Glenn Kotche: “So yeah, I can compose I guess…why not?”

Interview with Drummer-Composer Glenn KotchePhotos Courtesy of David Andrako and Alison Owens

Once the “rhythmic anchor” of the band beloved rock band Wilco, Glenn Kotche has since evolved into a modern-day composer, garnering praise across the musical spectrum. Respected for his skill as a drummer and band-mate along with his experimental compositions, Kotche’s approach to music is built for exploration and discovery- an eminent theme in his newest solo album Adventureland

Knowledgeable, experienced, passionate during his performance, but equally relaxed backstage, the drummer’s technical familiarity with percussions is almost beyond our realm of understanding. Kotche is self-aware of his anonymity in the indie-pop realm of music festivals,  but unperturbed. With a large network of influencers and colleagues, Glenn’s compositions could easily translate into a film soundtrack–perhaps we will see his name in the credits for big-name films next.

I sat down with Kotche before his set at the Celebrate Brooklyn! festival in Prospect Park last Saturday to gain some insight on the development of his career, (strange) instruments of choice, and his newest solo album Adventureland. 

FDRMX: What’s the main difference between your career as a composer and a career as a member Wilco?
Glenn Kotche: Well, they’re totally different. Wilco is 6’s very collaborative. Everyone chimes in on what everyone else is doing. And when I compose it’s completely solitary, so I get to do my own things, work out my own problems, trust my own instincts without necessarily having sounding boards to go off of. You know, I guess there’s inherently a lot of freedom there as well.

FDRMX: Was it an easy transition?
G: Well, it wasn’t a total switch… I kinda eased into it. I’ve made a few solo records, one called Mobile, and decided to compose for percussion for myself on it. So i got into composing that way, more like: I’m just going to write some stuff for myself, instead of creating things in the studio or improvising, which I had done. Then when David Herrington from Kronos Quartet heard that, he asked me to write a string quartet for them. It was after that, that groups started to approach me to compose for them. It was just piece at a time, let me see if I can do this in my down time. It was a pretty natural transition, and that balance was kinda crucial for me. It was flexing totally different skill sets, and I liked that.

FDRMX: Tell us more about Adventureland and its companion Fantasyland. What links the two projects? What separates them?
G: Yeah, Adventureland is my 4th solo record, and it has compositions…the 7-part piece I wrote for Kronos quartet, plus the 5-part piece I wrote for Eighth Blackbird, a couple of other things-a collage. A lot of composers when they make records, they present the piece as it is, as you would hear it on stage. So I wanted to take those pieces, and treat the record as a kind of composition, so I took different movement and interspersed them with other movements… I wanted to program it like it’s own composition. I started re-thinking some things re-doing some things. Some of the Kronos pieces are edited down to just handbells, another I replaced with all electronic sounds. To make it a good cohesive record, I cut the Gamalon piece, did some editing, and the same for the piece for Eight Blackbird… So Fantasyland are those pieces, untouched, unedited. So it’s kinda like an out-takes, I guess, but I think it’s kinda cool. You can see the composition process a bit, how this piece turned into that one..and why I changed it.

FDRMX: When did you first start working with electronic percussion systems?
G: Probably through Wilco. you know, I would use a sampler, and I had a drum brain so I could customize sounds. When I play solo, I use electroacoustics, a lot of content mics, and different instruments. I did a lot of using guitar petals, writing contact mics so I could get small sounds and textures to compete with the loud ones. So just through those, I started messing around with electronic percussions and also writing and using a program called Sevegas when I’m composing for other instruments-strings or brass or whatever. I guess those three ways got me in playing electronic percussions.

FDRMX: So would you say electronic composition plays a large in Adventureland?
They make an appearance.. I wouldn’t say there any pieces featuring them. Besides the 1st track. They pop up here and there- in the collage, in Triple Fantasyland, where there’s a lot of manipulation there too.

FDRMX: Do you find more or less freedom of expression in creating music without lyrics?
G: It’s a different kind of expression. When there’s lyrics, that’s obviously going to be the focus. My role is going to be a lot different than when I’m composing or playing solo. You’ll see it’s kind of free-for-all, I can do whatever I want. There’s definitely more limitations when there’s a singer on stage.. but you also find more subtle ways to express yourself, you know what I mean? It’s a different type of expression, more restrained.

FDRMX: What are the highlights of performing vs. composing? Do you prefer working behind the scenes or do you enjoy the stage?
G: That goes back to the whole balance thing. I never saw myself as a composer, I came into it later in the the past 7-8 years or so. A lot of people know in high school or college that they want to study composition, so mine was already after I had had a professional career. I really enjoy it-especially now when I’m in my 40s and have 2 kids- so when I compose, I can be home. I can work from home and do what I love, and not compromise the family situation. Conversely, I love performing, love the give and take between the audience and those on stage. So I need the balance between the two. If I just did one, I don’t think I’d be happy.

FDRMX: What’s the wierdest instrument you’ve ever used in recording?
G: Well…you’ll hear a lot of crazy stuff [laughs]. I use a lot of field records…On a Wilco record i have a sound of playground noise, squeaks, things like that. on a Filmore record i have sounds of  dogs snoring. Wilco did this Woody Guthrie song for the Mermaid Avenue recordings called ‘Jolly Baker’ where I used a wad of bills, like a money clip. [imitates sound of flipping through money] So I guess I played a wad of money. For tonight I actually use a lot of small cricket boxes-that’s probably strange too.

FDRMX: Your 4th solo album, Adventureland, contains a string quartet. What made you take the leap from percussions to strings?
G: Well I struggled at first, so I started composing the the drums. I said hey-do what comes naturally-and what I am is a drummer/percussionist. So I started making patterns on the drums, and take that music and transpose it to strings, and start adding pitches. The contour/form/architecture of the piece would be there, and I would add the specific pitches they needed. Since then, I kinda use [strings] a lot now. This piece I did for Victoire (from Brooklyn)- that one was written on the drums.

FDRMX: Who were some of your greatest influences growing up? Musical or otherwise.
G: Oh as far as drummers…so many great drummers. John Bonham (of Led Zepplin), Levon Helm (The Band), Maureen Tucker from the Velvet Underground, of course Ringo…Neil Peart from Rush…a lot of jazz stars: Jon Christianson, Roy Williams. A lot of hip hop, a bit of noise/improv… Artistically, careerwise- there’s a guy I used to play with- Jim O’Rourke- and he lives in Tokyo now, also a member with Sonic youth for years… I played on 3 or 4 of his solo records. He’s always been really inspirational to me… He’s made pop records, but he also does compositions that are modern improv or abrasion. He can kinda do it all, and does it all very well. He was probably my first example of someone not thinking in terms of: ‘Oh I’m just a drummer, I’m just going to play jazz drums or rock drums or vibrophone or whatever..’ Just thinking more inclusively…just like ‘So I can compose I guess…why not?’ A ton of visual artists…Gerhard Rictor, Calder, you know hundreds.Even chefs cooking…I get influenced pretty easily.  [laughs]

FDRMX: Where and when do you find yourself composing/writing?
G: I can turn it on and off. Some people need very specific circumstance-I need this cup of coffee,  this exact pen or pencil etc. Luckily I think I’ve conditioned myself to be able to turn it on and off and work anywhere. Airports, when I’m on tour, etc.

FDRMX: Have you ever thought about creating visuals to accompany any of your compositions? Do you see yourself expressing your work through visual means or is it purely musical?
G:I have! There’s a piece on Mobile called Individual Trains. I made made a short film to go with it. The film is a juxtaposition of multiple images, from four quadrents, with four voices that kinda come on and off. The last time I played solo was at the De Beers festival in Tenesee last March, and for that Nathanial Murphy (drum tech in Wilco) made an animated movie to go with my song ‘Monkey Chants’, so that’s a 17 minute animated movie. A piece I’m working on now-a big piece- uhm for Third Coast Percussion (will premiere October in Notre Dame) has visuals as well. It’s something I want to do more of, especially with triggering- visuals, lighting, etc. during performances.

FDRMX: It seems like you’re always busy. Any more projects you’re looking forward to?
G: Yeah! There’s lots of stuff going on.  I have a couple solo percussion recording that is almost done mixing- so my percussion string quartets. I mentioned that piece with Third Coast Percussion that’ll play at Notre Dame and the Met here next May. John Adams, an incredible composer from Alaska-John Luther Adams-he wrote a solo piece for me that I played at Carnegie Hall about 40 minute piece. So that’ll be a record. Brooklyn Rider-I wrote a piece for her Almanac record that’s coming out…A lot of solo material material I want  to get out there, a lot irons in the fire right now.

Kotche possesses an impressive duality. Simultaneously at home on stage and comfortable holing up in the studio to compose, he possesses a rare ability to “turn it on and off” when needed. Thus, the audience gets the best of both worlds- insight into abstract and artistic composition, and an experienced percussionist truly engrossed in his performance.