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Brokeback; Interview with Doug McCombs
By Holly Day
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After spending most of the past ten years playing bass for two of Chicago's most important bands, Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day, Douglas McCombs has been dedicating the little amount of free time he has left to his side project: the sparse, surreal, bass-driven Brokeback. One his second and newest Brokeback release, "Field Recordings from the Cook County Water Table" (Thrill Jockey Records), McCombs has been joined by fellow Tortoise members John Herndon and John McEntire, as well as Mary Hansen (Stereolab) and Noel Kuppersmith (Chicago Underground Orchestra). I spoke to the busy McCombs from SOMA Studios, Chicago, during a break from recording yet another Eleventh Dream Day album.

[Holly Day] How did Brokeback get started?

[Doug McCombs]That was something that I kind of wanted to do as an outlet for some ideas that I had, and just something to do when other bands weren't busy. I kind of made a decision a while ago to try and be a musician full time, and when my other bands weren't busy, I didn't feel like I was being productive. Other people in the bands had "real" things to do—John McEntire, for instance, has a career as a recording engineer—and I kind of wanted to have something else to do when Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day weren't really touring or recording or anything. And also, it wasn't like there were these specific ideas that I had that I wanted to do with Brokeback. I didn't really want to have a full band with this project, just wanted to be able to collaborate with one or two other people and keep it really simple, which is definitely not always the case with Tortoise.

[HD] How did you first meet John Herndon and John McEntire and when did you guys start playing together?

[DM]Well, John Herndon and myself were both in bands that played around Chicago in the mid ‘80s--I was in Eleventh Dream Day and he was in a band called Precious Wax Drippings. Both of those bands played a lot of shows together, and John and I ended up being friends—eventually, Johnny and I just decided to start playing together. I mean, we wanted to have a band together sort of out of friendship and everything, but also because we had a common interests we had in music that we couldn't explore in our own bands. So that was kind of how he and I started playing together and how Tortoise got started, even though it wasn't called Tortoise in the beginning because it was really just us exploring these vague, musical ideas and not trying to be an official band. Eventually, John McEntire and Dan Bitney (formerly of Tar Babies) joined up with us and it became Tortoise. There have been various personnel changes over the years since then, but it's pretty much been Johnny, John McEntire, Bitney and I consistently through the whole thing.

[HD] Why do you think you all work so well together as musicians?

[DM]I don't know. For the most part, we come from similar backgrounds so far as what kind of music we like, what kind of music holds our interest, the kind of writing that we think will hold other people's interests. I think it also has something to do with the attitude we all share about music, about how it can be flexible and that there really are no rules to being in a band. You can have a group of people that sit together and play night after night and play the same instrument each time, but you don't have to play the same songs or even the same kinds of songs each and every time. We're all into exploring the different paths open to us as musicians, and I think that's one of the big reasons we all get along so well, is our mutual willingness to explore music.

[HD] You give a huge amount of credit to this new album to the Fender 6-string bass. When did you first start experimenting with the instrument?

[DM]I first came across one in the mid-80s, but I couldn't afford to buy it—they're kind of expensive (ranging from $2, 000 to $6,000), and they're kind of rare. I play a little bit of guitar now, but I'm not really interested in moving up into that higher register full-time. This particular kind of six-string bass was the thing that really seemed perfect for me to play, because it had a little bit of a higher register to work with, but still had all the benefits of playing the bass left. When I did finally get my hands on one, I had already planned out what I wanted things to sound like and the kind of melodies I wanted to be able to write for the instrument, and those ideas are basically what Brokeback is.

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