Tortoise: Document And Eyewitness

The Catastrophist Tour Book captures Tortoise’s onstage energy

“Nothing in Tortoise ever happens quickly,” says bassist/guitarist Doug McCombs, in what might be the driest joke ever cracked in a music interview. “Over the years we’ve gotten into this cycle where it takes us five, six years to get an album out. In between we try to think of non-album-oriented projects we can work on, to let people know we’re still alive. Often we aren’t able to come up with anything, just because we can’t think of something that hasn’t been done a million times. But we’d known Andrew (Paynter) for quite a while—20 years or so—and we really dig his photography. We thought it’d be interesting to try to document the tour.”

In addition to the two decades of friendship, Paynter, a San Francisco-based film artist, had résumé cred with Tortoise already. Among other collaborations, he’d directed the video for “Prepare Your Coffin,” from 2009’s Beacons Of Ancestorship. So when the chance to document the West Coast leg of the venerable post-rock outfit came along, Paynter signed on immediately.

“It’s harder now for those guys than most people realize,” says Paynter of the Chicago-born Tortoise. “We’re all older now, of course, but some of the guys are fathers, and they live all over the country. So logistically, it’s tough to arrange getting everyone in the same place. But they’re very utilitarian guys, a working band, and that’s what I wanted to record.”

The Catastrophist Tour Book (Thrill Jockey), its name drawn from the title of Tortoise’s 2016 album, comes packaged with a rerelease of that LP with new artwork and live tracks. Paynter’s approach to the project balanced an intuitive and adaptive process with an aesthetic that focused on the room’s energy: In several shots, the audience becomes a part of the evening’s visual record, occupying equal compositional space in the photo with the band.

“We’re longtime collaborators,” says Paynter. “But when you interrupt a tour to be on the bus with a band, you can easily change the natural dynamic. My goal was to document them as an insider—to get intimate moments but real moments. I wanted pictures that portrayed the tour, but I also felt the need to honor the audience; these guys (in Tortoise) are very appreciative of the audiences that come out to hear them. Without them, there’s no music. So, say, for a project like this you expect performance pictures. All right, but anyone in the audience can take those. I made sure that all of the performance shots in the book were taken from stage side, the back of the stage or the rigging, from the band’s perspective.”

Working largely without a flash and with high-speed shutter settings, Paynter was able to catch moments that visually echo Tortoise’s high-energy rhythmic sense and complex timing. Here’s McCombs leaning way the hell over in the middle of a fretboard run; there’s percussionist John McEntire surrounded by skins and cymbals that seem to radiate out from his head like cartoon word balloons. But, too, there’s guitarist Jeff Parker caught grinning in the middle of a feet-up stretch on a beat-up leather recliner, double-cutaway propped on his belly. There’s a rig full of analog pedals sitting on a scuffed-up stage matting, a bank of drum heads on a wall shelf in a gear shop in Portland. It’s an old cinematic saw that proper lighting can make even the mundane dramatic; from the 70-plus rolls of film Paynter shot on that tour leg, the essence of a working band’s road life is distilled and crystallized into a series of evocative shapes, faces and gestures.

It helped Paynter’s you-are-there approach that Tortoise is, and has always been, supremely uninterested in whatever might pass for the star system in brainy instrumental rock circles. His record of the Catastrophist shows is light on “backstage pass”-type imagery but long on shots that capture the job of work that is a touring band’s road haul.

“Not many of us, or really any of the people we’ve associated with over the years, are at all interested in the idea of celebrity,” says McCombs. “It’s more about making interesting work. Andrew’s the same way. He wanted to capture some peripheral stuff, not just to create a mood but also to show the stuff people don’t see a lot when we play. We encouraged all of that. Really, everything coming through his eye, however mundane (the subject), ended up looking great.”

Eric Waggoner