As well as drumming for Wilco, Loose Fur and the jazz duo On Fillmore, Glenn Kotche has released a series of composed percussion albums. His latest, Mobile, is an extraordinarily complex record, utilising concepts from new music, sculpture, literature and religious works. He is a generous conversationalist, happy to talk about anything aside from his work on the current Loose Fur album. Just don't ask him to play a drum solo. |
You mention Tony Allen as being an influence on your track 'Projections of (what) Might.' He's someone who seems to be getting a lot of name-checks recently.
Oh, really? Yeah, I'm a latecomer. I only discovered him through Jim O'Rourke when we were in Japan eight years ago and he was like 'have you heard this? You need to check it out.' I think that was Jealousy in Progress and I just loved it and so I've checked out his stuff since then, and the Fela things. (pause) Not trying to jump on the bandwagon. I wasn't aware that he was so hip these days, but I just love his drumming.
Can you explain the concept of negative or opposite rhythm to me, and how it's utilised in your work?
Yeah, it's basically the rhythm of the rests, the spaces...that really intrigued me, kinda the opposite rhythm of something when I first started to learn Steve Reich's clapping music.
When were you learning that? Was that something you were studying?
A couple of years ago. I wasn't studying it, I just heard it and thought this is cool to duet, and I used to do duets in my training, right hand and left hand, so I was thinking I wonder if I can do that, just as a personal challenge. I learned it as a duet between my right hand and left hand, and it was really difficult at that point, but since it's a phase-pattern, it just made me think about where the different spaces were lining up and the pattern. Are you familiar with the piece at all?
I've heard the piece, but not being a musician, I don't really understand the phrase 'phase-pattern.'
OK, they start out with the same rhythm and then one player stays the same the entire time, he just plays the same thing. The other person moves that rhythm ahead one note each repetition, so he'll move that note ahead twelve times and then two notes ahead for twelve times, three, four, and so forth, until it's back in line. So the whole thing goes out of phase until it's back in line with itself. Just seeing where the rests line up with that when I was learning it made me think about that so I started to just experiment with some rhythms and then when I was writing Mobile, my new record, and I saw the Alexander Calder mobile-sculpture, the way it was lit...well, first of all, the sculpture itself, the way the simple pieces are all constantly in flux so the relationship was changing, that was what my whole motivation for 'Mobile 1, 2 and 3' was. To limit myself to three little simple pieces and see what I could come up with just using those. But the way it was lit there was an amazing sculpture on the wall, y'know, a shadow, it was just the shadow of the sculpture and it was changing too, and that was just as fascinating as the sculpture itself. And all seemed to relate to what I was trying to investigate with negative rhythm and so I just pursued that and in Mobile the entire first melody eventually each note gets replaced with a drone, so all over the place where there were space there's now a drone so eventually you get a complete inversion of it. And for me it's a way to explore. I make these solo percussion records as an extension of my drumming. I'm exploring rhythmic questions I have, things I want to check out, maybe things I can't explore entirely with the drum-kit, or that's not the right medium to explore, so I use composition instead.
Do you respond to lots of music you listen to in that way, or is it very specific records?
Not a lot, but there are certain things that just instantly jump out. The monkey chant, the shona piece, a lot of electronic music, some stuff by Kandis really jumps out at me and various things just speak to me. It's stuff I find rhythmically interesting.
There's a second meaning of mobile in play here obviously. Are all the eight tracks an essential part of the whole? Were there other tracks that didn't make the cut, and where in the process of recording did the mobile concept take shape?
Everything made the cut. The migratory aspect...for me, that was because I saw things working together well, so maybe a melody that happens in the monkey chant happens in the clapping music variations. There are certain elements that for me bring a musical cohesion. Conceptually, the music is very cohesive for me because there are only three or four questions I'm trying to answer in each piece, and then with the migratory aspect of some of the melodic elements for me it brings this cohesion to the record that makes it an album because if you're just listening on the surface it can sound a little eclectic with full drumming pieces, vibraphone pieces, orchestrated pieces and then electronic pieces. It's kind of all over the place, but no, that concept came after I initially started doing things, and then I saw the sculpture and that felt like a great analogy to keep me focused on these principles. And also because the record took so long to record. Total time, three weeks tops, but over nine months because I was touring so much and then I'd get a day or two here and there, and the pieces were able to develop in that way and I think that's why there weren't extra pieces because I was able to work everything into something that was satisfying to me.
Do you have a particular sympathy for the Hindu religion, and what led you to record your own version of the monkey army's battle from the Ramayana tale?
Nothing special with the Hindu religion. When I originally heard the Nonesuch Explorers edition of the monkey chant that was one of those things that just immediately spoke to me, because something moved me...the rhythms in it, the energy of it...there are no instruments on it, it's two hundred men chanting and it's a very powerful thing. That originally kept me from wanting to do it because I thought I couldn't do something as powerful and it would never be as good as the original, but then I thought that's not the point. I'm not trying to beat it, I'm inspired by it, I'm trying to do my own take on it, and that's why I researched a lot of examples of recorded versions of it and used some of those melodic elements and the chanting part. But for me that still wasn't enough of a reason to do it. It still felt phoney. In the original all the monkey chants are based on that portion of the Ramayana. It was created in the 1930s by a German in collaboration with a Balinese dancer and it took a traditional exorcism dance from Bali that had all the "cha-cha-cha," y'know, the chanting aspects to it, the movement aspects to it, and they set it to the Ramayana because most of the art in Bali was sacred and it was all set to the Ramayana, a lot of it was. They used that portion, the monkey battle because I think the chanting reminded them of it. So for me, I just wanted to keep it real, so that's when I went back and researched the story of the Ramayana and came to the kit and I had that prepared snare drum that I'd developed a couple of years before that and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to utilise that, and each different sound-cluster on the snare drum plays a part of one of the lead characters. I have some musical elements from the original, but then my own take with the character interactions, but it does follow the narrative.
So you're responding more to previous recordings than the text?
No, it's pretty well... if you listen to it you can hear the similarities between the recordings, the chanting part and some of the melodies, but pretty much all the character interactions...on the recordings, it's men singing, in really high, excruciating voices and in my version it's hi-hats and springs and wires and pulled cable interacting with each other. It's more I guess about the narrative probably, even though it's pretty metaphoric as there's no actual lyrical content.
Obviously with the album you've got the sleeve-notes, but do you expect an audience to get all that just from performance?
I think it would be pretty difficult unless I let them know it was my version. Some nights I'll explain, y'know, all the sounds you're going to hear, and how they're representing characters, but a lot of time I just don't get that into it. I don't know, maybe I should. It seems that that piece, for some reason, always gets the best reaction. It surprises me every time to see people clapping in the middle of it and dancing to it, which is bizarre for solo drums, but go for it, man. I think it's maybe because of the different sounds on it, and it's something so unusual, people haven't seen it before so I think that's why they react positively to it. My ultimate hope is that it stands on its own as a piece of music. If you know the story it'll hopefully enhance your appreciation but you don't need to know the story to enjoy it, I hope.
You mention that the title 'Individual Trains' is taken from the writings of the solo percussionist Max Neuhaus. Can you tell me a bit about his theories and how they've influenced you?
Yeah, it was more his percussion. In the mid-60s he was the premiere solo percussionist and for me that was the first other drummer major label record that I knew of. Wow, there's a drummer on a major label, and he was a classical percussionist. He's most well known for Feed, his version of a John Cage's Fontana Mix, and he toured around with it. He toured Europe and the States, just doing percussion and very avant-garde cutting-edge percussion pieces and then he gave all that up and started doing...expanded it to sound-sculptures and environmental percussion where he's got something hidden in a street in New York and music in the hills in Italy, he's got all sorts of installations all over the world, where it's the environment of sound and the space of sound. He has three books packaged together called Soundworks, which for me are just, he's really taking the concept of rhythm and music and the spatial aspect of it and what they mean in interesting directions. It was just inspiring for me, so reading those books things popped out and I'd take a little version of it from here and there.
With 'Reductions and Imitations' you started with the drumbeats from the Wilco song 'The Late Greats' and The Minus Five song 'What I Don't Believe'...
Yeah, but it's pretty abstract. It was more from the visual aspects of the beats, not the beats themselves. It was the beats, since this was composed, written down on graph paper and then replacing each voice and then expanding the amount of time that each voice speaks and then inverting it and coming up with variations from that, and that's what grew into the piece of music. That's why I put that in the liner notes because I don't think there's any way anyone could tell that. I think I do have the 'What I Don't Believe' drum-part in there at the end, just as a little more literal example, but still I doubt even the biggest fan of that record would recognise the drumbeat. So for me it's just the seed of the piece.
But don't you think even if people don't recognise exactly where the sound comes from, it creates an almost subconscious familiarity that is there in the music. It allows listeners to move smoothly from the Wilco record to your album. Are you imagining the same audience for this album that would listen to the other bands you're in (Wilco, Loose Fur and On Fillmore)?
I would hope so, but realistically probably not. I'm sure there would be some cross-over and judging from the reaction to the two solo tours I've done with Jeff Tweedy people are really receptive. But I'm fortunate in that regard because Wilco fans are real music fans. We're not a cool band, we're not a hip band. People don't follow us because we're what people are listening to that particular month or because it's being shoved down their throats on the radio. We don't get radio-play. We don't make videos. So people who listen to it they listen to it for the music. They're music fans and I think that they probably have a little bit more of an open mind than maybe people give them credit for. I think some of them can appreciate this, even though it might be outside stylistically of what they normally listen to. And instrumental music, y'know, a lot of people just don't listen to it all. But I would hope that, y'know, I've only performed this music so far in front of rock and roll audiences.
Have you encountered any resistance?
No. You can hear talking in the venue, but that's par for the course in a rock venue where there's a bar and people are socializing. But no bizarre reactions yet.
What does your set consist of? Do you play all the tracks from the album?
No, not all of it, because some of the album is composed for ten to twelve players. I can't do it. I do the monkey chant because that was recorded live solo, no overdubs, 'Fantasy on a Shona Theme,' that's live, no overdubs. I do play 'Mobile Parts 1, 2 and 3' with some backing tracks on tape just because I think that's an interesting enough piece and I don't mind having drones happening when I'm doing a drum part and it seems like a nice live duet. I play 'Projections of (What) Might' live and then something like 'Clapping Music Variations' where I can't cover it live, I don't think it represents it well enough to do it with tape because the instruments are so varied, it's got dulcimer and vibraphone...that instead I've learned a version of Steve Reich's 'Music for Pieces of Wood'...it's a quintet, so I've looped that and each limb plays another part. It's a parallel piece to that.
So you're happy to use loops in performance?
I use loops in real-time. And on 'Mobile' I use a tape so it's probably sixty, seventy percent live and thirty percent with some backing tracks.
Will you do this show to non-rock audiences?
I've got a show at a museum at the end of April, to more of the classical music audience, new music fans will enjoy it.
How do you think classical music fans will receive it?
I don't know. Some of it sounds like new music, and it's rooted in that, it's inspired by that so I would hope they'd be receptive, but honestly I'm clueless to how that world works. I'm so foreign to that, I'm a rock drummer primarily. But I know they're making a twelve inch of 'Projections' for DJs, I would love to play more for that audience, I've opened for Mike Patton, that was more of a hip-hop audience and they totally dug it, which was a surprise. I've opened for some jam bands...
There's an interesting precedent for that sort of cross over with drum bands. In Pete Shapiro's recent book, Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco, he writes about how the early discos played recordings by the Diga Rhythm Band...
Really? I didn't know that. I think things were a little more open in the seventies too. I believe everything is cyclical, things kind of happen, so maybe we're at that point like that now. But I guess the reason why I have those kind of high expectations is that I define a very distinct line between drum solos and solo drums. This is a composed percussion record, I just use the palate of percussion to get that across. Whereas drum solos to me are self-indulgent displays of technique and ability. What I'm trying to do, everything has to have a musical reason. I'm doing this to answer my own explorations and answer questions, but everything is a piece of music for me and it just happens to be played on percussion. There's enough content, enough meaning, enough feeling behind it to translate to the audience so it's not just drum music translating to other audiences.
But why make such a distinction? Are you really so anti the drum solo?
Y'know, I mean, I'm not a critic, I just know they're not for me. People do them, I don't really do drum solos unless there's a reason for them. Although Wilco is trying to get me to do one in one song.
Go on. Why won't you do one?
You know what I mean! It's the time when the audience go gets a beer.
I understand what you're saying, I'm just curious why you don't like them so much.
Look, if someone pays a ticket price to go see music and if something's just a display of technique that's not music to me. It might be entertainment, it all depends on the person. Seeing Tony Williams do a drum solo, or Jon Bonham, I love that shit, but there's also a fine line where...OK, it's the same thing with a guitar solo, who wants to see, y'know...I would rather listen to a Neil Young guitar solo than a Steve Vai guitar solo. There's just something more heartful to it, there's something behind it, it's a musical expression. It's not just...I learned this, and this, and this, check 'em out.
I just think it's funny that the drum solo remains such a big taboo in rock music, and what with all these other taboos disappearing, and prog rockers being allowed back out.
Yeah. Sure. Cycles.
So what can you tell me about the new Loose Fur album? I heard it tackles religion.
It does, and you know what, we're not allowed to talk about it. (Laughs.) It sounds absurd, I know, but we're not allowed to do interviews. I will tell you that we recorded it all in a week and a half, two weeks, but again, we'd get together a couple of days here and there. I think it's a nice evolution from the first record, where that was done kind of immediately when we first met each other, this is more proggy (laughs.) It's got a lot of layered guitar parts, the music is pretty rocking and interesting, but yes there are religious themes running throughout the record. Y'know, Jeff and Jim are responsible for the lyrical content for that so I can't really comment on that. I have no idea what goes through their heads. (Laughs.)
At what stage of the process do you come in then?
Well, Loose Fur is really cool in the aspect that not one note of music is allowed to be written without all three of us present. We can't do anything, that's the point of it because Jeff writes music and I write music and Jim writes music so we have enough separateness already, so with Loose Fur all of us are there. All these songs were written with us in the same room, jamming on riffs and developing them, so I'm there the entire time.
What about when the lyrics are written? Are you there then?
So how does that work? Do you have an input?
Are you there but you're not allowed to comment on them? Or can you make a contribution?
Yeah...I honestly, look, I'm sorry, but we turned down every interview, and it's not my idea but...
No, it's cool, I understand.
Yeah, it's just, I did promise them not to talk about the record. I'm sorry.
OK, this will sound like I'm sneakily trying to get you to talk about it, but I'm not. I just want to ask you how you find it moving from different projects, going from Wilco to Loose Fur to On Fillmore to this solo recording. Does that help keep things fresh for you?
Yeah. Very much. I'm glad you think that because a lot of interviews I do they think that it must be a conflict of interest. Not at all. Loose Fur isn't a real band, it's a side-project in every sense of the word. It happens every few years, we've played three shows in six years, something like that. Wilco is a heavy investment of time and emotion in my life, and the solo music is an outlet to explore all these questions that wouldn't be appropriate for me to explore in Wilco. With Wilco I like to keep focused on the lyrics. That's what it's about for me, it's about Jeff's lyrics. And On Fillmore, I play mainly vibraphone, so that's kind of my melodic aspect. Even though there are melodic parts to my records, it's rhythm. The records are about rhythm. My compositions, where most composers write thinking about formal structure or harmony and melody, I'm only coming from a rhythmic standpoint. All the melody is secondary, it's just what enhances those rhythms the most. So On Fillmore is a way for me to incorporate all the field recordings and melodic outlet. And I think they do all besides bringing balance to me and keeping me happy...I'm so fortunate to be able to do all three of them, or all four, it's incredible, but also they make me continually grow as a musician so when I do the solo stuff it makes me a better drummer in Wilco. I honestly believe that. Like with Wilco, I might be thinking, am I stepping it up, am I obscuring a lyric...there's a definite role with each record, each lyric, y'know? And it makes me a lot more conscious of my role and how best to perform it.
So is that something you might be expected to do in Wilco then, to obscure a lyric?
Not necessarily. With Wilco things are left pretty open, it's pretty collaborative. Sometimes Jeff comes in with more finished songs but he's not a drummer, so for me we never cross into each other's world.
But are you all aware of each other's separate work? Do you listen to all of Jim O'Rourke's releases? Does he listen to your stuff?
I hope he listens to my stuff, but Jim only really listens to vinyl. He'll listen to the 'Projections' twelve-inch probably. No, I think he'll definitely give this a spin. And yes, I'm a huge fan of Jim's music, I listen to all of his stuff, but in Wilco, there's no specific direction like that. I think it becomes like there was a point with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for example where we wanted to have these elaborate soundscapes because it was basically simple folk songs. 'I am Trying to Break Your Heart' is a three-chord song that has five verses. It's incredibly long, and then it hits the first chorus and the only chorus at the end, so it wouldn't be appropriate for me to play a beat through the whole thing. It'd be boring, so each verse I do a scene change. I change what I'm doing from something that's jagged and jarring to something that has more of a groove and it evolves and I think that helps the song evolve and that might be something that's spoken of as 'help me out here, this is a three chord song and it needs to evolve.' Maybe Jeff will say something more vague like that and we'll try to come up with something as a collective.
Wilco obviously changed massively when you came on board and to my mind much to the better. I had no interest in the stuff they were doing before. Is there a shared desire in the band to explore new territory now?
Sonically, I think there's a big difference between 'A Ghost is Born' and 'Yankee'...how they sound and what our roles are. The way I approached 'Ghost' is completely different than what I did with 'Yankee'. With 'Yankee,' there's all sorts of layers, I played floor tiles and hub caps and multiple drum passes, things are treated. With 'Ghost' I'm playing live in the studio while Jeff's singing in front of me. I'm playing very quietly, just on a drum kit with hardly any overdubs. I think as a band none of us are happy to make the same record twice. It's not some sort of self-righteousness, like 'see how many different styles we can do.' If you make a record and tour on it for two years you've had enough of it, you want to try something different. And I think the cool thing about Wilco is that we never want to make a record that we wouldn't listen to ourselves. That's the same standard that I hold myself to. If it's something that I don't enjoy and I don't think I will enjoy in ten years then I know something's wrong, the intention's wrong, and I think with Wilco it's the same thing.