Glenn Kotche

Stay Curious – a Q&A with percussionist Glenn Kotche

Q&A with Glenn Kotche by Dan Mistich photo by Matt Lief Anderson

Known best for his intrepid drum and percussion work in the rock band Wilco, composer Glenn Kotche is no stranger to festival circuits featuring eclectic lineups. Before his appearance at Slingshot this past March, Kotche sat down to discuss his ventures into performing solo, his inspirations for compositions and what other projects he has on the horizon.

Your work strikes me as consistent with the forward-thinking vision of Slingshot. How do you see yourself fitting in with this festival and what was your familiarity before being invited to play?

I actually had no prior knowledge of the festival because it’s so new and I didn’t make it here last year. But, looking at the lineups and the ideas that [director Kai Riedl] has and the field recordings he’s made – he’s got comedy, he’s got art happening. It’s an ambitious festival and I can tell that he’s trying to reach a different place than your typical festival instead of just having a bunch of rock bands on stage one right after another and appealing to a wide range of people. I think the audience is probably already here in Athens, but it’s appealing to a more open-minded and adventurous spirit.

Between all of the different projects that I’m involved with, I’ve played a lot of festivals. It seems like the one’s off the top of my mind – this one and Big Ears – that these festivals are really pushing things forward.

Are the fans that know your work well in Wilco very surprised by what you have to offer during one of your solo performances?

I don’t know. They’ve definitely been receptive. When I first started to do this when my record Mobile came out, I did a couple of shows opening for Jeff [Tweedy of Wilco]. The audiences were super-receptive. I think anytime it’s a solo percussionist rather than a singer-songwriter thing, they already expect that it’s going to be something different. So, I think they probably go into it with an open mind. But also, I think the fact that people are seeing it rather than just hearing it adds another dimension that you can appreciate because you can see my limbs doing different things rather than just playing a drum solo.

At first, I was really concerned and thought, “Oh, who is going to want to listen to drum solos? Aren’t people just going to go get a beer?” And now, I am continually surprised to the point where it doesn’t surprise me anymore that people are receptive. I think it’s different enough to where people don’t see this sort of thing very often. I’m not the only one doing it by any means, but I guess not a lot of people are exposed to solo percussion. And I think they kind of dig them – there’s a lot of fun stuff out there.

Like I said, though, just because you see me physically hitting things instead of a keyboard or laptop, so there’s a lot of motion involved. I think are more apt to get behind it because of that.

You mentioned that this is something very different from a singer-songwriter project. It strikes me that most people don’t really think of drummers and percussionists as composers, either.

Traditionally, you’re absolutely right. If you look historically, composers are pianists. Sometimes with a different instrument, but they probably composed at the piano or at their desk. But they came from that mentality of thinking in terms of a piano and orchestrating things outward from the piano. But that’s gone out of the window the past two hundred years or so; composers come from all different areas now. But especially with technology and the aid of music software, anyone can be a composer now with editing software.

But I think that’s part of the appeal. When I first started doing this, I wrote a record for myself, a composition for me to perform. And then more adventurous groups started commissioning me because they did wanted something different, something more rhythmically informed, maybe. Sometimes they get that from me and sometimes they don’t. I do use the drum set as a vehicle for composition, so most of the pieces that I’ve been commissioned to do in the past few years started on the drum set. Then, the general architecture, the mood, the vibe of it is moved outward to the instruments that I am writing for. So, it’s been a great asset to me that I’m coming from a different place. Obviously, I approach things a little bit differently and I write things that are not as idiomatic and don’t filter them through how I would do them.

But I think this is something that will become a lot more common just because these traditional roles – you have to be a pianist and write it all out – those approaches will always be there, but the days of that being the exclusive way in which music is composed are pretty much gone.

Oh, and drummers get a bad wrap. And there are plenty of them that are perpetuating that stereotype – the whole animal, crazy, party animal thing. I am sure I display that if you ask my bandmates, but not as badly as some guys, I guess. [laughs]

I want to talk about how you fit into a context with the other performers at the 40 Watt during your time at Slingshot. Holly Herndon is a primarily electronic artist and Omar Souleyman is coming from a traditional Syrian folk background with obviously quite a lot of modern influences mixed in. Are you familiar with their work and how do you see yourself fitting on this bill?

I think it’s just an eclectic lineup and that’s the point of it. Holly does more computer-base/modern technology/web-based compositions and Omar does Syrian folk and pop music. And my thing is coming from a completely different angle.

It’s a very eclectic set, but I think bills like that are great. They don’t happen enough anymore. You always read those stories about how in the 60s Hendrix would open for Cat Stevens or the Monkees – these weird bills where people are sort of thrown on it together. And that doesn’t happen so much anymore, but I like that. That’s how people get turned onto new things. There will probably be some Wilco fans that check out Omar’s stuff down the road or check out Holly’s stuff. Or maybe vice versa. I think that’s great. If people have an open mind, obviously you get turned on to so many things.

Your work features quite a few found objects, which strikes me as incredibly novel and in some ways transgressive. Where did that movement into using found objects come from?

I have a degree in percussion performance. I was exposed to music in college like John Cage or any modern twentieth-century composition where they ask you to use a lot of different techniques and implements. Like Cage, who was writing for hubcaps and tin cans and shells. Anything becomes a percussive instrument at that point. That, combined with percussion historically being anything that wasn’t categorizable as a woodwind, brass, or string instrument.

[There have been] composers that have written for a starter pistol or cannon shot or wind machine. We give that to the percussion section – any “wild sound” as I like to call it. That’s a huge liberation for us now. Anything that isn’t one of those sounds, we can claim as our own.

I play sirens, cricket boxes, and metallic percussion and pitch percussion. Weird ethnic bells. A fruit basket. Things like that. It’s all valid percussion now. I think any percussionist nowadays is used to playing that stuff.

After I graduated from college and I went to Chicago, I started playing with Jim O’Rourke and Darrin Gray, people like that. In the improvisational jazz world, rhythm doesn’t have anything to do with it. It’s just about culling sounds and textures. I was using bows and built a bunch of different sticks so I could get these drone sounds out. Threaded springs and spring dowels were involved. I was using mallets and all sorts of kitchen instruments. I was running the drums through guitar pedals. So, when I was doing live improv, that is what I was doing. I was putting springs in my snare to get new sounds out of it and adding sandpaper to the head. I can have endless sound possibilities when I am creating spontaneous music.

When I joined Wilco, I had that same mentality. I was using those sounds on those Wilco records and my poor drum tech, Nathaniel Murphy, is now carrying that stuff around for a whole tour and it may only get used once – or not at all — on the whole tour. So, naturally that feeds into composition as well.

How do you produce new sounds from a limited set of resources or import resources from sonic palette that you’re not very familiar with? In other words, where do you find the time to experiment and find new sounds to work with?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the “R&D time,” as I like to call it, that I used to. I came up with the prepared snare based on Cage’s prepared piano. The fruit basket. The big gong. I experimented a lot of with stuff before I joined Wilco and I had free time. I had days off and I had the freedom to explore sound. Now, with way too many obligations — with the rock band, the side projects, the compositions, two young children, a marriage — I don’t get the R&D time that I used to have. So, now, it’s just so much more concentrated. Now, it’s much more focused. I still get the same amount of stuff done typically. Maybe it’s going to be done at soundcheck. I can maybe squeeze a half an hour in the dressing room. I just force myself to work within these parameters and it yield results. You just do it.

That’s another thing. I’ve read a bunch of books on composers and their work schedules or artists and their work schedules. You’re dead in the water if you wait around sitting for inspiration to strike. If you’re waiting for that epiphany, good luck, man. You’re wasting time. Do the work. Do it everyday. Inspiration comes and it feeds off of that. I’m convinced of this — it’s about the habit that you create of doing something. I think that, early on, when I first started doing that, it opened up a lot of doors for me. I think that once I got into the practice of doing it a lot, now it just flows. If you forced me to give you five ideas, I could do that.

I started writing because I wanted to hear things that I couldn’t play or would take too long to play individually, so I started to write for other people. That’s how I started writing the composition for Mobile. And I started writing for other instruments, which is where my newest album, Adventureland, comes from.

It’s all about staying curious, which I think any person who is doing this will tell you that. I don’t know of any super-inspiring people who aren’t curious, asking questions, and pushing themselves into uncomfortable places.

That’s why I started doing solo shows. The thought of doing them, when I first started, was horrifying to me. My senior recital in college was a nightmare. It was a horrible nightmare. I was so incredibly nervous. The idea of just me on stage petrified me. Thankfully, I’ve just confronted that and I’ve just confronted that night after night. Now, it’s comfortable and fun and you get used to it.

Is the exporting or outsourcing of your work to others as gratifying as performing it yourself?

Yes. More so, because I don’t have to perform it! I can just listen to it and enjoy it. With my solo stuff, there’s so much going on that I’m not really taking in the performance – I’m doing it. Whereas if I’m in the audience, I think it is much more enjoyable. I can think, “Oh, yeah. This isn’t a piece of shit. I actually like this.” [laughs]