Intro by Mike McKinley
About four or five years ago, I was experiencing the typical daytime series of events at Bonnaroo: wandering from stage to stage, sampling the eclectic, diverse array of sounds, and trying to stay somewhat cool and hydrated in the June Tennessee sun. Then I remember landing at Tortoise and staying until their final note. It was my first time seeing the band, and I was mesmerized by their performance. It was a one-of-a-kind sonic environment of instrumental rock music - weird and thick, and bursting at the seams with rhythmic punches and hiccups.
A few hours later, at a different stage, I was seeing moe. play. In the middle of a set of music that was just as compelling as Tortoise's, guitarist/vocalist Al Schnier emphatically gave Tortoise a shout out that went something like this: "All my favorite bands are here! And holy shit did you guys see Tortoise?!" That experience never left me for two reasons - one, I couldn't agree more with Al, and two, I thought how cool it was to see a musician I admire share a moment of being nothing more than a fan in front of thousands of people.
When I started to dig into Tortoise's stellar new album, Beacons of Ancestorship, the editor in me kicked in and thought it would be really great to try talking to somebody in the band about what they do. The only person that kept coming to mind was Al from moe. So, I reached out about having him interview someone in the band. He was into it.
When I started listening to the mp3 Al sent me of his conversation with Tortoise bassist Doug McCombs, I was fascinated to hear the perspective of two musicians talking about playing Fuji Rock Festival, geeking out about different instrument tones and time signatures, and discussing the language of Tortoise's music. I think the coolest part for me is that when you take a step back you find there's a lot of similarity between moe. and Tortoise, even though they sound vastly different. Each band has an incredible history, and over the course of their evolution they've both developed their own musical language. Each is deep and wide, but when you hear one note from either band, you know exactly who it is.
Al: So I wanted to talk to you primarily about the new album--Beacons of Ancestorship, which is fantastic, I have to say. So one of the things that struck me when I listened to it: I thought it was remarkable that there was this really strong emphasis on rhythm on this album. One of the first things that really, really came to the forefront--more so than there has been in the past.
Doug: Yeah. I think it's probably true that our last couple albums before this, we were probably thinking more about… I don't know, I think we were trying to get better at songwriting or just the idea of composing like songs, things that you would think of as songs. And then in that instance, probably like the idea of what the drums would be doing or something would be a secondary thought or an afterthought.
And so even though we've been working on a lot of the stuff from this new album for three or four years, a lot of it came together more recently, after the Bumps record. And I sort of noticed that those three--John Herndon and John McEntire and Dan Bitney--had sort of like a dialogue that they had developed while they were working on that record and they were just conversing more about how different rhythm tracks could fit together.
And that seems logical. If this splinter group breaks off, as they will, whether it's a side project or even just a conversation about some other topic and comes back, there's going to be some new language or some history that they've developed, I guess, because of that stuff.
I have to confess, I've actually been listening to the album backwards, unbeknownst to me. I didn't even realize it, until late in the game. [laughter]
Well, I mean the tracks weren't playing backwards, but I mean the sequence was backwards so… like "Charteroak Foundation" was the first track I was listening to. So you know when it comes in and the drums come in and it sounds like they're playing in a different time than… I don't know… Is that guitar or bass 6 in that part?
So it sounds like that guitar is playing in like 6/8 [time signature] or something and then the drums come in and it sounds like they're playing in four and then it just really sort of takes you… it throws you off right away and then everything kind of falls into place after awhile. But I thought that was the first thing on the album and it's just like "Whoa! What the hell's going on here?" [laughter]
Yeah, that's kind of a deceptive thing the way that track starts. It seems totally natural to us because it wasn't always conceived that the guitar would be doing that long intro like that. If all the instruments start together it doesn't seem as startling as it does with a long guitar intro that gets you used to that three feel and then the four comes in. But yeah, I know what you mean.