By MARK GUARINO
Rule #235 when you play in a band that lasts over a decade, not a few years, courtesy of Dan Bitney of Tortoise:
“You’re super hip if your band has been around six years – that means you’re probably 26. But once you say ‘I’ve been in this band for 15 years’, okay, you’ve got to be a little bit older,” he says, laughing. “You can’t forget you’ve been around this long.”
With “Beacons of Ancestorship” (Thrill Jockey), their sixth album released in June, Tortoise has indeed emerged as a Chicago classic. The five-man collective grew out of the city’s “post-rock” scene of the early 1990’s that fused clashing cousins such as electronic, noise, punk, ambient and hot jams, using a jazz player’s instincts for switching time signatures and a prog-rock veteran’s appreciation of building textures for cosmic connectivity.
Since their early days they’ve taken that sound globally, playing festivals throughout Europe, Asia and Australia, where audiences are more likely to expect and encourage pushing boundaries live. “It’s obviously a great feeling we can go to Paris and push it a little more and people there are totally with it,” Bitney says.
Yet unlike most bands that watch their audience graying right before their eyes, Tortoise fans are actually getting younger, a phenomenon Bitney, 44, credits with resurgence of jam bands in the post-Phish era that fare better in a live setting than trapped in the studio. Tortoise now regularly shares bills with these bands (including the reunited Phish) at hemp-heavy festivals like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza – this summer the band is booked to headline the Synch Festival in Athens, Greece (June 12), Pitchfork in Chicago (July 17) and Fuji Rocks in Tokyo, Japan (July 24).
That demand boosts the band’s bank but requires serious scheduling considering most member are now juggling families and side projects that prevent them from camping out in Europe for months at a time as they did in the past.
“I really still love touring but once you get a little older, it’s more challenging to party that much,” says Bitney, who is a multi-instrumentalist, playing drums, bass and keyboards.
Living in a Humboldt Park home he purchased with his wife, Bitney still loves biking to shows and the band’s rehearsal space, as well as regular DJ gigs he hosts at Danny’s, the Burlington and the Hideout, where he spins from a collection of 2,000 records. Each gig is an excuse to purchase more – “If I know I have a gig where I’ll probably make 100 bucks, I’ll spend 80. You always want new jams.”
The DJ nights are not much different from his globetrotting day job. Any given night clubgoers can hear dub, bossa nova, synth and punk. For Bitney, “it all ties into the Tortoise aesthetic of liking all good music.”