The story of bassist Doug McCombs unfolds like a tapestry of the Chicago music scene. In the second half of the '80s, he anchored the bottom of Eleventh Dream Day -- the Windy City's dreamy, jangly and sprawlingly Neil Young-ish answer to the Replacements or REM -- releasing three albums on Atlantic. Then he made history by inadvertently helping to coin the term "post-rock" with the formation of Tortoise.
Just like its namesake, the band's progressive tendencies trudged slowly and steadily. "It took a really long time," McCombs recalls. "John Herndon and myself were playing together as early as 1989, recording as a lark, to see if we could come up with any ideas. David Sims from the Jesus Lizard was learning his way around the studio and asked if he could record me and Johnny for experience, so we came up with five little things that weren't even songs."
When Herndon and McCombs began recording pieces that required double or triple tracking on bass or drums, they knew they needed more people in Tortoise, and recruited Bundy Brown and John McEntire (both formerly of Homestead band Bastro) to fill it out.
From there, most indie aficionados are familiar with the rock band that became not a rock band, incorporating the influences of dub, electronics, jazz and cinematics, and producing such '90s classics as 1996's Millions Now Living Will Never Die, which influenced a whole generation of musicians thinking outside the mainstream.
But by 1997, McCombs was already yearning for a different vibe. "Tortoise had become a much denser band, and I was striving for something that'd be more minimal, kind of spacious with some room in it."
Brokeback emerged from that desire, at first as a McCombs solo project with various collaborators, then as a duo with the Chicago Underground Duo's upright-bassist, Noel Kupersmith. "The bass that I use is the Fender six-string, which serves more like the role of a guitar in this group," says McCombs. "Noel is playing double bass, so if you're thinking about the scale and sonic territory of the low end, he's on the opposite end of the spectrum. It seemed ideal to combine those."
Since then, the duo has released four albums on Tortoise's flagship Thrill Jockey Records, the latest being 2003's Looks at the Bird, which maintains a verse-chorus-verse structure and carefully layered arrangements, despite being an instrumental album. For more than a year, they didn't play while Kupersmith pursued the craft of a luthier. When that didn't pan out, Kupersmith returned to Chicago and began adding computer backing to the music. "He integrated it into both the Underground Duo and Brokeback, using it as a bed to play on top of," says McCombs.
While Brokeback slowly amassed its catalog, slowcore/quiet music was building around it, like Labradford or Stars of the Lid, although McCombs points out that "a whole ton of that stuff existed before us that I wasn't aware of." So it's been an ongoing process of discovery. "I'm really inspired by the instrumental album that Tom Verlaine made in 1991. Lots of those '70s prog guys went into that territory, like Brian Eno and Michael Rother. I was also into the Paris, Texas soundtrack by Ry Cooder. So there's a lot before and after I started Brokeback that I feel I have certain things in common with."
His latest find, though, is a doozy. "I just discovered Jack Nitzsche, who was a protégé of Phil Spector and his 'Wall of Sound,'" he enthuses. "Jack made this album called The Lonely Surfer, where the six-string bass is playing ninety percent of the melodies. It's much more arranged, but still in the same vein as us. It's so crazy that it even exists -- it's such a Brokeback record."
Woodlab showcase featuring Brokeback, David Daniell, Milo Jones and Pairdown. 8 p.m. Wed., July 25. ModernFormations, 4919 Penn Ave., Garfield. $5. All ages. 412-362-0274 or www.modernformations.com