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January 5, 2006
There comes a point in a band's career when they have earned enough credibility to do whatever the hell they want. In the case of Tortoise, frontrunners of a style some people used to call post-rock, and self-propelling pioneers of the ethos that punk is an artistic input rather than a musical output, it comes in the form of a covers collaboration with Bonnie "Prince" Billy (or Will Oldham, depending on your degree of acquaintance). LAS staffer Mike Wright caught up with Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker to discuss the album, The Brave and the Bold, due to be released on Overcoat next month, his future plans with Tortoise, and to find out who the hell's idea it was to cover Elton John.
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LAS: Where did the idea to do a record with Will Oldham come from? Was the initial idea to work with Will, or was it to record a covers album?

Jeff Parker: The idea behind the collaboration came from Howard Greynolds. Howard is the proprietor of Overcoat Recordings, and was the press liaison at Thrill Jockey for many years, and a good friend to Tortoise. He was touring as part of Will Oldham's band, and they were performing a cover of Springsteen's "Thunder Road" regularly at their shows. He suggested that Will record the song, and he would release it as a single on Overcoat. Will, jokingly, said he would do it if Howard got Tortoise to play along with him. Howard took him up on it, and approached us, probably knowing full-well that we'd be totally down with it, as we're always up for doing something interesting. All this happened probably four to five years ago, and the idea to do a single turned into an EP. We went in the studio and recorded "Thunder Road," "Some Say I Got Devil," "Calvary Cross" and "Daniel." It was a blast all the way around, so we decided to pick several more songs and make a whole album out of it.

LAS: Did you specifically choose to cover songs that you were all into, or that you felt you could make a good job of? Did a lot of thought and preparation go into re-working the songs?

Parker: Will chose all of the songs that we did for the first part of the sessions: "Daniel," "Thunder Road," "Some Say I Got Devil" and "Calvary Cross." For the second part of the sessions, we chose "That's Pep," "It's Expected," "Cravo E Canela," and "Love Is." Will chose "Poncho" and "On My Own." We made a conscious effort to make them pretty different from the originals. Some of the tunes, like "Calvary Cross," "Some Say" and "On My Own" have such strong musical/lyrical relationships that it doesn't make a lot of sense to veer too far away from the original arrangement. For the other stuff we treated things a little more open-ended, and tried to stretch it a bit more, slowed the tempos, reharmonized the chords, etc.

LAS: Did you go about recording it in a different way than you usually would? Do you think that Will and yourselves learnt anything from each other?

Parker: We pretty much worked the way that we always do: play the songs all together for a while, come up with an arrangement, then start recording and layering on top of it, mix it down, print it. I learned that Will Oldham is a great musician. Dude can sing non-stop for like ten hours straight, and every take he records is better than the one before it. He usually nails it in one take. I never met a singer who had stamina like that. Not sure what he learned from us. You should ask him that one.

LAS: Have you ever heard any covers of Tortoise songs?

Parker: No, but I would like to. Do you know of any?

LAS: I can't say I do. I'd imagine that attempting to cover a Tortoise song would be quite a daunting prospect! But would you be interested in hearing different people's interpretations of your songs?

Parker: I would love to hear some other people play our music. Now that I think of it, Brokeback has covered two Tortoise songs, "Along The Banks Of Rivers" (called "The Great Banks" on their album Field Recordings From The Cook County Water Table) and "The Suspension Bridge at Iguazu Falls" (on Looks At The Bird). But they don't really count because Doug is in our band, and he pretty much wrote both of those tunes.

LAS: The Brave and the Bold is supposed to be coming out in January, but it seems to have leaked onto the Internet quite a bit. Does that bother you?

Parker: Yes, it bothers me a little, but I'm not losing any sleep over it. It's to be expected these days. I found it kind of funny that someone was selling it for 60 British pounds, or about 100 US dollars, on eBay a couple weeks ago.

LAS: Do you think that file-sharing is good for new music in general?

Parker: I guess it's good for getting the music out to people... It gives people access to a lot of stuff they would probably never hear, and it's also helpful in educating people about music that becomes arcane or obscure, which is very valuable in today's climate of sample-based musics. That's where I see it as most valuable; it keeps a lot of music in circulation that might be impossible to make available to the public, for legal or financial reasons. On the downside, of course, it hinders support to the artists and continues to have a negative impact on independent labels, distributors and retail outlets. It points to a larger picture that has to do with the perception of the artist, globalization, free-market economics, et cetera.

LAS: There seems to be a new wave of artists that use the Internet as tool for composing. Do you, or would you, ever use file-sharing to write songs/share musical ideas etc?

Parker: Yes. I have used it a lot, for years. One of the first times was when I composed some synth/MIDI arrangements for the GREAT 3 (awesome indie/pop group from Japan) in 2001, and I would write the parts on my computer at home with Pro Tools, then email them the MIDI files and would listen over the telephone in my home as they were listening to the tracks at the studio, after which they would tell me what they did or didn't like and I would make revisions. I just completed a project for a documentary where I sent the director Mp3s from Europe via Internet and he would email me with ideas for revisions, from Chicago. So, it's quite a useful tool. But, for all the greatness of technology, nothing will ever be able to replicate or replace the interaction between a live aggregate of sympathetic music-makers, or the experience of that moment being captured by a proficient sonic scientist in a well-equipped commercial recording studio.

LAS: You're all involved with plenty of other projects. Do you all consider Tortoise to be your main band? Do your other projects act as outlets for the ideas you feel would be unsuitable for Tortoise?

Parker: Tortoise is the main project for me these days, along with my solo projects. We have a lot invested in it, and it's the one that demands the most time, not necessarily by choice, but because of how many performance and work opportunities arise from it. I came to the decision a few years back that I was spreading myself too thin with all the different stuff that I was involved in, so I weeded a lot of stuff out. I feel a lot better about my own involvement in the band, because I have a lot more energy to put into it. I felt like I was bringing too few ideas to Tortoise because I was using them all up for other projects. Musically, Tortoise is wide-open, there's not much that you can't bring to the group, compositionally-speaking. Most of the other stuff I'm involved in is based in improvisation, and Tortoise doesn't improvise at all - contrary to popular belief.

LAS: I've read that most of your writing takes place in the studio. I guess that would not have been as feasible for you when you were starting out in the early 1990s. Do you feel it allows you greater freedom when writing? Do you consider how a song might sound live when writing in the studio?

Parker: For Its All Around You, most of the writing was done in the studio, but we work in a lot of different ways. Tortoise has always used the recording studio as a writing tool, from the very first recordings that the band made. I see this way of working - using hard-disk recording as a compositional tool - as restricting... Not in general, but because we've done it so much and for such a long time that it makes you fall into patterns, and demands that you work in a certain and, somewhat specific, fashion. There are also so many possibilities when you work that way that things can take a really long time, if you let yourself get wrapped up in it. We're never thinking about how the songs will translate live when we're recording.

LAS: Do you ever have to revise and rearrange songs that you've recorded to make them reproducible live before, say, embarking on a tour?

Parker: Yes, we have to do that all the time. It's a lot easier now that the technology is so advanced, with programs like Reason and Ableton Live, among others, that make it easy, portable and compact to sample and process almost anything. It keeps us from having to take a ton of extra gear on tour with us. The early tours that I did with Tortoise, especially after we started playing songs from TNT in 1997/'98 were insane, gearwise. Racks and racks of samplers, outboard equipment, electronic drums and triggers, marimbas... Now we've replaced all that shit with midi controllers and laptop computers. We always try and capture the bare bones of the tune when we relearn them for shows. So much of the way we assemble and document our music is based on specific, idiosyncratic sounds that a certain instrument may make, the way that it's captured to tape, et cetera, so that we don't try and emulate the sounds on our records, we approximate them. We try and make the live versions as convincing as the recorded versions, but we also try and take them to a different place. It's interesting to see how the tunes transform after we've been performing them after a while. This transformative process was actually the impetus behind us creating Standards the way that we did, which was to: 1) demo/create the songs in the studio, 2) learn the songs to perform live, 3) go on tour for a short while performing the new songs, and 4) go back in the studio and record the songs again, with the new "transformed" arrangements.

LAS: The last couple of Tortoise albums have been quite diverse, I think. Do you each have quite varied music tastes? Would you say that your individual tastes are reflected in your music?

Parker: Absolutely. We all dig all kinds of music. But we all kind of consider Tortoise a rock band. Tortoise comes from punk rock, the spirit of it. For all of us, coming up as kids, we were transformed by punk. I wasn't as immersed or involved in punk bands to the same degree as the other cats in Tortoise, but underground music had a huge impression on me as a teenager. What that meant to us was: doing shit on your own terms, staying underground and doing some freaky shit that was gonna make someone think about something. It wasn't a style of music. Punk was more about being different, being productive in a creative way. Hip hop was punk. Free jazz was punk. Jazz was punk. Dub music was punk. Ambient music was punk. Hardcore was punk. Funk was punk. Punk was punk. Avant-garde music was punk. Electronic music was punk. Even Pop music was punk. It all still is, to me. It's not about the style of music that you play, it's about what you're doing with the music that you're playing.

LAS: So which music have you enjoyed recently?

Parker: JayDee - Welcome 2 Detroit Instrumentals, Ann Peebles - Somebody's On Your Case, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane - Live at Carnegie Hall, Genesis P Orridge, Dave Ball and FM Einheit - Decoded, Grey Market Goods, David Axelrod - The Edge, Fly - Fly, lots of soul music from the 60s, 70s and 80s... Delfonics, Chi-Lites, Gladys Knight, Teddy Pendergrass, The Whispers, Deniece Williams, Lou Rawls, etc. Picked up some On-U-Sound stuff lately and have been digging that. A little bit of 70s prog, too... Focus, Gentle Giant. I'm always into a lot of Madlib's stuff, that new Beat Konducta album is great, and the Yesterday's New Quintet records are fantastic. MF Doom, King Geedorah. I've been buying a lot of records lately...

LAS: You have a new album coming out next year, right? Can you tell us a bit about that?

Parker: We're not even sure of the direction that it will take. We have a few things in the very rudimentary stages, and some ideas left over from our last batch of sessions. We'll sort things out as we go.

SEE ALSO: www.trts.com
SEE ALSO: www.thrilljockey.com

--
Mike Wright
A staff writer based in London, England, Mike Wright is eternally troubled by the American bastardization of the English language.

See other articles by Mike Wright.

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