Flags of Our Fathers
by Phil Goldberg

The last 20 years have presented the world of independent music few acts as engaging, influential and perplexing as Chicago’s Tortoise. The band has explored a wide array of musical styles in their tenure: free-jazz, electronic, hip-hop, minimalism, and almost everything else under the sun. The band has just released its sixth proper longplayer, Beacons of Ancestorship, where they continue to push the boundaries of multi-instrumental compositions for which they have garnered so much acclaim and adoration. Listeners will find Beacons taking them in a variety of directions, some relatively familiar and some altogether uncharted. Without a doubt, the dimensionality of the music begs repeated listens, contemplation, and a facade of questions. Luckily, we caught up with the talented John Herndon, who has been with the group since it’s inception, while he was preparing for an extensive tour in support of the new record.

You just released Beacons of Ancestorship a couple weeks ago, and the LP is already out of print. That’s got to feel good.

John Herndon: Man, I wish our record company had printed more. It shouldn’t be out of print already!

I’m hoping that you guys do what you did for Standards and reprint all of your stuff on vinyl. So much of it is out of print.

JH: Well, I don’t know if those special pressings are going to happen, but we’re for sure going to get some regular vinyl prints going.

Anyways, what’s your favorite aspect of the new record? It seems to go in a lot of different directions.

JH: It is pretty much Tortoise unleashed (laughs). Unleash the turtle!

I don’t know if you read a lot of the reviews, but a lot of writers like to throw around the idea that Tortoise is back from a hiatus or something. It’s rather inaccurate, being that you have all been very busy.

JH: Maybe some people don’t know about all of the other work we do. I don’t know. Or maybe it’s just a way to sort of frame whatever piece they’re writing. We’ve been hella busy—all of us! And just to get it straight, none of us expected to take a five-year break. My oldest son just turned five in January, so I had that going on, and I had another boy. Time just seems to go like a phantom. We blinked and it was like, “Oh shit, it’s five years later!”

So, what happens? Does someone give you a call and say, “Hey let’s make a new Tortoise record?”

JH: Kind of (laughs). It was kind of all of us who said that. We started working on this record over a year ago. Part of the reason it took so long is that we had some semi-frustrating—although valuable—early sessions. We didn’t have a plan about what we were going to do or a way to approach the record. So we kind of went into the studio and threw around ideas, jammed and improvised and recorded. None of it seemed to grab anybody. We were just sort of spinning our wheels and nothing was coming of it. It took a few sessions like that in order to get a sense of how we were going to do it. I think it sort of kicked people’s asses and made them go home and write some material. In the later sessions, we got back together and people had a lot of ideas and that’s how it came together. When we began, we all just thought we’d go in and just do what Tortoise normally does, which is go in to the studio and write a bunch of songs. It just didn’t work this time.

Now that you put it that way, I think the record really does have that feel to it. There are parts of the compositions that are extremely pronounced and may have been a product of this process. Now, this may sound kind of trite, but after all of your accomplishments, your keystone status in this thing they call “post rock,” do you ever feel pressure to meet or exceed expectations?

JH: Well, the “post rock” thing, that’s always been something that we’ve been trying to shake. It was something that people put on us and on a bunch of bands. and it really became several bands undoing. Insofar as the pressure, that’s a good thing. The goal is always to focus that pressure in order to do better work. But there is a certain amount of pressure we all feel. That pressure is really on ourselves. I think that’s the kind of pressure anyone feels doing any kind of work.

I spoke to a few of my friends before doing this interview to get some perspective, and one mentioned that he always felt that Tortoise was half a year ahead of his own musical taste. That just struck me. Do you feel some adventurousness causes this or are you guys just doing what you do?

JH: To some extent, we’re just doing what we do. Every time we get together to write material and plan a new album, there’s always a challenge, and it’s always, I guess you can say adventure, trying to chase down and articulate the ideas you have spinning in your head. Then there’s always unexpected turns, which are adventures in and of themselves. We all trust each other enough that we feel comfortable that these unexpected detours will lead us to better work.

Finally, I just have to ask, what does the title mean?

JH: Well, it’s from a book that is like 300 pages or so long that is just a variation on the same sentence over and over and over. John found it, or read it. I’m not entirely sure what those words are in relation to the book or what bearing they have. But to me, when I think of it, I just think of it as wearing your own influences on your sleeves, like flags to your own history. That’s how I like to see it.