Garden Center 

Tortoise gets ready to plant a few more ideas.

The moment Dan Britney says it he knows he’s in trouble. “That’s going to be the start of the story, isn’t it?” he asks, knowing damned well the answer. “God, I shouldn’t have said anything.”

nn

Not that it’s all that damning; Britney isn’t really a controversial guy. He grew up in Wisconsin. He’s fixing up a rundown house on Chicago’s west side. And he’s a multi-instrumentalist in an avant-garde jazz band that’s disguised as instrumental indie rock. He’s about as controversial as a litter of puppies.

nn

But when he starts going on about his latest hobby, scratching out a garden from the small patch of urban dirt he has next to his home, he starts to walk on shaky ground. Because while his group, the Chicago-based quintet Tortoise, has been compared to everything imaginable'with a heavy emphasis on clouds and scientific labs, of course'and been heralded as the founder or instigator or reigning champion or whatever of post-rock (i.e. indefinable instrumental rock from Second City) saying that the band isn’t that far removed from growing vegetables is just a little, well … “Cheesy, yeah.” Britney says.

nn

“But really, it is like music in a weird way,” he continues. “You plant an idea and let it grow, and if you take care of if, it might become something great.”

nn

Which, in Britney’s defense, isn’t really that far removed from the story of Tortoise. The band sprang from a small bit of studio experimentation'thus the lab references'by bassist Doug McCombs and drummer John Herndon back in 1990. The two had decided to become a sort of rhythm section for hire, while also recording their own material. That didn’t last. But by 1993 the group, which now included drummer, producer and vibes-player John McEntire, guitarist Bundy K. Brown and Britney, started recording seven-inch releases for Thrill Jockey Records that blended subtle indie rock with prog, reggae, dub, British electronica, avant-garde jazz and damn near everything else that the guys could find huddled on the streets of Chicago. The band’s 1994 self-titled debut went even further, buoying 10 songs on nothing more than mood, and became a watershed moment, not only launching a new subgenre, but also influencing everything from underground rock to hip-hop over the next couple years.

nn

From there, Tortoise didn’t just grow; it became invasive. The group took over the idea of cool. The British press raved every time the band groaned. Hipsters and intellectuals fought over who could claim the band as their own. Imitators popped up like over-excited high-school boys. Yeah, the guys were as nonchalant as Britney'easy-going dudes that just happened to care more about actual instrumental prowess than glamorous pandering'but their albums were twisted and challenging, intellectual and atmospheric. Discs like TNT and Millions Now Living Will Never Die were so much like lost film scores they played like a personal soundtrack'especially if you spent a good portion of your time brooding in an armchair. Tortoise literally stretched the boundaries of music.

nn

“For us, it’s always been important to flip our style,” Britney says. “Rather than thinking that we need another vibe song here, we’re always looking for a different way to approach things, to really come at music from a different point of view.”

nn

That, of course, can be tricky at times. Recently the group convened to begin work on a new album, the official follow-up to 2004’s It’s All Around You. (Britney says that last year’s retrospective double-album, A Lazarus Taxon, and the odd cover album The Brave and the Bold with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, don’t really count.) It didn’t go so well. “I got everyone to agree that we’d do this record punk-rock style. We’d all get together in a studio for two weeks and bang it out. We all used to do that. A week and a half into it I realized there was no way it was going to happen.”

nn

The reason: The band itself. “Because of what we try to do, records become harder and harder,” Britney says. “We have to be extra careful not to say something like, ‘Let’s do a song like that one from two albums ago.’ But because we have a fairly large catalog now, it’s getting more difficult not to repeat ourselves. A lot of artists don’t approach music that way. They’re happy when they write a good song. We also have to make sure the drum tone is truly unique. That’s hard.”

nn

But'and here comes that metaphor again'any good gardener always keeps tending his plants, something Britney says that the band members are trying to do with this tour. Tortoise hasn’t really been on a serious road trip in nearly two years. Britney is hoping it will act like'God, not again'idea fertilizer.

nn

“This is a way for us to jumpstart things again,” he says. “It’ll be good for us to get out, work on some ideas, try some things for and try to get some momentum going. And that’s something you can print.”

nn

Tortoise
nThe Urban Lounge
n241 S. 500 East
nTuesday, June 19
n10 p.m.
n24Tix.com

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Jeff Inman

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