When Tortoise Slows Down, Herndon Speeds Up

His main band, Tortoise, may not be doing much lately, but drummer John Herndon’s as busy as ever. For years he’s drummed with Isotope 217, which also features Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker and percussionist Dan Bitney, and recently he took over kit duties with the Eternals. Even when he’s sitting at home, he’s usually working. Since the mid-90s Herndon has been composing electronic music on his computer, though very little of it has seen the light of day: aside from a handful of remixes, his only solo release has been a 12-inch that came out in 2000 as part of Hefty Records’ “Immediate Action” series under the moniker A Grape Dope. In May, however, the Santa Cruz-based Galaxia label will issue A Grape Dope’s first CD, a six-song EP called Missing Dragons. (There’ll also be a 12-inch vinyl version.)

It’s not that Herndon doesn’t have enough material to do more. He has loads of tracks lying around–and he’s been reworking them for years. “Most of the stuff I hate and throw away,” he says. “I find it difficult to feel that something is finished. I could work on [the music] forever.” In fact, he wasn’t planning to put these tracks out either, until Galaxia approached him early last year.

On the EP, Herndon samples and then electronically manipulates his own drumming in rhythms derived from hip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass, adding ambient textures, melodic synth patterns, and a few vocals–Sally Timms and nasal Anticon rapper Dose One appear on a track each, and Herndon’s own heavily processed voice shows up as well. (“I’m not about to go out there and start singing onstage,” he says.) But he might not play anything from the EP when he performs as A Grape Dope at the Empty Bottle on Saturday; he says he wants to focus on newer material that mixes electronics with live instrumentation.

Herndon moved to Chicago in 1985 from Asheville, North Carolina, where he grew up in a sort of co-op composed of a group of families that sold handicraft supplies. For the last half of the decade he drummed for Precious Wax Drippings, a band capable of both noisy, rhythmic workouts and gorgeous pop songs. After it dissolved in the early 90s Herndon spent a year playing with Champaign’s Poster Children before leaving to start Tortoise. He kept busy throughout the 90s doing stints with Five Style, the For Carnation, and Uptighty.

Herndon had more time on his hands than usual when the Eternals gig came up in 2002. Tortoise wasn’t doing much, and Isotope 217 had been on hiatus since early 2001. (With cornetist Rob Mazurek living in Brazil it doesn’t look like they’ll be regrouping anytime soon.) So when longtime friends Damon Locks and Wayne Montana asked him to replace drummer Dan Fliegel (who’d stepped down after his second child was born), he eagerly agreed.

“I felt like I had time to dedicate to doing a good job with it,” Herndon says. “I’ve always been a big fan of the band, and I felt like I could fit in nicely, that our personalities would mesh and maybe I would have something to bring.” Herndon’s participation has reenergized the Eternals’ spacey amalgam of dub, rock, and funk. His mastery of electronic beats and his sampling skills have expanded the trio’s sonic palette, and his drumming is more propulsive than Fliegel’s. Joining the group has also altered his work routine. “We’re rehearsing a couple of times a week whether we have shows or we’re making a record or not, which is something I haven’t done with a band for years,” he says.

Herndon’s also juggling a number of short-term projects. On Friday night he’ll play in a one-off trio with New York rapper Beans (ex-member of the Anti-Pop Consortium) and glam rocker Bobby Conn as part of the MCA’s Version>03 festival. Next month he and Isotope 217 bassist Matt Lux will embark on a short U.S. tour with Japanese electronic musician Nobukazu Takemura; in May, Herndon will spend three weeks on the road with Prefuse 73 (with whom he might do some collaborating) under his A Grape Dope guise. July and August are dedicated to finishing the next Tortoise album.


On their fourth album, Purgatory (Thick), released on March 25, the Tossers aren’t pulling any punches. These locals still sound like the Pogues fired up on an extra shot of hardcore, but musically they’ve never been more focused, and even at top speed they display controlled virtuosity on instruments like tin whistle, mandolin, and violin. As sympathetic as I am to singer-songwriter Tony Duggins’s liberal sentiments, though, his lyrics too often mar the songs for me. “The Squall” questions U.S. foreign policy in the wake of September 11 by way of a jumbled litany of complaints about our past support of regimes in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, the double standard applied to Israel in the UN, and SUVs. And the antigentrification rant “Chicago” is tripped up by clunkers like “Well the new condos are coming fast and the rents have gone sky-high / Just because we’re seen as pioneers they start to build for all the whites.” The Tossers recently completed a U.S. tour with the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Flogging Molly; their next local show is with the Subhumans UK at Metro on April 26.

After more than three years George Goehl has finally completed his documentary King of Bluegrass: The Life and Times of Jimmy Martin. The work gets its world premiere on April 29 at the Nashville Film Festival and will show again a few weeks later at the Maryland Film Festival. Goehl hopes to nail down a Chicago screening for some time this summer.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.