FOCUS // How a Chicago post rock band helped change the sound of math rock forever

It’s a cold night in Chicago, and Space Blood drummer William Covert is about to hit a bar with Justin Sinkovich. Justin founded the website Epitonic in the late 90’s, a giant hub for independent music.

While Napster and Limewire were causing controversy with their illegal file share, Epitonic offered the ethical alternative, free mp3s from honest, underground bands that just wanted an audience. Epitonic was pivotal in introducing the obscure genre of ‘math rock’ to the rest of the world, which hitherto was simply pigeon-holed under ‘post-hardcore’, ‘experimental rock’, or ‘weird rock’.

William and I have hunted down Justin for the book we are writing; we want to know what happened around the late 90’s that caused the style of math rock to change so dramatically.

But first, let’s set the scene. If you are perplexed by the sonic differences between Don Caballero’s For Respect (1993) and TTNG’s Animals (2008), two seminal math rock albums, you have every right to be. Play Shellac‘s At Action Park (1994) next to StandardsFruit Island (2020) and you’ll be hit with another stark contrast. Early math rock is noisy, disjunctive and predominantly percussion-driven. Contemporary math rock is light, jazzy and predominantly guitar-driven. What happened here?

For simplicity, let’s call these two styles “20th century” and “21st century” math rock, respectively. These terms are particularly effective because, as Justin revealed to us, the sonic transition occurred at the turn of the millennium. And it was influenced almost entirely by one band.

But first, a bit about Justin. He moved to Chicago around 1996. It was the place to be for an underground musician. Living was cheap, and the independent music scene was extremely healthy. In addition, key staples to the underground scene were here: Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio; popular venues like The Fireside Bowl and The Empty Bottle; the coolest indie label of the time Touch and Go Records; and, of course, a stack of exciting bands like Cap’n Jazz, American Football, Trans Am, US Maple, Dianogah, Shellac, Cheer-Accident, and Sweep The Leg Johnny.

However, there is one band that stands out in the Chicago scene: Tortoise.

Tortoise is only a stone’s throw from math rock, historically speaking. Drummer John McEntire teamed up with ex-Squirrel Bait guitarist David Grubbs to form one of the pioneering math rock bands: Bastro. (Incidentally, the remaining members of Squirrel Bait, Brian McMahan and Britt Walford, formed Slint in 1986.) Bassist Bundy K. Brown joined Bastro in 1990, and the band eventually morphed into the mellower Gastr del Sol.

Tortoise arose through a musical partnership between the members of Bastro/Gastr del Sol and two visionary Chicago locals: Doug McCombs and John Herndon. From the get-go, the Tortoise sound seemed unusually maximalist for the Chicago underground: two bass guitars, vibraphones, multiples percussionists, marimbas, strings, horns, and a swathe of other instrumental collaborations. Big things in a small space.

And Tortoise’s music ever-so-cunningly gets under your skin. According to the Chicago Tribune it was ‘mood music‘. For Chicago locals, it was nothing but inspirational.

Tortoise rose to national prominence and praise at a time when Chicago’s heady underground music scene was also gaining national exposure as being a stark contrast to the Grunge Rock driven mainstream music culture of Seattle and the West Coast of the early to mid 90’s. Nirvana was the biggest band in the world and if being punk is going against the mainstream then Tortoise’s more subdued and chill instrumental music was punk in its own way as it subverted the mainstream music conventions of the time.

The Chicago math rock scene didn’t occur in a vacuum, Justin Sinkovich tells William. Math rock, post rock and noise rock were mere twigs in the tree of Chicago underground music. On any given night at The Fireside Bowl and The Empty Bottle, punters would see math rock bands sharing the stage with post-rock bands like Brise-GlaceTrans Am, and, of course, Tortoise.

This, Justin thinks, was the spark. It became obvious with time that the harder, abrasive math rock sound was taking a back seat in favour of the more lavish, melodic, guitar-driven post-rock sound. This shift in motifs makes perfect sense. In a rich local music community, you are bound to interact with a diverse array of musicians. You are bound to be inspired by a diverse array of musicians. And Tortoise was, hands down, the most influential in town.

Another way that Tortoise bridged the gap between noisy angular math rock and the band’s signature clean tone ethereal sound is their connection to Slint. Louisville not being far from Chicago, the intermingle of music scenes caused Slint to be an influence on Tortoise since it’s early formation. While many bands that have derived influence from Slint tend to showcase that in the form of brooding, loud, harder rock music with soft-spoken lyrics, Tortoise focused on the band’s dynamic control and the quieter moments of the band. Most notably David Pajo of Slint joined Tortoise after their debut album, and his guitar work helped diversify the band’s sound and the music went into a more experimental direction on their albums Millions Now Living Will Never Die and TNT. John Herndon and Doug McCombs also went on to be the original rhythm section in The For Carnation, which is the only band Brian McMahon led in his post-Slint music career, which also featured David Pajo and Britt Walford in guest roles.

Suddenly, the brash and jangly guitars of Chicago bands like Lustre King and U.S. Maple were assuaged for sustained, lavish melodies. Some Chicago math rock associated with this new melodic, jazzy, math rock sound are AtivinDianogahGhosts and VodkaSweep The Leg Johnny and later Piglet. Kip McCabe of Dianogah has since told us that when the band formed they were trying to copy the clean two bass stuff Tortoise was doing.

Perhaps the most notable exemplary figure of this shift were the math rock juggernauts themselves: Don Caballero. The band were living in Chicago around this time, and their transition from a noisy, distortion-heavy band to a softer, jazzy, melodic project is distinct across the albums Don Caballero 2 (1995), What Burns Never Returns (1998) and American Don (2000). This new polish on the math rock sound, replete with the new and exciting ‘tapping’ motif modelled by guitarist Ian Williams, cast tremendous influence on bands across the country, and has since become characteristic guitar-driven style we now identify as contemporary math rock. Don Caballero’s American Don has since become the blueprint for a math rock band. Subsequent math rock acts like Piglet, Ent follow the guitar-driven code quite significantly.

Whether intentionally or not, Tortoise influenced a large segment of the instrumental rock landscape, and this started within their local music scene of Chicago. As the band’s approach of jazz tinged clean guitar tones and unorthodox song compositions and arrangements took root it spread and subtlety pushed math rock into a trajectory that is responsible for the signature elements of the genre in the 21st century.