Big Ears 2014: Interview w/ Glenn Kotche

Glenn Kotche @ the Bijou Theater, 3/27/14

Here begins our rollout of coverage of Big Ears Festival, which went down last weekend in Knoxville, TN. First up, we have an interview with Chicago’s own Glenn Kotche, who you might know as the drummer from Wilco. Kotche is a man of many hats – a percussionist and a composer. Check out his new album, Adventureland, which was released on Cantaloupe Music on March 25.

Listen to an audio version of the interview here, or check the text after the jump.

Interview with Glenn Kotche by Wnur-Fm on Mixcloud

WNUR: You played in 2005. We still play the set periodically, but you did. It was in 2005, maybe. Does that sound about right?
Glenn Kotche: Maybe earlier.

You should come back! It’s a lot of fun
It was one of the first times I played solo.

Really? Awwww. So we were wondering. You’re playing a couple of times this weekend.

What can we expect to see differently in the performances? You said just two songs today, right?
Yeah, well tonight is So Percussion’s show and I’m gonna guest with them. So they’re playing I think three… three or four of these drumkit quartets that I wrote for them a few years back through Meet the Composer. So they commissioned me and I wrote a whole hour of drumkit quartets, you know, instead of string quartets, for them. So they’re doing a few of those tonight and I’m gonna play one of them with them. And you know, Steve Reich is kind of the focal point of the festival this year.

Sounds like it!
Yeah yeah, so I think a lot of people are playing little bits and pieces of his music. So we’re gonna do one of his pieces of music for Pieces of Wood, but a different arragement for two drum sets. And so Jason Trueting, from So Percussion, and I will play that. So that’s tonight.

And then tomorrow I do a full-on solo, drums, percussion, with film, set. An hour of me!

So what’s the film aspect of that?
Well, a couple of the things I play, because they have screens at this venue, so a couple things I play have movies that were made for them, videos made for them. So, one, I’ll do my solo version of the Balinese Monkey Chant, and that’s got a 17-minute animated film that my drum tech, Nathaniel Murphy, made that’s super cool. And another one, one of the drumkit quartets that I have a solo version of, that has a film by Pat Burns. And then, um, what’s the other one with film? Oh, and a film I did for something on my last record, Individual Trains, I’ll start out with that. And actually, that Monkey Chant that I’ll play tomorrow, the first time, when I played at WNUR like ten years ago or whatever, I was just starting to develop that. I have a recording of that that I found recently and listened to, and it’s just in the beginning stages. The seeds are planted where I’ve got some sections, and then I go into… I think I actually play “Clapping Music” by Steve Reich.

I think so. I think it’s on there. For two drums. A right hand and a left hand duo.

Well this is a beautiful moment of worlds colliding right now! WNUR, Steve Reich, and you! Chicago friends meeting in Knoxville. I have a question I guess. I have a question about, I guess, playing a set and composing for drumset or just, you know, other types of percussion instruments, devices, whatever, toys. Do you have a different way you go about developing a composition for one or the other or do you view it as some kind of continuous gradient of like, sets over here and other things over here and there’s just kind of a place in the middle that I like to be? I guess just your approach to composing for two different kinds of percussion.
Yeah, no that’s interesting. I’m kind of all over the board. First of all, I always come back to drum set for composing. So the actual seeds of the ideas, a lot of times, they’re rhythm-based. I feel like the cynical, jaded side of me thinks melody and harmony have been explored for, you know, centuries, let’s move on to something else. So it’s all about rhythm for me. And so, like the piece I wrote for Kronos Quartet that’s on my new record, Anomaly, that one was written on the drumset. A lot of the stuff, a piece I just wrote for cellist Maya Beiser, that was written on a drumset. So I kinda transpose that piece for the string instruments, add pitches to it, but the framework, I guess the macro architecture and some of the specifics are all done on drumset. Now when it comes to… I’m still like exploring, because you know I have a degree in classical percussion, not in composition so I’m still exploring all different ways of composing. Like I wrote a 30-minute piece called “Something of Light” for Jeff Zeigler, the cellist from Kronos Quartet, formerly of Kronos Quartet that premiered last September at the Beethoven Fest in Chicago and that one I wrote as a storyboard. I had cards for the narrative, a whole storyboard, and I used field recordings that I made when I was touring with Wilco. And basically had this kind of, audio narrative. It was an audio score. And then he had bits of music to play in there, and actions and processes and stuff he had to do. So sometimes I do that, sometimes there’s chants involved. Yeah, it’s kind of all over the board.

So when you’re composing, you’ll sit down at a set and you’ll kind of work out, I guess sketch out a composition maybe? Or are you improvising and trying to work out one thing and then you maybe transform that into something else? Is that what you’re kind of explaining?
A lot of times, for a lot of those pieces, like that’s what I did with “Anomaly.” The piece for Kronos. I sat down and I was like, “Four limbs, four people in the string quartet. This is gonna do this.” And then I took that and I gave it…

Do you feel more comfortable doing that?
Yeah. Totally. Because that’s what I am. I’m a drummer. I’m a percussionist. So that’s what I’m gonna come back to when I compose and that’s also, I know that I won’t feel like a phony then, you know what I mean? Because that’s true, it’s real. Like using my voice. And I also know that the people who are commissioning me are going to get something that’s most likely going to be different from the other composers they ask to write for them because it’s coming from a different place.

So you used the words drummer and percussionist interchangeably just now. Do you feel like those are, like you can do that? Or is there a divider?
Yeah, I usually do say percussion or percussionist because it implies all of that. And I actually had some band directors early on who were like, “You’re not a drummer, you’re a percussionist!” You know, like thing in bigger terms of all the sound.

Look at all the things you can bang on!
Exactly! It’s everything. It’s everything. Everything that’s not a string, woodwind, or brass instrument is percussion. You know what I mean? So like, my set tomorrow, I’ll be playing everything from air raid sirens to crotales to orchestra bells to drums and cymbals and electronic percussion and vibraslaps and weird bells I picked up in other parts of the world. So it’s kinda all over the place. Bull roars. It’s definitely percussion.

So was there ever a time when you – because I was also in band – very different. We’ve chosen very different life paths. So when somebody’s like “think of yourself as a musician. Think bigger. Think larger.” Do you remember a period where you transitioned from thinking of yourself as a drummer? Have you ever thought of yourself as a drummer? Do you think of, thinking of bigger instruments for the genre, like, I don’t know, like for percussion. Was there a time like that?
Well, no. That’s a good question. I’m sure there had to be like, that a-ha moment at some point. Probably just listening to a lot of people, you know. When I got out of college, I definitely identified myself as a drummer. You know what I mean? But then I started playing with this guy, Jim O’Rourke, who’s living in Chicago.

Several of our favorites. Ethan’s going to freak out about Jim O’Rourke now.
It opened up my world. Because I would like, see him, I was playing on his song records, where it’s lyrics and guitar parts and drum, playing drum parts.

Which albums were you on?
Eureka, Insignificance…

And I know you played on the Loose Fur albums too.
Loose Fur, and then his Burt Bacharach covers…

Oh really? You were on that? Awesome.
Yeah. But I would also see him just do improv and noise and I started to play a lot. And Chicago’s got such a great improv community… Charles Kim and all these other people improvising. And that, for me, opened up a lot. Because then I wasn’t playing rhythm at all. Not what you think of drums. I was using standard techniques and contact mics and started to like, bow things and play found percussion and homemade percussion and all these things. So I think my sonic palette, for lack of a better term, really spread open from there. I realized, oh, I can incorporate this when I do play in a rock band, which is what I did with Loose Fur and with Wilco, subsequently. And also just Jim’s model of like, you don’t have to do this. You can be a composer and you can play just noise, you can play improv, you can be in a rock band, or you can do… I guess I don’t have to define myself. So that’s when I was like, sure I’m gonna be a composer and I’m a drummer and a percussionist. And all these things.

One other branch of this is, I know you do a lot of installation work. And is that a totally different beast? Or do you think it’s another extension of the same kind of…
Yeah, like the installation I have at MASS MoCA in Massachusetts, that whole thing of the speakers coming on and off, you know. It’s an installation and the murks coming in and the John Cage bridge and it’s a set of six speakers and it was all secret recordings I made while we were making a Wilco record. So it was all the non-playing. I would just have my covert recordings. You hear someone talking or someone playing pinball or someone doing a guitar overdub. All those secret sounds. But the whole thing when the speakers are on, you hear the sound, it’s off of a drum beat. The first drum beat I wrote when I was a kid. The first original beat for a song that was like, oh, this is cool, I can do this. So it’s all, the formal, I guess, arrangement, was a drum beat. So yeah, even for sound installations I come back to drums.

As far as, I guess we talked about when you started to have a broader perspective on music and composition and performance, when you talked about Jim O’Rourke, is there any drummers, I guess specifically drummers, that influenced how you approached percussion? Or any other percussionists, I should say.
Oh, thousands. It’s hard for me, I mean, I’m influenced if I see horrible drumming. When I was teaching, you know, and I’d see a little fourth grader or something like do something completely wrong, I’d be like, “Oh I’m so ripping that off.” Because I would never, I’m so trained I would never get out of my skin enough to think about things like that. Or sometimes I’ll see someone who’s not even a drummer playing drums in a band that’s like, they’ll do something really interesting. And it’s like, “That’s cool!” But there are a lot of drummers who did, who wore many hats. Max Roach is a good example. He was a composer but he also wrote pieces of music for drum set instead of drum solos. And that’s probably the biggest page I’ve ripped off would be Max Roach, because he was really about not just the drum solo but solo drums, you know. Just the display of facility on your instrument when everyone goes to the bathroom or to get a beer at a rock concert. It’s not just a showoff moment but to actually make music on the drums. So he, you know, of course when I was in high school, like Stewart Copeland was a big influence. And I know he does composition too, I’m not too familiar with that stuff. But there’s a lot of guys who wear many hats.

You’re also a man of many hats.
Yeah, and I’ve always lived in Chicago too. Even where I live now, but when I lived 10 years ago, a mile from where I live now, in Albany Park, and that’s one of those sweet spots of Chicago where you get NUR, you get the WZRD, right, WLUW.

They were on our station last year because they had some trouble with their people so we had WZRDs in Exile.
Oh that’s awesome. And LUW. All right there. And before there was internet radio, you know, or before I knew about it in the late 90s or whatever, I would listen to those eclectic shows that were on at night. And you’d hear so much stuff.

So you listen to NUR?
And it was like, of course!

You’re a member of the club. The WNUR club. So I guess hearing about your worldview on percussion, you’re a board member of the Percussive Arts Society.
You did your research!

We tried. We’re trying to be journalists. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Percussive Arts Society, it’s an organization that was founded decades ago, basically just to kind of promote percussion in education. And when I was a kid, I had a drum teacher be like, “Ok, you should join this.” And I was so hungry for anything. You know, this was well before the internet so, you know, I don’t think there was even a Drum Magazine yet maybe, or Modern Drummer was just starting, the first drum magazine. So I was salivating for anything I could get my hands on, drum-wise. So they had these publications that would come out, and they would have drum set guys in it with interviews and transcriptions of pieces. And they would also have an article on a tipmeister, or how to tackle this Stravinsky piece or four mallet technique. I was always turned on to that, so from very early on I realized, there’s this whole world and I think that really had an impact on me thinking inclusive of percussion instead of like, I’m just a drummer and hanging out at music stores and all that stuff is for other music. And so I stayed active with it for years, and I think as a board member they’re just trying to, there’s a lot of amazing people involved with it, just trying to keep the organization… it’s a great outreach for education. For kids to to give them that message but also they have marching drum competitions. They have drum composition competitions. They also have this convention every year with all sorts of clinics and performances that I went to several times in college and it was like mind-blowing. So I’m just helping them in any way I can at this point, I guess to just give back.

Are you the token celebrity board member?
(Laughs) No.

Are you the coolest board member?
I wish I was the celebrity. No, there’s definitely guys much better known than me. Much better players.

So humble.
Yeah, yeah.

What else do we have to talk about? You have an album that just came out.
It came out on Tuesday!

Drop a plug in there.
Yeah, no, Adventureland. It came out on Tuesday. And this will be my first record as a composer. So it’s got–

How long was the process of writing and recording and composing it?
Well, I’ve written, since I made my last record I’ve written a lot. For Kronos Quartet, for Eighth Blackbird, for Silk Road Ensemble, for Bang on a Can All Stars. So I’ve just been writing, writing, writing, writing all these drum kit quartets. And so I finally wanted to document some of the pieces. So this is “Anomaly,” seven movements of the piece with Kronos Quartet that I play on. It’s got “Haunted,” which is a five movement suite, it’s got eighth blackbird from Chicago on it and Doug Perkins. Gamelan Galak Tika from MIT on there on my gamelan piece and then collages as well. And then I’m working on a record mixing with So Percussion of all the drum kit quartets and I recorded a record of I L I M A Q which is John Luther Adams the formerly Alaskan composer, one of my favorite composers in the world. He wrote a piece i commissioned a few years ago, so it’s a 40-minute solo piece for percussion, four layers of delay and and all these sounds he recorded under the ice of walruses and stuff. That’s a massive percussion piece that’s recorded, so that will be coming out too. But yeah, but Adventureland was kind of, yeah, it was fun.

So it was kind of everything you’ve done for the last eight years in one place.
No! It’s a good–

It’s a good sampler. A primer. A Glenn Kotche primer.
Maybe the first thing, the first thing I wrote and then some more recent things in there. But I guess it’s a classical record? That’s what it’s filed under. But at the same time, I took everything out of order and out of sequence and I thought of it as a rock record. So I sequenced it as a rock record. So the elements are in different orders and things are all jumbled up. That’s just how I’m used to making records.

Rock and roll!