Fame Scratches at the Door

Three years ago, John McEntire was scraping together part-time jobs–delivering this newspaper and working in a tobacco shop – and working full-time for apprentice wages at Brad Wood’s Idful recording studio; in his spare moments, he played in four bands–Gastr del Sol, the Red Krayola, Tortoise, and the Sea and Cake.

In the intervening years McEntire’s workload has hardly lightened, but he no longer has to take on odd jobs to pay the bills. With relatively little fanfare he’s become a sought-after producer, the two bands he’s most involved with–the Sea and Cake and Tortoise–have become international underground stars, and he’s set to score his first film, a John Hughes production called Reach the Rock.

The 26-year-old native of Portland, Oregon, began his musical career as a drummer; he’s since become adept with electronics as well. He enrolled at Oberlin College in 1987 as a percussion major, but before long switched to a program called Technology in Music and Related Arts, and his interest in musique concrete and contemporary composition began to coalesce with his interest in punk rock. He played briefly with Cleveland’s My Dad Is Dead, but his membership in Bastro, led by Gastr del Sol’s David Grubbs, both tied him to Chicago and set in motion a permanent shift toward unconventional music.

McEntire left school before finishing in 1991 and moved to Chicago. Shortly thereafter Bastro morphed into Gastr, and he joined Gastr bassist Bundy Brown, drummer John Herndon, and bassist Doug McCombs in a peculiar guitarless project called Mosquito. After the discovery of a Jad Fair project by that name, the band was rechristened Tortoise. During Tortoise’s infancy McEntire returned to Oberlin to finish his degree, but couldn’t pass the required sight-singing test, and by the spring of 1993 he was back in town to stay.

Tortoise is the best known of his bands–its latest album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, has sold more than 50,000 copies worldwide–but McEntire spends plenty of time with the Sea and Cake, whose fourth album he’s in the process of recording. In addition he’s recorded Trans Am, Eleventh Dream Day, Run On, Come, and Stereolab, and more recently he’s remixed songs for British bands Moonshake and Red Snapper. Some of this work was completed as a salaried engineer at Idful, but he’s begun working more frequently at Soma, the eight-track studio he built in the loft he shares with other members of Tortoise.

The amount of attention focused on McEntire with regard to his importance within that rather egalitarian outfit seems to have made him mindful of discussing his own accomplishments with the press. “It’s really hard to step back and think about all that’s changed in the last few years,” he says. “You can’t live in a vacuum, but I think we try not to think about the way things have changed.”

The way things have changed, of course, is that the increasing popularity of the groups he plays with has heralded a deluge of diverse, largely instrumental bands that operate outside of the traditional rock realm. That deluge in turn has contributed to McEntire’s newfound success as a producer. “It’s gotten to the point where I have to be very selective, which is unfortunate because I end up turning down a lot of stuff I’d like to work on,” he says.

“The exposure’s allowed me to do a lot of different work, which is great,” he adds, “but on the other hand it’s kind of been setting me apart from my peers, which I don’t want to have happen.”

John Hughes III, the 20-year-old son of the prolific teenpic auteur and the music supervisor for Reach the Rock, is an avid fan and sold first-time director Bill Ryan on McEntire’s work. In addition to hiring him (for an undisclosed sum) to compose an original score, Hughes approached Tortoise, the Sea and Cake, June of 44, Dianogah, and Chapel Hill’s Polvo–the sole non-Chicagoans involved in the project–to contribute original songs to the sound track, which will be released jointly through MCA and Hughes’s Hefty label, which has thus far issued a recording by his own quirky pop band, Bill Ding.

Considering Tortoise’s obsession with maintaining absolute artistic control – the group has shrugged off major-label interest to stay with the local Thrill Jockey – the decision to get involved with the man who made hay with the Psychedelic Furs (Pretty in Pink) and Simple Minds (The Breakfast Club) may strike some as a little out of the ordinary. Granted, Hughes pere isn’t directing the film, which revolves around a dialogue between a troubled small-town teen and the cop who picks him up for breaking a window, but his name and Universal’s distribution pretty much take it out of the art-house league. “It’s not that much of a reach for us,” says McEntire, who read the script before taking the job, “and it’s a relatively small commitment. It’s not like we signed to a major label.”

“We’re trying hard not to make this project a Hollywood exploitation of bands,” says the younger Hughes. “We came to John because we like what he’s done, and we don’t want him to step too far away from what he’s done in the past.”

For himself, McEntire adds, the project provides “a good opportunity to come up with a lot of original music, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s also a chance to get more in tune with the whole film process–I find the technical side of it very interesting.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of John McEntire by Brad Miller.