This year marks the 20th anniversary of their second studio album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die. It was a landmark release for the band, almost immeasurable in critical acclaim and now considered to be a pioneering record of the post-rock sound. Most bands would celebrate that fact; perhaps even commemorate their success by playing a show or two in celebration of it. However, the sextet aren’t particularly interested in their past.
“I don’t ever, ever listen to our records,” says John Herndon, who makes up one the band’s two drummers, as well as one of its founding members. “So whenever I’m asked about stuff we’ve put out, I honestly don’t really know how to answer it. As much as possible, I try to be in the present and focus on the here and now – to deal with what’s happening now. I will say that, if we’re playing songs from that record, we approach it the same way that we approach any of the material when we’re playing live. That’s meant so far as it being different – there are certainly elements of the record there, but it’s something that becomes a lot more vibrant and lively when you’re seeing it live.”
Instead of revelling in any kind of nostalgia, Tortoise have instead spent the calendar year taking full advantage of the present. At the end of January, the band released The Catastrophist, their seventh studio album. It was a considerable change of pace – not only their first to incorporate guest vocalists, which included Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley and U.S. Maple’s Todd Rittman, but their first-ever recorded cover, in the unexpected form of David Essex’s ‘Rock On’. Still, people have responded positively to the album, and the band have spent the better part of the year touring in support of it.
“We’ve done a lot this year,” says Herndon. “I loved being in Barcelona and playing at Primavera Sound – that was super fun. We did a really great show in Chicago at Millennium Park and London was really special too. It’s been awesome to be out here in support of this record; we’ve been trying to play as much as we can from across our catalogue, from the very first record right up to the new one.”
Tortoise are certainly a band that pride themselves on their live show – it’s more or less an extension of what the group does on record, delving deeper and further into their compositions and developing new combined energy through the divine element of live performance. With no two sets being exactly the same, the group are always finding new ways to remain a cohesive, engaged collective when it comes to playing their music in front of their dedicated fan base.
“Just the other night, I had a guy come up to us after the show who wanted a record signed,” says Herndon. “We got to talking, and he actually asked me if Tortoise would ever consider putting out a live album. He felt that the live experience was a different animal to hearing us recorded – and I can’t quite explain why that is, but I certainly understood where he was coming from. There’s just something that we collectively get out of projecting this music that we’ve made in the live setting. The sound of the band on stage is very different from the recorded versions. It’s not impossible to tell if it’s the same song or not, but you definitely notice the changes. I don’t know, it’s just something that we do and people seem to respond to it.”
“We actually have a strange sort of connection with Australia,” says Herndon, who was last here with Tortoise in 2010. “Our first live sound engineer, Casey, lives in Melbourne now. He met a woman from Australia while he was on tour there with us, and she ended up coming back to Chicago with him. They got married, and then moved back to Australia. Whenever we’re in town, we always make a point of going to see him. As delighted as we was for him, we miss having him on tour a lot. It’s going to be so wonderful to get to see him again – you forget how much you miss people until they start living a million miles away.”
Tortoise are touring Australia in the first week of December, for tickets head to lifeisnoise.com. The Catastrophist is out now via Thrill Jockey.