Although saddled for many years with the now-passé "post-rock" label (popularized in 1994 by Simon Reynolds of U.K. mag The Wire), the Chicago quintet Tortoise has utterly defied categorization while wielding enormous influence for nearly two decades. The non-traditional, percussion-heavy instrumental band, which draws disparate inspiration from jazz, ambient, dub, modern composers and electronica, plays Mr. Small's Theatre on Wed. Feb. 17, in support of its latest album, Beacons of Ancestorship.
Tortoise drummer John McEntire's voyage beyond rock began at Oberlin College's famed Technology in Music and Related Arts program. "I was exposed to a lot of different ideas very rapidly. Hearing [composer Iannis] Xenakis was a big moment."
The path to Tortoise-hood led straight through the Chicago hardcore/indie scene. In the waning days of Naked Raygun and Big Black, McEntire joined Homestead Records band Bastro with David Grubbs (of Louisville's Squirrel Bait) and Bundy K. Brown. After touring like demons for three years, Bastro burned out, morphing into the quiet Gastr Del Sol (soon including a young Jim O'Rourke). McEntire joined the rhythm section of Doug McCombs (Eleventh Dream Day) and John Herndon (Poster Children) to form Tortoise, which also soon absorbed Dan Bitney (Tar Babies).
The indie-supergroup pedigree of Tortoise was made even stronger by its monumentally acclaimed second full-length, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, which replaced Brown with guitarist David Pajo of Louisville giants Slint. "[Slint] showed there was a completely different and sublime way you could be in a rock band," says McEntire. "That helped us come up with a unique approach that didn't rely on conventions permeating everything in the indie scene."
The cycle was complete when Pajo's departing slot was filled by Jeff Parker, who emerged from a free-jazz background and still plays with AACM legends like Fred Anderson and the Chicago Underground combos with cornetist Rob Mazurek. Jazzier elements and McEntire's intricate production values came to the fore in the 1996 release TNT; that method changed, however, with 2001's Standards, which many consider Tortoise's second best.
"There's been a steady trend away from constructed studio pieces, and we're doing more writing and rehearsal prior to recording," says McEntire. "We're trying to come from a firmer foundation of preparing things that we're happy with, [rather than] going down a lot of blind alleys and making wrong turns."
That approach paid off with last year's Beacons of Ancestorship. As with most Tortoise works, references run the gamut: Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter on "High Class Slim Came Floatin' In" and "Prepare Your Coffin"; Brazilian rhythms on "Gigantes"; overdriven Genghis Tron math-rock on "Yinxianghechengqi" (a title reminiscent of John Zorn); jazz fusion on "Minors"; and Ennio Morricone on "Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One."
As for the six years during which Beacons congealed, McEntire says the band's members weren't emulating their namesake -- everyone was just scattered, starting families and pursuing other recording projects. McEntire also spends a great deal of time behind the console at his Soma studios, with one recent client being Broken Social Scene.
But in 2006, Tortoise compiled the exhaustive four-disc rarities/remixes/DVD set A Lazarus Taxon (the term for a re-emergent living fossil, such as the coelacanth), and released a covers collaboration with Will Oldham called The Brave and the Bold. Named after the DC Comics superhero team-up series, the album tackled tunes from Milton Nascimento to Bruce Springsteen.
"Originally, the idea was pitched by Howard [Greynolds] of Overcoat Records," McEntire recalls. "He wanted us to do 'Thunder Road' for some project. But Will turned it into four songs, then we said we might as well make this an album. It was a matter of thinking about what would take someone's expectation about a song and turn it inside out. On something like Elton John ['Daniel'], I was worried what we'd do, but it turned out to be one of my favorites."
Tortoise also toured the festival circuit every summer, curating two editions of All Tomorrow's Parties. Tortoise has had an unexpected impact on a growing scene that blends jam-band improvisation with the group pulse of instrumental rock and electronica -- the likes of Lotus and Sound Tribe Sector 9 (who style themselves "post-rock dance music").
McEntire can't predict whether an ample contingent of neo-hippies will show up among two generations of avid indie-rockers this Wednesday, but a crossover is possible. "We did play with STS9 several years ago," he says. "It's obviously very humbling when anyone cites you as an influence."
Tortoise with Disappears. 8 p.m. Wed., Feb. 17. Mr. Small's Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $16. All ages. 412-821-4447 or www.mrsmalls.com