Artist: Doug McCombs and David Daniell
Label: Thrill Jockey
This is up over at TLOBF. They have my soul.
Doug McCombs and David Daniell are two busy people – both members of fully functioning bands (Tortoise and San Agustin), both dabble in numerous side projects (Pullman, Brokeback), not to mention Daniell’s near infinite number of limited releases and collaborations. So it’s probably no real shock that these two met whilst moonlighting in Rhys Chatham’s mighty six-guitar Die Donnergötter band. A point which is all too relevant when you hear the depth and breadth of the guitar music they’ve made on Sycamore – this is the Big Music: room-filling swells of sound, at once obviously made from guitars, yet rising beyond the medium to scrape at something else.
Sycamore has a live sound to it – cavernous and humming; yet the record is actually closer to a cut and paste experiment in that it’s the product of two live sessions (totalling around 7 hours over 5 days) but the results were then chopped and edited with John McEntire at his Soma Studios in Chicago. This is the first of many nods to the pioneering studio work Teo Macero undertook on those glorious collaborations with Miles David that lit-up the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. This is very apparent on a track like ‘The Deshabille’ – an eerie spacy track, falling somewhere close to Labradford, where Daniell sounds very like John McLaughlin circa In A Silent Way. The nod is also there on the epic ‘Bursera’ which could be something from the In A Silent Way sessions as conducted by Keith Fullerton Whitman.
‘Bursera’ is probably the centrepiece here – it’s certainly where the simple idea of two intertwined guitars is pushed to its seam-bursting logical limit. Frank Rosaly – a veteran of the Chicago scene – augments Daniell and McCombs here on drums and electronics, adding buried ride and splash touches (that In A Silent Way/Jack Johnson touch again). The track begins with some muted harmonics, the guitar sounding almost like a prepared piano; then Daniell’s huge McLaughlin sound takes the track skyward, with Rosaly adding some subtly layered drones. At around the 7-minute mark something cracks and there is a whiteout: Rosaly’s drums sound near magma-deep in the mix, the guitars a squall of noise. When the calm returns it’s blessed, sacred.
‘Vejer de Frontera’ is similarly epic in form. At fifteen and half minutes, it is an abstract exploration of muted rhythms (provided by John Herndon) and faintly treated guitars that seem to float and sway in some unseen sonic wind. Like ‘Bursera’ the track swells towards its end, the guitars spiralling together – but here there is no whiteout, just a sense of drift. The track falls away into silence.
Percentage scores for records are arbitrary at the best of times, but for stuff like this they become largely pointless as in many ways it’s like trying to score a canvas. But as it stands, Sycamore as a piece of work is a fine addition to the canon of experimental guitar music – and a fine addition to the extensive catalogues of McCombs and Daniell.
You can get this over at Thrill Jockey - it's a vinyl only release though and limited to 1000 copies...
Download: Douglas McCombs and David Daniell - The Deshabille
Mountain*7 - for the person with nothing better to do
Entries tagged as doug mccombs
This is a transcript of an interview I did with Doug from Tortoise a month or so ago on the dusty Grays Inn Road near Kings Cross. Cheers to the guys at The Line of Best Fit (where this first appeared) who have been kind enough to let me reproduce this here, and to Rowan at Thrill Jockey for setting this up. Go get the new record, Beacons of Ancestorship, it's one of their best.
I can’t think of another band like Tortoise. They’re a one off. Effortlessly straddling multiple genres (dub, jazz, hip-hop, electronica), and revelling in their sense of experimentation they still manage to retain a sheen of cool, and more to the point still function as a capital R Rock band. What’s more, they seem to be well and truly in it for the long haul – if Beacons of Ancestorship, their dazzling new record, is anything to go by, then they are still very much bursting with ideas and new sonic angles. They sound more vital, and younger, than ever. Well, I say younger…
I met Doug McCombs – Tortoise bassist and glabrous gentle giant – in the troglodytic cavern of the Thrill Jockey offices on The Grays Inn Road. As I walked up the stairs into the shadows, I could see Doug, Kurtz-like in the damp light, with his head in his huge left hand, twirling a packet of cigarettes in his right. It was half past five and after flying in late the previous evening, he’d evidently been talking to the press all day. He looked shattered. It was hot too; the heat lay across London like another layer of clothes… Mercifully, we were shown into the safety of a nondescript boozer on the far side of the road where we could escape the fug and where the cold beer suddenly made the day more attractive.
Matt – It feels like you've been away for ages. What have you guys been up to?
Doug – Yeah, I guess it seems like Tortoise disappears for periods of time but mostly we're really active all the time. It's true that we all play in other bands outside of Tortoise and that takes up a certain amount of our time but we also are pretty consistently working on Tortoise – whether it's going on tours or working on new material and so to us it feels as though we're always pretty active. We try to do as much live playing as we can, even if it's not a tour. We get lots of offers to do one off shows or festivals and even without a new record it's vital for us to go out on tour and play live as much as possible as it's part of being in a band that we like a lot.
We did a tour two years ago in the spring that was a whole tour of the US despite the fact that we didn't have a new record out and it was one of the best tours we've ever done! I don't know it seemed like that, maybe it's something to do with the fact that you get used to people only being interested in the band when you have a new record out and for us it was great to get that validation, that people were coming to our shows even when we didn't have a new album. It really gave us a lot of confidence for the longevity of this band and that we could work at our own pace.
Matt – So about the new record – where does the title, Beacons of Ancestorship come from?
Doug – Well, because we're an instrumental band, when it comes to time to title songs or albums, we're usually trying to draw on different things in our lives that we interested in. It can be anything from literature or art or whatever. Beacons of Ancestorship is an avant-garde, I guess you'd say ‘novel’, or it might be considered an artwork. Basically it was this piece of literature – and I don't even know the author's name – that's one paragraph repeated over and over again for something like 700 pages. That's not necessarily why we chose it as an album title, and I'm sure each member of the band has his own reasons for wanting to choose this title, but essentially, it was a title we all liked. To me personally, what the title invokes is how we see our place in the continuum of popular music, or at least the music we're interested in. It's a reflection of all of our influences and how we see ourselves and where we might take the band in the future.
Beacons of Ancestorship
Matt – The way you describe the repetition of the piece seems to fit in your aesthetic too.
Doug – That's true and also anything that's even vaguely cryptic fits into our aesthetic too [laughs].
Matt – It feels like a very direct record for you, there might even be what are considered a couple of 'songs' on there.
Doug – Sure. I think the second song 'Prepare Your Coffin' might be the most conventional rock song Tortoise has ever played. Which wasn't really anything conscious. Things that we were conscious of when going in to make this record were, thinking about our last album It's All Around You, I think we were trying to, at least in retrospect, refine and perfect everything we had done before and get it to some sort of compositional ideal or something, or at least try to become better as songwriters. So this time we may have unconsciously tried to push away from that a little bit and make it a little more rough around the edges, more scrappy, and more open ended – not as compositionally direct. And it feels that way to me – more direct and looser at the same time. More natural. The songs flow and don't feel as constricted. And I can't speak for everyone in the band but I think that may have been what we were trying to achieve.
The other thing is, as the band has gotten older and more experienced we've become a much better live band and I think we're more conscious of using dynamics in our live shows, and about being a more powerful rock band. When we first started we might have been a little tentative and not sure we could perform this music in front of people and have it be interesting, and so we've slowly grown into this thing where we're now pretty powerful live and also have moments of delicacy. I think we wanted to reflect some of that on this record.
We used the same compositional techniques to get to that. We didn't perform any of the songs live in the studio and we wrote most of the material the same way which is a slow process of bouncing ideas of each other and arriving at something we like by a process or subtraction or addition or cutting up or rearranging. So we didn't perform any of it live but to me it reflects more what we can do live.
Matt – How much of that goes back to the ATP shows you did, where you played the whole of Millions Now Living Will Never Die from start to finish? Was that part of the confidence building process?
Doug – No, that's different. Playing Millions... live from start to finish was a completely separate challenge because we'd never attempted to play parts of those songs live ever. For instance 'Djed' which many people see as the cornerstone of the record, we'd never played that in its entirety in a live situation. So that was a real challenge as that song is really a tape edit or a collage. That's not really what I was talking about – I was more getting at the fact that when we started the band a lot of the music was so delicate that we felt if we were going to rock out on it we'd almost do it a disservice so we eventually grew into the thing of not being afraid to rock out. So even though we all came from rock bands in the first place it was almost as if we were treating the Tortoise music with too much reverence.
Matt – I was listening to the first album again recently and I'd forgotten how many delicate, essentially ambient moments there were on there. There's little of that on the Beacons...
Doug – The new album has moments.... The other direct thing about the album I think is the rhythm patterns on the songs, even though some of them are contrapuntal and interlocked, most of the songs are in 4/4 time signature. And we've always done stuff in 4/4 but we've also used a lot of semi-convoluted time signatures and I think that lends a certain directness to the record. There's only 1 track, 'Minors', which jumps from phrases of 3 and 4 to phrases of 7. That was all sort of a compositional experiment – Jeff wrote the melody to no time signature at all and then put the chords under it after the melody had been laid down and he realised the chords slipped into weird times.
TLOBF – A couple of the tracks seem to have an almost dubstep inflection to them, 'Northern Something' and even 'Gigantes'. It made me think of D/j Rupture.
Doug – 'Northern Something' for sure references some of that stuff – it's almost like a dancehall or dubstep samba. I think that was a conscious nod. 'Gigantes' was also a song that was based around a rhythm before anything else – the interlocking drum patterns came first before the melodic content.
Matt – And what about 'Yinxianghechengqi'?
Doug – [Laughs] I don't actually know how to pronounce that word! I think it's Chinese. Someone told me it was the first synthesiser ever manufactured in the country. Anyway, that song was another experiment. We were in the studio talking about modern composition and someone said wouldn't it be hilarious to try twelve tone and hardcore which is basically what that is.
TLOBF – So you're mixing Schoenberg and Hardcore? It's been done millions of times, I don't know why you bothered... The track though is really falling apart under its own weight, splitting at the sides.
Doug – That's probably actually the oldest song on the album and we've probably recorded 5 or 6 different versions of it and that version on the album is two wildly different versions spliced together with really different feels. The first part has this sense that we can barely play feel to it, and then it kicks into the real version.
Matt – Has the way you've recorded changed at all? You've said that at times things do get in the way – other projects, band members having families etc.
Doug – Our first two albums were recorded almost all analogue, on tape machines; only on the second album, a little bit of digital editing came in – just some cross fades or something. This was right when digital recording programs first came in. So from the third album until now, it's been in the digital age where, we do record on analogue tapes, but we'll bounce back stuff from tape to pro-tools or vice versa. So, our recording process since the digital era has been pretty much the same. We'll go to the studio, start throwing around ideas and recording them as we go. On a more practical level since some of the guys have children there are times when not all of us can make it to the studio at the same time. But then it's not always that important for us to be in the studio all the time – as long as everybody is there some of the time to agree on any major changes. It can become frustrating when we're in a particularly creative period and someone doesn't show up - I've been that guy too – but it's just the way it has to be.
Matt – Does one of you take charge in the studio, as it were?
Doug – John [McEntire] does most of the recording and mixing. He's the one with the real experience as far as being a recording engineer goes. John Herndon and Dan Bitney have home recording set ups of their own, and they can do stuff with tape machines and pro tools. But John can do it with a remote control – just walk into a room and hit play and away he goes. As far as what you would call production, that is the group effort and John is sort of the conduit. He's able to interpret everyone's ideas and translate them into what's going to work in terms of recording. For someone like me, who's not really familiar with a lot of the equipment, it's really awesome to have someone who understands what I mean when I describe how I want something to sound because he can do it. It's a really amazing thing to have in a band, to have that autonomy, and to have that total confidence in someone to realise those ideas you have. It's a privilege really.
A Lazarus Taxon
Matt – Can we talk a little about A Lazarus Taxon? What was behind the decision to release that box set?
Doug – The main impetus was sort of a compulsive need to gather things together. I felt like the material in that box set represented a side of Tortoise that people weren't that familiar with. I think our albums represent one side of Tortoise, then we have this other side, which is when someone asks us for a track for a compilation, or we make a 7” to sell on tour, or someone asks us to do a remix. A lot of that stuff involves a different working process for us as a band, and some of the results are quite different to the stuff that ends up on the albums. And there was so much floating around out there in different places, and I'd been pushing it for a while to gather it all up so people could hear this other side to the band.
Matt – It's a fantastic artefact, just as an object – but I read somewhere that it was like a tombstone.
Doug – I heard somebody say that too, like 'this band is over'! That's not really what it was meant to be. Maybe they got the idea from the imagery on the front.
Matt – Those Odermatt photos are incredible...
Doug - He was an Austrian, and an employee of the police, and part of his job was to document car accidents. Most of his photographs don't seem to be documenting tragic events – I mean most of them are just fender benders, it doesn't look like anyone died in them. But they are beautiful photographs. And since then there's been another book, of his colour work [Arnold Odermatt: On Duty], featuring loads of Austrian police cadets doing callisthenics, and there's one series of broken tail lights, all melted.
Arnold Odermatt - Untitled
Matt - They struck me as so Ballardian – not just the obvious car crash element, but the affectlessness of them, they're so clean. Going back to ...Lazarus, I also read someone describing it as a time capsule.
Doug – That's a better way of describing it! To me, that box set documents a totally different side to Tortoise – recorded much quicker, less structured, making less decisions, doing it out of necessity.
Matt – I was listening to Rhythms, Resolutions and Clusters EP on the way up here [the third CD in the A Lazarus Taxon box] and there is some very strange stuff on there...
Doug – For sure. Rhythms, Resolutions and Clusters was after our first album and we were definitely into the idea of our songs never being finished, or that there was potential for them to go in different directions there didn't have to be a definitive version. So we thought it would be cool if there was a different version of the album and all of the people on the EP were friends of ours. It was never a situation of 'let's find the hippest producers' – it was more like 'let's give these tracks to some people we like and respect and see what happens'. Later on, after our second album all those remixes were done by people we did and didn't know and after that we just weren't really interested any more. It was more like at that point we felt our songs were standing on their own.
Matt – That period is often seized upon as a kind of zenith for Tortoise in terms of output, which I guess must be quite frustrating for you guys? What do you make of that whole 'godfathers of post-rock' stuff?
Doug – I don't really know how I feel about I. A couple of years into this band I knew that we had potential to be a band for a really long time – just from the chemistry, and that's the way I still feel. The strength of this band isn't going to be how we peaked in the ‘90s; our strength is going to be how we continue to be band, and what comes in the future. We're working through some of those things now. I definitely know that some members of Tortoise are not really that thrilled with Millions Now Living Will Never Die – I mean it was pretty ambitious and we did a good job of it but it was never really completely finished, we didn't have the resources. There was a sense of 'this is what we have and this is going to have to do.' There are some successful experiments on it and some loose ends. And I feel like over the years we've got way better at tying up those loose ends and not having any extraneous, unnecessary material on our albums.
Millions Now Living Will Never Die
Matt – So is there another vaults-worth of stuff waiting to come out?
Doug – There are odds and ends floating around but no, no vault [laughs].
Matt– I'm intrigued by what you said about Beacons earlier, and you're place in a continuum of music – who are the other beacons along the line?
Doug – There are too many to mention! I guess our ambition is to be part of the continuum, be part of what makes music move along. Our only hope could be that we might inspire people to make music, the way the music we all love has inspired us.
Matt – As a final question, going on from the last one I suppose: how do you explain your position as a rock band in that the general response to Tortoise's stuff seems to stand outside the usual clichés of rock music – the simple build and release and the emotional response. How does sit with you? How does it work?
Doug – I think people have become used to hearing music in a certain context, and only if they become really interested in music do they eventually seek out a band like us. Even somebody as successful as Sonic Youth for instance still is not on the radar of your average person. They're an insanely influential rock band and yet they've never reached a kind of universal acceptance. The average person has never heard of Sonic Youth. So I guess there's a certain kind of music listener who eventually finds out about a band like Tortoise and that's fine because those people who do find out about us will carry it with them.
Matt – What do you make of the fact that Sonic Youth have started coming in for some negative press recently? That they've become part of the nostalgia industry and cool for their record collections rather than their music?
Doug – Somebody's always going to run you down for something. I've never known Sonic Youth do anything with anything less that total integrity. And as for the nostalgia stuff, well, the whole Don't Look Back Thing isn't something we'd ever get involved in again – and Sonic Youth did a whole tour of it so must feel even worse about it! I mean, playing Millions... was kind of fun but really, as a rock band you want to be playing you're new stuff. I think we'd have been infinitely more entertaining playing our new stuff...
Matt – So when are you coming over to the UK again?
Doug – We might be here in August or September but nothing is confirmed. Other than that it might be November or December. We'll let you know for sure... [Unless you've been living underground, you must have heard the announcement of the 10th Anniversary ATP show in December. My word, what a line up. If Tortoise come over before that you'll read about it here first.]