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Tortoise
Photograph: Andrew Paynter

Tortoise reflects on the 21st anniversary of ‘TNT’

Ahead of a performance at Pitchfork’s Midwinter festival, instrumental rockers Tortoise look back on their 1998 album

By Zach Long
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When Chicago instrumental rockers Tortoise began recording their third album in 1996, the group was riding high on the success of its sophomore release, Millions Now Living Will Never Die—still the band's (and local independent label Thrill Jockey's) best-selling record. Emboldened by the response to their twisting jazz- and dub-influenced compositions, the group spent a year crafting its next release, recorded at band member and producer John McEntire's Soma Electronic Music Studio.

With TNT, Tortoise created its most expansive album to date, harnessing relatively new digital recording technology to craft ambitious tracks that deftly fused the band's various influences (leading many writers to simply label it "post-rock"). Released in 1998, the record solidified Tortoise as musical innovators, with the chops to mash up ambient electronics and jazz rhythms with cascading marimba melodies. Even two decades after its release, you'd be hard-pressed to find music that sounds anything like it.

During Pitchfork's new Midwinter music festival at the Art Institute of Chicago, Tortoise will mark the 21st anniversary of TNT with a rare performance of the album in its entirety. Ahead of the special show, bassist Doug McCombs and multi-instrumentalist Dan Bitney spoke with us about their memories of recording the album, the band's love of mallet instruments and the somewhat controversial doodle that graced the record's cover.

How did the success of Millions Now Living Will Never Die affect the way that Tortoise approached its next album, TNT?

Millions was kind of a breakthrough for us. Even before Millions we had started to realize that there was interest in the music we were making, which was slightly unexpected. After we made Millions we toured behind it a lot, for six months. It gave us confidence about moving ahead, and it was validating in a way—proof that our hunches about the way we work were beneficial. We started making money as a band because we toured so much behind Millions. That enabled John McEntire to start building his recording studio, so those things coalesced in us starting to work on TNT.”—Doug McCombs

“There’s always the pressure of making a second record and we skirted that with Millions. I remember talking to people about that, and it was the third album that I was more worried about.”—Dan Bitney
 

Could you talk about where TNT was recorded?

“Right around the time that we were starting Tortoise, [band member] John Herndon and I moved into this warehouse near Grand Avenue and Wood Street. Eventually, but not simultaneously, every member of Tortoise lived in that warehouse, and that’s where McEntire started Soma Electronic Music Studio. Starting with TNT, John began building his studio and out of necessity was starting out with mostly digital stuff. He bought ProTools recording software, which was in its infancy at the time. So when we started working on TNT, there were infinite possibilities, even more so than with Millions. The studio was in our warehouse where we all lived, so we could take our time working on it without worrying about paying for studio time.”—DM

“I don’t want to say it was like Warhol’s factory because it wasn’t a party, but it was a factory in a sense that it was a loft. There would be a little guitar setup over there, drums over there, isolation rooms in one part of it. It was interesting to work like that.”—DB

“The control room at the original Soma studio was really small, so you wouldn’t want five people in there at the same time. But it wasn't rare for us to all be hanging out, especially when most of us lived there anyway. It wouldn’t be uncommon for all of us to be sitting in the kitchen, listening to what McEntire was doing, making suggestions and occasionally playing something.”—DM

How did the use of digital technology shape TNT?

“It led to a longer, more involved process of writing the songs and seeing what we could do with the material that we had. It was a time when we were pretty prolific. We had a lot of ideas about things we could do and we wanted to see them all the way through. We took a long time making the record and we ended up with a really long record because we were determined to use as much material as we could.”—DM

“It was just such a different experience. It wasn’t a stressful two weeks in a recording studio. You could try an idea 27 times and go back and find all the right pieces and put them together. With the technology, you got these endless editing possibilities, so that just tacked four months on to the process.”—DB

What are your best memories of the recording of TNT?

“The recording of the album was pretty casual, McEntire might say, 'I’m thinking of working on the record for these next three days I have open, if anyone wants to be around.' Whoever was available would add stuff and work on it. Building some of those tracks on the early ProTools software took a lot of meticulous editing and looping and getting the right sections to fit together. Sometimes McEntire was building the rhythm track for a particular idea for a whole afternoon or a whole day and we’d just hang around giving ideas and feedback, not necessarily playing. Other things were happening at the time, too. Three of the guys were playing in the band Isotope 217, I was starting to record Brokeback stuff, Herndon was playing in 5 Style at the time, [Tortoise guitarist] Jeff Parker was doing a lot of jazz gigs. Some of us would be coming and going and trying to find times in our schedules when we would hopefully be all together and working on it.”—DM

“For me it was always kind of a hard band because roles weren’t defined. I did really well at being the type of musician that would figure out 'Oh, we need this drum part' or 'Nobody can play that bass line over there' when we went to play the songs live later on. I had ideas, but I barely could write for the band up until recently. My track on TNT is “The Equator.” I was very influenced by African music, the triplets and bouncing tempos. But I also thought it was almost like a Sonny Sharrock song with those descending chordal guitar parts.”—DB

Tortoise
Tortoise
Photograph: Andrew Paynter

The use of marimba is a memorable part of TNT tracks like “Ten-Day Interval” and “The Suspension Bridge at Iguazú Falls.” What drew the band to that instrument?

“When we were really starting to form Tortoise, Herndon bought a vibraphone just because he wanted to learn how to play it. It turned out that McEntire had studied percussion in college, so he was already familiar with mallet instruments and knew techniques and how to play them. We were using the vibraphone pretty heavily on the first two albums, and then when we started working on TNT, John bought a marimba and we just started using it. It was sort of related to our interest in ’60s and ’70s minimalist music—a lot of those recordings involved mallet instruments.”—DM

One of the nicest things is this idea of using two voices. You hear a vibraphone, then you match a kids pianos and a marimba with it and you’re like, 'What is that?'”—DB

With a record as layered an TNT how difficult was it to arrange the songs for live performances?

“It can be very challenging and hard to pull off. There are times where I’m just sitting at a vibraphone and saying, 'If I could get this hand to play this melody and this hand to play another.' It’s not the Ramones, where it’s like, 'You’re the bass player, you do this.' But it wasn’t a precious thing back then, you just did as much as you could.”—DB

“I think we were probably more worried about it than we had been on previous records, and we probably spent a lot of time figuring out how to do it. I think one thing we’ve been really good at over the years is figuring out live versions of the material that work. TNT might have been the main hurdle that prepared us for that.”—DM

During the recording of TNT, guitarist Jeff Parker joined Tortoise and guitarist Dave Pajo left the group. What were the causes of the shifts in the group's lineup?

“Parker was living with us at the time and occasionally, over the course of touring behind Millions, he would come sit in with us at shows in Chicago. Without any rehearsal he’d add his colors to songs as a guest. In the summer of 1996, we had a pretty full schedule in Europe playing a bunch of festivals, so we asked Parker if he wanted to come along with us on the tour. At the end of that tour we just asked him if he wanted to be in the group. Up until Parker joined, the membership of Tortoise was really kind of vague. During the process of recording TNT, Pajo decided he wanted to go off and do other stuff, mostly by himself, which is when he started doing Papa M.”—DM

“Pajo was kind of the main guitarist in the band and we said, 'Hey we’ve got this other guy [Parker] who plays guitar, too.' That must have been pretty weird, in hindsight. It seems like it could have been a factor [in Pajo’s departure], but it seems like his nature. I mean this with all the love in the world, but if he didn’t quit Tortoise, he never could have quit Stereolab.”—DB

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How did you settle on TNT’s album art and title?

“There was a CD-R sitting on the kitchen table and Herndon drew that doodle on it, and then McEntire was like, 'This should be the album cover.' Everyone else was like, 'Yeah, let’s do it.' I remember our record label in Europe was really against the TNT album cover, they thought it was this stupid doodle and they said, 'It looks like a Daniel Johnston record.' TNT is the one record sleeve of ours that made it into all the design books, it’s been widely recognized in the album cover art world.”—DM

“The title TNT basically came from singing AC/DC songs around the breakfast table. I remember thinking, 'That’s perfect.'”—DB

In your mind, why was TNT an important album for Tortoise?

“It was a breakthrough for us to not worry so much about failing and just try to make things work, no matter how weird the idea might seem. We’ve come up with a lot of really great material having that mindset and I think TNT was the turning point.”—DM

“With the band going on throughout the years, people would say 'Millions is a masterpiece.' If you wait another decade people go, 'TNT is my favorite record.' It’s funny how that goes.”—DB

Tortoise will perform TNT during Pitchfork’s Midwinter festival at the Art Institute of Chicago on Saturday, February 16 at 6:30pm. The band will also play at the Empty Bottle on Sunday, February 17 at 8:30pm.

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