This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden.
When we spoke, I kept hoping Chicago producer and musician John McEntire would regale me with tales of studio magic, or at least studio mischief. Did he ever mic drums from the top of a stairwell to try and get the booming sounds of his childhood idol John Bonham? Did he and Stereolab invent a new type of synthesizer together? Is there some secret sauce—a ‘McEntire Sound’—that bands are willing to brave Chicago weather for?
“I don’t know if I really have any secrets,” he says with a chuckle. It turns out the real John McEntire is a pretty understated guy, a stark contrast to the provocative sonic manipulator he so often plays in the studio.
A McEntire-produced record is like a laboratory of sound: Instruments may be effected to the point where they become unrecognizable; there are often abrupt shifts in volume and frequency, with rhythm sections that seem to disappear then reappear. The atmospheres he creates range from the claustrophobic to the cavernous, and McEntire seems to create chemical compounds of sound that can’t possibly be made by simply holding a mic up to an instrument or amplifier.
Although he may often color outside the lines, McEntire is as adept at engineering the crisp and coherent as the crumbling and cacophonous. From the squeaky-clean minimalist shimmer of Stereolab’s layering, to his own overdriven and bit-crushed drumming on Tortoise records, the one constant element is his curiosity for sounds.
“I just like to experiment with all different types of things: chaining effects together in ways you wouldn’t necessarily think; using side-chains on compressors in weird ways; introducing modular synths into an effects chain, creating modulation feedback loops. I think all the normal kind of stuff that people usually do anyway, but everybody’s results are different.”
He may have an unusual view of “normal”, but McEntire’s personal results aren’t such that you could tell he worked on a Tortoise record and a Stereolab record just by listening to them side-by-side. (We’ll do just that at the end of this profile.) Still, you can hear some patterns that emerge even across his most disparate productions.
In the Lab
A drummer since the age of 10, McEntire attended Oberlin as percussion major. Eventually, he transferred into the school’s still-raw department for Technology in Music and Related Arts. Oberlin provided McEntire with a fundamental background in studio recording, and his early 90s move to Chicago – where he began recording bands, and joining them – put his feet to the fire.
McEntire began working at Idful Music immediately after college, while simultaneously building up his own home-studio piece-by-piece. This home-base would eventually become McEntire’s Soma Electronic Music Studios, one of the most important studios for independent music in Chicago, and arguably, one of the most influential in the country. But McEntire’s success here, much like his ever-shifting process, is barely a product of design.
“At a certain point, I decided it was something I could do even though I didn’t really know how to do it,” he says. “Maybe that kind of reckless ambition was helpful in a sense. It took me a while to actually get a grasp on things even though I was making records for people.”
In 1993, McEntire joined both Tortoise and The Sea and Cake, his longest-standing projects.
In Tortoise, a band with no primary leader, McEntire is a collaborator, composer , multi-instrumentalist, and sonic raconteur. Theirs is a mostly instrumental cornucopia of jazz, punk, electronic music, and various other sub genres that tend to include (depending on who you ask) either the word “post” or “rock”, or both.
The Sea and Cake flips McEntire’s coin, allowing him to be a drummer first and foremost, focusing on the nuances of rhythm beneath frontman Sam Prekop’s lyrically-oriented pop songs. McEntire claims these dual roles didn’t emerge by careful plan either, but he appreciates the balance they afford him.
Both groups released self-titled debuts in 1994, and McEntire’s work on Tortoise (and with Gastr del Sol) caught the ear of Stereolab. Tortoise began opening for Stereolab on a subsequent tour, at which point McEntire asked them about recording an upcoming album for the band. It’s the only instance he can recall of hustling up his own business.
“At the time it seemed pretty natural, but thinking back on it now, it was unusual for me to ask a group ‘Hey, you guys want to come to Chicago and record with me’? That didn’t ever really happen.”
That initial collaboration was 1996’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup, the first of several releases that led to the band and the producer’s careers ascending in tandem, culminating with 2001’s Sound-Dust. McEntire’s reputation as a sonic innovator spread thanks to these records and his continuing work with Tortoise and The Sea and Cake, making him one of those “names” that artists seek out when it comes time to make a record. From here, he’d go on to work with The Fiery Furnaces, Bright Eyes, Mary Timony, Trans Am, Broken Social Scene, Antibalas, The Chicago Underground Duo & Quartet, and Yo La Tengo, amongst many others.
Life in the Service Industry
While scrolling through McEntire’s discography as a producer and engineer you’ll frequently see him credited as a performer as well, usually wielding some kind of percussion instrument. But McEntire makes it clear to me that playing on the albums he records is less an ego-driven imposition, and more a kind of added service.
“I want to be as transparent as possible,” he says. “And I want the artist to be as comfortable as possible. Anything I can do to facilitate that – to make the work comfortable and exciting for them – that’s what I’ll do.”
Sometimes that means picking up an instrument and playing along. Other times, it means simply executing the band’s vision without adding too much of his own.
“I kind of view this as being in the service industry,” he says. “If you’re asked your opinion, fine, but it’s not your job to subject these people who are paying you to your opinion… If somebody is interested in working with me, they know the kinds of things that I’ve done and the sounds that I get. And I trust them to have enough of a sense of what they want to do that I don’t need to guide them through the whole thing. But I’m happy to help; if I can be of help in any regard, absolutely.”
This flexibility makes McEntire’s approach to production impossible to pigeonhole. The path he takes is rooted in the artist’s needs: Some send him a slew of finished-sounding demos, asking him to pick out the best ones to re-record, others arrive in the studio with no prior discussion at all. The constant there is change. And perhaps, the quality of the results.
“I try to approach everything differently,” he says. “But maybe within that there’s some weird sort of consistency that I’m not even aware of.”
Soma Electronic Music Studios
With time, regular upgrades, and a change in venue, McEntire’s once-modest home-studio of the early ‘90s has morphed into Soma Electronic Music Studios. It boasts an impressive array of amps, effects, and instruments (including an arsenal of synths), a live room with iso-booth, and two control rooms, equipped for both analog and digital recording.
I casually asked McEntire if he had an opinion on the whole ‘Tape v. Digital’ debate, and was surprised to hear him land fairly staunchly on the side opposite his fellow Chicago producer Steve Albini:
“I never work in analog anymore…There’s the technical aspect [breakdowns, servicing] and there’s just the workflow aspect that everyone’s accustomed to now, which is everything instantaneously. The idea of having to wait to roll the tape back to do another take is completely insane for people nowadays. If they want to do another take, it has to happen within like a tenth of a second. Plus [there’s] doing creative stuff with arrangements – being able to make loops and quick edits – things that help the songwriting process in general.”
Even McEntire’s preferred recording medium boils down to what serves his clients best. It’s a pity we don’t have John McEntire clones running tax preparation services or working at the DMV.
I wondered how he was able to balance the needs of Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, a full-time business, and any other extra projects that might cross his plate. Once again, McEntire attributes it to good fortune rather than design. When Tortoise took center stage in the past, Sam Prekop of The Sea and Cake took time away to record solo albums. Now that three Tortoise members have children and lengthy tours have become difficult, it leaves more time for The Sea and Cake and studio work. And, in July of 2012, when Soma took on engineers Brian Deck, Sanford Parker, Neil Strauch, and Jake Westermann from Chicago’s recently defunct Engine Studios, it allowed McEntire to keep the lights on in the studio even while touring with one of his bands.
Naturally understated, McEntire says, “I have to admit I’m really lucky to have all these things going concurrently that seem to be working out okay. I really cannot complain at all.”
John McEntire 101
Tortoise – Standards (2001)
McEntire 101 begins with “Seneca”, the opening track on Tortoise’s Standards.
Overdriven free-drumming floods the left and right channels, enveloping a heavily reverbed guitar, eventually giving way to a lone, phasing drum groove, with toms that distort to the point of sounding electronic. Halfway through, McEntire plays hide and seek with the rhythm section, while the song fades into a clap chorus with the drums cutting in and out like a transistor radio.
Standards (and Tortoise itself to a larger extent) is McEntire at his most sonically playful. He once told rock critic Jim DeRogatis: “For some reason, the music always lends itself to treatment of some sort—maybe because it’s instrumental. We’re trying to generate some interest sonically.”
Stereolab – Dots and Loops (1997)
More than once, McEntire has singled out Dots and Loops as a production he takes pride in. Stereolab’s trademark melodic sensibilities and harmonies are all there, but the loops are new territory. McEntire deftly blends the electronic and the organic into what sounds like Tropicalia from a distant future.
He says: “We’d gotten to this point technologically and creatively where we were able to just try lots and lots of different things. That was the first record we did with Pro Tools and my analog synth collection had gotten pretty formidable at that point so we had a lot of tools at our disposal. It just seemed really exciting and there were a lot of different things going on and strains of music kind of colliding in interesting new ways.”
Trans Am – Surrender to the Night (1997)
Trans Am was originally an instrumental band with wide swathes of open space in their music, and a powerful, groove-centered rhythm section. Sound familiar? It’s perhaps no coincidence that Tortoise and Trans Am became label mates on Thrill Jockey, or that McEntire was behind the glass for both bands’ early releases.
But while Tortoise draws influence from every corner of the music, Surrender to the Night seems to take its influence primarily from Kraftwerk and Black Sabbath. McEntire experiments with Trans Am’s sound the same way he would with Tortoise – sucking frequencies in and out, overdriving everything for stretches at a time – but he also makes sure to preserve, even bolster, the awesome might of Trans Am’s metronomic drummer Sebastian Thomson.
The Sea and Cake – The Fawn (1997)
Stereolab wasn’t the only group McEntire introduced to looping in 1997. After a two-year hiatus, The Sea and Cake returned with The Fawn, incorporating samples, programming, and synths previously absent from their sound.
McEntire’s production is more delicate and restrained here, as are the guitar tones and vocals of leader Sam Prekop. What experimentation can be heard is subtle and nuanced. Much of the sonic tinkering revolves around McEntire’s natural drum sounds and their interplay with his constructed, artificial rhythms, both giving space and deference to Prekop’s songwriting.
Stereolab – Sound-Dust (2001)
Stereolab’s second entry on this list probably wins for degree of difficulty.
On Sound-Dust, the band’s most lush outing and their last collaboration with him, McEntire remembers using up to 140 tracks during recording, and spending up to two or three days mixing a single song.
Sound-Dust is a marvel of Stereolab’s ability to sound like several different bands within one song, and to endlessly layer subtle rhythmic elements in service of melody. It’s also a marvel that McEntire is able to carve out the space for it all to fit. But he says that Stereolab “have always had a good sense of self-arrangement, so even when you come to mix something that has 140 tracks, musically they make perfect sense and they’re laid out in a way that makes it easy to get the pieces of the puzzle to fit together.”