxophonist Edward Wilkerson Jr. among them), the band wrote five pieces that premiered at Pritzker Pavilion in 2010. But, in true Tortoise fashion, the group soon tired of the tunes and returned to the drawing board to rearrange them for the new album. “The songs are virtually unrecognizable,” says guitarist Jeff Parker, who joined the group in 1997.

When asked what separates The Catastrophist from the Tortoise’s previous records, McCombs jokes, “The cover.” But, in truth, the unnerving composite photo made up of all five members’ faces (the version at left includes McEntire’s side part and McComb’s glasses; there are two variations) encapsulates rather than departs from the band’s enduring ethos. Says Thrill Jockey founder Bettina Richards of the album: “It’s a summation of all things they do—innovative, playful, experimental, and unafraid of taking risks.”

In that regard, little has changed for Tortoise over the last 25 years. “I just want to play the best, most interesting music I can,” says McCombs. This time, it’s Bitney finishing his bandmate’s thought: “We have to. It’s just what we do.”

GO Tortoise performs on January 23 at 6:30 and 10:15 p.m. at Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport St. $20. thaliahallchicago.com

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