It's usually easy to find a rock star pleased to talk about himself. But John McEntire, drummer, cofounding member, and engineer of the postrock collective Tortoise, seems incredibly uncomfortable when asked about his talents. Though he's often singled out as the figurehead of the Chicago quintet, McEntire says that's a myth; it's just that early in the band's career, only his name appeared in the credits as a producer, so people assumed he was the leader.
"We're very much a democratic institution," he says from his new home in Los Angeles. "Everybody contributes. Everybody has an equal say in the decision-making process. But I'm generally the guy engineering the stuff, so maybe a little bit more of my fingerprints are on some of the things, but that's just a formality. That's all. It doesn't have anything to do with my role being greater or lesser than anyone else's."
A member of multiple bands, including Gastr del Sol and the Sea and Cake, McEntire is a musician's musician and is often hired as a producer by other acts. Asked why musicians are interested in him as a producer, he laughs. "I would refer you to any of my friends to answer that question," he says. "I guess for me, at least, it's very hard to quantify what that might be. Obviously, I have a..., " he pauses to sigh, "an aesthetic that I can't necessarily articulate to you in an interview, but it's there." Then he lets out an uncomfortable chuckle.
Tortoise is an instrumental band. They don't do lyrics (although they did collaborate with Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley for "Yonder Blue," a song off the band's latest album, The Catastrophist). But McEntire is much more comfortable communicating about music through music. Across seven albums, since 1994, McEntire and his bandmates — percussionist Dan Bitney, bassist Doug McCombs, guitarist Jeff Parker (who joined in 1998), and drummer John Herndon — have developed a shorthand. They can write music together through jam sessions, sometimes spawned from one of the musician's demos, without really having to talk to one another.
"It's sort of a situation where, especially after you've been working with so many people for so many years, you develop a sort of sixth sense, if you will, in terms of communication," McEntire says, "and it becomes very natural to not have to speak and get the work done that you need to do. It just sort of happens automatically."
Though instrumental, the music of Tortoise is evocative and atmospheric. They meld luscious guitar licks and bass plucking with an array of electronics and — as one can imagine with two drummers and a percussionist — an array of rhythm instruments, from marimbas to electronic processors. Despite the band's rock categorization, Tortoise is rooted in the improvisational ethos of jazz. Therefore, McEntire says, the group always creates from a natural place of chemistry among the musicians.
"We never set out with any kind of agenda with this band," he explains. "It was always more like, let's just sit down and see what we come up with, and as long as it's interesting to us, individually and collectively, then we'll pursue ahead with it, but it was never any kind of game plan from the get-go. It was always like, let's see what we can do with this weird instrumentation and hopefully find something that's interesting."
It has made for an impressive career, rising to critical notoriety in the world of alternative rock alongside scenes such as glitch electronica, grunge music, dream pop, and lounge music. But there was hardly a place to pigeonhole a band like Tortoise. Critics categorized the group's music by the vaguest of terms: postrock. The band was well known not for hit singles but for meandering, complex pieces such as "TNT" and the 20-minute "Djed."
But don't expect Tortoise to play either of those songs when the band returns to South Florida for the first time since its 2004 gig at the Polish American Club of Miami. "We don't really do those anymore," McEntire says. "We played them every night for like ten and 12 years, so it kind of got to the saturation point."
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Explaining that they mix things up from show to show, McEntire promises their new set list will draw all the way back to their first album. "There are some things we play that are older," he says, "and we try to go through the catalog and bring things back that we haven't done for a while, so we still do a few things from the first album from time to time, a few things from Millions [Now Living Will Never Die], so, yeah, just try to mix it up."
What kind of show might Miami fans see? McEntire laughs a bit more jovially: "I think it'll be a party situation."