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No more mallets: an interview with Tortoise's John McEntire 

For 20 years, the instrumental five-piece band Tortoise has been a juggernaut of the Chicago experimental music scene, paving the way for endless imitators while continually redefining their own sound. Notoriously difficult to pin a genre on, each of the band's albums spans myriad styles (jazz, post-rock, minimalism, electronic) and is a product of the band's collaborative approach.

So while the group doesn't have a leader per se, many see multi-instrumentalist (drums and electronics mostly) John McEntire as the brains behind the operation. A sought-after producer as well as performer, McEntire owns Chicago's Soma Studios, where he's produced albums for bands like Stereolab and Broken Social Scene.

NUVO spoke with McEntire about Tortoise's latest album (2009's Beacons of Ancestorship), the band's current tour, which includes a visit to Bloomington's The Bishop June 26, and what the future holds.

NUVO: So, how was this last leg of your tour? What's life on the road like? I don't picture you guys as a van-driving, couch-crashing type of band.

McEntire: It was really great. We're rocking the vans, but we're strictly hotel boys

NUVO: People in Bloomington are excited for your show, and I think part of the reason is that Tortoise playing here is as unexpected as it is dreamed about. What made you decide to play at a small indie club in our humble Indiana town?

McEntire: Logistically, it worked out great, with this run of dates that we're doing. We've played there before and really enjoyed it.

NUVO: The members of Tortoise have always been involved in stylistically different side projects, but in the years between It's All Around You (2004) and Beacons of Ancestorship (2009) you really delved into some a-typical projects together, like A Lazarus Taxon (a 3-disc b-sides and rarities collection) The Brave and the Bold (a covers album with Will Oldham) and Bumps (a breakbeat record made by McEntire and bandmates John Herndon and Dan Bitney). Did making those projects together have an impact on the music that followed on Beacons of Ancestorship?

McEntire: I think more than anything, the Bumps project did. We ended up using some ideas that were kind of left over or didn't necessarily fit exactly in the format we wanted to do with that record. That was kind of the antecedent for songs like "Gigantes" and "Northern Something."

NUVO: So Bumps contributed to the increased electronic elements of Beacons?

McEntire: I think the shift to incorporating more of those elements was perhaps due to the fact that we wanted to get away from the mallet percussion that we've been doing for so long, and it just seemed like a really obvious and effective way to keep the pallet interesting.

NUVO: Mallet percussion has always been an important part of Tortoise's sound. Why the sudden change?

McEntire: I think we just felt like it was getting to be a bit clichéd and that we needed to reinvent ourselves, however slightly (laughs). So, I think it was successful in that regard.

NUVO: Tortoise albums are always eclectic, but Beacons is even more stylistically varied than your previous albums. Was that an artistic choice as well?

McEntire: Probably not completely intentional, but that's sort of what happens whenever we get together to work on a record. We'll have this huge batch of ideas and kind of whittle it down. I think one of the inevitabilities is that there's going to be a lot of eclecticism due to the fact that we all write and contribute to the final product.

NUVO: Do you ever discuss a conceptual direction or unifying idea before diving into an album or song?

McEntire: Not really. Maybe just in the loosest possible way insofar as we decided we didn't want to use the mallets—obviously that's going to influence the texture of the whole thing.

NUVO: Did Beacons come out having an easily-articulated message or binding theme?

McEntire: I think, in retrospect, that every record has its own distinct feel and emotion to it that, yeah, is hard to articulate. It's something that just, I think, kind of snowballs in the process of working on it. You'll get to a place and you'll see how all of these pieces that are being worked on kind of fit together in some way, so it's never really totally obvious.

I think we're lucky in that we're pretty good self-editors, and we're able to put together pieces of music in an album format that convey something, even though I'm not exactly sure what that is.

NUVO: What can you tell me about the Beacons album art?

McEntire: We were working with a friend of ours who's from San Francisco who's a really amazing photographer and filmmaker, and he would just kind of feed us stuff every once in a while. He sent this series of telephone wires though, and we were just really, really excited about them. They also are kind of a throwback to another earlier photographer, Harry Callahan, who had done a similar series, so we like that reference and also how sparse and beautiful those images are.

NUVO: You've made several references in your work to the little-known, avant-garde writer John Barton Wolgamot (as in "In Sarah, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Women and Men" from 1998's TNT, also the title of Wolgamot's 1944 work, and"Monument Six One Thousand," which is said to have been the writer's phone number). What is it about Wolgamot's life or work that has made it resonate so strongly with you and crop up in your music so frequently?

McEntire: I got introduced to him through [composer and Wolgamot scholar] Robert Ashley, obviously, and his back story is just absolutely fascinating. It's this sort of thing where you read about it and you can't even...on a certain level you can't believe that this guy did this stuff. The conceptual purity behind it, and the fact that it went, or could have gone, for all intents and purposes, completely unknown to the public but still would've existed out there somewhere. It's great, and I think the texts that he wrote are spellbinding.

NUVO: So why name your album Beacons of Ancestorship (after Wolgamot's third novel)?

McEntire: Well, the title itself is really wonderfully poetic. If you don't know anything about Wolgamot and you take it at face value it's interesting, and I think people may infer that we're saying something about our past or our influences, things like that. I wouldn't dismiss that entirely, but more so it was just kind of a nod to him, that he had this unpublished work, but he had the title, and it had taken him 40 years to finally come up with the title for it (laughs). We feel a bit like thieves going in there and grabbing this little nugget that had come at such a great cost to him, but can't feel too bad about it.

NUVO: What about Wolgamot's subtitle to Beacons?

McEntire: Now that you mention it, we probably should've used the subtitle too. That would've been even better. It's all wrapped up in the same concept and the same inspiration for using it.

NUVO: Are avant-garde literary crazies frequent sources of inspiration for your music?

McEntire: No, not really. I guess this is really an isolated example.

NUVO: I've heard that "Monument Six One Thousand" was Wolgamot's phone number, but how can "Monument" be part of a phone number?

McEntire: In the old days they used to have local exchanges that had names, and the first two letters of the name would correspond to whatever the keys of the phone were that had the letter on them.

NUVO: You recently mixed an album for Jaga Jazzist called One Armed Bandit, which is one of my favorites of the year. How did youhook up with them and what was it like to work with a band so indebted to your own music but with a style all their own as well?

McEntire: It was a strange series of events, because the album was already recorded and the engineer they usually record with got really ill or something. There was a reason he couldn't keep working on the record and I guess it just happened that I was kinda the guy at the top of the list that they were thinking about, should such a thing happen. We share a publicist and she got us in touch with each other, and we just really hit it off, and they came over and there was an intense mixing session. It's a very dense record, lots and lots and lots of tracks and different parts and things, so it was a good amount of work, but I think it turned out really well in the end.

NUVO: What about your work as producer on Broken Social Scene's Forgiveness Rock Record? Was that more of a collaborative process between you and the band or just an attempt to help them get their own vision down on record?

McEntire: It was a bit of both I think. They were crazy prepared—we actually recorded 45 songs for it. Initially it was just trying to get all the ideas down and get everybody's parts recorded, and then it was a long process of kind of winnowing away the things that we didn't think were going to make the cut, and then really trying to flesh out and elaborate the songs that we did have and getting into more post-production work too. I think that was one of the reasons they wanted to work with me, to be able to experiment a little bit.

NUVO: Did you contribute to the album as a musician?

McEntire: Bits and pieces. I played drums on two or three things ["Ungrateful Little Father, "Art House Director"], and I played a bunch of keys and synth ["Sweetest Kill," "All to All"].

NUVO: What about the next Tortoise release? Doug McCombs mentioned in an interview with Clash that the next project would probably be a 5" single series—is that still the plan?

McEntire: We were kicking around the 5" idea for a while, but it looked like it was going to be logistically way too complicated because of touring and whatnot, and doing something as a subscription series we'd have to have a huge amount of material already ready to go or we'd have to be really, really diligent about coming home and cranking stuff out, which isn't really our strong suit. I'm not really sure—we're doing a big show here in Chicago at Millennium Park at the end of July [July 29th]. We got a commission from the cultural center to write a whole new set of music and do it with local jazz musicians, so we've got five collaborators on that. We have a little run of dates coming up at the end of the month—after that we're going to spend all of July writing and rehearsing a new set that will bepretty different from everything we've ever done. There's a good chance we'll go into the studio and, fingers crossed, we could have a new record really soon.

But if that doesn't happen, I suspect we'll try to get working as per usual later in the year, like November or December.

NUVO: Who are some of the musicians you'll be working with on that project?

McEntire: Ed Wilkerson [saxophone & other winds], Nicole Mitchell [flute], Greg Ward [alto saxophone], Jim Baker [piano and synth], Fred Lonberg-Holm [cello]. It'll be a really interesting, I think, group of people to work with, especially writing so much specifically for them.

NUVO: So will that project be more jazz-oriented?

McEntire: I wouldn't say that necessarily—the directive that we got from the commission was that we would have jazz players, but I don't know, I could see it going a lot of different ways really. I think it'll be hopefully all over the map and not falling into any kind of cliché about what jazz is.

NUVO: Any production projects coming up?

McEntire: No, I mean I'm really busy with tortoise until that show and then we have a little bit of time off. And then we're doing some more US dates in September, and then The Sea and Cake is touring like six or seven days in North America, so that's going to take us up to the end of October. Nothing on the calendar as of yet.

NUVO: This year marks the 20th anniversary of Tortoise as a band. Looking back, how do you feel about your career, the progress you've made and the music you've created?

McEntire: I couldn't be happier with everything that we've done. I think we've made some records—all o them actually, not just some—that have been really, really satisfying for us personally, and the fact that a few people also enjoy them has been really fulfilling. I never would've guessed that we would be doing this 20 years later. It seemed so left field at the beginning—that anyone would care or notice... I think we feel incredibly lucky and just really, really happy, and looking forward to the future and being able to continue doing what we're doing.

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