Interview: Douglas McCombs (Tortoise, Brokeback)

Published on January 9th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams

Rocksucker is honoured to present you with Douglas McCombs as our first interviewee of 2013, bassist of hugely influential Chicago ‘post-rockers’* Tortoise and brainfather of Brokeback, whose masterful fourth album Brokeback and the Black Rock is penned in for a 21st January release on Thrill Jockey Records.

McCombs kindly answered our questions pertaining to such matters as his new record, whether a follow-up to Tortoise’s dazzling 2009 LP Beacons of Ancestorship is imminent, his various other projects, and in doing so introduced us to the word ‘antsy’, which we shall now seek to drop into conversation at every opportunity…

Congratulations on an excellent new album. What did the Brokeback hiatus owe itself to? Was it as simple as being too busy with other projects?

Brokeback began in the mid-’90s as an outlet for me to perform by myself. By 2003 when the Looks at the Bird album came out Noel Kupersmith had become my partner in the band and the live band would often be four or five people. By ’06 Noel was becoming disillusioned with the idea of being a full time musician or even playing music at all. I spent a couple years waiting to see if his attitude would change because I still wanted him to be part of the band. He still doesn’t play very much at all and is not part of the new Brokeback band.

What is John McEntire like to work with?

John and I have been working together for over 20 years now, so it’s difficult to put into words exactly what our working relationship is like. Efficient?

Do you still use a six-string bass for Brokeback? Does playing a six-string open up a significant amount of new possibilities? Two strings’ worth of notes, obviously, but anything more intangible?

The bass VI is an unusual instrument, really great for some things and not so good for others. I play guitar almost exclusively on the new Brokeback recording, six string bass on one song. The instrument has a sound that most people aren’t used to hearing as a featured instrument in rock music and I personally love that sound. It’s becoming more common these days due to the fact that there is a resurgence of guitar manufacturers producing these guitars. Just so there’s no confusion, it should be noted that my role in Brokeback is as guitar player whether I’m using standard guitar or six string bass. A bass VI is just a low-sounding guitar.

Was “Who Is Bozo Mexino?” created for the Bill Daniel film of the same name?

Inspired by the Bill Daniel film “Who Is Bozo Texino”, not created for. Also inspired by the man Bozo Texino.

When a bass line can provide that really warm slight ambient dissonance (for want of a snappier description) – as it does on “Don’t Worry Pigeon” – isn’t that just the loveliest thing?

It is lovely. Americans don’t use the word lovely very often.

What kind of things would you worry about if you were a pigeon?

Pigeon is my dog and I can’t even begin to wonder what she worries about, but she worries.

Any plans to jam again with David Daniell in the near future? Was it seven consecutive hours of jamming or was seven hours the total of multiple jams?

David and I did a short tour in November. We live in different cities now but we will continue to play together occasionally. Both of our albums are made from 7 hours of improvisations that were recorded over the course of 5 or 6 days.

To what extent (if at all) has the next Tortoise album been discussed? You were on great form on Beacons of Ancestorship.

Tortoise has plans to work on new material through the spring and summer.

How about Eleventh Dream Day?

Rick Rizzo of Eleventh Dream Day has a shitload of new songs that he is antsy to work on, but so far we haven’t been able to set aside a significant amount of time to work on them.

What do you think of Runner, the Sea and Cake album of last year? Are there any other recent releases from your Thrill Jockey labelmates that you enjoyed? Did you hear Laetitia Sadier’s album?

I will probably always be a fan of The Sea and Cake whether or not I am up on their current release. I am currently their fill-in bass player. Eric Claridge has some problems with his wrists. I have heard Laetitia’s album, but not in detail. It is interesting to note that her principle collaborator (played and or recorded most of the instruments and wrote some of the songs) for that album is Jim Elkington, the drummer in Brokeback.

How was the recent Thrill Jockey 20th anniversary gig?

Tortoise played three of the TJ20 parties and they were all a blast, especially NYC. The Chicago one was more of a free party type situation as opposed to a full blown concert.

Are there any obscure and/or up-and-coming acts that you’d like to recommend or give a shout-out to?

There are quite a few interesting bands in Chicago and around the midwest that I’m not sure the world at large is aware of. Chicago always has lots of great jazz and avant-garde stuff going on; my friend Rob Mazurek (coronet player with a million records out) currently has my favorite group that he’s ever put together called the Pulsar Quartet. Rock bands; Dead Rider, the Father Costume, Cairo Gang, Miracle Condition. Minneapolis has Stunnng and Bombay Sweets. Milwaukee has Band of Altos. Louisville has Old Baby. All of these bands are great.

Finally, if you were forced to spend the rest of your days in solitary confinement, but were allowed to bring the entire works of five different artists along to tide you over, whose would you choose?

Television (including Verlaine solo work), ZZTop, Neil Young, X, Crime and the City Solution. Or Led Zepplin, or the Cramps. I thought people stopped asking these questions. Or maybe people stopped answering…

Douglas McCombs, thank you.

Brokeback and the Black Rock is out on 21st January through Thrill Jockey Records. For more information, please visit www.thrilljockey.com/thrill/Brokeback/

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About the Author

Editor of Rocksucker and the website's founder, Jonny is passionate about the music he listens to, both good and bad, as well as interviewing his favourite musicians.