Tortoise’s JOHN McENTIRE
Post-Rock’s Sonic Genius
By Jim DeRogatis
Visit Soma Studio in
Chicagos hip Wicker Park neighborhood and the twin obsessions of owner and operator
John McEntire are instantly apparent. One wall of the comfortable control room is lined
with antique analog synthesizers. The array of blinking LEDs, old-fashioned patch chords,
and endless rows of knobs and dials looks like something from an early NASA training film,
or maybe the Dr. Who TV series.
Meanwhile, in a corner of
the studios live room, past the marimba and the vibraphone, sits
McEntires collection of vintage drums. Theres the old Gretsch kit that hes
used with Tortoise and the Sea and Cake, a set of 70s Ludwigs, and another set of
amber Ludwig Vistalites that he recently bought on eBay as an homage to his first drumming
hero, John Bonham.
At age 30, McEntire has
earned an enviable reputation as one of the most inventive producers in rocks
avant-garde underground, recording or remixing artists like Stereolab, Coldcut, Trans Am,
the High Llamas, Snowpony and Tom Zé, in addition to his own varied projects. He is
justly proud of his production skills, merging cutting-edge technology with analog
recording techniques to capture a wide array of challenging music. These days, he spends
most of his time behind the mixing board or computer. But ask him if he still enjoys
sitting behind the drum kit, and the normally reserved musician smiles widely.
McEntire says, waving his heavily tattooed forearms. First and foremost, Im a
drummer. The drums are the foundation for everything else.
A native of Portland,
Oregon, McEntire started playing drums at age 10. He performed in several award-winning
marching bands and studied privately for seven years, all through high school. It
was always very by the book, very much about technique and learning everything properly,
he says. In retrospect, Im amazed that I had the discipline to do that. The
first year or two, all I had was a practice pad. It was just that idea that some
day Id get a snare drum, and some day after that, Id get a drum kit.
In time, McEntire began to
play along with his favorite rock recordshe was especially fond of the combination
of massive power and awesome spaciousness in Bonhams
playing. Drawn by the energy of punk rock, he started performing with indie noise-rock
bands like My Dad Is Dead and Bastro while attending Oberlin College in Ohio. He had
enrolled in the prestigious performing arts school as a percussion major, but he soon
changed his focus.
When I was in high
school, I was kind of naïve [about being an orchestral percussionist], he says.
When I got to Oberlin, it became apparent to me that there were all these kids whod
gone to Tanglewood and Interlocken [music camps] who were just freakslike great
players, but no social skills, and no creativity at all. I was like, This is really not
interesting after a certain point. Its just regurgitation. So luckily I was
able to segue into electronics.
Dubbed Technology in Music and Related Arts,
Oberlins electronic music program was still relatively new in 1988. The
program was the bastard child of the conservatory, located in the basement of the
building, with like two full-time professors, and there were always these questions of
legitimacy, McEntire recalls. But by studying analog wave synthesis, he learned
about the very physics of how sound is produced. He emerged with a solid understanding of
how the recording studio workseverything from signal paths to filters and
equalizationand he was ready to begin capturing the kind of music he loved most.
At Oberlin, McEntire met
Chicago rockers Sooyoung Park of the band Seam and the soon-to-be-famous solo artist Liz
Phair. He moved to the Windy City in the early90s and was soon embraced by its
thriving art-rock underground. He had played with guitarist David Grubbs in Bastro, and
now he joined his friend in a new experimental combo called Gastr Del Sol, performing on
records like 1993s Serpentine Similar and 94s Crookt Crackt
Orfly. But hed become best known for recording and drumming with Tortoise.
Tortoise was originally
formed by Eleventh Dream Day bassist Doug McCombs and Precious Wax Drippings drummer John
Herndon. They envisioned a sort of Sly and Robbie rhythm-section side project dedicated to
furthering the experimental sound collages of David Byrne and Brian Enos My Life
in the Bush of Ghosts. Whenever the two rehearsed, friends would stop by to jam, and
one by one, they wound up joining the group. Today, the lineup is completed by McEntire,
drummer Dan Bitney, and jazz guitarist Jeff Parker, a veteran of Chicagos renowned Association for the Advancement of
Creative Musicans, and it has recorded four albums for the independent Thrill
Jockey label: 1994s self-titled debut, 96s Millions Now Living Will
Never Die, 96s TNT, and the new Standards.
Widely hailed by American
and European critics as the most innovative force in an underground movement dubbed post-rock,
that term has always left the musicians cold. In their view, Tortoise is simply making
interesting, evocative instrumental music that refuses to acknowledge genre boundaries,
incorporating elements of rock, dub reggae, free jazz, hip-hop, electronic dance music,
and any other sound that piques their interests. No one in the group has a pre-defined
roleall of the members trade off on vibes, marimba, timbales, drums, percussion,
synthesizers, and stringed instrumentsbut the emphasis is almost always on the
rhythms. How do the members of a group with three drummers/percussionists avoid stepping
on each other?
Theres no real
methodology to it, its just that everybodys really open to trying different
things, McEntire says. Dan and Johnny and I work as kind of like our own
little ensemble, in terms of dividing parts and determining whos best to do what in
any given song. Its completely democratic. Even parts that somebody records, they
wont necessarily play those live. Im always pretty amazed at how well
everything gets orchestrated, even though its completely haphazard. Its a
process of finding out how everything works. Were all pretty passive, so it kind of
takes a while to get there, but when it does, it always feels really right. I think
everybody is aware of trying to free up space rather than fill it.
The members of Tortoise
rarely record with everyone present at once; tracks tend to come together over long
periods of time, with the musicians stopping by Soma to record an idea or two. They trade
cassettes with each other, then listen, think, and debate about a songs progression.
Most of the drum and percussion sounds are electronically altered, fed through McEntires
vintage synthesizers, or twisted, sliced, diced, and looped via computer programming.
For some reason, the music always lends itself to treatment of some sortmaybe
because its instrumental, McEntire says. Were trying to generate
some interest sonically.
In contrast, McEntires
other group the Sea and Cake is devoted to capturing relatively pristine instrumental
sounds, the better to showcase the plaintive vocals of bandleader Sam Prekop. It isnt
necessarily a vocal-driven group, but Sams vocals are important, McEntire
grants. Fake Jazz, the group called one of its early tunes, and thats an
apt description for much of the music on its five albums. Burt Bacharach-like lounge
music is another frequent comparison.
In the Sea and Cake, the
instrumental sounds are recorded in the service of the songs, as opposed to Tortoise,
where a diverse sonic palette is everything. As a result, McEntire spends a lot of time
with the Sea and Cake thinking about extremely subtle nuances, carefully choosing
different cymbals for each song, or alternating the types of sticks to create specific
colors and textures. Ive been concentrating on weird details like stick
articulation on the cymbals and really going for different kinds of sounds, he says.
Again, I try to look
at it more from the bigger picture, especially because Im recording it. To me, the
drumming is serving a very specific purpose. To a certain extent, I think a lot of it is
about economy and trying to just complement rather than showboat or anything. Thats
challenging in its own way, and I really kind of enjoy those challenges, and its
very different than Tortoise, obviously.
Yet another side of
McEntires aesthetic can be glimpsed on his 1996 soundtrack for Reach the Rock,
a film written by teen comedy auteur John Hughes and produced by his son, John Hughes III.
In crafting his first soundtrack, McEntire relished the opportunity to evoke specific
moods via his deceptively spartan instrumental backings. It was more about getting a
feel for the whole piece, and it was driven by a different set of motives dictated by the
film, he says. But it was frightening: I was so used to working with all of
these people all the time, and suddenly to not have any feedback for anything was bizarre.
As for the future, the
growing reputation of Soma would seem to assure its chief auteur and engineer a promising
career in recording. Last year, the studio moved from its first location in a rented
warehouse in the West Loop to an impressive new space next door to the Rainbo Bar, the
nexus of Chicagos hipster music scene. McEntires mom is his partner and chief
investor, and shes always been more confident in his career potential than he was.
It was just like, I love playing music, and if I ever get paid to do it, thatll
be great, he says. I never expected it to happen.
Asked to consider the
strengths he brings to recording other drummers, McEntire answers simply and directly.
Versatility, mainly, and just trying to be able to determine whats going to
work with this music, he says. Somebody like Chad Taylor, hes a great
player first of all, but hes also got great sounds; his cymbals sound great and he
tunes his drums really well. Capturing that, thats more kind of documentary, and its
challenging in its own way. On the other hand, something like Tortoise or Stereolab, its
all completely fabricated and constructed, and were trying to pull from lots of
different sources and sounds, different tunings, different treatments, live sounds, dead
soundsany number of things, just kind of mashing them all together.
And his strengths as a
musician? Im a rock drummer, fundamentally, for better or for worse, he
says, laughing. When I hear somebody like Chad play, his feel and his dynamics and
his approach to syncopation are so great, I just
Well, I dont feel that I
could ever attain his level of sophistication with that. Maybe I could, but I feel like
you kind of have to grow up with that, and I grew up with John Bonham. So I made my bed,
and Im happy to lie in it.
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