Modern Drummer - January 2005
|Glenn Kotche: Wilco's Sonic Innovator
|Story by Jim DeRogatis
|As a musician, Glenn Kotche is devoted to playing
exactly what the song needs - whether the rhythm is extremely complicated
or supremely simple. And he'll do so using only one or two pieces
of his drumset, or a vast array of percussive devices, at times providing
a mind-blowing spectrum of sonic colors and textures.
This extremely musical approach to the drums has enabled Kotche to
move effortlessly from playing with several well-respected indie-rock
singers and songwriters, to gigging and recording with some of the
most renowned improvisational and avant-garde musicians in the American
rock underground, to claiming the drum throne for Chicago alternative
rockers Wilco. You can hear his fine work on their two most successful
albums, 2002's highly regarded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the recent
A Ghost Is Born.
Still boyishly enthusiastic at age thirtythree, Kotche grew up in
Roselle, Illinois, a half hour west of Chicago. He has been studying
his instrument formally since grammar school, and he earned a B.M.
in percussion from the University of Kentucky. But he has always opposed
what he calls "the overly chopsy" approach to the drums,
where players try to show off their skills by being needlessly complicated
if a song doesn't call for it.
Kotche is just as happy to hold a spare, steady groove for ten minutes-as
he does with the Krautrock-inspired motorik rhythm of "Spiders
(Kidsmoke)" on Wilco's new album-or to turn to his impressive
arsenal of percussion instruments in search of exactly the right musical
shading. These old noisemakers range from his recently acquired three-octave
set of almglocken (a form of brass chromatic tuned cowbells), to what
Wileo singer and songwriter Jeff Tweedy calls Kotche's "inGlenn-tions."
Climb behind the drumset in the loft on the northwest side of Chicago
that Wilco uses as a studio and rehearsal space, and you'll find not
only the usual acoustic and electronic instruments, but a collection
of bizarre sound makers. Floor tiles, hubcaps, ping-pong balls filled
with shotgun pellets, drumheads that have been altered with bits of
metal and wood, a collection of similarly rigged sticks and mallets
with springs and wires attached, and a length of rubber tubing feeding
into the air hole of the floor tom (so that Kotche can blow into it
and change the pitch for a timpani effect) are all ready for use.
MD spoke with this versatile and virtuosic drummer in the midst of
a busy touring schedule with Wilco, as he gears up for making his
third solo album and pursuing several other improv-oriented projects
during whatever downtime Glenn has away from the road.
MD: Let's start with your schooling. You began taking lessons in the
Glenn: Yes, through school programs. But I'd really been playing since
I was three or four. It's the typical story: My sister got me a toy
drum, and my parents got me one of those little toy kits at age six.
My dad played organ, and he taught piano lessons his whole life. So
there was always music around the house, and I've always identified
myself as a drummer.
MD: Did the lessons help spur your interest in drumming professionally?
Glenn: Yeah. I actually started taking pri vate lessons a year before
I started in school, so when band started, I kind of had an upper
hand. There was a marching band in junior high, and then the high
school marching band was really competitive-we would travel all over
the country, competing nationwide. In high school, it also diversified
into orchestra and concert band. I had some great private teachers
through high school, Mike Chiodo and Kevin Lepper, and they're both
still teaching in the area. Those two guys really got me in tune with
trying to be a musician and not just a drummer.
Lessons are definitely a confidence-builder for any kid: If you're
good at something, you want to do it more. I think that kind of fueled
it, and the band stuff definitely helped.
MD: There was a time right after you got out of the University of
Kentucky when you were teaching fifty high school kids a week. You
still teach a few students now in between touring and recording commitments.
It must drive you crazy to see schools shorting music education these
Glenn: Yeah, definitely, especially in Chicago. It kind of sucks,
because in wealthy school districts, there's a private teacher for
every instrument, and the kids are awesome and they have all these
opportunities. But in poorer districts-where it could be a kids' chance
for a scholarship, almost like sports-they don't have the access to
it at an early level.
MD: Did you enjoy teaching?
Glenn: Absolutely. It was definitely a day job, but for me it was
the closest thing to playing, because I could try out ideas on students.
I was playing all day long. You learn by watching other people do
stuff, even watching people make mistakes. For someone like me, who
has the training, it's really important to see a rawer playing style.
The mistakes remind you that there are so many other ways to think
I think a lot of teachers teach what they know instead of what's best
for the student. It took me a little while to figure that out. Every
kid is not going to go on to college and major in percussion and do
this for a living. You've got to teach what's right for the kid.
MD: Why did you choose the University of Kentucky?
Glenn: There's a professor there, James Campbell, who's just a really
happening teacher. There were a handful of places that I auditioned
at in the Midwest-Michigan, Indiana, DePaul, and Kentucky-and I was
most impressed by him. I knew he was recruiting from all over the
country, and I got a scholarship. The caliber of the players there
was also really good.
I was there for five years, and I got my bachelors degree in performance.
Basically, college for me was being exposed to so many different types
of music, and having to play so many different types of music-steel
drums, vibes, marimba, timpani, everything. Professor Campbell's whole
approach was multi-percussion, and that really sank in to me: the
ideas of not treating the drum set like a drumset-incorporating all
the stuff I learned, and not just thinking in terms of playing a beat
but in terms of colors and textures as well as rhythm.
MD: Tell me about playing with The Cavaliers Drum & Bugle Corps.
Glenn: Well, high school marching band was competitive, but The Cavaliers
were even more competitive than that. That was ages eighteen to twenty-one.
I started the summer after high school, and I had the experience of
basically trying out against a couple hundred people. When it started,
you'd do eight hours of rehearsals every day, and then do a show that
night; drive to the next city, sleep on a gym floor, and shower in
the locker room with a hundred twenty dudes after eating peanut butter
and jelly sandwiches. It was pretty much boot camp, man!
MD: After that, touring in an indie-rock van must have seemed easy.
Glenn: Exactly! It really got my chops together, so that's why I liked
it. But at the same time, I could have kept doing it for a few more
years, and I didn't, just because my rock band wouldn't put up with
it during the summers. 1 guess I was always a rock drummer first.
MD: When did you discover rock 'n' roll?
Glenn: My parents had a bunch of Beatles records that I heard, and
my older brother and sisters were always listening to stuff. Fifth
grade was actually when I played in my first rock band. That was all
metal-Judas Priest and Black Sabbath covers. When I got to high school,
I fell into a band that was all classic rock, and that pretty much
set the stage. I did my rock band in the summers and on the holidays,
when I wasn't studying at college or playing in marching band.
MD: When did you start gigging seriously on the rock scene?
Glenn: My last semester in college, after my senior recital, I was
pretty much done with most of my course work. That's when I started
playing at the clubs in town, and that's when I met the bass player
in Paul K.s band. I started playing with him and some other folks.
When I moved back to Chicago, I started teaching right off the bat.
I was playing with a band called Cross Cooks-guys I had known since
I was a freshman in high school-but then also, right away, I started
hooking up with some different musicians. Paul K. basically called
me right after that, and I started touring with him.
MD: Paul K. is a sort of dark singer-songwriter in the Leonard Cohen/Lou
Reed tradition, and he was based in Kentucky. You recorded two albums
with him, right?
Glenn: Yes, Now And At The Hour Of Our Death, Amen  and Love
Is A Gas , which was produced by Maureen Tucker. I was, at that
point, removed enough from music school that I could truly appreciate
The Velvet Underground. I don't think a lot of drummers-schooled drummers---can
appreciate Tucker's drumming in The Velvet Underground, or punk rock
in general. But sometimes that kind of simple, raw playing is just
what a song needs. And that kind of playing reaches me on an emotional
level more than a Mahavishnu Orchestra record or other chopsy kind
of thing. Also, I think that coming from an orchestral background,
where I had to count measures for fifteen minutes and then play five
or six tambourine notes, it's like, "This is a simple part, but
those notes were written for a reason, and they're "important."
If you look at the first Velvet Underground record, there may be just
a tambourine on one song, or a bass drum and a tambourine, but it's
the perfect part. I respect not over-playing-not letting the ego get
in the way-which, you know, is why all the old Muddy Waters or Bo
Diddley records are perfect. Levan Helm, too. It's because he's writing
the songs and singing them, so he knows, "This is here for a
reason; this is to make the song better." It's not like, "I
have to get my shots in while I can so people look at me."
MD: You've said Levon is one of your top three drumming heroes. Who
are the others?
Glenn: Moe Tucker, Levon, and of course, I think Bonham is just a
given. Also, John French [a.k.a. Drumbo] and Art Tripp [Ed Marimba],
who played with Captain Beefheart, and Kenny Buttrey, the Nashville
session guy who played on Neil Young's Harvest and Bob Dylan's John
Wesley Harding. It's just the simplest playing, but with little touches
and accents and stuff that blow my mind.
I was reading one of those little pocket books about the making of
Harvest when I was on tour, and on one song, Buttrey was sitting on
his right hand, no hi-hat allowed. Just little things like that-you
can do all this stuff, but you don't need to do all that stuff. You
can limit yourself. A lot of times, it's going to make the music come
MD: Did you and Moe Tucker talk about drumming?
Glenn: I learned tons of stuff, but it was more from observing. She's
pretty cool. She might have been a little skeptical of me at the time,
because I was fresh out of music school, and I was still overplaying
a bit on some things. She definitely took the reins and was like,
"No, you're not playing that anymore." She made me scratch
all my parts in one song and build it up again one instrument at a
time-"Just the bass drum. Okay, next track, just the snare drum.
Next track, cowbell"-thinking about it the way she would think
about it, which was really important.
MD: What did you do after Paul K.?
Glenn: Well, at the same time as Paul K., I played for a while with
[Chicago alternative country songwriter] Chris Mills. We recorded
his first seven-inch in my apartment. I'd been with Paul for like
three years, and then came Birddog [Bill Santen], a Portland-based
singer-songwriter from Kentucky. Paul K. produced the record, and
Elliot Smith plays on it. We toured with Elliot three or four times.
At the same time, I toured with [Brooklyn singer-songwriter] Edith
Frost, and I started getting really busy doing sessions with Jon Langford
[of The Mekons and The Waco Brothers] and [Chicago avantgarde musicians]
Charles Kim and Fred Lonberg-Holm. I was doing all the Truck Stop
Records sessions, too, like Simon Joyner and Lofty Pillars-just a
lot of indie stuff. And that was kind of the point when I was just
like, "I want to do my own thing," and I quit everything.
That's when I started the duo and the improv stuff with [guitarist
and producer] Jim O'Rourke.
MD: How did you hook up with O'Rourke?
Glenn: With Edith Frost, the last show we did was at Lounge Ax [in
Chicago]. He'd produced her first record, and he sat in. I think I
was using a metal sculpture and a two-piece drum kit, a snare and
a floor tom with the pedal underneath. I think he liked that I could
play quietly; I was playing with brushes most of the night. He asked
me for my number that night, and called me two months later. We recorded
some stuff on his Eureka record, which is when I met [bassist] Darin
Gray and [drummer] Tim Barnes. Those three kind of formed the basis
of my musical buddies for the next four years.
Jim was really important because he turned me on to so much new music.
Paul K. did that for me to a degree, too-everyone you play with turns
you on to new stuff-but especially Jim, and then through him, Darin
and Tim. They're walking encyclopedias.
Then I started a duo with Darin, On Fillmore. We recorded the first
[self-titled] album, and we have another record coming out. That's
pretty much my melodic outlet now. The new record is me just playing
vibes, no drums. Darin play bass, and we both use mini discs of field
recordings. We write everything together. Coincidentally, Darin has
known Jeff [Tweedy] since they were kids, but it was through Jim that
I met Jeff.
MD: You've also done two solo albums, Introducing and Next, and you're
working on a third. How do you look at those as opposed to what you
do in a band situation?
Glenn: Those are basically just my own experiments, and I honestly
only make one when I have a reason. There were things I wanted to
explore with the first one, things I wanted to explore with the second
one, and for me it was just like, "Well, I'm really into trying
to check out this idea, and I'm going to make a record of it. If I
like how it sounds I'll put it out," which is what's happening
with this new one also.
With the first solo album [Introducing], the whole idea was coincidental
rhythm, which is what I got from reading a lot of John Cage. To me,
it's just a more complex and elusive realm of polyrhythms. And since
the melodic elements were on vibes and crotales-both of which have
a great deal of sustain-they were included on the record as much for
the rhythmic qualities of the sustain and oscillations as for the
actual melodic content.
The second solo album [Next] is all complete "scuttle-prov";
that's a joke term from [Wilco guitarist] Nels Cline. The point of
that one was the same thing: just chance rhythms. That's when I prepared
the drumkit, so there were things all over the drums-chains, jingles,
rivets .... I built all the spring mallets to just take all of my
training out of the equation. That way, when you want to hit something,
you don't know how it will react. I just really wanted to explore
MD: You carry many of these avant-garde ideas into the more traditional
rock songs that Wilco plays, and you use a pretty elaborate setup
when you tour with the band. Tell us about that.
Glenn: It's a brand new custom-made Sonor kit in my junior high marching
band finish, sparkle green with the champagne band. I added a second
floor tom, so it's kick, snare, rack tom-which I kind of put more
in the middle-and the two floors, 14" and 16". I do a lot
of riding on the floor tom, so now I can mix it up between the two
drums when chords change and stuff like that.
I still have the drumKAT with the sampler and the drum brain, as well
as Zildjian hand-hammered cymbals, acoustic jazz cymbals that are
super dry so I can really beat them without taking over the band.
I tape contact mic's on all the drums, then I run them through some
effects to get distortion, because there are certain points in Yankee
Hotel Foxtrot where the drums kind of fuzz out and distort. I use
it on maybe a half dozen songs, where I kick on the volume pedal.
It's all going through a mixer. The drum pad is triggering some of
the timpani sounds from Summerteeth and the sound of my hand fans
scraping the piano strings, the floor tiles, the little shaker things,
and the hubcaps from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
MD: So a lot of the things you played acoustically on the albums you
now carry as electronic samples?
Glenn: Right. I used to play vibes on stage too, but now I'm just
touring with the crotales in the place of the hammer dulcimer and
the vibes. That was kind of the Yankee sound, and I wanted to try
different sounds. And I have that tray of percussion-little Latin
percussion things, noisemakers and shakers, and some homemade stuff,
too. Plus the prepared heads that I set on the floor toms, like on
"I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," to get that slappy sound.
MD: A lot has been written about the dramatic change in Wilco's sound
that happened when you joined the band for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It
moved away from alternative country and orchestral pop' toward much
stranger terrain. To what extent do you feel you've been responsible
for prodding Jeff Tweedy in new directions?
Glenn: Well, I guess the biggest impact would be on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,
but it was already starting to go that way, I think Jeff had it in
his mind already, and I was just able to facilitate it by bringing
a lot of that stuff to the table. That made it more evident-"Oh,
this is the right way to go"-or at least it gave him the confidence
to keep pursuing that direction and then let it expand into other
areas, layering more and more stuff, and focusing on the difference
MD: The making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was filmed by Sam Jones for
the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. Was the movie or
any of the band's subsequent success an intrusion into your life?
Glenn: No, but I also didn't fall for it. How much did I say in that
film? How much do you know about my personal life? And in the Wilco
book [Greg Kot's recent biography, Wilco: Learning How To Die], there's
one mention of my wife, Miiri. It gives history and stuff, but it
doesn't get into my personal life. I think Jeff has the problem with
that, because of his lyrics; people always want to know more about
him. With me, when I'm not on tour, I'm just the dude out there in
black socks and gym shoes raking in the backyard.
MD: Tweedy has said that he was going for more of a live band sound
on A Ghost Is Born. The band played the songs for quite some time,
taking them through several different incarnations, then recording
the final versions as a group.
Glenn: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was layers of sounds to get the landscapes
for the lyrics to sit in; the new one was all musicianship and just
trying to interact with the vocal and the other players. With Yankee
Hotel Foxtrot, I think we ended up playing those songs better live
than they were on the record, because maybe they just had a little
more energy. With the songs on A Ghost Is Born, I think they just
sound better as a six-piece live band, and the energy was there from
We played the songs on the album all together. There were no click
tracks, and I might have used headphones on only one or two songs.
To have everyone in the same room with Jeff singing through a little
amp in front of me and not worrying about click tracks and sequencers,
Pro Tools, and all that stuff-just playing like we do at the loft-was
the biggest difference between this record and the last one, trying
to capture that live energy we have when we play together. Jeff writes
the lyrics and it's his band.
But if he were that singular in his vision, it would be "The
Jeff Tweedy Band." There is something he gets out of sharing
that vision. There are definitely phases that are more collaborative
than others, but we definitely feed off of each other and influence
each other. We all really care about the songs and the music, and
he sees that and welcomes our vision.
MD: Quite a few players have come and gone through Wilco. How do you
feel about your relationship with Jeff and your position in the band?
Glenn: I feel really good about it. You know, if the band was going
to end, it would have ended at the beginning of this year, when Jeff
had to go get help. [Tweedy entered rehab for an addiction to painkillers.]
But the way things feel now-how healthy he is and how great everything
is going and the level of communication-l honestly don't see it ending.
Right now it's exciting. We all have similar directions we want to
pursue, and there's definitely a respect for each other as musicians
and people. I think there's a lot of music to be made with it. To
be honest, if Wilco did end today, I'd probably still end up playing
with Jeff in Loose Fur or a solo project.
MD: Loose Fur is the avant-garde collaboration with you, Tweedy, and
O'Rourke. You made one album, a self-titled disc in 2003. Is the project
Glenn: It is, though if you ask Jim, he'll probably say no. [laughs]
But we got together for a week last year and wrote an entire new album-it's
total prog, which is great. I'm much more excited about it than the
first one. It's written and ready to go. It's just a matter of when
we're going to record it. .....
|Photo by Gene Ambo