Tortoises JOHN McENTIRE

Post-Rocks Sonic Genius

 

By Jim DeRogatis

 

Visit Soma Studio in Chicago’s 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 studio’s “live” room, past the marimba and the vibraphone, sits McEntire’s collection of vintage drums. There’s the old Gretsch kit that he’s 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 rock’s 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.

“Oh, yeah,” McEntire says, waving his heavily tattooed forearms. “First and foremost, I’m 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, I’m 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 I’d get a snare drum, and some day after that, I’d get a drum kit.”

In time, McEntire began to play along with his favorite rock records—he was especially fond of the combination of “massive power” and “awesome spaciousness” in Bonham’s 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 naďve [about being an orchestral percussionist],” he says. “When I got to Oberlin, it became apparent to me that there were all these kids who’d gone to Tanglewood and Interlocken [music camps] who were just freaks—like great players, but no social skills, and no creativity at all. I was like, ‘This is really not interesting after a certain point. It’s just regurgitation.’ So luckily I was able to segue into electronics.”

Dubbed “Technology in Music and Related Arts,” Oberlin’s 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 works—everything from signal paths to filters and equalization—and 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 early’90s 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 1993’s Serpentine Similar and ’94’s Crookt Crackt Orfly. But he’d 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 Eno’s 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 Chicago’s renowned Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicans, and it has recorded four albums for the independent Thrill Jockey label: 1994’s self-titled debut, ’96’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die, ’96’s 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 role—all of the members trade off on vibes, marimba, timbales, drums, percussion, synthesizers, and stringed instruments—but the emphasis is almost always on the rhythms. How do the members of a group with three drummers/percussionists avoid stepping on each other?

“There’s no real methodology to it, it’s just that everybody’s 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 who’s best to do what in any given song. It’s completely democratic. Even parts that somebody records, they won’t necessarily play those live. I’m always pretty amazed at how well everything gets orchestrated, even though it’s completely haphazard. It’s a process of finding out how everything works. We’re 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 song’s progression. Most of the drum and percussion sounds are electronically altered, fed through McEntire’s vintage synthesizers, or twisted, sliced, diced, and looped via computer programming. “For some reason, the music always lends itself to treatment of some sort—maybe because it’s instrumental,” McEntire says. “We’re trying to generate some interest sonically.”

In contrast, McEntire’s 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 isn’t necessarily a vocal-driven group, but Sam’s vocals are important,” McEntire grants. “Fake Jazz,” the group called one of its early tunes, and that’s 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. “I’ve 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 I’m 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. That’s challenging in its own way, and I really kind of enjoy those challenges, and it’s very different than Tortoise, obviously.”

Yet another side of McEntire’s 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 Chicago’s hipster music scene. McEntire’s mom is his partner and chief investor, and she’s 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, that’ll 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 what’s going to work with this music,” he says. “Somebody like Chad Taylor, he’s a great player first of all, but he’s also got great sounds; his cymbals sound great and he tunes his drums really well. Capturing that, that’s more kind of documentary, and it’s challenging in its own way. On the other hand, something like Tortoise or Stereolab, it’s all completely fabricated and constructed, and we’re trying to pull from lots of different sources and sounds, different tunings, different treatments, live sounds, dead sounds—any number of things, just kind of mashing them all together.”

And his strengths as a musician? “I’m 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 don’t 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 I’m happy to lie in it.”

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