Chad Bidwell, with the kind help of Tom Baxter
I have come to realize that interviewing can be a very tricky business. There have been times (I can think of conversations with Mayo Thompson and Edith Frost) when I need only say a few words before the rock star embarks on long-winded explanations of all sorts of crap. These interviews were very easy to conduct and turned out really well. There have, however, been those other times in which the person I’m interviewing refuses to offer anything more than a simple “Yes/no” answer. More often than not, this is how my interviews turn out, so after a recent experience with John McEntire of Tortoise, I decided to analyze each question to discover just what it was I was doing wrong. I made several mistakes with this interview and have numbered and categorized each of them for your own personal use should you someday interview a rock star.
Oh, yes. Tortoise is a band from Chicago which plays instrumental music combining all sorts of stuff ranging from rock, jazz, salsa, electronica, dub, techno, and just about anything else you can think of. Members now include Dan Bitney, John Herndon, Douglas McCombs, John McEntire, and Jeff Parker. David Pajo has apparently departed to concentrate on his band, Aerial-M. Tortoise’s new album, TNT, is on out Thrill Jockey and is now on the radio every time I turn it on. It’s even been turned into a segue between programs on NPR. They’ve also recently reissued two early singles (I’ve only heard one, and it’s worth picking up) which, when placed together, form the image of… a Tortoise!
So, here we go. Thirteen quick and easy steps to conducting a really God-awful interview:
[1. Talk about yourself a lot] I still have no idea what I want to do with my life. One day I think I may want to go back to school and get a PhD in entomology, and the next I want to start up my own gardening business. When did you realize what you wanted to play music all the time? Or is this just a hobby until you find what you really want to do?
I studied electronic music at Oberlin College, so I had a fairly good idea that I wanted to do something music-related with my life. After graduation, I was presented with several opportunities to pursue musical endeavors and did so.
[2. Attempt to pigeonhole the band. Place them in the uncomfortable position of “Voice of a Generation” or “at the forefront of a transitional period in Brandenburg-Prussian folk music.”]Both TNT and the recent Isotope 217 release show off more jazz influences than past releases. It doesn’t appear that you care to pretend to know anything about the evolution or takeover of mathrock, postrock, krautrock, or whatever everyone is calling what you do, but whether you like it or not you are at the forefront of a transitional period in American music. Outside of a few other bands, I haven’t really noticed much of anything interesting coming out in the past 5 years or so. What is going on with music now, and how do you explain over 70,000 people buying an album consisting of bass, drum, vibraphone, and weird studio effects?
Far be it from us to determine what the major “musical movements” of America would be. Terms like mathrock or postrock are journalistic inventions to create a story or movement where there is none, in my opinion. As far as “anything interesting” going on, I suppose that depends on what you find interesting. I’m sure there’s plenty of interesting salsa or jazz that’s come out in the last five years; it’s just you weren’t aware of it. Get my drift? As to the question of why Tortoise sold 70K copies of Millions… it has to do with Thrill Jockey promoting the record in an efficient fashion. It’s nothing for a group on a major label to sell that many records, why should it be a big deal when it’s on an independent?
[3. Take a break. Kick your feet back. Tell a story. Why should the rock n’ rollers get the soapbox all day?] It seems like you guys might be reaching out to a much wider audience with this album. My housemates (who usually hate anything I listen to) love this album. I was just at a dinner party where I let some people listen to TNT for a few minutes, and when it was time to sit down to eat they asked to listen to it over dinner. It seems like a lot of people are waiting for it to come out.
Is this a question? How was the food?
[4. Name drop some obscure musicians. You can just go into a bookstore and flip through a jazz book and pick names at random, like I did. It’s really easy.] If you had the chance to record with people like Derek Bailey, Anthony Braxton, or Sam Rivers, would you guys do it? What sorts of things would you do?
Yes, if the circumstances were right we might do it. I want to record with Scientist.
[5. Ask really stupid, pointless questions.] If you were forced to write an opera, what would be the storyline? Characters? Theme? Moral?
Fortunately, no one has a gun to my head, so I don’t think about it too much. Sorry.
[6. Try to get in with the band so they can one day release some of your ultra-shitty 4-track musings.] What is New Beyond? Who else will have music released on it?
New Beyond is a label started by Dan Bitney and John Herndon that is manufactured and distributed by Thrill Jockey. Not sure about upcoming releases. Check back in August when the tour’s over.
[7. Now this part was a bit tricky. Tom Baxter didn’t really like the new cover art and wanted to know what was going on and “What? You chose stick figures over silkscreens? What were you thinking?” just wasn’t going to cut it. So, I tried to be a little diplomatic. I’m not sure if it worked or not. Probably not.] After enjoying the artwork on your past releases, I was wondering why you decided to use the stick figure art on TNT.
Because Johnny drew it and we liked it.
[8. When all else fails, return to your friend, the pointless question.] If TNT was recorded in 2 weeks, how would it sound?
Like TNT live at Soma.
[9. You know, I really could give a shit about how the thing gets recorded, but sometimes these rock stars go off for hours about what was written when and where, and how Steve Albini was going to record them but then he bitch slapped his mom and went to jail… ] What is your approach to recording? Are the arrangements written ahead of time? Is it a mixture of improv vs. composition? Do you make conscience decisions to allow space for improvisation and randomness?
Not really improvisation, per se. But rather an openness to new ideas and trying not to fall into ruts with processes and techniques. Jeff wrote out a few arrangements beforehand for this one.
[10. Ask a question and provide an answer at the same time. They love that almost as much as they like questions about their influences.] What is the influence of dub on your music? How have the use of dub effects (heavy reverb and delay on percussion, melodica, keyboards) and a dub aesthetic (improvisation and creativity in production, all music is unfinished, constant revision with new productions, simplicity of bass and drums) played a part in your music?
We all listen to reggae in varying amounts. I suppose it’s impossible to measure the “exact influence” it’s had on the music. Isn’t your question kinda your answer?
[11. Waste time asking questions about another person in the band.] Influence of the Chicago improv/creative music scene? In particular, that of AACM? What has Jeff Parker’s involvement with AACM been? With Dawkin’s New Horizon’s Band? Other projects? Have any of you been in any classes with these people?
That would be best asked of Jeff, but we are friends with lots of Chicago musicians of all types. Jeff is a member of the AACM and plays with New Horizons. No, we haven’t taken any classes.
[12. Be sure to read up on the press kits sent to you by the record company, so you can pull names like Phillip Glass and Arnold Dryblatt out of your ass. And when you think you’ve used the word “influence” a bit too much, mix it up and use words like “effect” and ummmmm… hmm… can’t seem to find my thesaurus right now.] From past interviews it sounds like you pay a lot of attention to contemporary minimalist composers. What are the effects of listening to Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and Arnold Dryblatt? Sonic influence only, or does Tortoise intentionally use repetitive patterns (pulses) in your music?
You could safely say that 99% of what we do is intentional.
[13. Now come on. I tried to throw in a fair question every now and then… ] Other than the connection with John Fahey through the band’s name, are their any other connections? Will there ever be any sort of collaboration between Tortoise and Fahey?
Only the shadow knows.
Why thank you, John McEntire.
Tortoise will be touring through the Southeast this month: May 12 at the Cotton Club, Atlanta, May 13 at the 40 Watt Club, Athens; May 14 at Orlando’s Sapphire Supper Club and May 15 at the Cow Haus, Tallahassee.