With its proclivity for one-off singles, remixes and compilation appearances, Chicago instrumental rock act Tortoise has long been the perfect candidate for boxed set treatment.
With its proclivity for one-off singles, remixes and compilation appearances, Chicago instrumental rock act Tortoise has long been the perfect candidate for boxed set treatment. Those rare tracks have finally been rounded up for the three-CD/one-DVD collection "A Lazarus Taxon," due Aug. 22 via Thrill Jockey.
"For a few years, I have definitely wanted to collect all these things floating around out there and make them available to people," bassist Doug McCombs tells Billboard.com. "Some of the things on here are a few of my favorite things we've ever done."
McCombs is especially partial to tracks created in concentrated bursts like the tour singles "Vaus," "Madison Area" and "Waihopai," as opposed to Tortoise album material, which is notoriously slow to develop. "Almost every one of those songs are things we threw together in a day," he says. "We realized we needed a single to bring on tour, went to the studio, made up a song, recorded it and mixed it. Those are cool little documents."
Also near and dear are tracks like "Gamera" and "Cliff Dweller Society" from Tortoise's brief incarnation featuring multi-instrumentalist Bundy K. Brown, who only appeared on the band's self-titled 1995 debut. "At the time those were recorded, that was the pinnacle of the era with Bundy in the band," McCombs says. "We had definitely arrived at something and then suddenly Bundy wasn't very interested in being in the band anymore. 'Gamera' puts a period on that, and that's a really important track for that era."
However, working on the boxed set interrupted twice-weekly writing sessions for the next Tortoise studio album, which is being targeted for a spring 2007 release. McCombs previously told Billboard.com  the group was favoring less structured compositions in the early stages of writing, but says it's still too soon to predict which direction the material may go.
"A few different ideas have been proposed conceptually, one of which is recording one long piece, but with a variety of different movements within it," he says. "[Drummer] John [McEntire] just brought a new song in the other day which is really verse-chorus-y, almost like a pop song. For some reason, we all responded to it immediately and were working on it really hard for that afternoon. It was really inspiring."
Tortoise will play a handful of shows this fall in support of the box and is hoping to learn select tracks from the collection that have never been performed live. Earlier this week, the group performed its acclaimed 1996 album "Millions Now Living Will Never Die" in London as part of the Don't Look Back series, which marked the live debut of "A Survey" and "Dear Grandma and Grandpa," plus the first performance of "Glass Museum" since guitarist David Pajo left the band in the late 1990s.
"Doing the whole, complete 20 minutes of [opener] 'Djed' was something we'd never done before," McCombs enthuses. "For practical reasons and for the sake of keeping it interesting for the audience and ourselves, we have always just played a really short version of that song. We cut out the big, long ambient passages. We never attempted to do it in its entirety the way it is on the record. It was eye-opening, in a way. It is much more interesting to play it this way now than the way we always did."
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