When he wasn't drumming for Wilco or rocking out with Jim O'Rourke and Jeff Tweedy in Loose Fur, Glenn Kotche continued to follow his rhythms by recording an album of solo percussion music.
Glenn Kotche wears wristbands with pictures of crickets on them, even when he's not drumming. If he were a superhero, this implies, Kotche's superpower would have something to do with the ability to stridulate highly fractalized rhythms. As it is, the 35-year old drummer comes awfully close.
Kotche is tall, lean, and immensely likeable. He speaks quickly, with the faintest trace of a Chicago accent. When he drums--as he does for Wilco, Loose Fur, On Fillmore, with Tim Barnes, by himself, and as a guest with countless other acts--he looks incredibly happy. In the liner notes for his latest solo album, Mobile, released by Nonesuch Records in March, he gives it up for rhythmatists Tony Allen, Ed Blackwell, Steve Reich, and Max Neuhaus.
He ups the drum-geek level further by shouting it out to Nonesuch's fabled Explorer Series. His "Monkey Chant for Solo Drum Kit" recasts the Indonesian shadow theater piece for an electro-acoustic percussion set-up. Behind Kotche's prepared drums, cheap speakered cricket boxes from Chinatown chirp in unison, mimicking the natural sounds of the original Nonesuch field recordings.
"They're light activated," he says of the boxes. "When the light hits (the chip), it makes a little repetitive chirp. It's just a little rhythm. I was obsessed with them. The rhythms that it made were cool, but when you put two together, and then ten together, and all the different rhythms and how they go in and out of phase with each other...I love that.:"
If Glenn Kotche were a superhero, clearly, the crickets would be his minions.
When Jim O'Rourke first saw Kotche play, with singer-songwriter Edith Frost at a club in their native Chicago, Kotche was using a minimal kit with what, to O'Rourke, "looked like a giant metal bong." ("It really goed to show how much I know about what bongs look like," he's quick to point out, "so I should say I thought it looked like a giant metal bong")
Kotche himself describes his set-up on the night in question as "a metal sculpture." Either way, it would change the course of Kotche's life, which then, as now, revolved around the drums.
"I've identified myself as a drummer since I was three," he says. "My older sister gave me a toy drum. I remember one day, just putting the sticks through the head--whatever, you're a three-year old--and being like, 'oh, I can't play this anymore!' and being completely heartbroken, but from that moment on, saying, 'no, I am a drummer."
Not long after, on a family trip to Wisconsin, Kotche discovered a cassette with a picture of some drums on the front cover. "I'm a drummer, too!" he thought, and lobbied for the purchase of the Gene Krupa tape. "We got it," Kotche remembers, "and it turned out to be by the guy who invented the drum solo, and he was from Chicago, had the same initials (as me), so I thought 'this guy's cool!'"
Kotche started studying drums formally in junior high. There was high school marching band, and--after that--the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps, where Kotche rehearsed for eight hours a day, and toured, sleeping on gym floors and subsisting on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. "Boot camp," is how he later described it. And there was the University of Kentucky percussion program, where he was made to play marimba, timpani, steel drums, vibraphone, and other instruments.
After graduation, Kotche joined local favorites Paul K and the Weathermen. In 1997, they recorded Love is a Gas for Alias Records with former Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker in the producer's chair. "I was able to double drum with her," Kotche remembers. "She had the floor torn and the bass drum and the mallets, doing the whole 'Sister Ray' beat. At that point, coming from college, I was pretty notey, pretty trained, and that was the best thing in the world: to see this drummer, this woman, who beat the shit out of the drums.
"She didn't have the same technical facility, but she was ten times the drummer I was ever gonna be, just because of her musical sense. It taught me that there's a lot more to drumming than hands and chops and technique. I had an emotional response to her drumming that was a lot more than most fusion drummers I'd heard. That was a big lesson for me to put all my training into perspective, telling me to open up my ears and listen to the music first."
Kotche also borrowed what he calls "the cocktail pedal" idea from her: eliminate the kick drum and mount a pedal to the bottom of the floor tom. Relocating home to Chicago, it came in handy. In between giving lessons to drum students, Kotche lugged his now-minimalized gear across town, playing with local indie-folkers Birddog, Chris Mills, Simon Joyner, Michael Krassner, Edith Frost, and others.
"We'd have a bass amplifier, a guitar amp, those instruments, three people," Kotche says of his first touring experiences, and the subsequent necessity for invention. "(We were) doing a lot of rental cars, or touring in my Escort. Not much room for a kit. I'd use the cocktail kit: a snare drum, a hi-hat, maybe a cymbal. I'd have to be creative in other ways.
Between gigs, Kotche tinkered in his basement workshop. "Instead of having all sorts of drums and cymbals, I'd have to come up with all sorts of different mallets and sticks and little percussion devices that I could prepare the drums with to come with different sounds."
By the time O'Rourke discovered him, Kotche "was using some marimba technique, stuff from my training that I'd previously rejected because I just wanted to play drum set. I ended up accepting it, but instead of using it in the context that I learned it, I started to use the ideas more for me, for these things I wanted to do on the drum set."
O'Rourke--who produced Frost's latest--sat in that night, providing "tast licks." "(Glenn) was using brushes, and he had dynamics," O'Rourke recalls, "all which made him immediately appealing. Drummers and dynamics rarely mix. But most importantly, he was playing the song, not playing drums, and that is what really knocked me out. He was stupendous, the best drummer I'd ever played with." O'Rourke made sure to get his number.
A few months later, O'Rourke called, and kept calling. "He's been absolutely key in everything great that's happened to me musically," Kotche says, simply. When O'Rourke began recording the meticulous, dramatic pop orchestrations that became 1999's Eureka, Kotche was there. Musically, the two were made for each other.
O'Rourke points to the recording of "Get a Room," from 2001's near-perfect Insignificance. "I could say to Glenn, 'you know, one bar into the second verse, drop the first quarter-beat from the second measure, then shift the whole rest of the next eight bars forward an eight.' This is not bull, I really said this to him, and he looked a second at his part, nodded his head, and went, 'okay.' and we played it. It was right and it was music, and I swear we got it first take."
Also recording with O'Rourke were fellow drummer Tim Barnes and bassist Darin Gray. All clicked. Kotche has since recorded two duet records with Barnes, 2000's vinyl-only Domo Domo (Quakebasket) and 2002's 100-edition handmade The Fern Energies (Cubic Music), and two with Gray as On Fillmore, 2002's On Fillmore (Locust, with the three-part "Cave Crickets" suite) and 2004's Sleeps With Fishes (Quakebasket).
"Glenn is one of the most prepared musicians I have worked with," Gray says. "He always has mountains of notes, minidiscs, CD-R's (and) drawings that pertain to the session and project at hand."
Simultaneously, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy happened to fall in love with O'Rourke's Bad Timing while driving around his neighborhood late at night. He asked O'Rourke to collaborate for a one-off gig at the 2000 edition of Chicago's Noise Pop festival, and O'Rourke brought Kotche along. Billed as Loose Fur, the trio wrote, recorded, and performed six new songs.
Seven months later, in December 2000, Kotche and his wife went to see Tweedy perform solo at Chicago's Abbey Pub. And hour before the show, Kotche was summoned to play. The two went back to Wilco's recording loft, and gathered what they could. "This is Glenn," Tweedy said when the lights came up. "He wanted to be on the guest list, and he had to pay for it."
"I played this whole show...with a drummer who theoretically didn't know any of the material," Tweedy later explained to writer Greg Kot, "and it felt more fluid and exciting than 90 percent of the shows I'd done in the last three or four years. That was too much information to ignore."
A month later, Kotche was in Wilco, reporting for work on the same day as the camera crew that would document the tumultuous creation of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The first song Kotche recorded was "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." An earnestly strummed three-chord confessional with no real chorus, it was partially at issue in the dismissal of former Wilco skinsman Ken Coomer. An early demo that circulates shows why: it doesn't gel, the drumms plodding monotonously behind Tweedy.
"There's like, five verses in a row," Kotche says, explaining the song's srchitecture. "Harmonically, the bass and the other guitarist can't do too much, 'cause it's only three chords. The lyrics are pretty abstract. It's about the sounds of the words. It's pretty much up to the drums to provide the scene changes. What originally happened was that we knew it needed it something else.
"I was listening to 'Flowers of Romance,' by Public Image Ltd., and Martin Atkins' drum parts on that, which are just incredible, all sloppy and disjointed. I ran back to the drums and started playing some patterns and Jeff was like, 'that, don't change that.'" ("That" happened to be played on a hubcap, with an upside down head on the floor tom, y'know, "to get that slappy sound.") A "regular" drum part was recorded, too.
Much later, O'Rourke was called in to mix. "That's kind of when we set up the sequence," Kotche remembers. "It was a huge learning experience for me, because it goes from this crazy, disjunct, chaotic thing, and slowly brings it into tighter focus where everything backs out and it's just the vocals, and it's the most poignant part of the song. After that, (Jim's) gospel piano comes in, and then the drumbeat kicks in, and that's when everything hits focus with me. Then it disintegrates and everything goes back into chaos.
"That was a huge lesson for me," he continues, "not only in how to develop a song, and let a song evolve, and let a mix evolve, but also how the drums can play a role other than keeping the beat. There's a lot of stuff you can do with the drums that I didn't really conceive of before. That was huge for me."
"I remember a shift in Glenn that happened just after he joined Wilco and was able to focus on music full time," Gray says. "He did not rest for a moment. And I think some would have. I went to his house shortly thereafter and the entire basement was just completely full of these Glennventions! You couldn't even walk down there. He was just exploding with creativity. A complete mad scientist: metal, wood, springs, gadgets, plastics, everywhere."
In each of these bands and projects, Kotche is the secret weapon. Nobody ever suspects tht cricket.
More than Wilco, even, Glenn Kotche belongs on Nonesuch Records. Included in a catalogue alongside the New York minimalists, John Zorn, Caetano Veloso, George Crumb, and Kotche's beloved Explorer series, Mobile is a concept album in the loftiest, most esoteric sense of the word.
"The only reason I make solo records is because I'm obsessed with rhythm and I have all these different ideas and concepts that I want to explore," Kotche says. "A lot of them are a little more abstract and wouldn't be right for me to explore within the context of Wilco, where I'm part of an ensemble and there are lyrics that are a focus. These are things I choose to do on my own."
On 2002's Next (Locust), his second solo recording, Kotche explored "random rhythm": "I prepared the drum set," he says. "I built all sorts of mallets with springs on them, to take my training out of the equation, so it would just be a purely random, improvised record." He didn't think it required much explanation, so he didn't, nor did he name the tracks.
Mobile is different. "Throughout the record I investigate the idea of negative or opposite rhythm by utilizing the intrinsic spaces--or rests--of rhythms," Kotche writes in the CD booklet. (Mobile really is an album best appreciated with sleeve notes).
"Stylistically, it's all over the place, on the surface," he explains, "where there are these things unifying it that give it this cohesion underneath. Those things were really imprtant. (They're) the reason why I made the record. That's the reason why I did the really exhaustive liner notes. It's not about melody, it's not about harmony or formal structure, or ethnic music, it's about this. It's about rhythm."
As during his days as a drummer-about-town, Kotche's work still grows from necessity. The basis for the three-part title track was composed on thumb piano in Kotche's hotel room--where, presumably, nothing too loud was allowed--while in New York recording Wilco's A Ghost is Born.
Besides Mobile, he appears on four other records this season: the Fred Lonberg-Holm Quartet's Bridges Freeze Before Roads (an atmospheric group improv recorded just after Kotche joined Wilco), Minus 5's The Gun Album (featuring leftovers from the alt-rock supergroup's collaboration with Wilco), Sean Watkins' Blinders On (Kotche lending perfect support to three tracks of Watkins' modern folk-rock), and Loose Fur's Born Again in the USA (a convolutedly collaborative return from Messrs. Tweedy, O'Rourke, and Kotche, and the Drag City label).
There are Wilco tours and sessions, not to mention solo gigs, drum clinics, and press trips like this one to Nonesuch's Manhattan headquarters, high over Sixth Avenue. Kotche is quite looking forward to some time off this summer when he can relax and...take on more drum students.
"(Drumming has been) so codified for me my whole life, just seeing people with a raw approach and less training is a great learning experience," he says. "I thave to explain a lot of stuff that's innate to me, and having to put it into words and think about it and formulate an answer makes me better understand it."
In many ways, his gear, whether playing solo or with Wilco, is a collection of these necessity-borne understandings: there's the easily luggable cocktail pedal (picked up from Moe Tucker), a stomp box for Wilco ("if Jeff and Nels Cline get to use distortion, why can't I?"), any number of his so-called "Glenn-ventions" (such as sticks topped with shotgun-shot filled ping-pong balls), and lots of contact microphones. "(They're) acting as a microscope, basically, of sound, bringing these small, interesting sounds up to the level where they can compete with the drums."
Ultimately, what all these things have in common has nothing to do with Wilco's skronk-infused Americana. Jim O'Rourke's intricate pop compositions, Nonesuch Explorer's gameplan, Fred Lonberg-Holm's free jazz, or On Fillmore's lush conceptual suites. They are all born of the concerns of being a working musician, a drummer. Like a cricket fiddling, that's all Glenn Kotche has ever known.