There are few bands that are as widely embraced by musicians, critics, and fans as Tortoise. Much in the way that the band members cringe at being labeled, Tortoise has managed to escape simply playing in any one genre. In fact, the band crosses so many lines that even attempting to pigeonhole them would be futile. This ability to avoid simple classification has surely been a major catalyst for their much deserved-respect and subsequent success.
Formed in the fertile 1990 Chicago music scene, Tortoise basically rewrote the indie rock book. By focusing on serious musicianship and incorporating a laundry list of influences including rock, jazz, dub, punk, minimalism, electronica, and more, they have truly been innovators and not just advanced rip-off artists. While each member is certainly important to the mix, it is widely noted that drummer/percussionist/producer/engineer and remix man John McEntire is responsible for really developing and pushing the band's vision (although his humility would never allow him to admit it).
Considering his role in Tortoise (as both drummer and producer) is impressive enough, but when one considers that McEntire is also a leading member in the pop/rock/jazz group the Sea and Cake his stock continues to rise. But this only accounts for his drumming. Next one has to look at the names on his production and re-mix credits, beginning with Stereolab (where he is actually credited for synthesizer, guitar, maracas, marimba, tambourine, vocals, producer, engineer, vibraphone, mixing, and electronics). In addition to being Stereolab's main man he has worked heavily with Jim O'Rourke of Sonic Youth, Trans Am, The Red Krayola, Isotope 217, Scott Heron (Prefuse 73) on Savath + Savalas, Tom Zé, Coldcut, the High Llamas, U.N.K.L.E., and heaps more.
The guy is basically one of the most interesting and talented musicians around. After building his own Soma Electronic Music Studio in the heart of Chicago's music scene (with his mom as his chief investor), John seems even more enthralled with recording music than making it. With so many projects, and being in such high demand, John McEntire is not all that easy to catch up with, but he allowed JamBase part of his day to talk about all this and plenty of other topics. His answers evolve slowly, and are well thought out. The rhythm of his speech is much like both his drumming and his production work: calculated and concise, but with emotion and great attention. John McEntire is more than intriguing, the kind of guy you'd like to really be able to talk to, not just interview. But like anything in life, we take what we can get. And what we get here is a look into one of the more influential musicians alive.
Kayceman: I wanted to start with a little of your personal history first. I know growing up you where heavily influenced by rock 'n' roll. So whom would you say were the most influential drummers on you as a kid?
McEntire: Definitely like John Bonham, and to lesser extent Keith Moon. But you know absorbing just all that FM rock radio in the 70s.
John McEntire from Brainwashed.com
Kayceman: And how important do you think your time at Oberlin [College] was for you musically?
McEntire: I think it was important in that I got exposed to a lot of different things. I wouldn't say that the curriculum itself was necessarily earth shattering in terms of what I was interested in doing. But you know they have a really great music library there, and that was kind of where I spent most of my time, and just in the studios trying to figure things out there.
Kayceman: In a conversation I had with saxophonist Skerik he commented that music schools often do more harm than good for developing an artistic vision, and that they generally just make cookie cutters out of musicians. How do you feel about that?
McEntire: I think that's definitely true. When I started there I was a performance major, but I gave that up after a semester and started studying electronic music which was still within the confines of the conservatory, but obviously much more open ended program, much more emphasis on creativity instead of technique. But I totally agree with what he said about schools being harmful.
I'm not sure if you would be inclined to give Tortoise the scope that a lot of critics and music appreciators have, as sort of being really revolutionary, which I think Tortoise definitely has been. And I know you've obviously been really instrumental in developing Tortoise's music. So, at the beginning was there any big vision or concept for what you guys wanted to do?
No. None whatsoever actually.
I'm not surprised.
If it was anything it was just sort of like, kinda following up on these threads of ideas that we've all had individually, and make that work with our own voice some how.
How would you--especially for a younger person who's learning about your music--how would describe Tortoise's music?
Instrumental. Atmospheric, sometimes. It gets away from standard harmonies and rhythms from time to time, but not completely, not in a virtuoso kind of way. And it's fairly evocative.
I don't particularly like to put labels on music, and I certainly don't consider myself a "music critic," but I've read how your music is often referred to as prog, neo, or post-rock. How do you feel about those labels?
I don't know. I was going to say I don't have any feelings about them, but ultimately I guess we all kind of cringe when we hear those things. The prog thing I think is funny, and that's a little bit more apropos than the post-rock thing.
I would agree. And what would you say are the roots of the individual members of Tortoise, what do you think it boils down to musically? Is it a rock ethos at the core?
I think it's that combined with a real drive to try new things and be experimental not just for the sake of being experimental, but trying to go out and in the sort of pallet of what people generally do in the rock context.
"I think it's that [a rock ethos at the core of Tortoise] combined with a real drive to try new things and be experimental not just for the sake of being experimental, but trying to go out and in the sort of pallet of what people generally do in the rock context."
One other aspect of your music that I hear is an element of classical music in the compositions. Is that something you've considered?
Yeah, I think that's true to a certain extent in a few of the pieces.
I would like to name a genre of music and if you could just name a person that has been really influential to you, that would be great. Rock?
And as a producer is there anyone that comes to mind?
Roy Thomas Baker.