Guitarist Jeff Parker and founding member and bassist Doug McCombs are comfortable trading instruments and roles to pursue the low-end of Tortoise’s ensemble compositions. Photo by Tim Bugbee
Talk a little about the jazz you play. Parker: I play a lot of different stuff, from straight-ahead and standards to free improv, where it’s completely about playing the instrument in an unconventional way. [English free improvisation guitar pioneer] Derek Bailey is another one of my big inspirations; my musical world’s pretty wide open.
How has Bailey’s work informed your style—particularly in the context of Tortoise? Parker:The way he dealt with harmonics—not like the Tal Farlow–style harp harmonics, but finding extended, chiming notes all about the neck. That requires you play with a tight sound. The action of the instrument has to be pretty high, ideally with heavy strings. It requires a lot of resistance, and a setup like this adds presence to percussive sounds. Also, he was a big influence on me in terms of extended techniques: scraping the strings, using feedback intentionally. He was a real pioneer in finding a different way to deal with the instrument, pretty much as revolutionary as Jimi Hendrix, in my opinion. If you study improvised music on the guitar, there’s no way around it. He’s like Charlie Parker in that regard.
Doug, you play both bass and guitar in Tortoise, and guitar exclusively in your side project Brokeback. Do you think of yourself as more of a bassist or guitarist? Doug McCombs: I pretty much think of myself equally as a bassist and guitarist. It didn’t used to be that way. I played only bass for the first 20 years that I was in bands, and then, once I picked up a Fender Bass VI, it was sort of a gateway into guitar playing. I’ve been working really hard on the guitar for the last 10 years, and I’m pretty much sitting around and playing guitar if I’m at home. But after a long period of playing guitar, it’s really a relief to go back to the bass. I love its simplicity—I love locking in with an ensemble.
How’d you get into playing the Bass VI? McCombs: The first time I saw one was in a guitar store around ’87. I was amazed when I picked up this instrument that I’d never seen before, and when I plugged it in I heard a lot of weird potential in it. At the time I was getting into a lot of different twang-y sounds: surf music, Ennio Morricone soundtracks, and other guitar-centric music. I’d already been exploring a more melodic side of the bass, and then I discovered this instrument that would allow me to get even more into that. I couldn’t afford to buy one for a long time, and I spent the whole time thinking about what I could do if I ever got ahold of one.
What’s it like to work with Jeff? How has he influenced your playing? McCombs: It’s great. I’ve learned a lot from him—a depth of knowledge about harmonic stuff. He’s really like a closet bass player. He has such a dark sound on guitar anyway, so it’s cool that he can play the bass sometimes and I can play guitar. It’s great to be in a band where everyone can be open enough to let each other play the instruments they’re good at.
The Catastrophist is the band’s first new album in seven years. What took so long? Parker: Our band is called Tortoise, so things tend to happen very slowly…
McCombs: A variety of things. One is that we’ve been together for so long that we try to be conscious about not falling into easy traps and to try to push ourselves away from different things we’ve done before. We always tell each other that it won’t take as long until we make the next record, but it gets longer and longer between records. And it’s just the nature of our band—we’re all sort of compulsively meticulous about little details, and it takes time to work that out.
Talk about the album’s roots. Parker: We got commissioned to write a new piece of music that demonstrated Tortoise’s ties to Chicago’s vibrant jazz and improvised music scene. There are five people in Tortoise and each one of us picked one person in the community we wanted to collaborate with and feature, and we composed a handful of pieces so that each performer could be featured on one. We made a suite of music out of the whole thing, and that’s pretty much how it came about.
Who did you pick? Parker: I picked a tenor sax player named Edward Wilkerson Jr.
McCombs:The person I knew would really add some great stuff to what we were doing is the piano player Jim Baker, who’s also a sort of wizard with the ARP 2600 [analog synthesizer]. He was one of the original five guest musicians we performed the music with in Chicago. Later, we did it in Minneapolis with local guest musicians, and in Paris, we brought some of the American musicians and also invited some French guests. When we decided to sit down and work on a new record, we used these materials to jumpstart it. Sometimes it takes a while for our wheels to get going when working on new material, and it was handy to already have these partially composed ideas.
So what was the music heard on The Catastrophist originally like and how did it evolve? McCombs: The main thing is since we were doing this project with improvisers, we had five pieces of music that were essentially little more than skeletal jazz compositions, like heads or melodies with room for the improvisers to solo over. When we were retooling these pieces for our purposes, we wanted them to be more like Tortoise songs and developed new parts, like bridges and such, to add structure and to make things more interesting. Tortoise isn’t really the kind of band that plays a melody and then someone solos for 20 minutes. That’s fine—and, in fact, fun for a special project—but not at all what we’d go for on an album.
With music that’s so texturally involved, you must have a nonconventional compositional and recording process. How does it work? Parker: One person introduces an idea or ideas to the group that everybody expands on. It could be anything from a sampled drum pattern or just a riff or a chord progression, and everybody adds their thing to it. Sometimes someone will come in with a complete intricate composition and we learn it. When you introduce something to the band you have to be open to the idea that it’s going to change as people add to it. We’ve come to realize that when everyone contributes, it’s the most interesting.
McCombs: Most of the time a song starts as just a little idea, a chunk of melody or some sort of unusual chord sequence, and sometimes just a rhythm. We’re such a rhythm-oriented band and sometimes someone has an idea for an interesting pattern we haven’t tried before. So, 80 percent of the time we’re working on something that isn’t structured at all, throwing ideas around and trying to pull them into some kind of form. We do it not by playing together in a room, but by recording bits and pieces and seeing what happens through editing. Sometimes we might go back and learn [the resulting music] with the band and sometimes not, whatever works.