Glen Kotche: Good Reasons To Go Solo

Glenn Kotche is the brains behind Wilco — literally. No, he’s not a founder of the foremost of artful country-rock groups: He’s the massive rhythmic intellect seated at the back of the band. Solid timekeeping and immaculate taste keep him connected to Wilco’s large-scale audiences, but there’s another side to this drummer.

Driven by a determined fascination with deconstructing and advancing rhythm, Kotche has just released Mobile, a startling collage of percussion compositions. Although they may seem galaxies removed from the folksy roots of Wilco, Kotche says the disciplines aren’t as dissimilar as they seem. “I don’t view it as two different worlds — it’s one world, but with different aspects to it,” the upbeat Kotche explains. “These are different facets of my musical personality and they come out. I love being in a rock ensemble like Wilco, but I made the solo records to explore rhythmic concepts that probably wouldn’t be appropriate to explore in the context of a rock band.”

Well-stocked with vibraphone, kalimba, mbira, drum kit, and a wide range of other instruments, the headiness of Mobile is apparent from the arresting opener, “Clapping Music Variations,” where Kotche interprets Steve Reich’s 1972 duet. “This concept is about negative rhythm, or the use of spaces,” Kotche says. “A few years ago, I heard ’Clapping Music’ for two people clapping, where they clap the same rhythm, one person moves out of phase continually moving the pattern up one note until they meet up again. When I wrote it out, the fact that there were more notes than rests became apparent, because there was all this black with just a few empty boxes, and the rhythm for the empty boxes intrigued me. All these different variations became evident after that.”

The academic approach extends with the haunting mind-bend of “Mobile Parts 1, 2, and 3,” which are based on three interlocking kalimba melodies that Kotche wrote in his New York City hotel room during the recording sessions for Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born. “This is the idea of simple rhythms,” he notes. “I was playing around with three melodies on a thumb piano, and I tried to explore as many different relationships between those three lines as possible. For ’Part 2’ I move all those lines to the drums, and for the third part I take them and reverse them for cymbal, so the one major concept there is trying to find different relationships between simpler rhythms.”

Another theme he takes on with Mobile is the idea of stretching rhythms linearly, as executed on “Individual Trains,” with Kotche attempting to impart the feeling of concurrent individual events with a hidden connection. “I took one of the first drumbeats I ever wrote when I was 15,” says Kotche, “and replaced each voice with a different color, stretching each subdivision of the beat so each sixteenth-note became 30 seconds. I replaced the bass drum with a random improvised track, replaced the snare drum with feedback — basically replaced each voice, and they come in and out.”

Don’t put down your textbook yet — Professor Kotche has one rhythmic topic left to cover. “Last was the idea of migratory themes that appear on several points on the record,” he says. “So on ’Mobile Part 3,’ for example, there’s a motif from the song ’Monkey Chant,’ which itself is a loose retelling of an epic Hindu story through percussion. With these four ideas I’m talking about, the record can seem eclectic and all over the place, but for me these concepts tie it in together and make it a cohesive piece. I really just need a reason to make a solo record. They’re not to launch a solo career — they’re launched out of curiosity of a drummer with rhythm.”

Kotche gets big points for daring to take these multilayered compositions out of the safety of the studio and playing them live and alone. “I’ve found that all these solo explorations make me a better rock drummer and drum-set guy,” he reflects. “One example is learning ’Monkey Chant.’ It’s a 15-minute drum-set solo piece, and when I’m performing that every night I have to think about, ’What role is my right hand now — the thumb piano? The cowbells?’

“Looking at each kit like an ensemble and thinking which role each piece plays is a frame of mind I take back to Wilco. I’m thinking with each verse, or the entire record, ’What’s my role right now? Am I trying to illustrate the lyrics, lay down a groove, just play along with the band?’ It makes me a lot more conscious of what my role is to play. Rather than saying, ’Okay, it’s a rock band. I’m here to play the drums,’ it’s ’Okay, what can I play to make something better?’ So it may seem indulgent to do all this solo stuff, but I think it makes me a better musician overall.”

As a graduate of the University Of Kentucky’s well-regarded percussion program, taking such a brainy approach to the drums has come to be second nature, as evidenced by his assertion that the complicated underpinnings of Mobile are really rather basic. Still, he concedes that his headfirst attitude might not work for others. “I’m not sure everyone should consider the drums in this intellectual way,” he says. “It’s my personality. I’m a curious drummer, a curious musician, and I like to expose myself to a lot of things that are maybe outside of the typical canon of what appeals to the drum set. But I also appreciate turning my head off completely, sitting behind a drum kit and just grooving, and I can appreciate it even more because I have this outlet to explore other things. Mobile comes out of my experience and desire to grow as a player — but I’m not recommending this process to everybody!”

Vitals
Band: Wilco
Birthplace: Chicago, IL
Influences: Paul Lytton, John Bonham, Tony Allen, Tony Williams
Web Site: glennkotche.com

All Geared Up

Drums: Sonor
Cymbals: Zildjian
Heads: Evans
Sticks: Pro-Mark
Hardware: Sonor
Mallet Instruments: Zildjian, Musser
Hand Drums: Latin Percussion
Electronics: drumKAT