[Photo by MICHAEL WILSON]
BY DAVE ALLEN Like many of rock’s greatest drummers, Glenn Kotche does more than keep a beat. His playing with Wilco is earthy and grounded, but still with an experimental aura about it (see “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” from YHF for a prime example). In his other ventures as a soloist and member of the wild-and-woolly groups On Fillmore and Loose Fur, he shows a different side, frequently making listeners question what four limbs are capable of doing. One of his newest partnerships, with the New York-based composers collective Bang on a Can , has yielded a large-scale commissioned piece, “Snap,” a tour with BoaC’s hand-selected All-Stars group, and several arrangements of spacey but propulsive charts from his 2006 studio record, “Mobile.” In advance of this Saturday’s gig at the Kimmel Center, Kotche spun a few tales about the pros and cons of conservatory training, splitting time between the rock and avant-garde worlds, and his latest recording as part of a multi-national supergroup.
PHAWKER: What’s it like working with Bang on a Can All-Stars, and how does it differ from a more rock-oriented outfit?
GLENN KOTCHE: Compared to a straight-up rock and roll band – not Wilco, though – I’d say they’re far more adventurous. They take more chances than your normal rock band. It’s safe to say they rock hard, and they have really high-energy shows. They’re got it all going on: there’s great chemistry in the group, and they’re all really down to earth and cool. It’s not much of a leap to be in the studio with Wilco all this week and then playing a show with Bang on a Can this Saturday.
PHAWKER:It’s interesting, too, because they already have their own drummer/percussionist, David Cossin. How have you been able to meld with him on these Reich pieces?
GLENN KOTCHE: Well, it was my friendship with him that lead to their attention, I think. We befriended each other many years ago, and last year, I took part in his music residency in Southern Italy. He’s a great friend and player, so we did a couple of shows together and worked on arrangement two of the Steve Reich pieces we’re doing on Saturday – my arrangement of Clapping Music, and his arrangement of Music for Pieces of Wood. I also arranged the title track of my last album, “Mobile,” for them to play. I’ve always loved double drumming, especially because percussion is such a large family of instruments. He’s got great feel and keeps great time, and we blend together really well.
PHAWKER:When were you first exposed to the music of Steve Reich? What’s been its biggest impact on you?
GLENN KOTCHE: I think it was when I was in college for music. Since Wilco signed with Nonesuch, he’s been our labelmate there, so I’ve been getting access to some of his recordings where he’s writing for percussion instruments. I think I found we have similar interests, especially because so much of his music is derived from African drumming, which I studied in college, and in music of other indigenous cultures from all over. It’s just something I was drawn to, and it led me to different composers and influences, like the guys from Bang on a Can, Terry Riley, who was kind of a precursor to Steve Reich, and John Luther Adams.
PHAWKER:To you, what’s the difference between conservatory training and rock-and-roll “chops”?
GLENN KOTCHE: In a conservatory, the focus is going to be on the classical music side, which is not drum set. It’ll be marimba, timpani, maybe some jazz vibes, and it’s training you in different instrument sets, rather than drum set – which I’m trying to change a little bit. On the technical side, they’re asking you to do different things and the percussionist isn’t really the focus – they’re more of a color-ist – as opposed to drumset, which comes from the tradition of rock, jazz, blues and country where you keep time as an accompanying instrument. So I’ve tried to take that coloristic side of percussion and combine it with the rock drummer role in Wilco. A lot of things I was using on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot were instruments you don’t usually hear in a rock band, like crotales, plus found stuff – hubcaps, ceramic floor tiles, pieces of metal. It’s more like the avant-garde of the last century – John Cage was doing it in the 1930’s and ’40s – in the role of percussionist, not just time keeping.
PHAWKER:You’ve worked with another musician that I really like and admire – Andrew Bird – who also kind of straddles the line between songwriting and composing. How did you meet him, and what kind of feeling do you get from his music?
GLENN KOTCHE: I don’t remember exactly when we met – I think it was at John McIntyre’s studio – but his band and Wilco were playing some festivals in Europe. I remember speaking with him and loving what he was doing. He’s a really intelligent musician who’s doing something really different. It turned out we had similar interests, and I thought he might have come from a classical background, which he did, and he’s interested in ethnic music, like African and Indonesian. He’s really a complete musician. When he came on tour with Wilco, I really enjoyed it. He was always great, whether it was solo or with his band.
He knew he wanted to do an instrumental complement to his new record, so he asked me and Todd [Sickafoose] to record some stuff on that. He was recording in the Wilco space, so I came in and set up a few things, and then we played. He was very open to trying different things, and it was very relaxed and experimental. We laid down a couple of parts and then left it up to him to sift through it and edit it.
PHAWKER: What is the difference in your approach on a solo record of your composition versus a Wilco record, or a Loose Fur record?
GLENN KOTCHE: If it’s just me, it’s about realizing a composition. It’s something I’ve written, and usually it’s written as a means to explore an idea that I’m curious about. The genesis, or the seed, of it is “What would happen if…?” or “What would it sound like if…?”, and to figure that out, I’ll create pieces and explore them. All the responsibility is on you, and it’s a lot of fun. It involves a degree of control that you don’t ordinarily have.
In a band, you’re a piece of the ensemble, a piece of a puzzle. It’s a team effort, and the focus isn’t on you all the time. In Wilco, I think the most important part should be Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics, and that the music should support that. Sometimes that means being busy and chaotic, and sometimes it means being simple. It’s the same thing with my other different groups, though the ratio is different. In On Fillmore, it’s a duo, so there’s a lot more responsibility. In Wilco, working with a four-piece band is different from working with a six-piece: there’s more space for all the ideas that are going on. And Loose Fur, that’s a different incarnation, too.
For me, I definitely have that hermetic side as well as that social side as a percussionist. I get to play in a rock band, and I compose and make solo records. I’m playing with other musicians and by myself. I did just one or the other, I wouldn’t be fully happy.
PHAWKER: Which is harder: writing for yourself, or writing for other people? Are you more self-critical in one mode than other?
GLENN KOTCHE: Writing for other people has a different set of conditions than if you write for yourself. If it’s for me and I don’t like it, I can trash it and no one has to hear it. Writing for some of these groups, like Bang On a Can or Kronos, they’ve worked with a Who’s Who of important composers of the last 50 years. They’ve worked with everyone, so inevitably, there’s a bit of pressure. You definitely want to do quality work, so you have the responsibility of thinking it through. You don’t want to hand them something that’s not complete and hope that it’s okay. You have to give them a finished piece of music – they can’t just spend two weeks hashing something out.
PHAWKER: You were immersed in Stax Records stuff and soul music when you wrote “Snap.” What are you listening to now?
GLENN KOTCHE: Oh man, this is a horrible time to ask me that. I’ve been in the studio every single day with Wilco for the last two weeks, so all day long I’m listening to the new Wilco. I just got back from a month in New Zealand. Four of us [from Wilco] were doing a charity record with Neil Finn from Crowded House, plus Johnny Marr, Ed and Phil from Radiohead, KT Tunstall, and a great group of New Zealand rock stars. We were in the studio for three weeks, recorded 20 songs, and then did some shows. It was an incredible experience, really cool and relaxed. Everyone collaborated of everyone else’s pieces. That album’s coming out early, maybe April or May, before hte new Wilco record. Also, I’m writing an essay for a book on John Luther Adams – it’s in the early stages – so I’ve been listening to a tremendous amount of his music lately. I wish I could there was some hot young band that everyone should hear.
PHAWKER: Could you ever see yourself doing a percussion concerto with a symphony orchestra? Who would you want to write one for you?
GLENN KOTCHE: Well, I’m kind of trying out one project at a time, but I’ve discussed with some composers commissioning a new work for solo drum set. It’s not just a time-keeping, accompanying instrument. I want to try to expand the repertoire, and there are certainly composers writing for drum set – not just drummers. Right now, I have a notebook full of stuff and I have a ton of ideas. For something like that, I think I’d want to write it for myself. I want to explore the area of solo drum set, and I was kind of hoping to see the piece I wrote for Kronos expanded upon, because I was very careful not to overwhelm them. There are a couple of sections I’ll flesh out with full instrumentation. Give me about 10 years for that, though.