Issue 91

Tortoise Shells

When Tortoise hit the road they leave their rock egos and shells at home. Whatever works is fine by them.


15 July 2010

Photos: Dean Walliss

For many, ‘fusion’ is a very dirty word. Long gone are the familiar connections with Miles Davis’s stellar Bitches Brew ensemble or Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters. Instead these have been replaced by visions of extravagant drum kits adorned with tuned cymbal trees, slap or, even more unconscionable, fretless bass meanderings, and blistering chorused guitar solos. Perhaps due to their punk and indie origins, Chicago instrumental five-piece, Tortoise, have been more commonly and kindly tagged with the ‘post-rock’ label. At different points along the band’s 20-year timeline they’ve been acclaimed as the movement’s leaders. Interesting then that as the band arrived in Melbourne to commence a new international tour in support of their 2009 release, Beacons of Ancestorship, it was as a headline act at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. How do you mediate between the highly disciplined and sonically pure aesthetic of jazz and the rough and ready free-for-all that is indie rock, and what happens when you try and serve up an equal measure of electro along with it?

In the hope that we might get to the bottom of this question and the evolution of this most original band’s live performances, I was happy to share a brisk May afternoon and a platter of Rosa’s famous antipasti with founding member John Herndon and Tortoise’s long-time collaborator, and now Melbourne-based engineer, Casey Rice.


Andrew Bencina: It’s always seemed like there’s a range of contrasting and complementary musical strands running through the music of Tortoise, from the highly dynamic live performances to carefully composed tape pieces. Has there ever been a clear decision to keep the technology of the studio off the stage to avoid any technical hang-ups and maintain the flow?

John Herndon: So far it hasn’t really been something that we’ve thought too much about. If there are elements that we’ve created in the studio, from some kind of modular synthesis, generally that stuff will get sampled and then played back live via [Propellerhead] Reason. It’s the only thing we have running on the laptop on stage. We have patches for each song and it’s a combination of using the samplers and occasionally some of the soft synths in Reason to reproduce some of those sounds.

Casey Rice: All of us used to make tracks using Akai samplers, and the closest thing to an Akai sampler in software is Reason. The Reason NN-XT sampler is exactly the same as the Akai in the way the keygroups work – it’s an Akai copy basically. Tortoise used an Akai with those zip disks for years … those things are tanks – they don’t break. Although eventually ours most certainly did – fried in South America at a gig where the voltage was mismatched.

I think a friend of ours in San Francisco had been helping to develop Reason around that time – he writes books on power tips for Reason – and I think he was the one who suggested we try it. It worked really well as a replacement because it’s so simple. It just looks like equipment. It has the same interface so even though Dan (Bitney – percussion, keyboards) doesn’t use Reason and Jeff (Parker – guitar, bass) doesn’t use Reason, they can look at it and go: “Oh look, it’s the Akai! I know how that works.”

JH: Having said all that there are generally at least a couple of songs on each record that we don’t attempt to reproduce live, because they’re out and out studio constructs. But we’ve made an effort this time to get almost all the tunes together. There were three things that we really didn’t have together that we only got happening right before we came over, so they’re still a little rough around the edges.

But if it’s a modular synth piece that’s edited together in ProTools then it’s like, ‘why bother playing that live?’. For instance, when we did the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England and we were playing Millions Now Living Will Never Die [Tortoise’s third album released in ’96] there was a song on the record that was all put together on tape called Dear Grandma and Grandpa. For that song we literally taped the key down that triggered the song and just let it play while we all moved around the stage… rather than trying to figure out how to do it live.


AB: What equipment do you guys travel with and what are the key elements of the hired rig?

JH: Well, we carry the computer that runs Reason obviously and then there’s an additional rack that has an audio interface in it that’s essential to the computer rig. We were using a MOTU 888 for ages but we’ve just switched over to the MOTU Ultralite. It’s new for this tour actually and tonight will be the first use of that interface since rehearsal. There’s a mixer in the rack with everything split for separate outs. There’s a synth line, a beats line, and a sampler line, all of which are split and fed into the on-stage mixer, which has an Aux out to a self-powered monitor so we can mix the levels of these instruments from the stage. We also bring a Nord Electro for electric piano and organ sounds, and some foot pedals… there’s a new digital version of the Roland Space Echo pedal that’s really great, so we use that… it sounds really good.

I used to use a laptop myself for some of the stuff that I was reproducing from records, but I eventually got sick of having the laptop sitting there staring at me on stage, so I swapped it out for a Moog Voyager. I still get close to some of the sounds, but I don’t try to match them exactly any more. I’m just trying to capture the vibe. That’s more important to me now. We also have a MIDI keyboard: a Korg Control49, with some pads and other twiddly bits on it. In the past we were using some smaller keyboards, like Casiotones, which could easily float around the stage but now Jeff uses one of those MicroKorgs for some synth basslines that he plays.

Everybody travels with their own guitars. Jeff has a Gibson 335 and a Fender Precision that he shares with Dan sometimes, while Doug [McCombs – guitar, bass] has a Fender Tele bass, a six string Fender bass [Fender VI] and a Jazzmaster. John [McEntire] and I bring cymbals and a thing called a Marimba Lumina.

We hire everything else basically. Here we’ve hired a vibraphone, all of our amps and two four-piece drum kits. And I know it surprises some people, but it doesn’t really matter to us what the kits are. I think if you can spend some time before sound check tuning the instrument you can get it to sound close to how you want to hear it… and that’s good enough for me. You get the kit, then you try to find out how to make it sound good – or not! Often times it’ll be a festival situation where there’s no time to tune a kit anyway, so in that situation you just get on and go. My experience of touring around the world is that it’ll be a different musical experience on a drum kit every night. Having my drum kit with me is the exception rather than the rule.

CR: Tortoise all started out playing punk rock at a really super low D.I.Y. level, and a lot of how you learn to do shows and operate as a musician comes from those formative experiences. That’s why they don’t have a huge road crew. John’s attitude has always been like: “I’ll play any kit, I don’t care,” whereas a lot of people really need the experience to be predictable and exactly the same every time. I actually think, a lot of the time, the people who are precious about their gear have had limited experiences of playing in different contexts. These guys are the opposite; they’ve all played in so many different bands – and some of the crappiest clubs on Earth – that when they play here at the Forum, for instance, it doesn’t faze them in the slightest if the monitors aren’t perfect. They’ve heard worse, guaranteed. When Tortoise started playing, they weren’t playing the Forum. They were playing somewhere like the Arthouse or whatever – the Silver Pumpkin in Chicago. They were playing all those places where super underground kind of funky bands play, and it was much harder then. That’s when I first did sound for the band.

JH: You’re right, it was bloody hard going back then. Although I will say this: in the last few years I’ve been touring Europe with a bunch of different improvisational groups and those tours are on the train mostly. You bring cymbals and that’s it, and those drum kits are hardcore; heads that are totally clapped out; toms that spin around when you hit them! In that situation you just have to figure out a way to make it work. You’re not going to be the guy who brings things down by throwing a fit, you just get in there and do it.

I know other people can’t get into the right frame of mind at all sometimes unless they can hear everything exactly as they want it. These guys are the opposite of that. They can really roll with it.

from left to right: Dan Bitney (on drums), Doug McCombs (on bass), John McEntire (on keys), John Herndon (also on drums) and Jeff Parker (on guitar) soundcheck their ‘new’ equipment at The Forum.
John McEntire stays on keyboards as Jeff Parker joins him.
John McEntire switches to the drums while John Herndon ditches them for the Marimba Lumina.
Dan Bitney goes for it on drums while Jeff Parker and John McEntire look on.


AB: John, can you discuss the evolution of your current stage setup; where the two drum kits feature prominently at the front of the stage and everyone’s constantly changing roles?

JH: We originally thought about it as a visual thing after seeing the latest incarnation of Japanese noise-rock outfit, the Boredoms. They play with three drummers with the leader, Eye, sort of in the back. They’re essentially spread right around the stage. It looked so cool that we were like, ‘why don’t we put our drums up front too?’. Once we did I also had the instant reaction of, ‘Wow man, I don’t have to have a monitor any more. I can hear the band just fine!’. I really like that aspect of the setup because it allows me to just hear the band volume and address the dynamics to that. It’s been a huge added bonus to the setup change. It keeps the touring experience fairly similar to the rehearsal room too. The other consequence of the setup is that as you move around the stage you’re not moving into areas that are tailored specifically for one person, so it’s a bit more flexible in that regard too. Up to this point it hasn’t been necessary to consider alternatives like in-ear monitoring. We don’t follow a lot of sequences and there’s obviously no singing either. Sometimes there’ll be a loop that we play out of a keyboard by sticking down the key with a piece of duct tape and then we simply play along with it.

AB: Does the lack of lyrics in Tortoise’s music and the fact that the audience doesn’t have a ‘front man’ to connect with change the level of interaction you get from live performance?

JH: It’s funny you should ask that question. I definitely think in terms of delivering a performance to the audience. I always try and give as much of myself as I can to each song, to the music and to the people watching us. We all do I think. Some of us in fact – not me – have developed a very strange, almost theatrical on-stage persona. (Laughs). Keep your eye on the stage tonight and see if you can spot the person. [One suspects that John McEntire’s excellent imitation of the guitarist from The Angels is what John was referring to here.]

CR: There also used to be a video component to the show at one stage because the common response to Tortoise, when they first started playing bigger venues, was that they didn’t seem interested in whether they had the right clothes on; they just wanted to get on with playing music. There was some ‘encouragement’, shall we say, on the part of booking agents and promoters along the lines of: ‘You guys have to get a lighting person or something because the show’s a bit boring’. So we thought, ‘Why not do video instead?’.

JH: The video was beautiful. Casey did that for us for a while, which was amazing, as did another friend of ours who toured with us for years. But I think eventually we all just wanted a change – to do something different; have the stage look different, rather than having it just be Tortoise with some type of video thing attached to it. This time around we wanted it to be more about being a band again, playing the music and seeing how far that could take us.

Elliot Dicks, cool as a cucumber at FOH.

You bring cymbals and that’s it, and those drum kits are hardcore; heads that are totally clapped out; toms that spin around when you hit them! In that situation you just have to figure out a way to make it work.
– John Herndon


Elliot Dicks has been doing live sound since he was a teenager. He also does a lot of live sound for Joanna Newsom, Shellac, etc and is a well-known character on the US scene. He also runs his own hire company. I caught up with Elliot at soundcheck for a quick (and relaxed) chat.

AB: One of the interesting things about Tortoise, Elliot, seems to be the relatively generic nature of their on-stage hire rig. Does that relaxed attitude extend to your own touring specifications?

Elliot Dicks: Pretty much. I ask for stuff… but then, with a band like Tortoise, if I don’t get what I’ve requested, am I gonna have them rent it? “Ah guys, can you spend an extra $800 for me on a console. I have a preferred selection of mics as well.”  In reality, I’m not going to make a fuss; they really just don’t have the budget. I just work with what I’m given and often, when it comes to things like mics, I just bring my own. I brought three [Sennheiser] MD421s with me for this leg of the tour. I would have brought more but I have two gigs happening this weekend back home so I couldn’t steal too much from the inventory.

AB: And how would you describe your approach to their sound?

ED: I don’t really try to impose my concept on their sound. I try to keep it relatively natural sounding. I’m not trying to get the most perfect kick drum sound, and sometimes you don’t even have time to develop one anyway; you’re just thrown onto a festival stage and told to go. These days I try to choose microphones that will get me closer to what I want, faster! For a while there, back in The States, John McEntire had an all-stainless steel drum kit, which was a nightmare to mic up. No regular kick drum microphone sounded even workable inside it. Then I tried this new dynamic mic, an Audix D6 – it’s pretty common now – which for some reason John had at his studio. He let me borrow it and it just worked perfectly for that drum. I ended up getting really into that mic and bought one of my own for the other kit. It allowed me to pull the sound together really quickly and I no longer had to sit there and sculpt; it just had the right highs and lows for me. I also really like the Sennheiser E604 clip-on tom mics – although I couldn’t bring them with me on this tour unfortunately. I prefer them over any fancy condensers or even 421s – which are incidentally about three times the price. I really like a 421 on the bass guitar amps and I don’t use D.I.s on the bass channels. I have to add some presence to it but I just think it sounds better for this band.

AB: What about instruments like the vibraphone?

ED: The vibraphone’s a little weird. Our instrument back home has little piezos glued onto every key and these are all are wired together so that live, all you have to do is plug in a guitar cable. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really capture the sound of the resonators very much, and recently we’ve been experimenting with a combination of the pickups and conventional mic setups. The pickups have been sounding really artificial. At first it was like; “great, they’re loud! I can really crank it up now.” But then I began noticing how unnatural it was sounding. The problem we have though is that the mic setup essentially has the opposite problem. It sounds too natural, and it’s extremely hard to pump up because the mics pickup so much stage spill. Maybe the vibraphone’s getting a little tired from being beaten on, I’m not sure. They’ve had it for a long time and have experimented with running it into a Moog pedal, a ring modulator… all kinds of weird things. We’ve tried to utilise the MIDI marimba as a vibraphone with mixed results and we even did a show once with no vibraphone at all, which was a radical step for Tortoise. We were playing a gig in New York one night where the backline got kind of confused, and we couldn’t get a vibraphone at the last minute, so the band actually played the vibraphone parts on a MIDI keyboard. They had a library of samples that seemed to work and it actually sounded pretty good. But the people in the crowd were… well… they weren’t heckling, but they went close. When you’re known as ‘the band with the vibraphone’…

Focused and in the moment: John Herndon gets down with the Moog Voyager.


Designed by synthesizer pioneer, Don Buchla, alongside percussionists Mark Goldstein and Joel Davel, the Marimba Lumina 2.5 is an electronic MIDI controller that combines a marimba-style keyboard layout with trigger pads and ribbon controller strips. It also features its own built-in synth. Its luminous pads and controls can be programmed to act as sliders, pots, pitch and mod wheels allowing for a new degree of gestural control over a mallet instrument. It can even be setup to respond differently to the four different coloured mallets accompanying the unit:

John Herndon: We just use the Marimba Lumina as a MIDI interface. It’s a really complicated and deep instrument that we don’t use to its full potential at all. We sampled our marimba years ago and we used to use a bank of samples recorded in our own space. Then I saw The Residents play and their percussionist was using just a Lumina and so I was like, “What is that thing?” I told John McEntire about it and then next thing I knew we had one. It’s funny though, I have a friend in San Francisco who has a daughter with Buchla’s daughter and he saw us using it and he was like: “Hey man, the father of the mother of my kid invented that thing… cool!”.

Yes Indeed.


AB: Can you discuss some of the issues surrounding the live representation of such a dynamic instrumental group, incorporating dual drum kits and constant instrumental changes, when you’re passing through so many disparate venues?

ED: Luckily Tortoise play in venues that are usually a nice size and have pretty decent acoustics. We occasionally play in small clubs still, and on those occasions having two kits can get loud. They’ve got some jazz in ’em, these boys, but they’ve got some rock in ’em too. So the small rooms sometimes get insanely loud. In that situation I’ll throw a couple of kick drum mics in there and not use overheads, and only add a little bit of low end from the toms into the PA. But most of the time they play bigger venues where the sound can naturally dissipate. Some people think it’s weird that the drum kits are down stage and facing each other but I usually don’t have any problems with the kick drums interacting. I do have problems with the drum kits getting in the vibraphone mics but, of course, this is lessened when we’re at home with the Electravibes.

Occasionally I try to use some gating on their drums too, to add a bit of control, but that’s tricky because they often end up playing so lightly that I have to undo it all anyway. I’ll waste all this time trying to get the gates all tight and then they’ll head off in the opposite musical direction. They hate gates – if they can hear them [Elliot smiles]. I always use a little if I can. Sometimes with Tortoise I want to hear a rock sound as well as a jazz sound. But it’s the same drum kit so I like to have a little bit of gating. I like to crank toms up you see, more than most other engineers do. But this can bite you in the arse, with the sub woofers interacting on the stage, so I’ll often just move the mics a little instead to achieve a similar effect. The guys, they don’t like to hear a digital reverb, they don’t like to hear gates. I like to use a little of both. Typically I use reverb to create the illusion of space, rather than as an obvious effect, especially in a really dry, acoustically dead environment. You’re brain doesn’t like it if it can’t hear any space, so it’s a psychological approach perhaps more than anything. I’m just trying to establish a sense of a band playing in a space, rather than a band in a box.

AB: Dynamically are you doing a lot of fader work, or are the band creating that themselves on stage?

ED: They control a lot of what goes on dynamically from the stage. I’m not actually doing a lot of active mixing; I’m mainly balancing the levels. When Casey was the sound guy he had his own role. He was more of a dub-style mixer and the songs were different in the early days: sparser, more receptive to input from a sound guy. Nowadays, when the guys write songs, they’re not looking for that from me. They propagate a lot of weirdness and effects on their own. I’ll throw a delay or two on certain parts for them but I’m not actively doing that kind of stuff so much. It’s like musical chairs up there sometimes: one minute it’s bass coming out of this speaker and the next it’s keyboards, and then suddenly it’ll be bass out of that speaker. Then it’s guitar and then sometimes both amps are playing the Fender VI. So it looks symmetrical on stage but there’s always something different happening. The one thing that never changes is the dual drum kit setup.


AB: Does the band’s de-emphasis of stage monitoring make life easier for you?

ED: Their monitors are actually mostly for the cues. John or Dan have to hear a certain loop while they’re seated at the drum kits, but then sometimes the two guitar players are so far apart on stage that they need a touch of foldback so they can hear what the other person’s playing. But certainly, with Tortoise, aside from some electronics and some guitar, there’s nothing in the monitors. They can play a set with no monitors at all if they need to. They’re pretty versatile that way I think. I know other people can’t get into the right frame of mind at all sometimes unless they can hear everything exactly as they want it. 

These guys are the opposite of that. They can really roll with it.

But while that’s all great, I don’t think I necessarily gain any advantage from the quiet monitor levels. Those guys just play loud. The bass amps are loud and they beat the crap out of the drums. Even the vibraphone gets the crap beaten out of it. Tortoise play at rock levels, even when the music goes into different realms like jazz and electronica. The monitors may not be all that loud and spilling off the stage, but all our instruments sure are. I like to try to get everything checked in the PA first – each instrument – and only after that do we check the monitors. I start with all the faders down, listening while they’re playing. Bringing them up subtly around the stage volume. Once in a while you have to go up there and ask someone to adjust their level… but it doesn’t happen all that often. No one is ever heinously loud!  


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