Clip: Derk Richardson on Glenn Kotche
Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche finds a rhythm of his own on his new solo
Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate
Thursday, February 22, 2006
"I love being in a band. I love playing rock music," says Glenn
Kotche, who has been the drummer in Wilco for the past six years, "but
I find the older I get, the more I need to compose and make solo
And because Wilco is signed to the famously artist-friendly Nonesuch
label, Kotche was free to fashion his recent solo album, Mobile, along
lines that have almost nothing to do with alt-country and folk-rock,
and everything to do with the world music and avant-garde classical
sounds that long defined the vaunted Nonesuch catalog.
Those sounds are what Kotche is delving into on the current
limited-engagement tour he is squeezing in before Wilco releases its
new album in May and sets off to support it with major concerts. On a
half-dozen of his shows, including Monday, Feb. 26, at Cafe du Nord in
San Francisco, Kotche is performing with Wilco bandmate, guitarist
It's a natural pairing for two of the relatively new members of the
biggest band to emerge and evolve out of the No Depression movement of
the late 1980s and 1990s. Both joined somewhat late in the Wilco game,
just as the Jeff Tweedy-led band was making its left turn into
experimental sonic territory that brings to mind Radiohead and Sonic
Youth more than Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks.
"In the context of Wilco," Kotche said in a recent phone conversation,
"Nels and I are coming from a similar place, more so than maybe some
of the other guys are, in that we're both trained a little bit more in
theory and have that experimental music side to us, too, where we've
done a lot of improvising. That's something Jeff Tweedy considered a
big asset, which is why we're both in the band."
Of course, they're both in the band because they love playing rock 'n'
roll, too. "We love experimenting, we love trying out new things,"
Kotche said, "but at the same time we also love playing great music
behind great lyrics. Everyone knows Nels as this amazing avant-garde
guitarist, which he is, of course, but when he came into Wilco [in
2004], we also realized he's a huge fan of the Byrds, Buffalo
Springfield and a lot of things that are similar to where Wilco used
to come from. He and I have a deep love for being part of an
'orchestra,' I guess -- playing our roles in a larger ensemble."
But for their current mini-tour, Kotche and Cline (recently ranked No.
5 among Rolling Stone's "new guitar gods") let their individual
personalities blossom. Each plays a solo set, and then they join
together for an unpredictable mix of original pieces, cover versions
(maybe a Sonic Youth song) and improvisations.
"I've always had a dual life, I guess," Kotche said, "always balancing
being in a rock band and exploring the more academic side of things."
A Chicago (Humboldt Park), Ill., native, Kotche "naively" decided when
he was "5 or 6 years old" that he was going to grow up and make his
living as a drummer. He started his first rock band in fifth grade but
always participated in school ensembles -- orchestras, marching bands
-- as well.
"I always got involved in as many different types of music as possible
and learned everything I could about my instrument," he explained.
When his parents "really insisted" that he go to college, Kotche ended
up in at the University of Kentucky. "They had a great percussion
program," he explained, "and [renowned instructor] Jim Campbell
recruited from all over the country and gave me an offer I couldn't
Still, Kotche found himself "rebelling a little bit" against the
rigors of academia, and he made sure to keep his hand in rock by
hooking up with bands around the Lexington area. "I was kind of doing
the classical thing because I had to," he recalled, "and it wasn't
until after I graduated that I realized, oh, this stuff is cool and I
can learn a lot from it. Especially when Wilco signed to Nonesuch, and
I was exposed to their back catalog, I started hearing all the Steve
Reich stuff again with fresh ears, and that's when I really started to
dig into it."
In many ways, Mobile sounds like Kotche's interpretation of portions
of the Nonesuch archives. It opens with "Clapping Music Variations," a
unique take on an early Reich classic. It includes a piece inspired by
Nigerian master drummer Tony Allen and jazz drumming legend Ed
Blackwell. Another transposes Shona mbira music to solo vibraphone.
And several -- including the 11-and-a-half-minute centerpiece, "Monkey
Chant" (which "tells" part of the Hindu epic Ramayana tale through
percussion) -- take off from the primary melodic scale used in
Balinese kechak ("monkey chant") performances.
"I was exposed to a lot of experimental stuff when I got out of
school," Kotche said, "and started playing with Darin Gray -- the
other half of my band On Fillmore -- and Jim O'Rourke [a Wilco and
Sonic Youth collaborator, and the third member, with Kotche and
Tweedy, of Loose Fur].
"When Wilco got on Nonesuch, the label was starting to reissue the
Explorer series, and that's when I really started investing a lot of
time listening to African music, especially mbira music, and Balinese
gamelan -- the monkey chant, in particular. The first time I heard
that -- oh, my God, the rhythms. I was captivated by them and the
power of the whole performance. When I find something I love so much,
I want to try it out, try to imitate it and do my version of it.
"I'm pretty much rhythm obsessed," Kotche continued, "and the only
reason that I've made solo records has been to expand my abilities as
a drummer and percussionist. My solo records are always steeped in
some big rhythmic question that I'm about to pursue. Where the first
one [Introducing] was about 'coincidental rhythm' and the second
[Next]) was about 'accidental rhythm,' this one [Mobile] had several
different concepts, including 'stretching rhythm' and 'negative
rhythm.' There's always some rhythmic question I want to explore, and
I end up writing a bunch of tunes to try and get my hands around it a
Kotche's adventurous spirit, versatility and virtuosity have resulted
in his appearing on scores of albums, as varied as Blinders On by
Nickel Creek guitarist Sean Watkins and Bridges Freeze Before Roads by
avant-garde cellist Fred Longberg-Holm's quartet. Admitting to an
insatiable appetite for percussion music -- he cites European free
improvisers Paul Lovens, Paul Lytton, Tony Oxley and Eddie Prevost as
favorites, but readily includes Nels Cline's twin brother, Alex,
Tortoise's John Herndon and John McEntire, Japanese percussionist
Masahiko Togashi and Deerhoof's Greg Saunier, as well -- Kotche has
spent the past five or six months listening to classical music because
he's been working on a commission for San Francisco's Kronos Quartet,
which will premiere this fall.
When it comes to evaluating his part in nudging Wilco toward more
experimentation during his tenure, which has included the recording of
Yankee Foxtrot Hotel and A Ghost Is Born, Kotche downplays his
influence. "Wilco was already headed that way when I joined," he said,
"which is, I think, why Jeff invited me in. He saw these other things
that I was into that would be a good match. On Yankee Foxtrot Hotel,
the way we recorded it was to have multiple layers of different sounds
to kind of obscure these folk songs. I was able to do all sorts of
different things with extended techniques and different instruments --
homemade instruments and found objects -- and incorporate all sorts of
different percussion colors.
"But the role keeps changing on each record," he added. "On the record
we just made, which will be out in May, I play a traditional drum set.
I didn't do overdubs, really, and there's no melodic percussion on
this one, either. Things keep changing with each record, which is why
I love it."
Glenn Kotche performs with Nels Cline, Monday, Feb. 26, at Cafe du
Nord, 2170 Market St., S.F.; showtime 9:30 p.m.; tickets $12 advance /
$14 door. For more information, call (415) 861-5016.