Best known as the drummer with mercurial Chicago-based
rock outfit Wilco, Kotche further immerses himself in stimulating ventures
such as avant-garde trio Loose Fur (a Wilco side project) and jazz
duo On Fillmore (with bassist Darin Gray). Glenn also cultivates
a thriving solo career indulging his electric excursions in polyrhythm. If
that weren’t enough to keep any musician creatively fulfilled,
Glenn recently completed his first commissioned orchestral composition, “Anomaly,” which
debuted in Autumn 2007 with the eminent Kronos Quartet.
Kotche attended the prestigious music school at the University of Kentucky
earning a degree in percussion. He went on to teach music to
literally hundred of high school student over the years, while also
appearing on dozens of recordings throughout the late ‘90s. Joining
Wilco in 2001, Kotche contributed to the highly acclaimed Yankee Hotel
Foxtrot (2002), the Grammy-winning A Ghost Is Born (2004) and the group’s
latest masterpiece, Sky Blue Sky (2007).
Wilco is the perfect foil for
Kotche’s diverse musical predilections. Each
Wilco member is supremely accomplished musician in their own right,
delivering powerfully poignant songs saturated with staggering gorgeous
melodies, stripped down slide guitars, and alluring rhythmic twists
evident on their latest album (and arguably their best).
On a recent
swing thorough London on tour to support Sky Blue Sky, Glenn discussed
his diverse musical endeavors and how he approaches music as much more
than just a singular profession.
DRUMHEAD: Your have the chops, education and technical savvy to master
just about any style or genre of music. Is there an aspect of your
playing that you’d like to develop further?
GLENN KOTCHE: There
are so many areas that I have to work on, and the more I learn, the
more I realize that there is more to learn. The
more comfortable I get, the better I get, and then more possibilities
get unlocked. I’m not in college anymore so I can’t
practice eight hours a day working on all the technical aspects. I
have to prioritize and try to choose things that make musical sense
DH: Like what, specifically?
GK: I’m always exploring technical
things like working on my left foot, ostinato things, and my feel. My
whole approach for the Sky Blue Sky is feel. There is nothing
technical about this record from my end. I wanted to get a buoyant
swing feel that my heroes had like Levon Helm, Al Jackson Jr., the
Motown guys, even a lot of rock drummers like Mitch Mitchell and John
Bonham. Those guys
grew up listening to R & B music and R & B guys like Earl Palmer
were essentially jazzers. Straightening out the eight notes, and that
inherent swing that feels so good, is what I’m referring to.
With Wilco, my first record with them was Yankee Hotel Fox Trot, and
I had the chance to play everything: multiple drum kits on every song,
junk, homemade stuff, a lot of percussion. Same thing with A
Ghost Is Born, where I used hammered dulcimers instead of vibes. This
record, there’s six of us now, the way we recorded it was live,
in a circle, in our own studio in Chicago. The only overdubs
I think I did were a shaker and a tambourine. No one punched
in, and the vocals were sung at the same time I was doing my drum takes. No
separation, no Pro Tools, just live.
DH: Sonically, it’s a really warm-sounding album, a throwback
to the early “70s when recording was strictly analog and the
process was more organic. Is that what your were going for?
GK: I think
we wanted to go for what felt comfortable for us and we knew that playing
live always feels comfortable. We took this
same approach when writing the record. We knew that this was the way
we wanted record it. With all of us playing at the same time
and no overdubs, my whole goal for this was to try get a soulful, deep
feel and go for a really good groove. To answer your question, it is
that huge thing of feel and grooving that I want to learn to improve.
DH: Did recording as a unit speed up or slow down the process in the
GK: Both. Because we all didn’t feel we all got our perfect
takes at the same time, we’d sometimes have to record a track
ten times or more. I may have felt I had my perfect take on the
second take. But there are so many elements involved like pianos,
vocals, two guitars that we tried to get a performance that felt right
in a general sense. We weren’t going for a “no mistakes” approach,
and there are plenty of mistakes on the record which add character. It
was down to what made the songs and the lyrics feel the best. At
the end of the day for me, it’s all about supporting Jeff’s
[Tweedy, vocals, guitar] lyrics. Having feel in the song is more
important than a flawless drum take. This was also the most collaborative
Wilco record I’ve been involved with when it came to writing.
DH: Take us through the process of how you collaborate and record.
On past records, Jeff would bring in more completed songs and we’d
all supply our parts and arrange them. For this one, he only
brought in a couple songs that had chords and lyrics already. Nels
[Cline, guitar] would start with a chord progression, or Pat would
play a piano part, and we’d work the entire day developing it,
playing it over and over while making little changes each time. That’s
how the songs developed, and they are credited as songs by “Wilco.” So
we all had a collaborative input on this record. We all love playing
with each other and we love the music and Jeff’s lyrics.
DH: You mentioned “supporting Jeff’s lyrics” with
your playing. How do you go about prioritizing what words to
accent and how to structure your parts around lyrics?
GK: You have to
think of drums as any other part of the music, not always as a timekeeper. But
sometimes, that’s the main
function, as timekeeper, which is basically what I do on the new record. That
works. It has a place. I come from a background where I studied
a lot of orchestral music, free improvising and my college professor,
Jim Campbell, put in my head the idea of incorporating more of a multiple
percussion approach. I went to school for a percussion performance
degree but I knew I wanted to play drumset, what he said didn’t
sink in until a few years after I graduated: that I can incorporate
all the time I spent on marimba, timpani, ethnic styles of percussion,
on a drumset, to think of the kit not just as a rhythmic instrument,
but as a way of adding color an texture to music. I guess examples
of what you’re asking about would be on “I am Trying to
Break Your Hear:” it’s a three chord song, repeats over
and over for four or five verses and then there’s the chorus.
The drums are pretty instrumental in providing the scene changes. Going
from this ramshackle, broken, off-kilter beat and slowly, as the verses
progress, the drumming becomes more normal and focused until the chorus
hits, the drums lay out and then everything erupts into chaos after
that. For the other tines, I might be contrasting the lyrics,
playing freely over what Jeff is singing. Sometimes, I’ll
just be supporting him playing a nice easy groove. On the new
record there ate little things. “Hate It Here” is a steady
groove with all these drum fills and the character is venting throughout,
and then frustration comes out and the drums illustrate that. I
sometimes try to provide contrast like “You Are My Face,” where
the drums are simple in parts, but when the middle section comes in,
it’s a lot louder, which makes you focus on the lyrics more because
you can hear something different is happening.
DH: Guitarist Richard Thompson has said that he notates his solos
so that he doesn’t repeat similar patterns, which helps push
him musically. Whit all your compositional work, do you tend
to notate so as not to repeat yourself?
GK: For most of the solo pieces I do, I writhe just beyond what I can
actually play. I writhe them because I’m curious about
things, and I just need to explore that more. I’ll get
a concept in my head and then I’ll writhe it down. Some
things are dictated exactly as I think of them, while some things are
more general. But yes, I do try and push myself a little further
by writing things that are harder to play. Like the Kronos Quartet
piece, there are drum parts on there that I’ve written which
I couldn’t play initially, but I had to learn when we debuted
it in October. It’s my way of forcing me to practice, and
this pushes me to do so.
DH: Your extensive musical education has made you a different musician
than had you been self-taught. Have you ever contemplated that?
I get kind of jealous of those guys who were never at school like Buddy
Rich, of Maureen Tucker (Velvet Underground). She’s
as far from Buddy as you can get, but what she does is as perfectly
suitable for those albums as what he did. I spent all those years
on lessons and schooling, yet unschooled drummers blow my mind. But
that’s what I like about composing. I never had a composition
class, so I get to be the outsider, figuring it all out from a beginner’s
DH: Your most recent solo CD mobile, veers from the austere and minimal
in terms of instrumentation, to an ornate, complex layered platform
of sounds, utilizing cymbals, vibes, marimbas, tom toms, kalimba, all
conveying the dynamically expressive nature of percussion. What
originally inspired you to take that route?
GK: Mobile was drawn from visual art and a lot of the ideas came from
listening to all sorts of different styles too. I get ideas from
a lot of things. At the time I did that, I was listening to a lot of
the Nonsuch Explorer Series: Balinese music, African music and contemporary
classic music. Plus Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Zeppelin. I get ideas
from all those places, and I get curious about working with those ideas
and exploring them. I don’t think that comes from my educational
background, although it might be easier for me to write music out. I’m
just curious and naïve- you can ask my wife about that, too (laughs).
And that gives me the drive to try these ideas out.
DH: “Clapping Music Variations” is so compelling and rich
that it’s easy to forget that it’s entirely derived from
GK: The whole record is like that. The piano
is used a bit, that’s
also “technically” a percussive instrument. I also
used a cimbalom which are the strings of a piano you hit with a hammer
(mallets). It’s all pitched percussion. Sometimes
I get too conscious of being too busy and I do try to incorporate space
into what I play, and the last thing I want to do is to overplay. But
on some songs I can go from shaker, mallet to sampled sound to a drumbeat
and it’s all percussive sounds, not only drum kit.
DH: You’ve actually toured the U.S. supporting your solo work.
Is your audience comprised of Wilco fans or are they primarily drummers
in search of a mind-blowing experience?
GK: I tour playing rock clubs in the U.S. I’m sure there’s
a sprinkling of drummers, but there are Wilco fans there, I can tell,
they get off on tines like “Monkey Chant.” I wish it was
all because of the music, but it’s also due to the visual aspect
of it. They haven’t seen these instruments or heard these
sounds before, like some of the cymbals that I’m using, or the
amplified suspended fruit basket, which sounds like a gong but it folds
down really small and compact.
DH: You’ve spent some time touring Brazil. The Brazilians
seems to have an intrinsic link to music, and music can be heard everywhere. What
did you take away from that experience?
GK: I’m totally in love
with the place, as anyone is who goes down there. My side bands
and solo record have been going on for a long time, longer than my
time with Wilco. Whit On Fillmore,
we were touring our record Sleeps with Fishes, which is all upright
bass, vibraphone and all these field recordings. Darren Gray [bassist,
one half of On Fillmore] lives in St. Louis, I live in Chicago, so
he made field recordings of the Mississippi River, cicadas at night,
all kinds of sounds. I recorded sounds in my back alley, the
Chicago River, things like that. We put those on top of the music
and it gave the music, a sense of geography, a sense of place. When
we went to Brazil to play, I played vibes, he played bass. But
we were also playing percussion parts, triggering effects and recordings,
it was very precise and together. We saw all these Brazilians
bands and musicians perform where there is no head involved, only the
heart. That made a big impact on both of us. The instruments,
the music, the people, the attitude, it’s just super relaxed. But
the music there reminded us why you make music: to feel good. It
can be intellectually stimulating, which is nice. But at the
end of the day, it’s got to feel good.
DH: How do you manage to keep your personal life a priority when you
are touring so often?
GK: It’s hard. We’ll
pretty much down-to-earth guys, family guys, and no one is leading
a rock star lifestyle. When
I’m on the road, I try to get as much work done as I can, writing
music, so that when I am home I can really be there. Mobile was
written entirely while we [Wilco] were out on tour. I’m
writing another commissioned piece right now on the road so that I
can be at home with my wife. She’s studying for her PhD,
so she can’t always come out on the road with me.
DH: How did drumming become your passion?
GK: I was born on New Years
Eve, 1970, in what used to be a hospital that’s no longer there.
It was right across from an armory. At
midnight to celebrate the New Year, the armory started shooting off
cannons, so I think my first sound stimulus was these cannons going
off right outside the nursery. So maybe that’s why I’m
a drummer (laughs). I don’t know. I chalk my profession
up to my birthday.
DH: Your father taught you how to play organ first, before you switched
GK: My dad is a longtime music teacher and easy to learn from,
totally laidback, just a beautiful man. My dad taught on the
side part-time, but he had a big student roster. Organ really
helped me with drums later on because there was the top keyboard and
the bottom one and the foot pedals. It kick-started me with the independence
thing you get with drumming. When I was three, my sister gave
me a toy drum. I remember putting the sticks through the head one day
and I was heartbroken. I thought, “I can’t play this anymore.” When
I was five or six, my parents got me a tin drum set with paper heads,
and I took immaculate care of that so that I wouldn’t break it. I
treated it like an instrument rather than a toy I would bash around. From
that moment I just felt I was a drummer. I just thought that
was what I would do. I’m incredibly fortunate that I can
do that for a living. I’m very lucky.
DH: With all your varied playing experience, has your attitude towards
music changed in terms of taste?
GK: When I was younger I would see
a lot more divisions like “I
hate this music,” or “I hate that drumming,” or “I
love that style,” or “I love that drumming.” Now
I’m able to appreciate a lot more different things, and those
boundaries have dissipated. They say as you get older you’re
supposed to get more jaded, but maybe I’m softening up; I’m
not sure. I love everything form the athletic drumming of Thomas Lang
to the simplicity of Mo Tucker, which I said earlier. I like
all spectrums that I can enjoy and find inspiring. I try to pass
that on to students, too. Maybe world music is not your thing
but give it a chance, or even jazz. A lot of kids today don’t
want to listen to Miles Davis, but there are things that you can learn,
that can impart you years from now. Keep an open mind. We
all constantly change as people and our tastes develop, too. There’s
always new music popping up when you’re around musicians all
of the time. Something come along and just kicks your ass and
you become open to a whole new sound.
DH: What’s your favorite aspect of being able to play great
music with so many different perspectives?
GK: I love being part of
the band, part of the ensemble, but I also love the other projects,
too. I love touring and playing live and I enjoy recording. I try to
treat every gig as if it’s the last