Interview – Doug McCombs of Tortoise June 3, 2010

This article originally appeared in Beatroute Magazine. Big thanks to Doug who found time in their insane touring schedule to answer questions he has likely heard many times before. Such things happen with longevity.


The problem with inventing a genre is that no one will ever let you forget it. Chicago post-rockers Tortoise are no strangers to this phenomenon, and whether they agree with such acclamations or not, they have come to define a band that made it’s mark consciously trying to defy definitions. “Being the reluctant poster child for “post rock” has it’s drawbacks” says Doug McCombs. Their ability to take the familiar component pieces or rock and turn them into startling Frankenstein monsters of tight instrumentation and seemingly loose, improvised composition earned them founder status in a movement that would influence a countless number of newcomers.

This status as pioneers comes with it’s own challenges, as expectations are often higher for the band internally and externally. “We are often trying to defy expectations, but it’s mostly to do with our own expectations” says McCombs. He is, however, cognisant of the effects those expectations have on their audience at large, remarking that “the steps forward that we take in our approach to making music are often imperceptible to people who are looking for something negative to say about us.”

In operation since the early 1990’s, Tortoise has moved in countless directions. Such longevity is usually associated with a thinning of options and the suffering of creativity, but McCombs is optimistic about Tortoise’s chances to continue innovating. “The longer we stay a band the more often we hit creative blocks. We usually try to push through them by trying experiments. Either that or take a break. We don’t really feel any pressure to produce product although it might help if we did”. The band’s output is characterized by long gaps between LP’s, something that McCombs admits the group is not wholly in favor of. “As a band we’re pretty active all the time, but it occurred to us that the 5 years between our last album and this one might have been a little too long”.

A single band has proved simply too little for the output of Tortoise members, with McCombs and bandmate John McEntire combining for more than a dozen projects between them, including The Sea and Cake, Brokeback and Gastr Del Sol. The brackish between the projects is kept to a minimum, however, McCombs commenting that “Choosing which songs go to which band often comes down to which band we’re concentrating on at the time. If TRTS is working on an album then I’ll give whatever I’m working on to TRTS”. The creative process Tortoise takes part in is unique from the others though. “The best TRTS songs often start with very small unfinished ideas” he says, adding “if a song is too finished or if I have a concrete idea of how it should go then I’ll probably save it for another band”.

Tortoise seems like a band destined to reform after a lengthy hiatus, but McCombs sees no practicality in this trend. “I think we all feel that there is something special about the way we work together, special enough that we think we can do it for a long time”. Their legend only growing and evolving, McCombs speaks with a kind of confidence fans of most bands could only hope for, saying “monetary concerns aside, there seems to be no reason to stop making records.” It seems for now, Tortoise is here to stay.

Comments Off on Interview – Doug McCombs of Tortoise