"The mission of Tortoise, and of all the bands, really, is to point toward tomorrow," says Jeff Parker, the group's guitarist. "We're trying to promote beauty, promote change."
Working in constantly shifting configurations, gathering for impulsive one-off projects and longer-term commitments, Tortoise's musicians are the most visible members of a collective that thrives on eclectic music-making experiences. One day they create crisp electronic dance environments; the next they juxtapose the visceral whomp of rock guitars against brainy loops and undulating odd-meter rhythms. They generate intricate music filled with hairpin turns and careening tangents, with "hooks" that don't necessarily cycle back and repeat.
Tortoise's subversive aesthetic is shaped by several worlds: free jazz and progressive rock, Jamaican dub, and the pounding-mallet minimalism of Steve Reich. Yet unlike so many high-concept projects, its music is neither contrived nor excessively brainy. This stuff breathes fire.
"We definitely think of ourselves as a rock band," says John McEntire, the drummer and chief conceptualist of Tortoise, whose fourth album, Standards, was issued last week. "We were into hardcore and all that. Jeff is the only one who comes from a jazz background. . . . What we're trying to do is rock music that's got a bit more room to move around, rather than just the standard 4/4 thing."
That determination to upset the status quo has created a constellation of like-minded groups, each with its own sound and mission. Though their personnel often overlaps - an echo of the free-jazz outfits that blossomed in Chicago in the '60s and '70s with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians - the results are wildly divergent.
There's the defiantly exploratory approach of the Chicago Underground Duo (now a quartet that includes members of Tortoise). There's the reflective ambience of the Sea & Cake, which relies on McEntire's subtle timekeeping. Vocalist Sam Prekop, the nominal leader of the Sea & Cake, has made two gorgeous solo albums, as has Tortoise bassist Doug McCombs, under the name Brokeback. Other Tortoise musicians, including Parker, engage in sprawling electronic improvisation under the moniker Isotope 217. The list goes on.
"We've got musicians here who aren't only forward thinkers, but woodshedders," says Bettina Richards, founder of the Chicago label Thrilljockey, using the musicians' term for players obsessed with craft. "Their primary focus is raising the quality of the music."
"It's cheap to live here, you can own a car to get your equipment around," says Richards, whose label has documented the city's post-rock activity since the early '90s. "Lots of musicians have spaces big enough to have home studios, but the key thing is time. You need time to be able to devote to several groups . . . You need to have a certain inclination to just try things that might not work."
Tortoise's impact is similar to the Roots' in Philadelphia's hip-hop/soul community. The Chicago talent pool, like Philadelphia's, is rich and diverse, which encourages cross-genre collaborations such as those between jazz saxophonist Ken Vandermark and the post-rock community. There's a network of independent labels, from the large, established Touch & Go to less visible shops such as Carrottop, that have earned reputations as being artist-friendly. And there are live performance venues of every size and orientation, from bookstore stages that specialize in free-improv jams to large venues, such as the 1,200-capacity Metro, that are friendly toward unconventional music.
Joe Shanahan, owner of the Metro, believes that the chance to perform live has been key to the flowering of post-rock: "Things have a chance to grow here without being repackaged and sold to the industry. . . . [Chicago] has always been out of the limelight in that way, and these musicians took advantage of that. What they're doing has a nice laboratory feel to it."
McEntire, of Tortoise and the Sea & Cake, cites the latter group as an illustration of the dedicated experimentation behind Chicago's post-rock outfits. When it began, the understated quartet - which revolves around Prekop's songwriting and vocals - rehearsed a couple of times weekly and played in clubs about once a month.
"I'd say it took us probably a good 2 years trying to define something. . . . We had to be patient, but we're still enjoying the fruits of it. On this last record [2000's Oui], when we sat down at rehearsal to work on new stuff, we hadn't played in two years. But it was like, `Oh yeah, I remember how to do this.' "
Tortoise's path was similar. Because McEntire operates his own studio - Soma, where many Thrilljockey records are made - the group had lots of time to try things out. For Standards, which is slightly more disciplined than 1999's sprawling masterwork TNT, each musician arrived with seeds of ideas. Some were traditional instrumental riffs, some were blips stored in a computer hard drive.
Where the scene's other acts may start with improvisation, McEntire says Tortoise begins with fixed elements: "We throw all the little snippets in, and everybody picks through them to find things they want to build on. Eventually we'll get to the stage where [we're ready to] record them."
It's in the mixing process that things really get interesting, says guitarist Parker. "We'll throw a lot of ideas around, and often redo the whole conception of a song right there."
This augmentation, accomplished with samplers and an advanced sequencing software called ProTools, is what gives Tortoise records their depth and texture, says McEntire: "There's no methodology; we don't approach every piece the same way. What we're trying to create is something that sounds futuristic but has the human element, so we end up merging and combining stuff, putting layers and layers on. Even for me, when it's done, I can't go back and figure out how it came together."
The sense of collaboration McEntire has cultivated in Tortoise has spread throughout the city's post-rock scene. Prekop, one of several Chicago post-rockers with a parallel career in visual arts (he's a painter), says that an unexpected benefit of being in so many splinter projects is an expanded musical consciousness: "We're learning from each other constantly. John has been an important catalyst for me . . . in the way he accumulates not influences, but all kinds of raw source material."
McEntire agrees. The scene has matured at an amazing pace because of the experiences its members have had making such very different records, he says.
"It's a real synergy. You'll be doing something super-amazing with the Underground Duo in the studio one day, watching the way Rob Mazurek [the Underground's leader] gets across his ideas about music, and the next day, you're left with that feeling or idea. You carry that into the next thing, when you're working on something else. It can't help but change the way you operate."
Tom Moon's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.