GLENN KOTCHE: MORE THAN JUST WILCO

Words by Nicholas Smith :: Images by Christopher Kontoes

Glenn Kotche :: 04.01.06 :: Paradise Rock Club :: Boston, MA


Glenn Kotche :: 04.01
When was the last time you saw one guy sit behind a drum set onstage with no accompanying band, play six equally complex compositions full of unique sounds over the course of an hour and a half, and mesmerize the entire audience to the point of people standing around gawking, staring, jaws-dropped, scratching their heads, fixated on the drummer's every move, trying to figure out how the hell that one guy was making an orchestra of sound? Never? Yeah, I would have said the same until Glenn Kotche's recent set at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston. In short, the man is awesome, and even though he has only two arms and two legs, he makes music that sounds like an army of drummers.

Glenn Kotche is best known as the drummer for the rock band Wilco. Since Kotche joined the band in 2001, Wilco has released two albums, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, both of which have been celebrated as monumental rock albums by critics and fans alike - the first, a gold record seller, and the second, a winner of two Grammy awards in 2004. Kotche's other projects include Loose Fur, an experimental rock trio with Wilco lead-man Jeff Tweedy and Jim O'Rourke, as well as On Fillmore, a duo collaboration with bassist Darrin Gray.


Glenn Kotche :: 04.01
The celebration and promotion of his third solo album, Mobile, released by Nonesuch Records late last month, found Kotche on the Paradise stage, blowing away the small audience (under 100 people) of the Commonwealth Avenue bar where you can hear the score of the Red Sox game echoing one street over from the mouths of the announcers themselves. The album is an eight-song collection that explores Kotche's drumming repertoire. The songs are sparse and controlled and rarely resemble a fast-paced squeeze-as-many-beats-into-a-measure sound. The best song on Mobile, the three-piece title track, utilizes a dense layering effect that introduces simple beats in the beginning, then grows into big room-filling atmospheric orchestration, and retracts in the end to the simple structured beats. The six songs Kotche played at the Paradise all came from the album.

Kotche was humble and seemingly unaware of the kind of baffled reaction he was eliciting from the audience. He gave a brief explanation before playing each song like a singer-songwriter does, describing the different idiosyncrasies of each piece, but he never sang. He beat on the drum heads with regular drumsticks and soft mallet heads with a careful precision, always focused on the rhythms, which seemed to multiply and contort themselves dramatically with each measure. At times, he pulled long metal strings from the snare drum sitting between his legs, holding the strings high above his head and smiling a little bit, recognizing how interesting and odd the sound of those strings were. He had a xylophone to his left, a collection of twenty-or-so small cymbals that sat directly above the chiming keys of the xylophone, a few cow bells to his right, and a relatively small assortment of regular drums and cymbals, no more than five of each.

He ended the show with a quick "Thanks" and went on his way. In a phone conversation, Kotche discussed some of the more intricate details of the drumming compositions, which can only be explained by the maestro himself, as well as his career with Wilco.

 
I'm pretty much rhythm obsessed, ya know, and I'm always thinking about different ideas about rhythm and drumming. Some of these ideas are not really appropriate to explore within Wilco because I'm part of a band and there are lyrics happening and I think my chief responsibility within Wilco is always to do something with the lyrics whether I'm supporting them or contrasting them or illustrating them or obscuring them.

-Glenn Kotche

 

JamBase: Your solo drum set is different from your Wilco set. Can you talk a little about the differences?

Kotche: Well, with my solo music in general, I am dealing with more complicated rhythmic ideas and rhythm concepts. I'm pretty much rhythm obsessed, ya know, and I'm always thinking about different ideas about rhythm and drumming. Some of these ideas are not really appropriate to explore within Wilco because I'm part of a band and there are lyrics happening and I think my chief responsibility within Wilco is always to do something with the lyrics whether I'm supporting them or contrasting them or illustrating them or obscuring them. These rhythm concepts I explore on my own, and really why I make the solo records at all, is so I can explore these other rhythms and grow as a drummer and a musician and hopefully as a person eventually. That's why the set-ups are different because my solo set caters more towards that more rhythmically focused music. The solo set-up that you saw was designed specifically around the "Monkey Chant" and "Mobile: Parts 1, 2, 3" and other compositions... a mix of melodic percussion and drums, but I keep it a little smaller because I'm in a car and not on a tour bus with my solo stuff. In the Wilco set-up, I play a lot harder and a lot more aggressive, so it's more of a proper drum kit to suit the music better. The sounds are just different.

JamBase: What are those strings that you were pulling out of your snare drum and the tube that you were blowing into (see picture)?


Glenn Kotche :: 04.01
Kotche: I have various strings, long strings, short strings, fishing lines, wires, fishing lines with sticks attached to them. All these things are attached to the snare drum and are actually going through the drum hat, so I can play the drum and use these other things. When I put wax and rosin on the strings, I can pull the strings through the drum hat and they make all those sounds, which actually is very similar to or emulates some classical percussion instruments. So I get all these different sound possibilities out of the drum besides just being able to hit it. And the drum acts as a resonator when I pull the strings through it. The "Monkey Chant" was the primary song for the strings. The strings act as expressions of different characters in the piece. For example, the strings and the high-hat cymbals together are a combination that emulates a conversation between two characters in the Monkey Chant story. So I'm not just making those sounds because they sound cool, even though I think they're really cool. They have a purpose.

The tube is something entirely different. That's something you get at a hardware store - clear plastic tubing. All drums have a vent hole in them, so I put the tube in the vent hole of the drum, blow into it, and that changes the air pressure in the drum, which raises the pitch of the drum, like a timpani effect. Then when I stop blowing into the hose, it lowers the pitch once the air is released.

JamBase: What exactly is the story behind the "Monkey Chant"?


Glenn Kotche :: 04.01
Kotche: My version of the "Monkey Chant" is a loose re-telling of the Monkey Chant story through percussion. The original Monkey Chant is a Balinese method of performance art created in the 1930's by a German guy and a couple Balinese people. Half of it is taken from a trance dance of exorcism set to the story of the Ramayana. Almost all of the arts in Bali are set to this sacred text called the Ramayana. They came up with it to appeal to European tourists that were coming to the island in the 1930's. Anywhere from 60 to a couple hundred men would perform the chant, and they would sit in these concentric circles and chant and dance, using their upper bodies around a small group of four or five main characters who are singing and crying and making all these sound effects as they act out the story. Every night in Bali, each temple has their own performance group of this piece, so there are different variations depending on the temple. And there are several different recordings. The first recording I heard was put out by the Explorer Series on Nonesuch records. The recordings of these are amazing. There are no instruments. It's just people chanting and screaming and yelling and singing.

JamBase: I was amazed at how much sound was coming from one guy sitting behind a drum set. How much are electronics a part of your performance?


Glenn Kotche :: 04.01
Kotche: I'm not using any samplers. It's mainly all electronic manipulating of the sound to enhance the sound. On some of the tunes, I'm using a mini-disc player. I do that in the song "Mobile," the title track from the record. That's written for about ten percussionists. I recorded it all by myself on the record and multi-tracked it, because I have the resources and the players and the instruments to do it all in the studio. When I do that particular tune live, I play some of the parts with the mini-disc because I can't pull it off by myself on stage. So there aren't exactly electronics going on, but I do play a few tunes with the mini disc. I also use contact mics on the drum sets, so some of the sounds that might seem like they're electronic are acoustic sounds that are being amplified to the point that you can really hear them up close.

JamBase: Reading your bio, it says you played on over 70 recordings with a similar number of bands before Wilco. I get the impression that you didn't like to stay in one place for too long, with one group of musicians for too long, and then came Wilco, which you've stayed with for over five years. It seems like you've found a home in Wilco.

Kotche: That was a conscious decision before joining Wilco. I was playing with a lot of different people around the Chicago area. I was playing with as many musicians as a kind of, ya know, just trying to make ends meet thing - a lot of singer-songwriters and a lot of different bands, and I was interested in the diversity and I really enjoyed playing all those different kinds of music. But eventually that wore me down, and I started to get burnt out and it wasn't all that fulfilling. And about a year before I joined Wilco, I quit all that stuff. Loose Fur started around that time, and that's when I met Jeff Tweedy. Within a year, I was asked to join Wilco and I've been with Wilco since. For a while I've made an attempt to stay within these four solid, on-going projects and see how they develop and turn out. I'm really satisfied with what I get to do with Wilco, my solo music, On Fillmore, and Loose Fur. It keeps me really happy and really able to grow, so that's why I'm happy here. I just want to explore these for a while and ride them out and see where they take me. So yeah, I guess I feel like I've found a home in all of these projects.

JamBase: What does the future have in store for Glenn Kotche?


Glenn Kotche :: 04.01
Kotche: I would like to expand out and collaborate with other people. There's a lot more I'd like to do, but at the same time, I'm not going to be splitting Wilco anytime soon. I'm making the solo record for my own purposes. It's not so I can launch a solo career.

JamBase: Wilco has experienced a lot of success. A lot of people say that success has come because Wilco is concerned with being artistic. I've even read the words "high art" when talking about Wilco. Can you speak to this perspective?

Kotche: I'm going to have to void that. What we do is just try to stay true to ourselves. We are not trying to be high art. We are not trying to make pop music. We're making records that we're going to want to listen to in ten years, in twenty years. We're not going to make records that are the same as our previous records because that wouldn't allow us to grow and that wouldn't be something that we want to listen to. We are sick of that sound already by the time we start a new project. We want to explore different things. We're making records that we want to make - records that we want to listen to, and that we are fans of. It is impossible to second-guess what is going to sell or what is going to be popular. So we really have to concentrate on staying true to ourselves, and I think some of the directions that the band has gone in musically, some people might consider it more arty or more experimental compared to music in recent years, but I think that is just a side effect. It is not a conscious decision for us to be high art or anything like that.

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[Published on: 4/12/06]

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Comments

dannymo starstarstarstarstar Thu 4/13/2006 06:25AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Great piece on a super talented man!! This is the kind of stuff I love about Jambase... far fuckin' out

Passquach starstarstarstarstar Thu 4/13/2006 08:07AM
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Passquach

Didnt know album was out! Listenin to it right now and it is amazing!!

musicisnice starstarstarstarstar Thu 4/13/2006 12:22PM
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Frickin' awesome piece on a part of Wilco that I've never really known anything about. Who knew how awesome Kotche was. Love this stuff. JamBase is the bomb!!!!!

adamben1 Sat 4/15/2006 09:25AM
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i saw him opening solo for umphrey's.. purely amazing!!