Scorpions’ James Kottak: Potent As Ever
James Kottak: Potent As EverBy Dave Constantin Originally Published in DRUM! Magazine's May 2008 Issue
When a middle-aged glam rock drummer throws his back out picking up a box of clothes on family moving day, it seems like the setup for an easy punch line — something about aging rock stars surviving decades of hedonistic self-abuse only to be crippled by domesticity. But in James Kottak’s case, it doesn’t quite work. For one thing, the back injury is actually a vestige from his younger days, an old drumming wound — of sorts — from a not-so-bygone era.
“I was playing at a bar, which we all did six nights a week, forever,” he remembers (having just returned from a visit to the chiropractor). “It was with a club band back in, like, 1981 or ’82. And I sang a lot, so my head was always up. And I remember I dropped my drum key and I leaned back to pick it up and just, zap — there went the third and fourth lumbar, totally whacked out. And I could not stand up, could not do anything. I finished the set, but it was just a night of the worst pain ever. It’s been an ongoing thing.”
But if the steady upward trajectory of his career is any indication, Kottak is not a guy who’s about to roll over and die over something like a few blown discs. And you can bet nothing short of spontaneous combustion is going to keep him from finishing out a set. “I can count many times where I got some sort of stomach virus in Russia from weird food or something and been playing and throwing up in a bucket at the same time,” he says. It’s rock and roll, baby.
This, no doubt, is the kind of attitude that pulls someone virtually unscathed through a musical era most notable for its fabulous career derailments. The post-’80s have not been kind to many of the denizens of rock’s Spandex school, but Kottak has managed to plod steadily up the ladder of hair metal ascension, from Montrose to Kingdom Come to Warrant, finally landing Herman Rarebell’s vacant spot at the Scorpions throne in 1996. And he’s been vigorously touring the world with the band ever since.
“One thing about Scorpions is that they’ve always cultivated a world market,” Kottak says. So when the ’90s rolled around and grunge turned the hose on the coiffed titans of glam rock, Scorpions found solace with a still-rabid overseas fan base. It’s the reason why they can still show up in say, India, and play for 45,000 people at a pop. “We just played in Romania in September, and it was a good 60,000 people because … it was the Scorpions,” Kottak says. Likewise, the DVD the band just released is footage from their headline gig at the Wacken Festival in Germany in ’06 in front of 40,000 fans. Of course, Germany is Scorpions home soil (Kottak was and is the band’s only American member), but they also still top the charts in random places — like Greece. “It’s better to be number one in Greece than number 20 somewhere,” Kottak laughs.
Kottak spent his early years in Louisville, Kentucky (“home of fast women and beautiful horses”), playing in cover bands and learning, he says, “every song that had ever been written in the history of the world.” He scored his first gig with Ronnie Montrose, “which I’m super proud of,” and then it was gradual progression through the ranks — Kingdom Come (he still has his the drum set from their ’88 tour), Wild Horses (a band of his own), The Cult (he appeared on 1991’s Ceremony), on to CC Deville and Warrant.
“The Scorpions thing came about because [Kingdom Come] opened for Scorpions on Monsters Of Rock in an indoor arena tour, and I got to be friends with them,” Kottak remembers of the 1988 festival that also featured Metallica, Dokken, and Van Halen. Down the road, Scorpions’ producer Keith Olsen, whom Kottak already knew, would ask him to play on 1990’s Crazy World. And so it began.
But what was set in motion at that ’88 Monsters Of Rock show would act as the turning point for more than just Kottak’s drumming career. It’s also where he would get hooked up with his soon-to-be wife — Tommy Lee’s little sister, Athena (that’s right, rocker Tommy Lee), who turned out to be a pretty hellacious drummer in her own right.
“Tommy came to the Monsters Of Rock,” Kottak says. “He came back after the set to say, ’Hey Kingdom Come, man, your album’s great. Who produced it?’ And I said, ’Bob Rock.’ And of course they got Bob Rock to produce their very next album. But anyway, he talked me into coming and seeing his sister play that night. He’s like, ’Aww man, you’d be perfect for her, man. She needs a cool boyfriend. I was like, ’This is weird.’”
But the Mötley Crüe skinsman’s prediction came to pass, and these days Kottak and his rocker wife, in addition to sharing the duties of raising three kids, share the stage whenever they can. “We started a band called KrunK back in ’95,” he says. “But then since Little Jon came along and all that rap-y stuff, we changed the name from KrunK to Kottak. So in that band I sing and play guitar and [Athena]’s the drummer. We’re like Cheap Trick meets Green Day on a bad day.” The couple’s last album together was fittingly titled Therapy, which Kottak insists was meant in a good way. “About the only time we go out, we book a gig, and our friends come, and it’s fun.”
As for having Tommy Lee for a brother-in-law, a guy with a personality that eclipses the sun, and who was able to turn his ’80s rocker status into solid gold, Kottak is quick to show respect, but not without a wisp of thinly veiled jealousy peeking through — especially when it comes to the touchy subject of competition for endorsement exposure.
“With companies and products, it’s a name game,” he says. “And that’s how they sell their product. Yeah, these companies supply me with equipment and stuff, and they do ads and whatever, but it’s kind of hard to demand when you’ve got somebody like Tommy, who has a very famous name. Zildian called me and they’re like, ’Can you help us get Tommy?’ And the next thing I know he’s got a full-page ad everywhere. I’ve never gotten a full-page ad. [But] that’s rightfully so, because he’s a famous person.
“When you’re with a company for a while, sometimes you kind of get put on the back burner,” he continues. “As famous as Scorpions are around the world — I mean this past year we played in 32 countries, we played for probably almost 2 million people live, plus another 50 million CD audience — that’s huge exposure, but I’m still like, guy number 265, and they don’t pay attention to me. You’ve got to not let your ego get in the way.”
But Kottak is hopeful of a boost in his exposure with a new ddrum endorsement, coming as it does on the heels of Scorpion’s most recent release, Humanity Hour 1. “For me it’s the best album — I’m not just saying this — but really, the best album I’ve done,” he says. “Not just the drum parts, but the whole vibe of the record. It just has a certain character to it.” Kottak was especially juiced at being able to wait until the very end of the recording process to lay down his final drum tracks. “Talk about luxury — it was great,” he says. “I was able to listen to the tracks; I practiced at home with the tracks, with the click, and with the music. And I had weeks to really create my parts around the song, which makes way more sense — to do the drums last.”
But new album aside, having been in the band for 12 years now, Kottak knows what really counts is what happens in front of those 50,000 screaming fans waiting to hear “Rock You Like A Hurricane” exactly how they remember it from the radio. “The recordings are really classic, so I don’t screw around with them too much,” he says. “But it has gradually become my own style.” That means, among other things, avoiding that “fast double bass crap” like the plague. “I hate it,” he says. “I mean, I can do it, but it’s hard man. Some of these guys now in these metal bands, I can’t believe how fast they are with their feet.”
Luckily, Scorpions stuff is pretty straightforward rock — the kind of stuff Kottak has been playing his whole life. “I was doing Scorpions tunes back in the ’80s when I was in cover bands,” he says. “So it’s kind of like I’m still in a cover band. We just do all Scorpions music.
“With this band consistency is king,” he continues. “Every gig, we play it as if it were our last gig. And that’s a lot to live up to. Plus, Scorpions is a legendary band, and people are expecting this huge show, and you’ve got to be on 11 every single time — which we do.”