MAGNET Classics: Tortoise’s “Millions Now Living Will Never Die”

Tortoise

The Making Of Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die
By A.D. Amorosi

Say the word “Chicago” now and you’re sadly spun to the surreal wrongs of a police force and a mayor who refused to acknowledge common decency and humanity when it came to the lives of African-Americans.

Chicago in 1990, however, was a different place—one known for the very real and very tactile work of collaboration, interplay and camaraderie that was its colorblind, free-jazz, freer indie rock and electronic scenes. “There never was any separation amongst musician crowds; everybody played with everybody,” says guitarist Jeff Parker, a longtime Chicagoan who played with Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble and other jazz outfits by the early ’90s.

This interconnected grouping of musicians—some coming from the testily experimental Bastro, others from odd rockist Eleventh Dream Day—birthed not only Tortoise and its still epic second album, 1996’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die. The Sea And Cake, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Brokeback, Isotope 217, Califone, various permutations of Chicago Underground (Duo, Trio, etc.) and a dozen others basked in the glow of what was then called “post-rock,” an unfortunately titled movement given rise with Tortoise as its godfather and the fortunate Millions as its cascading, crowning achievement.

Listen to it now (reissued on translucent blue vinyl in January by Thrill Jockey, the label synonymous with all things Chicago 1990s), and it’s hard to believe that Millions is 20 years old. She sounds too old to be so young and too forward-fresh to be so aged. To steal a description from another Windy City wonder, the avant-jazz gods of Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Millions is the best example of being “ancient to the future” beyond that free-jazz group’s offerings. “Whether I played on it or not isn’t the issue; Millions really was pretty amazing,” says multi-instrumentalist David Pajo.

Millions Now Living Will Never Die—named for an essay penned by a Watchtower Bible And Tract Society president for the Jehovah’s Witnesses—was the very height of complex, progressive post-punk. These were beautiful, fluid melodies touched by post-bop avant-garde jazz, rich minimalism (its Steve Reich-esque vibraphone and marimba), dub (a producer’s vibrating echo throughout), krautrock (a motorik kick on “Djed”), Tropicalia, ambient electronica and Ennio Morricone-like expanse. Mood swings and deep emotions were conveyed in its subtle shifts in tonal color and texture, a subdued understated quality rarely heard in rock of any stripe. Millions was windier and darker than a Chicago winter’s night: gusty and spookily devoid of vocals. It was spacious yet tautly played, and playful—even cheesy, in spots. It was distantly European and cinematically American—Federico Fellini and John Ford all at once with an edge of workmanlike precision.

“Everything was about hard work in Chicago,” says Doug McCombs, the bassist for Eleventh Dream Day who initiated Tortoise (or “Mosquito,” reminds Bettina Richards, the one-time Atlantic Records A&R boss who signed McCombs’ first band for that major label before starting Thrill Jockey) as a Sly & Robbie-like rhythm section with drummer John Herndon, a one-time member of Poster Children. “This city always had this hard-working, blue-collar mentality where people just buckled down and got things done,” says McCombs. As far as art and creative music went, Chicago wasn’t ever a place for the peripheral. Rather, to McCombs, Herndon and the two musicians from Bastro (drummer John McEntire, bassist Bundy K. Brown) that Tortoise came into existence as in 1990, music was about “getting down to business—figuring out how do to what you wanted to do, and doing it,” says McCombs. “That was very much Tortoise, as well as that era’s musical community. Very fertile.”

McEntire, the drummer/producer who, at that point, had worked for Gastr del Sol and Freakwater, as well as Bastro, says that Tortoise came out of the womb in 1990 fully formed with a double-bass/two-percussionist groove: “At least as to what our aesthetic was, and the dynamics between how all of us would work.”

Yes, they were absorbing everything; from the work of Chicago’s varied improvisational scenes to their then-bourgeoning listening habits beyond the punk-rock milieu. “I was a kid around the time of punk who came up loving Television, X and Devo before moving into underground hardcore stuff like Black Flag, then jazz,” says McCombs as an example. Mainly, though, this Tortoise foursome (along with guitarist Parker) came together in close proximity when they moved into one large warehouse loft space at Grand and Wood Streets in Chicago. (Their current practice pad, for the last 15 years, is in that city’s Humboldt Park area.)

“The loft space made us into a gang, more than just a group of musicians,” says McEntire of the union with shared responsibilities and influences. “We were tight and hung out together all the time, for sure.”

Though he couldn’t join Tortoise as a touring unit because of his then-full-time jazz commitments in Chicago, Parker recalls that period with much laughter when he says, “It was a great time. I wasn’t technically in the band, but we were all roommates in that loft; everyone but Dan Bitney (the multi-instrumentalist who joined Tortoise in 1993). I knew all of their music because I lived with all of their music.”

After its first singles of 1993 (“Mosquito” on the Torsion label, “Lonesome Sound” on Thrill Jockey), a debut full-length (its eponymous album from 1994) and that initial LP’s remix project (Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters, 1995), Tortoise was already set for a change.

“You could hear the makings of what Tortoise would become with the singles,” says Richards, who started Thrill Jockey in 1992. “The unusual instrumentation, the emphasis on different textures, the overall sense of lovely melody. The first album, too. I loved it. It would be revisionist history to say that everybody else did, but, critically, it opened up listeners and the press to what would come next.”

What came next was Bundy K. Brown abruptly leaving Tortoise toward the end of 1994, with Slint’s then-guitarist David Pajo joining the ensemble.

“It was circumstance; a slight shift, but a noticeable one,” says McCombs coolly of Brown’s departure.

“Everything was amicable,” says McEntire.

Neither McCombs nor McEntire had a problem with either prospect, as the bassist and drummer thought highly of both players immediately past and suddenly present, and recognized that Brown, like Pajo, had his own ideas of introducing more guitar into the band (though they each played more bass than anything else with Tortoise). “I think I tried to play—or thought of—the bass as I would a guitar,” says Pajo. “Everyone switched up instruments anyway; onstage at the beginning of a song; during recording if you wanted to. That was encouraged.”

Pajo was already a favorite of/inspiration to Tortoise from his work with Slint, themselves masters of oblong structure and sinister tonality on albums such as 1989’s Tweez and 1991’s Spiderland. Upon leaving Slint in 1992, Pajo was part of experimental indie-pop’s Louisville/Chicago continuum by working with King Kong, the For Carnation, Royal Trux, Will Oldham’s Palace projects and Stereolab—the latter a band that, like Tortoise, he found revolutionary for its time.

“In the early ’90s, grunge was everywhere and being a loser was cool,” he says with a chuckle. “I was a loser already, so I didn’t want to hear or play that stuff. Suddenly, there was Tortoise flying the flag for something different: two bassists, two drummers. Very cool. Yet very musical and so well-done.”

Comparing them with Stereolab (a dreamily repetitive band whose songs “rocked”), Pajo connected with the Chicago outfit in a very real way; so much so, he moved into the Grand and Wood loft. “These guys were a breath of fresh air, making music for music’s sake,” says Pajo, who became Tortoise’s bassist and yet another of its composers.

“Dave brought a lot of music to Tortoise and Millions,” says McEntire, pointing out how that sophomore album’s “Glass Museum” was “100 percent Pajo.”

When Pajo joined Tortoise, he immediately began living in the Grand and Wood loft with the rest of the ensemble (and Parker), where musical activity 24/7 was de rigueur.

“Someone was always writing or recording something,” says Pajo. “I’m prolific, but these guys were real workaholics. Their ideas are endless, and their ability to do something with them was inspiring. Never a dull moment there.”

As Tortoise was started, in McCombs’ mind, without a grand musical theme, specific sonic genre or sense of limitations (“any ideas that come to us, we should try”), Millions came together as something that reflected the interests and moods of its five members individually while finding/sounding the community amongst them. “Going forward from that point was mainly us being more comfortable with the endeavor,” says McCombs. “More focused about where it should be going, but not too focused to not let it get there on its own steam … possibly.”

Unlike the first album (or any LP since, claims Parker, McCombs and McEntire), Millions truly came together before Tortoise sauntered into the studios it was recorded in between June and September of 1995: first, Brad Wood’s Idful Music Corporation studio, next door to an old laundromat, before heading to the then brand spanking new Soma Electronic Music Studios. “That was the last time that we had fairly prepared music before we went into both of those studios,” says McCombs. “We had small ideas and worked on them in rehearsal, and in the process of rehearsing them, we really developed these songs.”

One blissfully lengthy and halcyon rehearsal period before heading into either studio occurred during a purposeful retreat in northern Vermont. McCombs claims that the band as a whole mandated having some sort of secluded refuge. “We were in the middle of a tour with all these ideas rattling around our heads, and stopped in Vermont,” he says. “Just stopped. That was really quite nice. Being someplace so remote removed us from the daily distractions of Chicago and touring.”

The Vermont respite forced Tortoise into an even deeper sense of introspection, a reason, perhaps, that a Millions song such as “Along The Banks Of Rivers” has any meditative elements at all.

“That retreat at the farm house really got the ball rolling for Millions,” says Pajo. “We’d wake up and start—and end—the songs. It wasn’t about practicing or rehearsing. The goal was to write and record, come up with ideas.”

Like the Chicago loft, the idyllic Vermont spot became a lifestyle for the ensemble as they fell into a pattern (“a good dynamic,” says Pajo) where Tortoise ate, drank (“lots of coffee”) and slept music.

“That is, when Doug wasn’t fly-fishing,” says Pajo. “He would practice that—go fishing—when he wasn’t recording. Who know how many more songs we could have come out of there with, had he not fished.”

Once the band returned to Chicago, Tortoise began work in earnest on its sophomore album with its new arsenal of songs fleshed out in Vermont, “The Taut And Tame” written by Brown, along with contributions from Parker that never wound up on Millions. “I played on several of the sessions, some of which wound up on the Japanese import of the album,” says the guitarist, talking about “A Grape Dope.”

As McEntire didn’t consider himself to be a “principal contributor” when it came to composing any of the tracks on Millions, the drummer stuck to the sticks, to engineering, to piecing the overall work together in production and post-production.

“Remember, this was still the days of analog and tape, so anything that got moved around in production literally got moved around,” says McEntire.

Pajo recalls one summer night’s session where McEntire (“the brains behind recording Millions”) was at his wit’s end.

“John would stay up all night mixing stuff so that he could present us with a take of a song the next morning,” says Pajo. “If everyone was cool, it flew … In Slint, everything was a democracy, too, so I was familiar with how that worked. I’ll never forget recording one song, though, where, out of frustration, John just couldn’t get exactly what he wanted. So, he picked up all the scraps of tape out of the trash and joined them together to show us what this one particular transition should sound like … and that was amazing.”

McCombs mentions briefly how very “pre-mapped out” the sections for each song were, diagrammed to the teeth as to the length of time each would be, where elements would go like the tempo changes, the rhythm changes and their lengths. “That was interesting to work out with John, to map it out on tape and make it all work together,” says McCombs. “We played each song and each section through enough times in rehearsals to get them where we wanted them. Once we got to the studios, it was play, listen and overdub.”

Though each of Millions’ six songs is worthy of discourse, none is as wrung-and-hung-out-to-dry as “Djed,” a 20:53 track that is as much a suite of prog rock and musique concrète as it was a slippery maneuver to piece together. “That could have been a total failure,” says McEntire, who did most of the piecing. “It didn’t start life as a 20-minute song, nor was that the intention as we went along. We just had all these disparate ideas. I just pieced it all together to be that—what it wound up as.”

McCombs believes that the rigor of “Djed” in rehearsal (“a bear, really”) is why Tortoise approached it first in the studio. “There is a thing that Tortoise as a group tries to capture, and that’s the elusive moment where things just click,” he says. “We harness … capture feelings.” No elusive moment on Millions proved harder to harness, yet “Djed,” too, was lassoed.

Tortoise—or at least McCombs—was prepared for Millions (released Jan. 30, 1996) to be liked: “We had a pretty decent response for our first one, at least from the alternative press,” he says. “So, I expected this second one would be anticipated.”

No one expected it to be adored. Richards called the response to Millions “mammoth,” one—without sales figures provided or mechanical rights counted (“we still get calls for its songs to be in films, television shows, commercials”)—that still resonates with the label and listeners.

Pajo in particular was over-the-moon about Millions. “It was just the best experience I think I could’ve had, as a player and as a fan,” he says. It was weird then, that with Millions’ 1998 follow-up TNT, then with Parker and in the band as well, Pajo decided to up and leave Tortoise.

“I had breakfast with McEntire one morning, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘Are you leaving the band, Dave?’” says Pajo. “There was no weirdness, bitterness or falling out. We finished TNT, they wanted to tour for 10 months afterward, and I wanted to settle down a bit, as I just started seeing someone. Jeff had just joined, and I figured that he could cover my ass.”

Neither McCombs nor McEntire—Tortoise’s stalwarts, still—can put their finger on what makes Millions perhaps more special than any in its catalog. “Is it more special?” asks McEntire.

Pajo, however, seems to have a good guess as what makes Millions unique within the Tortoise oeuvre. For him and for the album’s fanatics, few records are as radically different and otherworldly. “I think Millions is a snapshot of our attitudes, adventurousness and camaraderie,” he says . “A real sky’s-the-limit, communal-vibe, unlimited approach to making music. I love thinking about that album.”