Wilcos Glenn Kotche Remains Mobile
It’s a cloudy, Friday morning in central Manhattan. On a skyscraper level floor of the hi-tech, hi-security, office building which houses Nonesuch records, and its parent company Warner, Glenn Kotche is holding court in a small corner office. Below, a line of Matchbox-like cars honk and brake, hopelessly trying to escape New York’s midtown jungle. But, in his temporary office, Kotche speaks in a relaxed whisper. After all, along with Jeff Tweedy, the drummer is the eye of Wilco’s musical storm.
In town as part of a press junket for his new solo album, Mobile, Kotche has made the most of his New York vacation. After finishing up a round of Friday afternoon interviews, Kotche plans to accompany a number Nonesuch employees to see label mates Kronos Quartet at Carnegie Hall. A week earlier, he performed a solo, percussion gig at the Avalon, a onetime church which now houses a rock club-come trendy dancehall (oddly enough the club was raided and shut down the evening of Kotche’s performance due to city violations).
Dressed in the hipster uniform of a knit wool sweater and expensive pants, Kotche looks like a radio geek who’d cringe to hear the words Wilco and Jambands.com uttered in the same phrase. But, instead, he speaks with the clarity and calm composure of a downtown, New York jazz musician, a role which in actuality suits him quite well. While Wilco has brought Kotche national fame, the drummer has spent the majority of his career among the avant garde and underground, recording on over 70 with everyone from Jim O’Rourke to the Fred Lonberg-Holm Quartet to the Minus 5. In the past six months, he’s released three very different albums: the Jammy-nominated live Kicking Television with Wilco, the garage-rock romp Born Again in the USA with Loose Fur and the percussion orgy Mobile under his own name. Indeed, Glenn Kotche Remains mobile.
MG- Between tours with Wilco and recording sessions with Loose Fur, when did you find time to compose an entire album of new material?
GK- I wrote it over a course of a year or maybe even a little longer. It’s very different than my two previous solo albums, one of which was written in the studio and the other which was improvised live. I started working on this album during the recording sessions for A Ghost is Born. But, since Wilco was touring so much, I’d work on it while we were on the road. Instead of going out after a show, I’d go back to the hotel and write.
MG- What initially sparked the idea for Mobile?
GK- I was in a hotel while we were recording A Ghost is Born and I can’t play drums in a hotel. So, I had this little piano and I would fuck around with these little melodies. I would loop some melodies together and think, “Hay, this would go better on drums.”
I would think about all the different relationships between these little lines or invert certain bits. The last song on Mobile was written direct to percussion. Even though I will occasionally write on the piano or vibraphone, all my writing is very rhythmic. That’s why I write, to answer rhythmic questions. With Wilco, I am part of an ensemble and have certain responsibilities. I am not going to go on my flights of fancy all the time. People don’t realize it, but the piano is actually a percussion instrument, it’s a hammer hitting the strings. There are so many sounds in the percussion family, like the hammered dulcimer.
MG- The hammered dulcimer has always fascinated me. When did you first start playing that instrument?
GK- Jeff Tweedy actually got it for Wilco while we were making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. We started using it on some the record’s ballads. I needed it for some of those melodic lines. So, its on the record more than people think. I loved the sound.
MG- Mobile opens with “Clapping Music Variations,” a reworking of a Steve Reich tune. Can you talk a bit about adapting that song?
GK- It was originally a piece for two hand clappers and I used that as a jumping off point, with all these different melodies. I love Steve’s music—-I’ve always loved his music. In college, I was exposed to more of his middle period work. When Wilco signed to Nonesuch I was able to get access to some of his back catalogue. Some of his longer pieces are some of the most original materials I’ve heard in years
It was written for 12 people, but I play it all myself on the record because we didn’t have the resources to bring in a whole orchestra. So, I multi-tracked it and pieced it all together. Last year, the New England Percussion Ensemble played “Clapping Music Variations.” So far it’s the only track I’ve had time to expand for a percussion ensemble, but “Mobile Parts 1, 2 and 3” I hope to expand at some point. Hopefully, this music can be played live by all variations of percussion orchestras.
MG- “The Monkey Chant” is based on an ancient Hindu hymn. Were you inspired by the poem’s religious themes?
GK- Not particularly its religious themes. I was drawn to that track by its music. I heard the original “Monkey Chant” which was written in the 1600s and knew I had to record it. There was no music, its just singing, screeching and all these sound. But the power blew me away. I knew I couldn’t just go up there and play a drum solo. So, I researched its back-story, which is part of a sacred Hindu epic. But, “The Monkey Chant” was created for tourist purposes, so even though its sacred text I figured it would be appropriate to reinterpret that. Each sound plays a different character. So there is an actually narrative casting to the whole thing. That’s how I can play it from night to night and still feel its emotions. It’s not just be showing off on my instrument—-there is a story behind it. It translates a lot better live than I expected. The story is still intact, but it’s been expanded by 5 or 7 minutes, where I go deeper into some of those battle scenes.
MG- Even though Wilco is primarily a song-based band, your side-projects have a pronounced emphasis on improvisation.
GK- I do a lot of free improvising. I do several shows a year where I will gather several musicians I’ve never played with before. We will just feel each other out and get a good vibe. I was doing that alot before I joined Wilco. Nels Cline does the same thing. It is kind of an off-shoot of jazz, where there are no tunes, no scales, just sound. That’s what I love about Wilco, all the different influences which come into play. John [Stirratt] and Pat [Sansone] come from a much more traditional pop background. Just beautiful, 70s sun baked pop. In think, recently, with the live show you can hear a bunch of those different influences coming into play.
MG- Recently, you opened for a very different Chicago band, Umphrey’s McGee, in St. Louis and Indianapolis. When did you first hear about Umphrey’s?
GK- I saw them about five years ago in Chicago. They played this Miles Davis Bitches Brew song and I was like, “these guys can play.” I love their sound, they are great musicians who can play. I also love that their influences are stylistically all over the board. I ran into them not to long ago and we talked about playing some shows together. I opened for them two times and sat in on cowbell on “Don’t Fear the Reaper” [laughs] We’d definitely like to do some more shows with them. We are going to be playing Summer Camp together so maybe something will happen there.
MG- Are you surprised that the jamband scene has so fully embraced Wilco?
GK- I have to say that in my experience the jamband crowd, for lack of a better word, and its fans are pretty much the most open-minded musically of any crowd. Wilco played the H.O.R.D.E. before I even joined the band. We’ve played Wakarusa, Langerado and Bonnaroo. Back in the 1960s, the jamband crowd accepted Miles Davis and now Medeski, Martin and Wood and Afrobeat music. If it’s good music they accept it.
MG- What is the status of Wilco’s next studio project?
GK- Well, we are starting a tour the day after Easter and then we are going to record in May and then tour in July and are playing Lollapalooza in August. It’s a constant mix of recording and touring, recording and touring. We have around 18 new songs. Not all of them are complete, but the ideas are there. We aren’t at the stage of choosing producers yet, but I have a feeling Jim O’Rourke will be involved.
MG- Having been involved in over 70 recordings sessions, do you have a favorite studio experience?
GK- I loved making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and working with Jim has always been amazing. I have learned so much from watching him. He always challenges me. The quality of the music he makesI’m inspired by what he has done with his own career and he has really been a model for me. He is able to sustain a career in everything from more experimental music to song based projects to Sonic Youth. Loose Fur is pretty music…just a great, fun side-project we both play in.
MG- Wilco is nominated for its first Jammy this year in the Live Album of the Year category. If you were to perform next year, who would you most like to be paired with?
GK- Oh wow. Well, Jake [Cinninger] was actually just telling us that he got to play with Huey Lewis, Phil and members of Zappa’s band. So, I guess I’d like to do a little drum bit with Levon [Helm]. At the Newport Folk festival we played with Garth Hudson that was amazing.
Mike Greenhaus hasn’t slept since 1997. You can catch up with his nocturnal reflections at http://www.greenhauseffect.com.