Chicago has one of the most vibrant music communities in the world, and at the heart of it lies John McEntire. His numerous projects–The Sea And Cake and Tortoise are two of the most prominent–have made him a first-call international musician, producer, and remixer for groups and players as varied as Stereolab, Gastr del Sol, Eleventh Dream Day, Trans Am, Coldcut, Richard Buckner, and Tom Ze, among others. No doubt attracted by McEntire's atmospheric production techniques, Hollywood not long ago approached him to record the soundtrack to a John Hughes-produced film, the long-delayed and barely released Reach The Rock. A recent album of McEntire's music from the film attracted far more attention than Reach The Rock itself, but he's already moved on to other projects. The Onion recently pried some information from the low-key studio mastermind.
The Onion: Was scoring a film just an opportunity you couldn't pass up? Had you received any offers before?
John McEntire: No. It seemed like a chance to do something I had never really done before, so I couldn't pass it up.
O: What if it were a Pauly Shore movie? Would you have still done it?
JM: [Laughs.] I don't know. That might require a little more thought.
O: Did you ever imagine that the music being made in Chicago in the past several years would suddenly become prominent internationally? The stuff you do gets ripped off all over the place.
JM: I don't know. Maybe I'm not so in touch with what's going on, but I don't see that too much. Do you?
O: It's hard to say. I mean, you have your finger in so many pies—there are so many bands in the Chicago circle that aren't actually from Chicago—that it's hard to put all the pieces together. But the European response to groups like Tortoise has been pretty phenomenal, compared to Tortoise's effect on the average Chicago band.
JM: Right. We're all, I think, very surprised by that.
O: A lot of the bands you're associated with seemed to pop up around the same time. When did you start playing out with Tortoise and The Sea And Cake? Was that 1993?
JM: Yeah. That was when it finally came together. We had been working together probably since '91, but not very seriously, or at least not full-time. So it was probably '93 when it started to get pretty active.
O: But a lot of the Chicago musicians had been playing together for a while, too, right? You played in Bastro [with David Grubbs]. You also went to Oberlin, and so did Sooyoung Park [of Seam] and Liz Phair.
JM: Yeah, I played in Seam for a little while.
O: And My Dad Is Dead, right? Was that from going to school in Ohio?
JM: Yeah. That was a long time ago.
O: Do you ever look back at all you've accomplished so far and think about how well it's all come together?
JM: Yeah, I guess. I don't really think about it too much in that kind of way. But it's interesting, I suppose. [Laughs.]
O: Well, it's probably more interesting when you look at it as this big musical map that intersects at many points. Didn't you go to high school with Eric Matthews? I heard there's friendly rivalry between the two of you.
JM: No, I wouldn't say that.
O: Well, I also heard that you were a high-school McDonald's marching drum champion.
JM: [Sighs.] Yeah, I did that.
O: Are there any pictures of you in a marching-band uniform?
JM: Not that you'll ever see! Or anyone else, for that matter.
O: Do you still have fun when you're playing live?
JM: [enthusiastically] Oh, yeah.
O: It's hard to tell sometimes. Although I once saw you pump your fist at a Tortoise show.
JM: Pump my fist?
O: Yeah. You were playing keyboards, and you pumped your fist. As in, "Yeah!" Maybe you were caught up in the moment.
JM: That's insane. I don't remember doing that.
O: I wish I had a photo. I could trade it to you for one of those marching-outfit pictures. But that was one of the few times I've seen you play where it actually looked like you were having fun with Tortoise. Otherwise, it's like, I don't know, watching a jazz recital.
JM: No! No, it's not that serious, is it? Didn't you see the stupid thing we did [on tour], where we had those matching white suits on?
O: Doing a little Kraftwerk thing?
JM: It was more Devo. We're not that serious. I guess we're just not very… emotive on stage, or whatever you want to call it.
O: You don't smash your instruments.
O: Because you're a relatively hands-on producer, in the sense that you can be identified by the sound of the recording, do you have any preferences in terms of recording your own music versus recording the music of someone else? It always seems like a collaboration regardless of who you're working with.
JM: Well, it doesn't always have to be that way. If someone just wants me to engineer a record for them and not do anything above and beyond that, I'm perfectly happy to do that, as well.
O: But how often has that been happening recently?
JM: I haven't been doing a lot of engineering or production, just because I was on tour all of last year. But hopefully I'll get back into doing it a bit more this year.
O: What do you have slated for this year?
JM: I'm going to mix some of the High Llamas album, probably in the spring. I'll be mixing The For Carnation. That's about it at the moment. I'm going to be building my studio over the next couple of months. That's my main thing.
O: Were you surprised that a record as solid as TNT [Tortoise's most recent album] was met with something close to a backlash?
JM: It doesn't really surprise me. I mean, it's not an easy record to just sit down and listen to. I'm certainly not trying to blow my own horn or anything, but I think it demands a certain amount of attention. There's a lot going on within it. I think another thing that put so many people off is that it's so long and there's so much detail in there. There's a lot to take in one sitting.
O: I think it's much more cohesive than Millions Now Living Will Never Die.
JM: Oh, I agree completely.
O: A lot of people consider Millions Now Living the be all and end all, like things couldn't go beyond that.
JM: Yeah, I thought that was quite strange, because to me that record always felt like it was really rushed and put together hastily. And the fact that some people cling to it as some sort of template is sort of weird. I don't really understand that way of thinking. Whatever.
O: Will it be a while before the next Tortoise or Sea And Cake record?
JM: We'll probably start working on new stuff this spring, I guess. But I don't think anything new will come out until the end of the year. But Sam [Prekop] has an album out that's great.
O: It's sort of perverse that you just play maracas on it.
JM: [Laughs.] I was gone the whole time he was making it, except at the very end. They needed some percussion, and Chad [Taylor] wasn't in town, so I was very happy to do that. I think it's quite good [that everybody in Chicago plays on each other's records]. It's very interesting, all the different sorts of permutations of personalities that you can get into, and what can result.