Interview: John McEntire (of Tortoise)

placeholder image

    Last year’s Beacons of Ancestorship continued the line of excellent Tortoise records. The five multi-talented instrumentalists keep themselves busy with sundry other projects, but the near 20-year history of the group is replete with legendary records. They’re often credited with being at the forefront of post-rock, and certainly stand at or near the center of Chicago instrumental rock of the last two decades.

    Just under a week before a shot tour, I was able to ask multi-instrumentalist John McEntire a few questions about their newest disc, their connections to the jazz world, and the difficulties of playing exactly what the fans want.

    It’s All Around You and Beacons of Ancestorship are pretty different, would you say that’s true?


    I think so, yeah.

    Particularly it seems like there are more synths and samples in the forefront as the albums come.

    Yeah, I mean, especially on the last one, on Beacons we made a conscious decision to try to get away from some of the signature sounds that we have, with mallet instruments and things. I think a necessary consequence of that was to use more keyboards and synths.

    I’ve read that you guys write and record in a sort of piecemeal way. Could you describe that?

    Well, I would say that generally what happens is that we all get together and bring in little fragments of ideas that we have developed individually, which can be anything from very, very simple things, like a rhythm or a small chord progression or something like that, anything from something that small up to practically finished songs, which happens occasionally. And then we just, either in the practice space or the studio, start to develop these ideas as a group. And it usually takes a while to get somewhere where we’re happy with. There’s a long process of trying things and throwing things away, coming back and trying again, eventually getting somewhere we feel like we’ve done justice to the original idea.

    You guys all have a lot of other projects you work on. Does that make it confusing on which ideas to bring to what projects?


    Not so much, you know. Occasionally there’s just like scheduling conflicts. But in most instances they can get worked out. I think it’s been good for everybody to have other outlets for what they want to do. It’s worked out well, to be pretty honest.

    I’ve seen Jeff Parker and John Herndon playing in jazz and improvised music shows around Chicago. How do you think Tortoise fits into the jazz world?

    Well, honestly, I don’t think it does at all. Other than the fact that Jeff and Johnny happen to be great jazz musicians. That’s about it.


    But, would you say there’s been some jazz influence on your music?

    No. Not at all. Personally, I don’t think so. I think that we get tagged with that because of some very superficial things, like, we use a vibraphone or that we don’t play three chord songs all the time. But, no. I mean, the things that I think of that I think kind of define jazz do not exist in what we do as a group.

    On Beacons, there are a few songs that are more straightforward rock or punk based, particularly “Yinxianghechengqi.” Why did these songs come out at this point in your career?

    I suppose…with every record, this is probably true about everybody, with every record that you make there’s kind of a pushback from the last record, to try to do something different. That was definitely the case with us on this one. As much as we all liked It’s All Around You, I think there was a feeling that it was a little too…In retrospect it was a little too…Soft, in a sense. There were a lot of things that were kind of mid tempo. While they were nice tunes, they didn’t really exude any…urgency. So, yeah. It was kind of a conscious decision, that was for us a little more aggressive.


    There’s also some dubstep and hip-hop influence on the record, at least in what I hear.

    I mean, I guess so, in a way. I don’t think it was super conscious. The stuff crept in. Maybe one of the tracks you’re referring to is “Penumbra”, the little short one with some samples and stuff. That was one Johnny came up with. That was a real obvious kind of Jay Dee type track. Not obvious, but, you know, it comes from that sensibility. The one you’re talking about with the dubstep, “Northern Something”, which is…I don’t know how that one came about, to be honest (laughs). I don’t think we were trying to reference that specifically. What happened was, we had the riff, the synth part or whatever. And we were like, okay, what should we do with this? How are we gonna make a beat work with it? That was the only thing we could do (starts beat-boxing the rhythm), and so it just stuck.

    Where did the title Beacons of Ancestorship come from?

    It’s quite a long story, actually. If you’re really interested, you might want to look it up online. Because, it’s actually really fascinating. I can give you an outline of it, though: It’s the title of a book.

    I’m intrigued now. I’m going to have to go look it up.

    Yeah. The author’s name is John Barton Wolgamot.

    So…The upcoming tour is only nine days long. Are you guys avoiding longer tours now?

    Well, somewhat, I guess. We’ve done a lot. Last year, on the back of the record. We have a few more coming up this year, too. It’s a situation where we’re doing more, shorter runs.


    Did you enjoy playing a fan-picked set at last summer’s Pitchfork Festival?

    No. Not at all.

    Not at all?


    Any reason for that?

    The most recent thing we played in that set was 12 years old. Especially when we have a new record out. Why are we playing this festival playing the golden oldies. It doesn’t make sense.

    Was there any temptation to just throw in some of the new material?

    There was. For sure. I don’t know. I felt like we had to stick with the rules.

    Was there a contract that said you had to follow the vote?

    No, we didn’t. We endured many discussions where we were like “We should just do whatever the fuck we want.” But everybody was like “Well, you know, we signed on to do this thing as such, so we should just stick with it.”

    Did that reaction have any affect on what you’re going to play on this tour? Is it only going to be Beacons material?


    No, no. We still do a bunch of back catalogue stuff. I think we’re playing about three quarters of the new record.