Clip: Glenn Kotche
- Is Paul K. doing anything these days?
Wilco's Beating Heart
By Peter Margasak
June 21, 2002
In the late 90s Glenn Kotche was one of the busiest drummers in Chicago --
a town with a lot of busy drummers. He could be heard, live and on record,
keeping the beat behind everyone from Jon Langford to Edith Frost to Jim
O'Rourke. But in nearly every situation, he felt like a mere role player.
"I was backing up a lot of people, and I was enjoying it, but I wanted to
do my own stuff," says Kotche, now 31. "I never had it in mind to be a
So in the spring of 2000 he swallowed hard and eliminated most of his
pickup jobs -- with the notable exception of O'Rourke, who demanded little
of his time anyway -- to look for something that offered him greater
creative input. The gamble paid off royally: he's now the drummer for
Wilco, one of the world's best and most interesting rock bands, and on his
own this summer he's releasing several experimental percussion albums.
Kotche had wanted to be a rock drummer since he was a kid, growing up in
suburban Roselle. He started studying drums at nine, eventually joining the
high school orchestra and drum corps and playing in heavy metal and classic
rock outfits when the school day was done. He won a scholarship to the
University of Kentucky in Lexington, where he dabbled in folk and country,
and after graduating he moved to Chicago, where he made a living giving
private lessons at suburban high schools. He also toured sporadically with
Beat-inspired Lexington singer-songwriter Paul K., ending up on two of his
records, and the association led to membership in the Portland-based band
Birddog, whose first album for the local Sugar Free label was produced by
But the gig that really opened doors for Kotche was playing with Frost,
whom he met through a mutual friend from New York in 1997. In her band he
got to know guitarist Michael Krassner and bassist Joe Ferguson, two of the
prime movers at Truckstop, the South Loop recording studio and record label
that was developing a sort of avant-roots house band. Kotche became a part
of the crew, and over the next few years recorded with Simon Joyner,
Krassner's Lofty Pillars, Chris Mills, Matt Marque, and Bobby Conn, among
others. O'Rourke met Kotche through Frost (both record for Drag City), and
soon after invited the drummer to work on his breakthrough 1999 solo album,
Eureka; since then Kotche's been a regular on O'Rourke's solo recordings
and in his rare live performances.
The O'Rourke gig was Kotche's ticket into the improvised music scene. "I
didn't know many people [in that scene]," he says, "and I think most of the
people I did didn't know I was interested in that stuff," he says. But he
found kindred spirits in New York drummer Tim Barnes and Saint Louis
bassist Darin Gray, both fixtures in O'Rourke's ensembles, and in early
2000 he formed an improvisational drum duo with the former and a loose drum
and bass duo with the latter called On Fillmore. Soon enough he was
performing with local improv linchpin Fred Lonberg-Holm (at the Empty
Bottle's annual jazz and improv festival, no less) and improvising with New
Zealand guitarist Dean Roberts.
In the spring of 2000 O'Rourke collaborated with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy in a
one-off for the Noise Pop festival, bringing Kotche along on drums. The
experience was so positive that the trio decided to make a record (Drag
City will release the album, entitled Nuts, this fall), and by the time
they finished it, late that summer, Kotche and Tweedy had developed their
own bond. Kotche accompanied Tweedy for a solo show at the Abbey Pub, and
"it felt like we'd been playing together for ten years," says Tweedy. "It
was effortless, the way music should be."
Not long after that Tweedy asked him to come to New York to help record the
sound track to the Ethan Hawke film Chelsea Walls (available on Rykodisc),
and in early 2001 Wilco invited him to their loft, where they were
recording Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, to lay down some percussion overdubs.
[Coomer] couldn't be here, and we wanted to keep working, so on a whim we
had Glenn play on some tracks we were working on," says Tweedy. He says he
was having trouble communicating with Coomer, who'd been with him since the
Uncle Tupelo days but was living in Nashville. "Things were much more
strenuous than they needed to be to get to a simple idea. I found myself
programming drum machines to illustrate an idea of what a song would be. It
wasn't happening intuitively."
Within a couple days the band had asked Kotche to join permanently -- and
manager Tony Margherita had broken the bad news to Coomer. Kotche's
fingerprints are hard to miss on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- his flexibility
helps Tweedy's new songs to both breathe and glide. He can rock out, but
more importantly, he can also clear space, play tricky rhythms, and create
percussive colors in a way Coomer couldn't. Because the album was made in
Wilco's own studio, the pace was fairly relaxed, and he took the extra time
to double- and sometimes triple-track parts, adding to the impressive
textural complexity of the album.
Kotche took advantage of a break in Wilco's schedule early this year to
finish some solo projects. Next (due on Barnes's Quakebasket label later
this summer) is an all-improvised percussion album for which he did his
best to "detach the limbs from my head." The more melodic Introducing
Music/Quakebasket), on which he plays vibes and tuned discs, explores the
idea of "coincidental rhythms," as he calls them. He got the idea on a trip
to South Korea: "There were different things happening at the same time,
like an airplane flying overhead while I was listening to a gamelan band,
and then there's disco coming out of a bar, and there's people talking.
It's something I wanted to explore."
On Fillmore has also recorded a full-length, On Fillmore, which comes out
this month on Locust; it places Gray's woody solos and sturdy ostinatos amid
Kotche's alternately propulsive and funereal grooves and expansive,
free-floating metallic percussion. The duo performs this Sunday, June 23,
at the Hideout as part of a Quakebasket showcase; Barnes will also play
(with bassist Josh Abrams), and the superb Japanese experimental group
Minamo will make its Chicago debut.